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Adam McKay on His Enduring Love for Will Ferrell and the “Insane” State of the World: “I’m Fully Freaked Out”

The Hollywood Reporter's producer of the year weighs in on the 'Rust' tragedy ("That  set sounded sloppy"), the Dave Chappelle controversy and why the threat of climate change drove him to make his upcoming Netflix satirical dramedy, 'Don’t Look Up.'

Normally a sound sleeper, Adam McKay was restless. It was late October, and he’d just finished his new movie, Don’t Look Up. But that wasn’t the issue. The award-winning writer, comedian, director and producer was worried about the COP26 environmental summit thousands of miles away in Glasgow, Scotland. Leonardo DiCaprio, his ally in the climate change movement and the star of his new film, was attending the conference and would text McKay updates. McKay wished more was happening.

McKay may not be able to single-handedly solve the climate crisis, but he’s in firm control of his new film, TV and podcast production company, Hyperobject Industries, headquartered in a small brick building just south of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. Speaking volumes about who he is, and his obsession with politics, there are antique voting machines in the lobby instead of the Oscar he won for The Big Short (2015) and other awards he’s amassed. Hyperobject will celebrate the release of its first feature Dec. 10, when Netflix opens Don’t Look Up in select theaters, two weeks ahead of its streaming debut on Christmas Eve. McKay directed and produced the $100 million movie, which is a veritable who’s who of Oscar winners, and stars DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and Rob Morgan as a trio of scientists who try to convince politicians and the media to take the threat of a comet striking Earth seriously. Put another way, the movie is about the failure of a social media-obsessed society to recognize real problems, like climate change. Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill and Mark Rylance are also castmembers.

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Hyperobject also is producing multiple projects as part of its first-look TV deal with HBO and HBO Max, including the much-anticipated untitled miniseries about the L.A. Lakers in the 1980s; the Q: Into the Storm doc, the QAnon project that debuted earlier this year; and an untitled project about Jeffrey Epstein. On the film side, it is producing Mimi Cave’s original thriller Fresh for Legendary and foodie culture satire The Menu for Searchlight. Hyperobject also has a rich first-look film deal with Apple, which is boarding its Bad Blood feature, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

The 53-year-old McKay, who lives in Hancock Park with his wife, Shira Piven, and two daughters, founded Hyperobject in 2019. He had recently dissolved his nearly 14-year partnership with Will Ferrell and their company, Gary Sanchez Productions, home of such famed comedies as the Anchorman franchise, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. The duo had grown apart and wanted different things. McKay no longer was interested in frat-boy comedy and had turned to more serious topics, writing and directing The Big Short, about the 2008 financial crisis, then Vice, a biopic about former Vice President Dick Cheney. He also wanted to produce more, while Ferrell didn’t have the same ambitions. At Gary Sanchez, McKay was a driving force behind the hit HBO show Succession, while offshoot Gloria Sanchez Productions, run by Jessica Elbaum, made Lorene Scafaria’s acclaimed film Hustlers. (Elbaum and Ferrell now run Gloria Sanchez solo.)

“Adam is incredibly smart, has endless curiosity and an indefatigable spirit for projects, both big and small. All those things are rare qualities to have in the same person,” says producer Kevin Messick, who runs Hyperobject with McKay and is a Gary Sanchez alum. “It’s a rare thing in this business to have a good guy at the top, because that trickles down in terms of how you treat everybody else on the crew and the cast.”

McKay recently sat down with THR to talk about his plans, his lingering regret regarding Ferrell — he hopes they’ll be able to resume their friendship one day — and what his next directing project might be.

Where did the name Hyperobject come from?

An eco-philosopher named Timothy Morton. The idea was, let’s go at new ways of storytelling. Let’s go with subjects you wouldn’t normally do. Let’s blend genres. The name is sort of a joke, but the idea was, we’re going to approach this and do our damnedest to kind of make sense of it through stories, movies, documentaries and all kinds of things. We still want to have fun. We still want to laugh. We just made a horror movie. We still make comedies. Don’t Look Up is a dark comedy with horror elements. We also have a podcast division. Timothy Morton came to our kickoff retreat and gave a talk. He’s our spirit animal for the company.

How would you describe the ’80s Lakers project for HBO? Is it realistic like Succession?

Yes, we’re playing it very real. The actors all look like the characters. I mean, John C. Reilly looks exactly like Dr. [Jerry] Buss. Quincy Isaiah is unbelievably talented and looks just like Magic [Johnson]. It’s crazy. There’s really good acting in it, and it has style breaks. There are dramatic moments. It’s about race. It’s about class.

How many episodes are you and HBO planning?

There are 10 in the first season, and then we’re hoping to do a second season and maybe a third season.

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McKay (far right) with his Don’t Look Up stars, from left: Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio. Going forward, McKay’s production shingle Hyperobject hopes to make three to four movies a year, three TV series, as well as documentaries and podcasts. Tommaso Boddi/Getty Images

The Lakers series began at Gary Sanchez, then went with you to Hyperobject. Will Ferrell reportedly was upset to learn third hand that you had cast John C. Reilly in the Lakers show after Michael Shannon dropped out. You mentioned to me that you feel bad for not telling him yourself. What would you have done differently?

It’s kind of crazy to see how much has been reported on this. We made Don’t Look Up to hopefully get people talking about the climate crisis — literally the biggest threat to life in human history — and to see so much made about two comedy guys not talking about a TV show is a scary sign of our times. I love Ferrell. Always will. I had the best, most fun run of my life with him. Yes, I wish I had talked to him about it out of respect, but we were both focused on our new companies and life just took over.

