How Adam McKay’s near-death experience led to ‘Don’t Look Up,’ his new apocalyptic comedy

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Director Adam McKay takes us behind the scenes of “Don’t Look Up” to reveal the real-life events that inspired his new film. Plus, why his collaboration with Will Ferrell had to end and the rule he enforces about discussing potential awards on set.

Yvonne Villarreal: Hi, I’m Yvonne Villarreal.

Mark Olsen: And I’m Mark Olsen. You’re listening to The Envelope, the L.A. Times podcast, where we dive in deep with top talent in TV and film. Today’s guest is director, producer and writer Adam McKay. And Yvonne, let me just read you the list of some of the films he’s directed: “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Stepbrothers,” “The Other Guys.”

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Villarreal: So lots of comedies. Check. Lots of Will Ferrell. Check.

Olsen: Yes, and you may also remember the now iconic Funny or Die landlord sketch. That’s actually Adam’s daughter in the video.

[Archival clip from “The Landlord”: Pearl: Where’s your rent? Will Ferrell: You don’t have to raise your voice. Pearl: You pay now! Will Ferrell: I can give you half. Pearl: You pay now, bitch! Will Ferrell: Hey, don’t talk to me like that.]

Olsen: McKay and Will Ferrell actually had a production company together called Gary Sanchez Productions, though they recently parted ways. That’s something they’ve both talked about in recent interviews, and we get into it in our episode today as well, but I want to get back to that list of movies that he’s made. You know, he also wrote and directed “The Big Short,” which was based on the 2008 financial collapse.

Villarreal: Yeah, which earned him an Academy Award, right?

Olsen: That’s right, and it also marked a departure from his earlier brand of absurdist comedy into these more fact-based stories. And then, of course, there was “Vice” about former Vice President Dick Cheney. Adam’s also an executive producer of the television series “Succession,” which is based on real-life media dynasties like the Murdoch family. And then his latest film is “Don’t Look Up,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: Dr. Mindy: Hi. Yes, Dr. Mindy. And no Ph.D. candidate Kate Dibiasky found it. I did the orbital calculations. I study trace gases and dead galaxies. I haven’t published in a while, so you probably haven’t heard of me. But anyway, that doesn’t matter.]

Olsen: Not a surprise given Adam’s interests, but the movie is overtly political. Meryl Streep actually plays the president, though I’m not sure she’s someone you or I would vote for, even if it is played by Meryl Streep. But also typical of Adam’s work, “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t really fit neatly into a single genre. It’s this apocalyptic disaster movie and sort of bleak, but then it’s also this hilarious and strangely heartfelt like farcical satire. You know what? I’ll let him explain it.

Adam McKay: It’s a pretty simple one-line pitch. It’s just a giant doomsday comet is headed to Earth, and two mid-level scientists discover it. And they basically have to go on a media tour and warn the world. And then if someone says and what happens, the second part I’ll say is, well, what do you think would actually happen in the world if someone tried to do that? They get chewed up and kicked and pinballed around by social media, celebrity culture, divided politics, and each of them — Leo’s character and Jen’s character — each has kind of their own horrible journey through the world, trying to just give out this simple fact that a massive comet is going to hit planet Earth.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: Kate Dibiasky: Are we not being clear? We’re trying to tell you that the entire planet is about to be destroyed. News Anchor 1: OK, well, it’s, you know, something we do around here. You know, we just keep the bad news light, right? News Anchor 2: Right. It helps the medicine go down. And speaking of medicine…]

Olsen: And now the movie really is just jam packed with stars. Even more so to me, it seems, than your other movies, which have plenty of movie stars. I mean, here you have Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet, Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Ariana Grande.

