“I tried on a lot of different emotional suits, and I tried the freaked-out-I-can’t-sleep-at-night. But, ultimately the people who survive keep their sense of humor. I don’t think that has to be separate from being serious and emotional and profound. I think you can laugh about something while still recognizing that it is serious,” said Adam McKay, who did just that in his 2021 Oscar-nominated Netflix planetary-disaster satire Don’t Look Up.
He’s at work on a new feature script now, he said at a Q&A for the Tribeca Festival.
“If the last movie was about the outcome of what’s broken about us, that we’re staring at the collapse of the livable climate, this one is more about the actual arterial blocks in our hearts, what’s causing it, which is, of course, big, dirty money. And it’s a comedy as well … blended with drama, but I would overall call it a comedy,” is all he’d say, rather cryptically. He’s also writing the HBO Max anthology series The Uninhabitable Earth based on the bestselling David Wallace-Wells book.
“We have less than eight years before we cross the tipping point of a livable planet. No one is even arguing with that and yet we are all like ‘Johnny Depp, Amber Heard.’ So you have to laugh at it, but you also have to get to work on it,” he said.
McKay came from SNL, sketch comedy, co-founded Funny or Die and made Anchorman and a handful of comedies with Will Ferrell, whom he called “the least neurotic creative person I have ever met.” He said that “with every one of the comedies that we made, we would have a conversation about the political, social economic center of the movie, and say ‘Let’s never tell anyone that we had this conversation.” In Step Brothers, it’s consumerism — “that the customer is always right, which I think is the headstone of America. I think that has killed us.”
“At a certain point, I was really starting to be disturbed at where the country was headed,” he said. Then came The Big Short and Vice. He also really wanted to do Garth Ennis’ comic book series The Boys but everyone he took it to said an R-rated superhero movie was a no go. (It was later adapted into a hit TV series by Amazon Studios.) “I have no complaints. There are 10,000 other filmmakers that can complain more than me. But that would have been a cool movie… I was dying to do that movie.”
McKay also directed the pilot for Jesse Armstrong’s HBO’s Succession, based on the Murdoch family. “It was the best pilot script I’d ever read. This is exactly where we are. What I loved about the show is that it didn’t glorify wealth.”
Don’t Look Up — nominated for an Oscar Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Film Editing and Original Score – “just poured out.” The film about an asteroid set to destroy earth amid rampant social media conspiracy-theory denial was polarizing to say the least. “That was the wildest experience I have ever been through,” he said.
Of his latest, HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise Of the Lakers Dynasty, he said: “It was supposed to be my fun project coming off Don’t Look Up. It was supposed to be the good time. We had just dealt with the fact that maybe our culture is murdering us, even though it was a comedy. And then it was like, I’ve been a hoops fan for 40 years, let’s go do Winning Time. And it ended up a lot of controversy as well around that show.”
The series was criticized for historical inaccuracies. And for its depiction of African American culture, racism and sexism. Touching on those subjects “is of course why we made it,” he said.
“I love that show. We always try and make stuff where.. I just play the game of ‘I just turned off the channel and what would I say about this.’ And with Winning Time it was like we tried to make a show where, at the end of it, when the first episode ends, I would go, ‘Holy crap, I’ve been waiting for that.”