SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet seen “Don’t Look Up.”
At the beginning of Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up,” Michigan State astronomy grad student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovers that a comet is heading toward Earth, and will cause an extinction-level-event for the entire planet in a little over six months: something she duly reports to her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio). For the rest of the movie, Kate, Randall and Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), of the, uh, Planetary Defense Coordination Office try to convince those in charge — U.S. President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep) and billionaire tech mogul Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) — to do something about it. The problem is likely solvable, if the world unites together to try to fix it.
So you can probably guess how the movie ends — the Earth is destroyed. Isherwell convinces President Orlean to wait until the comet is close to Earth so his company, BASH, can send drones to blow it up into harmless pieces that can be mined. Of course, his plan doesn’t work — and whoops! Goodbye, world.
McKay, who wrote and directed the Netflix film, wanted to make a movie about the impending climate apocalypse — one that was “a big, broad comedy,” as he called it in a recent interview with The Hamden Journal. And that was McKay’s plan before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, causing new and horrifying variations of anti-science denial. “The idea,” McKay said, “was always that it was going to involve absurdist comedy and some reality — can you blend those two things?”
To achieve that synthesis, “Don’t Look Up” attempts a tonal high-wire act; the movie is heading, after all, toward the end of the world, and the deaths of Kate, Randall and Teddy. Along the way, “Don’t Look Up” satirizes modern life, skewering media, politics and the culture of fame and celebrity.
“Don’t Look Up,” in other words, has a lot to do. To bring about those goals, McKay wanted to take away the “guaranteed happy ending” that filmgoers have grown used to, and “break that traditional three-act Hollywood thing that we know so well.”
“There could be something powerful about just not having that,” he said.
The result of taking away that structure was a “triple ending.” McKay spoke with The Hamden Journal about how he ended “Don’t Look Up.”
One Last Supper as the World Ends
When Randall Mindy becomes an international celebrity, and the primary media messenger about the comet, he gets a glow-up and loses his way — he ends up ditching his wife (Melanie Lynskey) and their kids. But knowing that Isherwell’s attempt to break up the comet will likely fail, Randall shows up on his Michigan doorstep to have a “family dinner” — with Kate and her new boyfriend, Yule (Timothée Chalamet) — and asks to be forgiven. Teddy comes for dinner as well, and “Don’t Look Up” cuts between the intimate Mindy dinner and the disastrous comet mission at BASH that will doom Earth.
After Isherwell and Orlean ditch the mission control room to escape the planet, and Orlean forgets that her son and chief of staff, Jason (Jonah Hill) exists, leaving him to die, she offers Randall a spot on the ship, which is decked out with cryo-chambers, and will search for a habitable planet. “I’m good,” he tells her, adding that she should have fun with Jason. “Jason?” she says. “Oh, shit.”
McKay said that these days, with the world becoming more surreal by the day, he wanted to create a blend where “absurdist, ridiculous comedy lives right next to sadness,” he said. “The whole movie’s trying to just process basically the question of what the eff is going on in reality.” Along with “The Big Short” and “Vice,” his most recent films, “You can almost call them the what-the-eff-is-going-on trilogy.”
“I just think we’re having to deal with these strange feelings being next to each other,” McKay continued. “So the trickiest part of the movie was the ramp down into that tone in the last 20 minutes.”
At the dinner table, the Mindys and their chosen family are trying to make their last meal meaningful, as composer Nicholas Britell’s score kicks in. Remembering things to be thankful for, one of Randall’s sons wistfully recalls sleeping in the backyard and waking up to a baby deer: “That was the best day of my life,” he says.
“I’m grateful we tried,” Kate says. “Man oh man, did we try,” Teddy echoes.
Randall calls for a prayerful moment, despite their not being religious. Which is when Yule takes over, delivering a blessing, and asking for God to soothe them.
McKay, whose mother was a born-again Christian, said it was that scene that hooked Chalamet.