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McKay: We have The Fonz, we have Evel Knievel. Jesus has a couple of lines in the movie. No, it’s an unbelievable cast. You’re 100% correct. You know, I wrote the role of Kate Dibiasky for Jen Lawrence, so she was first in. I wrote Teddy Oglethorpe for Rob Morgan. And Meryl Streep said yes pretty quickly. So you always kind of go through your dream lists of the cast you’re looking for. And in this case, I think there was just a lot of actors who were excited to try and process these insane times that we live in. And I realized at a certain point [that] it actually played into what the movie’s about in kind of a beautiful way, because it’s about our profit-driven distraction, bifurcated culture, and having these giant stars in it sort of augments that for the first 60, 70% of the movie.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: Anchor 2: Join us tomorrow when our guests will be the man that many say will challenge President Orlean in two years. Senator Jeff Lerner will be here. Anchor 1: and wrongly convicted murderer Michelle Weems talks to us about her controversial third place finish on Celebrity Dance-Off. Anchor 2: So controversial I thought she would have won. I really did. Anchor 1: Yes. Well, I still think she’s guilty. Anchor 2: That’s “The Daily Rip,” guys. Anchor 1: Have a great day.]

Olsen: When you and I had spoken before, you mentioned how Meryl Streep’s character was kind of a slew of different presidents, but she, in a recent interview, said that she kind of based the character in part on The Real Housewives. Did you weigh in on that? Like, where did the Housewives enter that stew?

McKay: I mean, I wrote the character to be a goulash of all the pretty much horrendous presidents that we’ve had in the White House over the last 40 to 45 years. So there’s little pieces of each of them in the way I wrote it. And then half the fun is then seeing an actor like Meryl Streep take that and kind of run with it on her own. I also floated the idea of Suze Orman, this sort of populist financial adviser. I like the idea of someone with statement hair, strong fashion choice, that kind of fake no-nonsense thing that you see. Like, I’m going to tell the truth, but meanwhile, behind closed doors, they’re just selling you out at every turn. So “Real Housewives” was a perfect reference for that, because those characters on that show — I haven’t seen it a lot. I’m lying; I’ve seen it way too much. But those characters definitely play that game of “Hey, I’m real. I’m no nonsense.” And then everything’s carefully curated and planned, and there’s kind of an aggressive play for the cameras kind of quality. So yeah, I love that she brought that into it.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: President Orlean: Oh, I heard there’s an asteroid or a comet or something that that you don’t like the looks of. Tell me about it and then tell me why you’re telling me about it. You got 20 minutes. Dr. Mindy: 20 minutes? Dr. Oglethorpe: That’s you, doc. Go.]

Olsen: The films that you’ve been making most recently, but even going back to like “Talladega Nights,” you’ve really been in direct conversation with recent history and it seems like the the gap, like the time span, is getting shorter. Like you’re somehow able to be reflecting on things much faster. And with “Don’t Look Up,” you really are talking about things that are happening right now. How are you doing that?

McKay: I mean, I never, ever imagined that this script would… that the events that this script is playing with…I just never imagined that they would happen while we were filming the script. Because not only did the pandemic hit and then the Capitol building was attacked, but also climate change hit in a way, I think, that was startling. I know the scientists were startled by it, that it came that strong and that fast. And it jumped about 20 to 30 years in all of their models, we started seeing those fires in Sardinia, in the Northwest here in the states, in Greece...

[Archival news clip:“Rescue crews have been searching the charred remains of homes and cars in the deadliest of the fires, the one in the Rafina area northeast of Athens.”]

McKay: The flooding in Germany...

[Archival news clip: “The situation at the moment is very, very bad. The water is still coming higher.”]

McKay: I mean, footage that looks like it’s bad CG from a disaster movie. That was the other thing, too. Clearly things are moving much faster than we think. And no, I never wanted this movie to overlap with reality this much.

Olsen: Well, you even mentioned the Capitol attack on January 6th, and there is a riot scene in “Don’t Look Up” that when you’re watching it feels eerily and uncomfortably similar to that. When did you actually shoot your riot scene?

