tv & movies

How ‘Don’t Look Up’ “cracked the code” of balancing truth, pre-apocalyptic chaos and comedy

Ahead of the release of Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’, the film’s director-writer-producer Adam McKay along with actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Tyler Perry, Jonah Hill and Scott Mescudi chat about the future of our planet, and how some serious issues can benefit from a good laugh

“Hypothetically if there were a comet or asteroid heading our way, what would be your most immediate action? What would you do if it were the last day on Earth?” My heart sinks at the only India-origin press question selected for the cast and crew of Netflix’s Don’t Look Up to answer.

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In a virtual press conference moderated by renowned astronomer Dr Amy Mainzer, who consulted on the film, said cast and crew include musician-actor Scott Mescudi AKA Kid Cudi, filmmaker-actor Tyler Perry, actor-comedian Jonah Hill, Academy Award-winning actor Meryl Streep, actor-activist Leonardo DiCaprio, actor Jennifer Lawrence, and the film’s writer-director-producer Adam McKay.

The energy reverberates through the screen even at 2 am. Close to 400 journalists from around the world have logged in to have their chance to pick the brains of some of Hollywood’s contemporary greats… and the strike-out question of ‘what if’ got asked in this finite time.

Tyler Perry, Scott Stuber, Jennifer Lawrence, Tomer Sisley, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Jonah Hill, Himesh Patel, Kid Cudi, Adam McKay, Ron Perlman, Kira Goldberg, Kevin Messick, and Paul Guilfoyle attend the “Don’t Look Up” World Premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center on December 05, 2021 in New York City. | Photo Credit: Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for Netflix

The cast and crew subtly exchange a ‘look’, then Mescudi smiles and responds he would love to spend time with his 11-year-old daughter Vada. But Hill, ever the quick reactor, responds, “I think I would tweet; make sure that people knew the cool thoughts that I had to say, [my] opinions on different stuff like movies and how the stars live their lives and what they look like, and who they are dating and stuff.” The joke earns some giggles from Lawrence, McKay, Streep and Perry, while a slowly-reddening DiCaprio ducks his head.

Jonah Hill, Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio at the global press conference for ‘Don’t Look Up’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

Hill’s response is also a stab at how the media has played up his weight loss, ultimately labelling him a ‘thirst trap’ leading him to request people to refrain from commenting on appearance, positive or otherwise.

Like his castmates, Hill wants the focus to be on his work. And Don’t Look Up — one of the year’s most anticipated feature films — is all about directing dialogue and attention where it needs to be: on our planet’s future, how we consume news, our relationships.

Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence and director Adam McKay at the global press conference for ‘Don’t Look Up’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

As DiCaprio puts it, “McKay creates a sense of urgency with the film,” but not one of mass hysteria. It is a tone McKay has perfected over the years with films such as Academy Award-winning The Big Short (2015), Vice (2018), and Booksmart (2019).

The value of science

A black comedy based on real events, Don’t Look Up follows two astronomers Dr Randall Mindy (DiCaprio) and Dr Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence) who discover a comet heading towards Earth. To raise awareness and urgency of the impending danger, the two embark on a media tour. Through the film, they encounter different people driven by various rationales — from Flat Earthers to various political parties to TikTokers.

DiCaprio, portraying socially awkward and quiet Dr Mindy, explains, “I was just thankful to play a character who is 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 in the newspaper… I also love the way he was just incredibly truthful about how we’re so immensely distracted from the truth nowadays. And then, of course, Covid-19 hit and there was a whole new scientific argument going on there.”

Cate Blanchett as Brie Evantee, Tyler Perry as Jack Bremmer, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from ‘Don’t Look Up.’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

He calls Lawrence’s character Dr Dibiasky a “Greta Thunberg-type”: an activist at heart. She also has her own battles at home with parents who ‘don’t talk politics’. Whether she is rapping to Wu-Tang Clan or yelling “We’re all going to die!” on a national television news segment — which unfortunately leaves her branded as “the yelling woman” by anchorwoman Brie Evantee (Cate Blanchett) — Dr Dibiasky is a renegade for the future and for a more collaborative community in the name of science.

