“I’ve been looking for a movie that was about this subject for decades now,” says Leonardo DiCaprio on his latest film, Don’t Look Up. “But it’s an issue where everyone feels ultimately like ‘what kind of difference can we make? What can we contribute to this cause?’ And Adam really cracked the code with this narrative.”
That subject is climate crisis and it’s an issue close to DiCaprio’s heart: “I think it’s probably the most important issue all of us could be talking about on a regular basis. It takes artists like this to change the narrative, to create conversation and it’s just an honor to be a part of it.”
Though inspired by the climate crisis, writer and director Adam McKay decided to divert the subject into something altogether more urgent… “Adam created a sense of urgency with it by making it about a comet that’s going to hit Earth within six months’ time!” DiCaprio continues.
DiCaprio plays Dr. Randall Mindy, whose astronomy grad student, Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a comet orbiting within the solar system and is on a direct collision course with Earth. However, when the pair try to tell the world, they’re met with resistance (especially from the President, played by Meryl Streep) so they try and warn the world in their different ways – embarking on a mega-media tour with differing receptions.
“I love the way [McKay] portrayed these two different characters,” DiCaprio continues. “One that is incredibly outspoken, like a Greta Thunberg type of character in Jen’s, and mine that is trying to play within the system. But I also love the way he was just incredibly truthful about how we’re so immensely distracted from the truth nowadays. Then, of course, COVID hit and there was a whole new scientific argument going on there. It’s just such an important film to be a part of at this particular time.”
Indeed, putting the film together under the context of the COVID pandemic – where scientific theory has been regularly debated over social media and on the political stage – puts the movie in a whole new, relevant light. In fact, the film’s title, Don’t Look Up, references a political agenda within the film of telling the public not to believe in the comet’s actual existence.
“[The film is about] how science has become politicized,” DiCaprio explains. “I was just thankful to play a character who is solely based on so many of the people that I’ve met from the scientific community, and in particular, climate scientists who’ve been trying to communicate the urgency of this issue and feeling like they’re subjected to the last page on the newspaper.”
To keep the science in the movie as close as possible, McKay and the cast consulted with astronomer Amy Mainzer. “I spoke to [Amy Mainzer] as if she were a climate scientist through the lens of an astronomer. She was so incredibly helpful in the convergence of these two worlds, which is what Adam was trying to do, in creating this character and this entire movie.
“What I really wanted to do was to try to articulate the frustration of the scientific community – how one is sitting there on a pulpit speaking the truth and all these other noises are sort of drowning out the main message. So we worked a lot together on trying to understand the frustration of the scientific community and how one would be in a situation like that, of ultimate frustration realising the world is falling apart, and how do you take off this sort of professional jacket to cut straight to the chase about the truth of this issue.”
Now, climate crisis, skewed political agendas, fake news and… erm… the end of the world may sound like this equates to a heavy film but Don’t Look Up is definitely a comedy. The weighty subject matter and dire circumstances are all blanketed in McKay’s signature satire and wry humour,
“We were talking how we wanted to deal with this subject of the climate crisis,” McKay says. “Which is so overwhelming and is arguably the greatest threat to life in the history of mankind. We felt like it can be overwhelming but if you’re able to laugh, that means you have some distance. I actually think that’s really important. You can feel the urgency and you can feel sadness and you can feel loss, while also having a sense of humour.
“The intention with this movie, after the crazy last five/ten years we’ve all had across the planet, was ‘wouldn’t it be nice to laugh at some of this and feel the other feelings?’ So that was the approach because I think we get hit with the thumping doomsday talk quite a bit. Which, by the way, is totally legit when it comes to climate change, but I did think it was important that people be allowed to laugh and have some distance. It’s also a great unifier too. You can’t really fake laughter. It’s not political thing. They’ve tried, but it never really works whenever you try and fake that.”
“Adam walked the craziest tight rope in this movie,” Jonah Hill says who plays the Chief of Staff (and the President’s son), Jason in the movie, “which I think is almost impossible and he pulled off. Taking things that are terrifying and using comedy to maybe make them digestible or palatable in some way or entertaining in some way. So I found the whole movie terrifying and hilarious. I think there’s something deeply human that he tapped into. It’s terrifying but it’s also the truth.”