McKay: We shot our riot scene, I believe it was three days after January 6th. And in the movie, it’s done a little bit comedically, the setup for it, and it did not feel funny. It felt uncomfortable. But the one thing we all forget is it was during the pandemic, so the streets were completely empty. So there ended up being no danger of frightening anyone or, you know, spurring on some accidental trouble. It all ended up being contained and totally safe. But there is clearly some bubbling extremism going on in the right wing. That was a little troubling when we started pre-production. We were still months away from the election. And we kept having safety meetings about COVID, and I started doing a bit of kind of an impersonation of the safety coordinator just saying like, “OK, everyone, I just want to talk to you today. There is a chance there could be a white nationalist, extreme right wing insurrection against our government. I want to talk about how we have a safe set if that happens.” And immediately — ”

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Olsen: And this was before the attack?

McKay: Oh, well before it. Four months before January 6, this elaborate bit about if there’s a right-wing insurrection, if a mob attacks our set, here’s the things you’re going to want to do immediately throw out your driver’s license so they don’t know that you’re from a blue state. It can help if you can do a good accent. Speak with a slight Southern accent. Start chanting Trump. See if you can blend in with the crowd. Like, if you’re a celebrity, hide immediately. And I was just doing this chipper safety thing. So I feel like the craziest fiction you can think of at this point is always two, three steps away. And we know that about fiction. A lot of it’s always going to come true in one shape or another. But like you said earlier, I’ve just never seen the rate of speed between the idea and it becoming a reality this fast.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: Jason Orlean: Oh good! OK, so it’s not a 100%. Dr. Oglethrope: Well, scientists never like to say 100%. President Orlean: Call it 70%, and let’s just — let’s move on. Kate Dibiasky: But it’s not even close to 70% . President Orlean: You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a 100% chance that they’re going to die. You know, it’s just nuts.]

Olsen: The movie, with this idea of the comet, it feels at first like it’s most obviously about climate change, or like that’s sort of the metaphor that we’re dealing with. But the movie becomes about so much more. I mean, it really is about sort of the cultural and political moment that we’re in and people’s inability to communicate. How did that transition happen? Like how for you did it sort of start out being about climate change and then build into being about in some ways about this bigger sort of systemic issue?

McKay: It’s kind of what you hope is going to happen with any script or film you work on. You hope that you’re going to discover other elements, that it’s going to show you things you weren’t thinking about when you were first writing it or making it. And without a doubt that happened on this. And it was really after we shut down because of the pandemic, and we had a five month break during which I was wondering, “Do you still make this movie or are we not just living through what the movie was?” And I didn’t read the script for four or five months, and then I picked it up, and it read completely different. It was really about the fact that we’ve broken the lines of communication.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: President Orlean: Let’s move on. Kate Dibiasky: But it’s not even close to 70% . President Orlean: You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a 100% chance that they’re going to die. You know, it’s just nuts.]

McKay: Everything’s been enhanced and turned into engagement, or polarization, or one side versus the other, all to maximize profits. And that all really jumped out at me when I read it again and I checked in with the cast and they all felt the same way.

Olsen: Because in the movie, there’s this tech company called Bash that seems to be a part of everyone’s life. And they have this leader that’s played by Mark Rylance who — you can tell me — I guess he’s kind of a mashup of a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg type, and part of his almost like corporate pitch is the elimination of sad feelings.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”:
Peter Isherwell: It also seriously schedules a therapy session with a nearby professional so we can make sure that these sad feelings never, ever, ever return. Little girl: May I say something Mr. Isherwell? Peter Isherwell: No.]

Olsen: Do you think that sometimes we do, in fact, have to face bad and uncomfortable feelings? Like, where did that idea of Bash eliminating bad feelings come from?