“I was talking to Chalamet about maybe doing this little part, because we’ve wanted to work together,” he said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know if there’s enough there.’” McKay didn’t disagree. But then, McKay said, “Don’t Look Up” co-producer (and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist) Ron Suskind, asked him “Where’s faith in this movie?
“And I was like, ‘Oh, you’re right. You’re right!’” McKay said. “I think we’re so used to thinking of religion as denominations, and now it’s become a political cudgel in this country. I forgot about real faith. And it was just a lightbulb moment where it’s like, ‘I know who Timothée’s character is.’” With the addition of Chalamet’s Yule, McKay said, “the team was complete.”
“And that might be my single favorite moment in the entire movie,” McKay added.
As the world starts to end for real, “Don’t Look Up” zooms out of the Mindy home, and visits some of the characters we’ve met throughout the story — such as the happy-talking news anchors, Brie (Cate Blanchett) and Jack (Tyler Perry), who are drowning their sorrows at a high-end bar. We also see what ordinary people are doing as the comet hurtles toward Earth, and then makes its impact. Back at dinner, the Mindys talk about store-bought apple pie and grinding coffee beans as the table starts to shake.
With Britell’s piano score behind him, Randall says, “The thing of it is we really” — he pauses — “we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, if you think about it.”
That line was DiCaprio’s idea, McKay said. They were filming the dinner scene in a house in Massachusetts “in the freezing cold.” Between takes, DiCaprio came up to McKay and script supervisor, Cate Hardman. “And he said, ‘You know, I feel like I should say something,’” McKay said. “And he said the line — he didn’t even read it in character. And immediately Cate, who’s this tough Texan, and I both immediately teared up, and my voice cracked a little bit.
Affecting a choked-up voice, McKay said, “I just went, ‘Yup, I think you should try that!’”
Yet the line nearly didn’t make it into the movie. Working with editor Hank Corwin, McKay said: “We were so afraid of it in the edit room, because it just whacked us so hard. We didn’t even have it in the cut for a while. And then toward the end, we were like, ‘You know what? We’ve gotta try that line.’
“And it was just the gut punch of all gut punches.”
McKay said the original ending of the dinner scene just cut to black, rather than seeing the Mindys’ house be engulfed. “Raymond Gieringer, our VFX supervisor, showed me this test thing that someone had done for a VFX technique of a wall like rolling through a room, and I was like, ‘Wow, that is powerful. I think we’ve got to try that!” McKay said. “That’s how we got the shot behind Rob Morgan’s character of the wall coming apart, the window breaking behind Leo, the kitchen shattering behind Jen.”
Getting the ending right was, McKay said, a process of “constantly tweaking, tweaking, tweaking.”
“How much of the world you show?” McKay said. “What do you do with that music? How far do you go? Are we going too far? We want to feel sad, but we don’t want to be traumatized. Like, I want to tear up, but I don’t want to, you know — sob uncontrollably!”
Death by Brontaroc
Before the world ends, President Orlean asks Isherwell about BASH’s algorithm that can predict how people will die. “I don’t think I want to know — yes, I do! I want to know,” she says. Isherwell answers immediately: “You’re going to be eaten by a brontaroc. We don’t know what it means.”
“A what?” Orlean asks. “A brontaroc,” Isherwell says. Orlean is flummoxed: “Oh.”
And so in a mid-credits scene, we see the ultra-rich people’s escape space ships land on their new planet 22,740 years later — and they emerge naked. “The cryo chambers were 58% successful,” Isherwell announces triumphantly. “Which is much better then anticipated!” Orlean says, “We only had 47 dead in our section.” Isherwell is pleased: “I think this is going to work out quite well. Quite well indeed!”
A colorful creature emerges, and Orlean marvels at it. “Look at that beautiful animal,” she gasps. “I wonder, are those feathers, or are they scales?”
The brontaroc bites her in the face, and then ravages her. As the crowd watches in horror, Isherwell says, “I believe that’s called a brontaroc.” Other brontarocs begin to close in on them — “Whatever you do, don’t pet them!” Isherwell shouts — as the Britell and Bon Iver collaboration “Second Nature,” which played over the credits, surges again.
