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Making of ‘Don’t Look Up’: How Adam McKay Created a Film He Had Been Thinking About For Years

McKay tells THR about scoring his A-list cast, shooting during the height of the pandemic, and which character was the hardest to cast.

In late 2019, Adam McKay flew to Ireland to his isolated lake house to write a draft for a project that he’d been thinking about for a few years: a film that would deal with the ongoing climate crisis. Previously, he’d written four or five premises, half a page each, to try and crack the idea, but nothing felt right. It wasn’t until he spoke to a friend of his — journalist David Sirota, who was frustrated with the lack in coverage of the climate crisis — that he felt he finally hit the jackpot.

“David made a comment about how [the climate crisis was like] an asteroid [about] to hit the planet and no one cares — and it was perfect,” McKay tells THR. “I liked it because it could be funny too, and it’s a big, clear idea that a lot of people can enter. That was it.”

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In just three weeks, he had a draft for Don’t Look Up. After producer Kevin Messick, McKay’s frequent collaborator, and associate producer Staci Roberts Steele read the script, everything started to move fast. McKay, having written the role of astronomy postdoc Kate Dibiasky for Jennifer Lawrence, sent the script to her.

“I’m a huge fan of Adam McKay,” Lawrence tells THR. “I’ve always wanted to work with him … so to hear he was thinking about me when he wrote the part was unbelievable.” The Oscar winner also adds that her answer was a no-brainer once she read the script. “I just thought it was genius. It’s such a poignant way to get such an important point across, that we don’t need to be fighting each other over science. He’s the perfect person to be able to tell a story like this. To bring humor and satire to such a troubling and honest problem — it’s really a job that only Adam McKay could pull off.”

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Both DiCaprio and Lawrence play against type as anxious, hapless scientists. Lawrence took an active role in crafting her character’s hair: “[After I put] the first wig on Jen, I handed her the scissors and told her to cut it herself ‘like Kate Dibiasky would,’ ” says hair department head Patricia Dehaney. NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX
Actor Rob Morgan was working on an untitled miniseries (on Dec. 9, after this article’s publication in the magazine, the show’s title was announced as Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty) about the Los Angeles Lakers with McKay when the filmmaker approached him about the role of Dr. Clayton Oglethorpe, NASA’s head of planetary defense. “You hear stuff like that, and two out of 10 times they may follow through,” Morgan says. “But Adam actually kept his word. … The guy has so much weight and clout and experience, and to single me out like that is very flattering. I’m very indebted to him for trusting me.” Morgan says the script was both smart and light-hearted and represented what the world was going through during the pandemic. “I thought it was very timely, and it showed we could laugh with each other … and then there was the stellar cast, and to be the number three in it is a dream come true.”

Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays astronomer Dr. Randall Mindy, came into the picture in late January 2020 when McKay started having meetings with the Oscar-winning actor at his house in Los Angeles. “We were talking about character, script … he’s very rigorous and smart and had a lot of questions about the tone,” recalls McKay. “They were great questions, and he was very respectful.” When COVID-19 hit, McKay adds, DiCaprio wasn’t officially attached yet, but he was still interested.

“There were five months where I didn’t pick up the script, and then when I did pick it up, I realized it [was] more about how [they way] we communicate with each other is broken, and I realized that’s pretty exciting,” he said. “I did a bit of a rewrite, made it a little bit crazier, and then Leo said he was in. By that time, [Cate] Blanchett was in, Tyler Perry was in, and we kept putting together the cast.”

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Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, DiCaprio and Lawrence. Blanchett and Perry play the co-hosts of a frothy morning news show who try to spin the imminent apocalypse into a fun human-interest story. Courtesy of NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

DiCaprio, speaking at a Nov. 17 post-screening Q&A moderated by THR‘s Scott Feinberg, said, “I had been looking to do a film about this subject for God knows how long, but to create urgency with the story of the climate crisis is something that’s next to impossible. The urgency that Adam created with this analogy of a comet hitting planet Earth within a limited amount of time, and how we become distracted and focus on other things and don’t do the task at hand, was a stroke of genius. I knew I had to be a part of this project.”