Why did you lose interest in traditional comedy?

More and more, I started realizing the world was shifting away from the golden age of comedy we had from the late 1990s through the 2000s. The themes of those comedies were about sort of empty-suit white guys, and that’s what Will and I riffed on. That’s what really made us laugh. But then you started to see the ravages of that culture, and it wasn’t so funny anymore. Big, powerful tectonic stuff started to happen: the financial collapse, the rise of the extreme right wing, the climate crisis and the soaring income inequality. It became almost bizarre to do those old-style comedies and didn’t make sense at that point. I was just very excited to go at things from a bunch of different directions, and, God bless Will Ferrell, he just didn’t have that same appetite that I had. Will’s the greatest, most laid-back guy. And he’s just like, “Well, I like producing a couple things, but I don’t know if I want to do 20 things.”

What happened when you and Will Ferrell decided to split?

As clean as we both tried to make it go, there were moments afterward where we weren’t exactly chummy. I kept trying to frame it like, “Hey, it’s OK. It’s its natural conclusion,” but as I would say it, it didn’t quite feel right. It felt like a breakup. I’m looking forward to when the dust has settled. I’d love to just go watch a Lakers game with him and kick back and get back to our old kind of rhythm. But, yeah, I can’t lie, at the end of it, we were both kind of bummed out.

Who got Succession?

We still split Succession.

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“I can’t lie, we were both kind of bummed out,” says McKay (right) of dissolving Gary Sanchez Productions, the company he ran with Will Ferrell. Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

How involved are you in the third season?

It is the least involved I’ve ever been. Basically, I read the scripts when they come in, I give some notes, and I keep an eye on the dailies. But that team is so strong. I was very, very involved in the first season and obviously directed the pilot. I was pretty involved in the second season. That’s kind of my dream setup: You get someone as talented as Jesse Armstrong with an amazing writers room. You see the show sail away from you, wave to it and occasionally chime in with notes.

As a producer, what do you think of the tragic accident that happened on the set of Rust?

That’s my greatest single fear as a producer and a director. We’ve used blanks on our set, including on Don’t Look Up, and everything is quadruple-checked. No one is ever in front of that pointed gun, and the chamber is triple-checked. When I heard what happened, I was like, “How could that possibly have happened?” That set sounded sloppy and dangerous.

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McKay with his wife, filmmaker Shira Piven, and Pearl, one of their two daughters, in 2006. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Did you increase safety protocols?

We’re always really careful. I always give an extra speech at the beginning. We had like a near accident on the set of Anchorman 2. It was involving Will, and it was really scary. It was a scene where Ron Burgundy was going to hang himself. It was a silly joke. For a half a second, the rig didn’t operate properly and there was actual tension on the rope, but then it gave way and Will was OK. Thank God no one was hurt. We were sick about it for two days. We said, “All right, let’s stop. Let’s have a meeting.” We also had something with a bear in the first Anchorman. The bear did a hint of a bluff charge for a second. From that moment on, I said, “I will never put a live animal in a shot with an actor ever again.” So every time I do it, it’s a composite shot because it’s not worth it.

Were you alarmed when you heard some of the Rust crew weren’t union?

I was horrified. Unions do an extra level of safety for their members.

How do you navigate working with a company like Netflix when something like the Dave Chappelle controversy happens?

What can you live with? What is something that just goes beyond the pale? Those are constant questions. Netflix is a carbon-zero company, and because they’re not a conglomerate, they don’t have the conflict of interest of having to watch out for different corporate arms, so they’re able to do a show like Squid Game, whereas maybe some other companies maybe wouldn’t be as comfortable. Amazon’s very tricky because of their hugely anti-union stances, but, at the same time, Jeff Bezos committed $10 billion to the climate cause. So everything in America now is a constant balancing game. Obviously, I’m all in on the climate. I’m fully freaked out. I’m all in on everything I can do in that sphere and with this movie. But at the same time, I didn’t love the Chappelle thing. Chappelle has a long career as a very brilliant comic who has told a lot of great truths. Respectfully, I would just say, “Can’t you do better than that?” But we’re also in an era where free speech is very tricky. I personally wasn’t comfortable with it, but I do understand the free speech thing.

You shot Don’t Look Up during the pandemic. How were you able to get that cast?

Videos and email records out of Eastern Europe. No, I’m kidding. I think it was a time, place and moment. I feel like the climate crisis is the story of all stories in the history of stories. Here is the credit I will give myself: I wrote a script about this insane time we’re living in. I think a lot of actors were hungry for that because we’re all kind of getting pummeled every day by this madness, whether you’re right wing or left wing, or whatever you are. It’s insane right now. And you know what they were specifically hungry for? They were hungry to jump into it and laugh because I don’t think we’ve gotten to do that in five years. Even though the movie has tragic elements, there’s a lot of stuff in it that’s just really funny. Jonah Hill riffing, and Meryl Streep, who can really improvise, blew me away.

What movie will you next direct?

I have a new idea, which of course I’m not going to say. I can’t. And then we have Bad Blood, about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, that Jennifer’s attached to. Those are the two I’m looking at.

How is your health these days? You are looking very trim. I know you had a minor heart attack after Vice.

I’m good. I also have an essential tremor that was diagnosed when I was 27 or 28. It’s inherited and is exactly what Katharine Hepburn had. It’s utterly harmless. You never know when it’s going to hit you, but through the years, the best way to treat it is not to give a shit.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.