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McKay: I mean, Mark, how crazy is it? It’s 2021, and you actually had to ask me that question. Like, think about 10 years ago: “Do you think we actually have to face bad and sad feelings?” And by the way, I’m not giving you a hard time because it’s a legitimate question. I would just say yes! Of course! I mean, without it we’re not going to survive. But it is one of my favorite things in the movie that they create this interface for their phone called Liif, L-I-I-F, and it essentially just makes all the decisions for you. If you feel sad, it reads your heart rate, perspiration, et cetera. It’ll play a funny video. It automatically makes an appointment with a therapist. It automatically downloads songs. One of those slogans we played with is “Bash. We pay attention so you don’t have to.” So, I mean, it’s another one of those ideas. I just wouldn’t be surprised in two or three years if you started seeing phones making automatic decisions for people.

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: It all started with a connection.]

McKay In fact, I bet you it’s in the works right now,

[Archival clip from “Don’t Look Up”: Introducing Bash Liif. Life, without the stress of living.]

Olsen: With your last two movies, “The Big Short” and “Vice,” I feel like you really hit on this tone that is just all your own. I mean, I guess it’s like the fact-based comedy drama and “Don’t Look Up” feels pitched a little more strongly to comedy. Do you feel like somehow in the social and political engagement of these movies that the comedy … I mean, does it help the medicine go down? Like, in some ways, these are very serious movies with very serious issues, and yet they are also very funny.

McKay: I feel like there’s two sides to a lot of the institutions and systems that have been collapsing in the last 10 to 20 years. On one side, there’s real-world effects and people’s lives being destroyed or, in many cases, people losing their lives. But on the other side, there’s this clown show of incompetence and conflict of interest and people speaking in this kind of B.S., timeshare salesman tone of voice that everyone can see through, yet they keep plowing ahead with it. So I have kind of experienced the last 20 years as both horrifying and beyond ridiculous. Do you remember the story that was floated when Trump came back from the hospital after his bout with COVID? And there was a story floating that it was very seriously considered that Trump was going to open his shirt and reveal as Superman a Superman S.

Olsen: Yes.

[Archival clip from President Trump’s rally: President Trump: I woke up the next morning and I felt like Superman. I wanted to rip my shirt off.]

McKay: I mean, I wouldn’t have written that in “Step Brothers.”

[Archival clip from President Trump’s rally: President Trump: Just like the legendary Clark Kent. Crowd: Super Trump! Super Trump! Super Trump!]

McKay: My favorite joke that I’ve heard during these swirling, chaotic times was the John Mulaney joke about the only way to describe Trump is like a loose horse in a hospital. We have no frame of reference for it. We don’t know where it’s going. And I would say that that analogy broadens beyond that president, and I think it kind of describes everything we’re experiencing right now. You know, good Lord. I mean, you watch the news and you’re hearing things that just seem like they’re from an over-the-top sci-fi movie from 1989, and it’s the actual news that you’re watching. So I’ve just experienced this sort of collapse culture that we’re in on those two sides of really upsetting and at the same time, beyond the wildest farce you could ever imagine. But “Don’t Look Up” is definitely a comedy. It’s a work of fiction. It had a much looser, freer feeling to it. In a way, it was sort of the whole process of writing. It felt like a relief after having gone through the experience of making “Vice.”

Olsen: And now, in the making of “Vice,” you have talked quite a bit about the fact that you had a heart attack and it led to changing your health habits. Did it change your outlook at all too? Like, going through an experience like that, and especially leading to the next film being this apocalyptic comedy, did you find that your view on the world softened after that near-death experience? Did it harden in some ways? Did going through that change you somehow?

McKay: It was a funny thing. It was the day after in the hospital — I had had this heart attack and thank God it was not a major one. And I caught it very quickly, took a bunch of baby aspirin. I was at the hospital in like 15 minutes. There was no structural damage done to my heart. But the day after in the hospital, I just had the biggest, dumbest smile on my face and I couldn’t stop joking around and laughing, and I was just in such a good mood. And the doctor and the nurse and my wife were all like, Wow, you heard a very good mood for having just had a heart attack, and I’m like, I’m alive. So in some ways, I do think it led to “Don’t Look Up” and the idea of going back to a little bit more comedy with a capital C and the idea of laughing again in what we’re doing. We were grateful every day that we were able to process these frightening and shocking events through joking around, which I think is always a good thing.