According to McKay, it was Streep’s idea that her narcissistic character would want to know how she was going to die. “We were shooting the scene with Rylance, Meryl and Jonah in the BASH control room for the second launch,” McKay said. “I’m like, ‘We should play around. Why don’t you guys talk about something? You never know. It could show up.’ And Meryl, who’s such a great improviser, says, ‘I want to know how I’m gonna die!’”
They started riffing, and it was decided that Hill would “die in three days from eating tainted human flesh.” McKay realized that Streep’s character would escape Earth, and posited, “What if you’re eaten by a creature?”
“Mark, Meryl, and I kind of cleaned it up a little bit,” McKay continued. “I think every time we said the name of the creature, it changed — and the take we used was a brontaroc. And then after we shot it, I said, ‘That’s really funny. We should end with her getting eaten by a brontaroc!’”
Once again, McKay turned to VFX superviser Gieringer, saying: “We’re adding a new beat. We’re creating a whole new creature.”
They shot two different scenes as mid-credit endings. “The original ending was, ‘Oh, let’s start building our houses.’ And then someone says, ‘Oh, the pod carrying all the workers blew up.’ And then it was Mark Rylance going, ‘I’ll give anyone who builds me a house a billion dollars.’ And then the guy next to him was like, ‘I’ll give $2 billion.’ And then you realize they’re all billionaires.
“They’re going, ‘I’ll give $5 billion! $10 billion!’ And we just pulled out on that.”
Does President Orlean’s violent death presage that life on the new planet is doomed? McKay thinks about it for a second. “Does it mean everyone on every one of the ships gets eaten by brontarocs?” he asks himself.
“Actually, yeah. I think it does.”
Jason Orlean, Last Man on Earth
Filmmakers and television creators who work with Netflix tend to complain about the credits being cut off from their work, because it takes away the individual glory of the people who worked on those projects. One way to thwart that autoplay technology, though, is an end-credits scene, which McKay has done on movies such as “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
In “Don’t Look Up,” he wanted to use the device to further lighten the mood after the movie’s devastating ending. He remembers assuring Netflix executives that the movie wouldn’t sink under its weight. “I kept telling [Scott] Stuber and Kira [Goldberg] at Netflix, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a lot of ways I can cut this ending,” McKay said, especially if “we have a revolt on our hands.”
“I mean, I wanted to challenge the audience,” McKay said with a laugh, “but I don’t want them to jump over their seats and attack me.”
While they were filming in Boston, they came up with an idea for the end credits scene. “What if Jason Orlean, who you could argue is maybe it’s the most despicable character in the movie — what if he’s the last guy on Earth?”
In the scene, Jason emerges from the rubble and takes a selfie. The day of the shoot was freezing. “It was ice cold; it was the coldest day of the entire shoot,” McKay said. They were filming in a parking lot outside of their production office. “And poor Jonah,” McKay said. “We’re, like, ‘All right! Get in the hole.’ And it was misery.”
Because of the frigid weather, McKay did something unusual.
“I said, ‘Jonah, I’ve never done this in my life. But if you get this on one take, I won’t do another take.’ And then I went behind the monitor, and I was like, ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’ Because I always get a second or a third take,” McKay said. “And then Jonah improvised the beat about ‘Like and subscribe, I’m the last man on Earth!’”
After making sure they’d gotten the shot, especially since they were shooting on real film, McKay kept his promise to Hill. He said not only does the scene make him laugh, but it’s a reference to “Time Enough at Last,” the famous “Twilight Zone” episode from 1959. The episode stars Burgess Meredith as a bookworm who’s the lone survivor after a nuclear bomb goes off. He finds solace in a library — but then his glasses break. “I’m a huge ‘Twilight Zone’ geek,” McKay said.
“I like little scenes at the end of the credits,” he continued. “I mean, it depends on the movie — you obviously wouldn’t do it with, like, ‘The Lost Daughter.’ But with a movie like this — that’s a blend of broad comedy with a disaster and horror — I thought it was kind of perfect.”