This is the third time Hill and DiCaprio have worked together (they have both also starred in Django Unchained and The Wolf Of Wall Street) and though they’re on opposites sides of the fence in this movie, that’s certainly not the case in real life, and Hill is particularly proud of DiCaprio’s commitment to the issues the movie raises.
“I’ve been friends with Leo for a long time,” Hill says. “I’ve always had mad respect for how much he puts his money and time where his mouth is in regards to this issue. So not only as a friend, but someone who just is out there talking a big game, but actually walks the walk.”
Being part of this movie during the pandemic was also an experience that meant a lot for Hill: “Everyone was so bummed the past two years. When I got in a room with all these people who are geniuses, some of whom are friends of mine, some of whom I didn’t know, but all of whom I respect, it was just amazing to laugh and think and create something in a time where everyone’s been stuck in their houses. It was really emotionally meaningful to me.”
Speaking of being in that room, Don’t Look Up really has an eye-watering cast that includes so many A-listers that you might as well throw the rest of the dictionary away. It includes DiCaprio, Lawrence and Hill alongside Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet and Mark Rylance (just to name a few!). So it’s no wonder McKay was in awe of the teamwork involved in the movie: “The thing that was beautiful about this movie was it highlighted just how special collaboration is for me,” McKay nods. “The whole time I’ve been working in movies or theater or TV, that’s the thing that I love the most. And seeing this group do that was just one of the more special experiences I’ve ever had.”
One of those A-listers really has brought their A-game (sorry) as Meryl Streep plays an egotistical and selfish president who only tells the world of the comet once her numbers start to go down in the polls. “There were so many places to take [the character],” Streep laughs, “because there are so many preposterous people who’ve put themselves in public places recently. So it was fun to put together this character that was pure id. That’s just what her appetite wanted – amassing power, money, more power, and more money, and that’s pretty much it. And nice hair and nails!”
It’s not just politics that are satirised in the movie, but the media as well – wonderfully represented by two overtly sweet daytime talk show hosts played by Blanchett and Tyler Perry, who prefer to tell the bad news with a ‘spoon full of sugar’.
“There’s so much money behind the media with advertising and clicks and apps that there has to be some engagement happening on some level, or people have to have a hot take or be clever,” McKay says. “Sometimes we just have to be able to say things to each other, and that seems to be the basic line that’s been corrupted. We profitise the very way that we speak to each other through social media, through phones, commercials, shows. It’s crazy to think about it. I mean they now call TV show or songs, ‘content’. It’s literally a word from a boardroom.
“That’s how much we’ve profitised the way we talk to each other. I think sometimes you do just have to be able to hear things. There has to be a neutral playing field occasionally that is not brightly lit with sound effects and great-looking people that have high focus group test numbers!”
When the realisation of the comet finally hits home, it’s the reaction of these two talk show hosts that really affected Streep: “There are a lot of chilling moments [in the movie],” she says,” but one that really hit me was the scene in the bar with Tyler and Cate when everything’s going to shit outside. And she says, ‘I just want to get drunk and talk shit about people’ [laughs]. I know lots of people [who would have that] reaction but it chilled my bones!”
Don’t Look Up is a mixed bag of real-life issues under the canopy of deep-seated satire. One minute you’ll be laughing hard and then the next, worried about the state of the world. It’s a hard one to sum up… so we won’t! Who best to take that on than the great Meryl Streep herself…? “I said to Adam when we first talked about promoting [the movie] – you know, you’ve got to give people things that they can do so they [don’t] want to kill themselves at the end! There is just that glimmer of the human dream where we hope something good is going to happen, even though we know something bad is.
“For people who believe and understand the imminence of this threat to all of our lives – rich people, poor people, everybody – everything flows from this, every issue of injustice, inequity, everything. If we don’t survive, none of it matters.”
Don’t Look Up will be in UK cinemas on 10 December 2021, and coming to Netflix on 24 December.