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Adam McKay

Olsen: I want to pivot a little bit to talk kind of about how you got to this place where you are in your career. I mean, earlier, you know, you were making movies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” They were more obviously comedy in there. The issues of those movies were maybe smuggled in a little more. And then you transitioned with “Big Short” and “Vice” to making these movies that are more obviously dealing with big issues. But did that feel like a transition to you? Like, did it feel as much of a change to you as I think it did to a lot of viewers and people on the outside?

McKay: Yeah, there’s some stretches in “Anchorman 2” and “The Other Guys” where the commentary starts getting a little bolder and, in some cases, maybe naked. There’s a run in “Anchorman 2” where Ron Burgundy says, “Why do we have to tell people what they need to hear on the news? Why can’t we tell them what they want to hear?” And essentially, him and his news team invent infotainment.

[Archival clip from “Anchorman 2”: Ron Burgundy: Why can’t we just tell them what they want to hear? Freddie Shapp: And what do they want to hear? Ron Burgundy: That we live in the greatest country God ever created. Champ Kind: Damn straight. Freddie Shapp: Made him happy. Ron Burgundy: And we should do stories on on patriots, cute, funny little animals, diets. Why blonds have more fun.]

McKay: And then the same in “The Other Guys.” I mean, the whole movie, even though it’s a laugh-out- loud comedy, is all designed to be [an] allegory for the financial collapse. If you look at the story beats, it took a lot of time to construct it. And then, of course, no one noticed and they just laughed at it, which was an interesting learning experience. Like, “Oh, that’s interesting, I did all that work, but they’re just laughing at the bits.” By the way, not a bad problem to have. So it was starting to happen with those movies. And I remember having discussions with our producer from Will and mine’s old company, Gary Sanchez, and I just talked about how the villain in “The Other Guys” can’t just be a drug smuggler. And that the the idea of villains in movies have changed, and you can’t do these moves anymore. They don’t make sense with where the world is at. Who cares about the mafia anymore when you look at what’s happening with transnational corporations and legalized synthetic heroin being sold by prescription and assault rifles being sold retail? All that stuff seems so quaint and like from a bygone era. So for those two movies, I could really feel it kind of building up. And then there was just a happy accident where one of my favorite books happened to be available, and I happened to ask my agent like, “Hey, whatever happened to that book, why didn’t anyone do “The Big Short?” And he said, “Funny, you should ask, Let me call.” And God bless Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner over at Plan B. They were open to the idea of the guy who directed “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” taking a crack at the movie.

[Archival clip from “The Big Short”: Jared Vennett: A’s. Zero. B’s. Zero. Double B’s. Zero. Triple B’s. Zero. (sound of Jenga blocks collapsing) And then that happens. Mark Baum: What is that? Jared Vennett: That’s America’s housing market.]

Olsen: There is a through line through all of your work of this examination of power. I mean, it’s in “Vice,” it’s in “Succession,” it’s in “Anchorman,” as you mentioned. It’s even in “The Landlord” sketch. What is this interest that you have in power, and what is it that you think you’re exploring about it in your work?

McKay: One thing, like one small, small silver lining of how extreme things have gotten is that at this point, I think everyone understands when you have individuals worth $100 billion paying tax rates that are the equivalent of a taxi cab driver. When you see basically no programs go through our government that voters actually want and just tons of tax loopholes for the 0.001%. There’s all this stuff going on, and what’s clear is that those in charge have failed. They’ve abdicated their responsibility. In many cases, they’ve used it for their own gain. And because of that, we’re in very dire circumstances. This has been something for me the moment that I first started to go, Hey, what’s going on was back in the late ’90s with Bill Clinton, where he started doing some policies where it was like, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make any sense. He’s going to do mass imprisonment for drugs?”