The hardest character to cast, says McKay, was Peter Isherwell, the CEO of tech/media company BASH. “The real billionaires are so over-the-top and strange and blasting themselves off into space — it was daunting. Mark Rylance was the answer, because he is simply one of the great actors on the planet, and we knew we’d come up with something original. I think he was the last role we cast.”

Jonah Hill, Timothée Chalamet, Himesh Patel, Melanie Lynskey and Ron Perlman round out the star-studded cast in the film, which follows DiCaprio and Lawrence’s astronomers on a media tour to warn the world about the comet that will wipe out everything on Earth. The premise is extremely timely: In November, NASA launched a space mission to test technology that could, in the future, help deflect dangerous asteroids. In September, a probe will crash into the asteroid, currently several hundred million miles from Earth, in an experimental attempt to alter its trajectory.

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Meryl Streep plays President Janie Orlean. According to makeup head Liz Bernstrom, Streep’s input on her character’s look included a request for “the oh-too-tight face lift, the false nails, the prom-girl hair.”

McKay had a first-look deal with Paramount Pictures, but the studio passed on the project, says McKay, adding that Paramount’s budget was too low for him to make a movie like this. McKay and the producers shopped the project around to “four or five select places,” with the two most serious bidders being Sony and Netflix. “It was a tough choice,” he says. “Sony was pitching a more theatrical [approach], which I love, but ultimately we felt with this idea, so long as Netflix could guarantee a decent theatrical plan, their distribution reach was too good to pass up. I don’t think the movie would’ve happened without Netflix because they had the means to make it during COVID at a time when other companies weren’t at that point yet.”

Adds editor Hank Corwin, another frequent collaborator of McKay’s, “This is a film that should be seen — if it goes on Netflix and a billion people see it, it’s so much more important. I love the studios, but I think Netflix might be the perfect venue for this film.”

McKay says that the beginning of production was complicated, considering the lack of COVID-19 testing options; at the time, rapid tests were unavailable. The cast and crew were quarantined, the set was broken into specific zones and everyone wore masks while COVID monitors roamed the set. Once PCR testing became available, McKay says, the filmmakers knew they could successfully pull off a shoot.

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Jonah Hill as the president’s dim-witted son and chief of staff. Courtesy of NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

“The big key was that Netflix was willing to guarantee the safety of filming because none of us were going to show up unless we were safe,” says McKay. “They went above and beyond and were able to create this safe set. It was kind of miraculous because there wasn’t a vaccine at that point, but we had zero positives in the red zone the entire time.”

Physical production in Boston took about six months, but unlike usual productions, there were no cast dinners and no group hangouts. “It was unlike any other production,” Corwin says. “I would get these FaceTime calls from Adam where he would just be sitting alone in his hotel and then in his apartment. You know, he seemed a little lonely, but I think it gave them time to really do a deep dive into the different layers of this movie.”

Hair department head Patricia Dehaney and makeup head Liz Bernstrom were unable to be as hands-on as usual with the actors, instead meeting with them virtually to discuss their characters’ looks. Rylance, in particular, had a lot of ideas for his tech CEO’s appearance. “Our phone conversations revealed just how much thought he put into this character,” says Bernstrom. “Between the teeth, wig lace, face lift, spray tan, darkened eyebrows and that wig, Isherwell came to life!”

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McKay (right) and DP Linus Sandgren (an Oscar winner for La La Land). Courtesy of NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

Streep also played a role in defining her character’s hair and makeup. Initially, Dehaney says, McKay wanted Streep’s character, President Janie Orlean, to have a Suze Orman-esque hairstyle. “After a Zoom meeting and emails with Meryl, we discovered she had her own vision, mostly taken from what she had seen on young professional women that seem to copy one another’s styles. Long, with light blond outlining the face, worn flat and curled, leaving the ends out. Once I started researching, I was amused by how many young public figures sported that look.”