The right notes

  • The film also features an original track ‘Just Look Up’ by Scott Mescudi who portrays DJ Chello and Ariana Grande who plays pop star Riley Bina. The emotive love ballad lies in the context of the end of the world. The lyric video uploaded to Grande’s official YouTube channel on December 3, has more than 2.5 million views.
  • Mescudi recalls how the first version, by the film’s composer Nicholas Britell (The Big Short, Vice, Succession, The Underground Railroad, Cruella), seemed to be written from Mescudi’s perspective, but Mescudi switched it up to suit his character DJ Chello. He wanted the song to be an expression of love for Riley after a public fallout.
  • Proud of the track, he says with a smile, “It was intense at first because Ariana is such an incredible artist. Her voice is just amazing… I’m just really happy that we were able to figure it out, and it worked.” He adds jokingly, “We can do a NASA mixtape.”

With this in mind, Lawrence, like her co-star, empathises with the science community whose cries on our planet’s future have gone unacknowledged for the past 30-odd years. “It’s just so sad and frustrating to watch people who have dedicated their lives to learning the truth, be turned away because people don’t like what the truth has to say,” she says.

The film marks Lawrence’s return to the screen after a three-year absence from Hollywood, so this film is doubly significant to her; she wanted to feature in something meaningful while also continuing to tug at her comedic strings.

Portraying an image-conscious and conservative US President Jeanie Orlean who consistently turns away from science and danger, Streep agrees. “The kernel of truth of [Don’t Look Up] is that we push this information away. Even smart people — people who don’t have a scientific background — everyone pushes it away because it’s just too painful.”

Discomfort for art

That said, if you think Don’t Look Up is the A-list, comedy-centric answer to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006), think again. Rather, it may be more along the lines of films such as Armageddon (1998) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004). The cast and crew are candid about the thread of unsettledness that runs through the film, especially in the name of ‘fact versus fiction’.

Calling the film “prophetic”, Perry — who is no stranger to satire — plays chortling co-anchor Jack Bremmer to Blanchett’s Brie. He recalls one such uncomfortable scene. “In the Oval Office, Meryl’s character [US President Orlean] is with Jason [her son] and just dismisses the facts and science. That was just very much ringing true because of what’s happening, especially at the time in the country, where we were with the pandemic and things just being dismissed… And everybody’s saying things that counter what the truth is. That was pretty scary.”

Scott Mescudi and Tyler Perry at the global press conference for ‘Don’t Look Up’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

For Streep, the more “chilling moments” comprised the stark contrasts of chaos in the outside world while an elite few stayed blissfully ignorant. “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,” she says with finality.

Hill with a dark chuckle says, “I found the whole movie to just be like the truth, and terrifying and hilarious.” He pauses and thinks back to a troubling conundrum, “When pop stars are on [the news talk show] while [Dr Mindy and Dr Dibiasky] are talking about the world ending and they’re the same weight — we’re all guilty of [that outlook] too. So it’s not like I’m any better. There’s something deeply human that [McKay] tapped into; terrifying but also the truth.”

Jonah Hill as Jason Orlean, Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, Meryl Streep as President Janie Orlean and Jennifer Lawrence as Kate Dibiasky in a scene from ‘Don’t Look Up.’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

Portraying the smarmy Jason Orlean, the son of President Orlean and Chief of Staff, he dismisses the warnings of the comet, instead prioritising mid-term elections.

Room for levity

While the film is certainly grounded in reality, there is a great space for comedy facilitated by everyone; the responsibility to share the humour is not just funnelled to Hill and Lawrence. Other comic-dramatic talents contribute to the cause: Chris Evans, Ariana Grande, Mark Rylance, Ron Perlman, Matthew Perry and Timothée Chalamet.

DiCaprio, who has been involved in his fair share of environmental projects such as Before The Flood (2016), The Ivory Game (2016) and Blood Diamond (2006), says director McKay “cracked the code” on Don’t Look Up, explaining he had been searching for a project like this one — that dealt with the crux of the issue with respect while also creating art.

McKay explains that while the “thumping doomsday talk” of the climate crisis is so overwhelming, relief from the bleakness of it all does more help than harm — if executed correctly, of course. He concludes, “If you’re able to laugh, that means you have some distance [from being overwhelmed], and I actually think that’s really important. You can feel the urgency and sadness and loss, while also having a sense of humour. It’s a great unifier.”

Don’t Look Up will stream on Netflix from December 24.

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