[Archival clip from 1998 presidential address: President Bill Clinton: ... cut drug use in America by another 50 percent. This plan builds on our strategy of tougher punishment, better prevention and more partnerships to shut down the international drug trade.]

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McKay: And from that point on, they’re just started to feel like this little tweak. You know, when you have a little tweak in your knee and you keep running, and you’re like “something weird going on down there?” And some of my friends would be like, “Oh, relax, it’s fine,” and it just kept getting worse and worse and worse. And then W. Bush and Cheney

[Archival clip from 2005 vice president’s remarks on the war on terror: Vice President Dick Cheney: I believe it is critical that we continue to remind ourselves why this nation took action and why Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. ]

McKay: And things just kept getting more and more bizarre from that point. So it’s like clockwork at this point. I wish there was a moment where it took a left or right turn and surprised us all, but it just it hasn’t.

[Archival clip from remarks by the president at the National Defense University: President Obama: … including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones. As was true in previous armed conflicts, this new technology raises profound questions about who is targeted and why, about civilian casualties and the risk of creating new enemies.]

Olsen: I’ve heard you say that you felt like “Vice” was a movie that got away from you a little bit, and that if you could do like a director’s cut, you would. And I’m curious what you meant by that. Like, what would you change about it?

McKay: Yeah, that was the hardest movie I ever worked on, the hardest project I’ve ever been involved in. And the central narrative problem with it was that Cheney in a lot of ways is a passive character. He’s a person who’s created by his times, and I struggled with that. And I knew it going into the movie. I knew it with the script. I knew it when we shot it. And about halfway through the edit, I lost faith a little bit in that interpretation. And I went back to kind of some traditional building blocks on him, and I regretted it right away. I was like, “I should have let him be passive.” That’s what’s so interesting about his story.

[Archival clip from “Vice”: Interviewer: Two-thirds of Americans say the Iraq War is not worth fighting, and they’re looking at the value gained versus the cost in American lives and Iraqi lives. Vice President Dick Cheney: So? Interviewer: So don’t you care what the American people think? Vice President Dick Cheney: No, I think you cannot be blown off course.]

McKay: There’s other things which some people didn’t care for, which I 100% stand by, like the ending of the movie showing the undoing of America against his heart and the undoing of his family, some people felt like was too much. I personally felt very emotional about it. I felt like that was what was happening in the country. So stuff like that didn’t bother me. But the central issue of what his position was in that narrative was so difficult and nuanced, and I feel like in the kind of fog of the edit, I lost a little bit of that. So I am playing around with a director’s cut. I feel like there’s no shame at all in going back and tweaking it. I think the funny thing with that will be that there will be a bunch of people that maybe didn’t care for the movie the first time that in no way will be satisfied.

Olsen: Just one more thing about “Vice.” I always felt like you were in such a bind in making the movie in that people who like Dick Cheney are going to think the movie is too critical and sort of aloof, and people who are really against Dick Cheney are going to think it’s too sympathetic. Was that something that you grappled with? Did you always feel kind of stuck in the middle between what you knew were going to be these very polarized responses to just the simple existence of the movie?

McKay: Yeah, I heard that criticism a lot. That one didn’t bother me because I just patently thought it was incorrect. We went right inside his family. You know, we found the one thing that Dick Cheney, everyone will tell you, what he loved were his daughters. And he and his wife betrayed their daughters in the name of politics. And I find it interesting — I have no idea if it’s connected to our movie — but to see Liz Cheney come out for gay marriage. It took my breath away because that’s almost political suicide in Wyoming, and clearly there was a personal moral decision behind her doing that. But no, I was quite happy with … you know, we showed all the crimes that took place. Anytime you humanize a character, you humanize them. I mean, that’s going to be a part of it. I think some people wanted him to be a two-dimensional monster, but he’s not. But I felt like that ending and the tragedy of what happened to that family and the way it paralleled the tragedy of what’s happened to our country, I felt like you can’t go with that character any harder than that.