Between rocket launches, sequences set in space and crowd scenes shot during the pandemic, Don’t Look Up called for extensive VFX, most of which was constructed during the six-month postproduction period. “I don’t [often] get asked to work on movies with lots of VFX,” notes editor Corwin, a two-time Oscar nominee for his work on McKay’s The Big Short and Vice. For the rocket launches, Corwin worked with VFX supervisor Raymond Gieringer and based the sequences on a vast library of historical launches. “I built a tableau of launch scenes and he would riff on those,” Corwin says. “That was really tough because [I] was trying to cut something that didn’t exist, and it all started with, like, 20 cold people standing on a beach at Cape Cod, watching the launch.”

Gieringer adds that various elements of the film required VFX, and the approach wasn’t as straightforward as usual. “Adam’s work has many layers,” he says. “We had extreme space [scenes], crowd duplication, a music video, the Earth … and much more. We had to cover a wide variety of VFX disciplines.”

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“It was like my first day picking up a tennis racket and playing with Serena and Venus Williams,” says Rob Morgan of acting alongside DiCaprio, Lawrence and Streep. Courtesy of NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

Corwin balanced the complicated VFX shots, like a spacecraft launching into space or a comet hurtling toward Earth, with beautiful shots of nature and people. To get the shots of the latter, Corwin enlisted Netflix’s own employees stationed all over the world. “Netflix has a zillion employees, so I asked them to send me videos of them looking into the sky or watching television, being involved with the media or being in nature,” Corwin says. “We got stuff from all over the world, and it was beautiful because I wanted it to feel very human and not professionally shot. … I was getting a zillion selfies. It was a gold mine.”

Corwin admits the more action-focused sequences weren’t his biggest challenge on the movie. Rather, it was a scene set in the Oval Office early in the film, when Dr. Mindy and Dr. Dibiasky first bring the news of the comet to the president. “All the actors were improvising,” says Corwin. “It wasn’t difficult to cut, but it was difficult to find the tone because, really, the tone of the film would resonate from that scene. … We were constantly retuning and attenuating that. You can imagine: You have Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Rob Morgan just all riffing. They had been sitting alone in hotel rooms, so when they finally got together, they just had a ball. But it became a heavy load for me.”

For the technical details, McKay turned to astronomer Amy Mainzer to make sure the film’s plot and the terminology used throughout were scientifically accurate. “In my original draft, it was an asteroid, not a comet, and I had it at 32 kilometers (19.9 miles) wide,” he says. “Dr. Mainzer told me if there was an asteroid that big, there is nothing you can do about that. We had this haggling back and forth, and we settled on 5- to 10-kilometer comet.”

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The film’s cast includes (seated, from left) Rob Morgan, Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Paul Guilfoyle, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, seen here in the White House war room. Courtesy of NIKO TAVERNISE/NETFLIX

Similarly, Morgan spoke with Mainzer while prepping his character, noting the responsibility he felt as a Black actor playing the head of planetary defense at NASA. “The world literally just found out about a bunch of Black women that figured out the computation of NASA in a movie called Hidden Figures, [and] that happened decades ago,” Morgan says. “Our representation, and what we contributed to the success of NASA, is very underrepresented. For me to have this role, I felt a big responsibility to bring this character to life.”

The completed film, hitting limited theaters on Dec. 10 before its Dec. 24 launch on Netflix, is a serious tale packaged within a satire — exactly the project DiCaprio had hoped it would be. “It’s about creating a different narrative and a different type of conversation, to hold a mirror to society and us and see how ridiculous we are and see how distracted we are,” he said at the November Q&A. “That’s the artist’s job and that’s what was so awesome about this screenplay when I first read it.”

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.