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[Archival clip from “Vice”: Vice President Dick Cheney: It has been my honor to be your servant. You chose me. And I did what you asked.]

Olsen: Do you still believe in conventional politics? Like do you think that government actually has any power to fix regular people’s actual lives?

McKay: Oh, absolutely. I mean, you look at the history of it. No government is perfect. Our government was doing a lot of really wonderful things. Civil rights was passed in the ’60s. We created food stamps. Poverty was at its lowest rate in the history of our country in the early ’70s. Unions were strong. People had a living wage. We were about to pass Universal Health Care. Even the Republicans were on board with that. And then sadly, you go into the late ’70s and you go into the Reagan era and they started stripping all those restrictions on donor money, which finally culminated with Citizens United. So if you got that dirty money out of Washington, D.C., if people just stopped voting for people that take dirty money, it would literally be like turning the lights on and seeing roaches scatter. It would have an effect within months.

Olsen: And is that something that you might explore in your own work? And is it a challenge for you to take what’s in some ways are sort of dry political ideas and make them into something entertaining?

McKay: Yeah, I think that’s another part of the game too. You know, government’s incredibly exciting. I mean, create laws. You change the way we live. It affects millions of people. You know, the story of the opioid epidemic, 100,000 people dying last year, that just came from Congress turning its back, and look, it’s just decimated people’s lives. And then at the same time, you’ll see good examples, like when we did pass the stimulus bill for COVID and how many people that helped not fall into poverty. I mean, World War II is government. Landing on the Moon is government. So there’s incredibly exciting things. It’s actually not dry, and I think part of the way we’re fooled is that we’re told it’s dry and boring, and it’s always corrupt. All right now, I’m ranting and rambling about politics. I just started to bore myself, so I’ll stop right there.

Olsen: No, not at all. Not at all. But then you’re so passionate, you know, in your beliefs and the things that are important to you. Do you get frustrated? Do you get angry that things are the way that they are? And how do you kind of keep feelings of anger or frustration from overtaking you?

McKay I think for me, I experienced a lot of that anger and frustration that was kind of the W. Bush, Cheney years. And now I’m at a point where I stopped arguing with people on social media years ago about politics. I stopped trying to convince people years ago. I realized it was actually probably more damaging than anything. So now it’s a matter of just try and do what you do for a job, which is make movies, observe what’s going on, try and be informed, and look for different ways to connect with audiences, which is our new company Hyperobject. That’s what we’re doing.

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Olsen: Now, as I understand it, a hyper object is a thing that’s too vast to be fully understood, and it seems like you like dealing with kind of big picture stuff like that. Is that kind of the mission of the company?

McKay: Exactly. Yeah. It’s from the eco-philosopher Timothy Morton, and he described the climate crisis as a hyperobject. And by that, he means that it’s hyper relativity in that it’s impossible to comprehend in its totality. You encounter it in ways that are not like how you encounter other forces in your life. It bends time. It distorts. And other examples would be like the universe, the internet, the concept of race. And it just really felt like what a great goal to try and create narratives for forces that defy having a narrative created about them. I just thought there was something kind of perfect about that.

Olsen: Before you started your new company, Hyperobject Industries, you and Will Ferrell had your production company, Gary Sanchez Productions, and it was really a very successful company before the two of you shut it down. Was that a difficult decision to come to you?

McKay: I mean, from the outside, it looked successful, but the real truth was one day I came in, our bank account was empty and Farrell was down in Mexico City with a steamer trunk full of $9 million in gold bullion. No, I mean it was difficult just because the greatest creative partnership of my life is with Will Ferrell and [he’s] also a great, great friend. But what was happening, and I’m sure you can tell from talking to me today, I get excited about doing a lot of different kinds of projects and working with a lot of different kinds of people, and we kept bumping into each other with that. Not in any kind of angry way, but just in the sense of “it’s getting too big. This isn’t really what I wanted to do.” And we sort of parted ways at that point. But you know how it goes, it happens. I think we had that company for, my God, was it 14 years? So I feel really good about it. It was a great run.

Olsen: And now you’re credited as an executive producer on “Succession.” But do you have like a current involvement in the show? Like are you still involved in the making of the show?

McKay: Yeah, I’m still in touch with Jesse [Armstrong]. I still give notes. I just sent some story ideas for the next season. My big part in that show was setting the show up. When you direct the pilot, you get to be involved in the casting of it, creating the style, the look, the music. I really, really enjoy doing that, and I just did it for the Lakers show that we’re going to have coming out next year. And then, throughout the run of the show, I’ll watch rough cuts. I’ll give notes. And then when you get to the point with “Succession”where it’s really set sail — I mean, those guys are dialed in — my notes become much more fleeting, and just read the first couple episodes, throw out a couple ideas, give a note or two on some of the cuts. It’s kind of your dream as a producer is when you start to transition from being a producer into just an audience member. It’s what you hope will happen.

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Olsen: That Lakers show is one that I think a lot of people are very excited about. I know I am.

McKay: I’m giddy about that one that kind of involves everything I love. It’s about class, race, culture, this transformative moment, and then basketball, which of course I’m a huge basketball fan, so it’s kind of a dream show.

[Archival clip from “Winning Time” trailer: The Los Angeles Lakers select Earvin Magic Johnson.]

Olsen: You had such success with “The Big Short” and “Vice.” You know, you won an Academy Award, twice nominated for best director, twice nominated for best picture. Does that get in your head? Like, when you were working on “Don’t Look Up,” are you second guessing yourself? Does that impact you at all?

McKay: You know, Mark, there’s nothing wrong. You could have just said, “You were nominated for Best Director twice. You won an Academy Award.” Period. And then said, “Thanks for joining me, Adam.” It didn’t need to be a question. No. “Does it get in your head?” God, no. No, I really try never, ever to think about that. That can’t come into your universe at all when you’re doing anything. So I almost have a rule like no one talk about any of that while we’re working. Because occasionally there’ll be someone like, “Wow! This is really good! Feels like this could win.” And you’re like, “No, no. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” It just has to be about what you’re doing in the moment. One hundred percent about that. So yeah. I think you could tell too. I mean, you’ve seen the movie, Mark. Like, if that were in my head, I’m not sure entirely I would have made this movie. So, I would say my answer is this movie.

Olsen: That’s it for us here at “The Envelope.” I’m your host, Mark Olsen,

Villarreal: And I’m Yvonne Villarreal. If you haven’t already, please make sure to follow “The Envelope” wherever you get your podcasts, and don’t forget to leave us a review. And maybe recommend it to a friend? We’ll be back next week with a brand new episode.

Olsen: This episode was produced and edited by Heba Elorbany, Asal Ehsanipour, and our new executive producer, Jazmín Aguilera. Our engineer and composer is Mike Heflin. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Richard Hernandez. Gabby Fernandez, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe and Matt Brennan.

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Villarreal: Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

The Team

The Envelope podcast is hosted by Mark Olsen and Yvonne Villarreal; produced by Heba Elorbany and Asal Ehsanipour; edited by Heba Elorbany and Jazmín Aguilera; engineering and theme music by Mike Heflin; audience strategy by Samantha Melbourneweaver, Amy Wong, Gabby Fernandez and Christina Schoellkopf; marketing by Richard Hernandez, Tova Weinstock, Patricia Gardiner, Brandon Sides and Dylan Harris. Special thanks to Shani Hilton, Clint Schaff, Matt Brennan, Geoff Berkshire, Elena Howe, Glenn Whipp and Daniel Gaines.