After forging a decade-long directorial career in blockbuster studio comedies, Oscar-winning filmmaker Adam McKay began focusing his lens more tightly on the socio-political zeitgeist in 2015. First came housing-bubble dissection The Big Short, followed three years later by the Dick Cheney biopic Vice. For each, McKay enlisted the efforts of film editor Hank Corwin and composer Nicholas Britell, a collaboration that has coalesced into a singular authorial fingerprint and culminated in 2021 with the apocalyptic send-up Don’t Look Up.
It has been a notable change in brain trust. McKay previously worked with cinematographer Oliver Wood and film editor Brent White on movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers and The Other Guys. While he has explored a different look with a different cinematographer for each of his last three films (Barry Ackroyd shot The Big Short, Greig Fraser shot Vice and Linus Sandgren shot Don’t Look Up), Corwin and Britell have been crucial and central to McKay’s process of late.
“I go to them very early on, when I have the idea, when I have the rough outline, and I check in with them,” McKay says. “I think the big reason that I love Hank is I’ve been trying to capture that sort of gestalt, the in-between feeling of how we’re living and perceiving things, and it turns out that Hank’s been going after the same thing. The way you tell stories to people, the psychological sort of impact of how a movie transmits to an audience – I’ve never met anyone who views editing the way he does.”
With Don’t Look Up, the rough outline was a “gaslight comedy” about the fact that we as a global society are currently living through the collapse of the livable climate. Meanwhile, McKay says, democracies are tumbling like dominoes around the world and “big money” has taken control of how that world is perceived.
“It’s really about the feeling of being alive right now, while we’re being told the opposite of what is happening,” McKay says.
Stylistically, Don’t Look Up swings. There’s a snap-fingers kind of pizzazz to the film that announces itself not only with its editing style, but with its score as well. There are many moments of palpable anxiety, and still others of sublime reflection. It’s a tricky mix, and Britell – who works closely with Corwin, sharing the same workspace throughout – brought something truly unique as they zeroed in on the overall tone in post-production.
“That was a big part of addressing this story, the idea of what is the rhythm with which we live,” McKay says. “I’m a huge fan of the early Godard films. A Woman is a Woman is one of my favorites. The first 10 minutes of that movie I’ve watched like 20 times, and you really see filmmakers that are trying to feel and capture, psychologically, the way we’re perceiving the world.”
It's a concept that McKay found blends really well with comedy, because comedy, necessarily, is about that perception. If you’re trying to get a crowd of 400 people to laugh, what is the rhythm? McKay notes that the interesting thing today is how the comedy deck has been reshuffled. “All the sort of floor that we had, the feet-on-the-ground connection to reality that is necessary for us to collectively laugh, that has been shifted,” he says. “So, with this movie, I felt like I couldn’t have had a better editor and composer, because really what an editor and composer do is they filter tone. They blend. They create a reality.”
All of this work, of course, comes well after McKay has assembled a cast of veterans whose collective accolades would bow the strongest shelf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry and Timothée Chalamet were just some of the names who signed up. Already an exploratory filmmaker who is open to improvisation and seeking out a film’s very identity on set, McKay had to somehow keep everyone in the same movie. The good news is, movie stars of this magnitude only earned their place on the A-list because they are excellent actors.
“Each of them already works their way towards character and tone, and each of them already has a great antenna for, ‘Where do I fit in the story?’ So, with this movie, you really had 15, 20 different voices representing different tones that were all coming together,” McKay says. “I give a lot of credit to Leo and Jen, because their characters had to straddle all the tones. They had to be the human beings in the midst of the ridiculous horror that is our modern world. What you’re always hoping for is that one of the actors will show you something that you didn’t think of. And, sure enough, when you get a bunch of brilliant people in the same room, they do. They show you things you didn’t think of.”
As for the recent carousel of cinematographers, McKay says he is a filmmaker who believes every new project presents a different set of requirements. While he has essentially made a trilogy about the idea that we’re currently living in a time of seismic shift, change and – to some degree – collapse, each specific story has called for a distinctive visual style.
With The Big Short, McKay knew he would be in a staid world of phone calls and corporate offices, and that Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) would bring a sense of jeopardy and moment-to-moment stakes to the storytelling. With Vice, he was “screwing with” a pastoral, classic, American hero tale, one he felt Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher) would fully understand. Don’t Look Up is ultimately a comedy, even though it tweaks the genre in a big way, but McKay wanted an “artful pop” to it. That left him with no choice better than Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (La La Land).
“I’m a big believer that each movie should have its own language, but that’s my approach. Obviously, every filmmaker is different,” McKay says. “But with these three movies, I’ve gotten to work with three of the best DPs walking the planet, and it’s been amazing.”
Don’t Look Up has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Score, Best Editing, and two for McKay (Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture).
Don’t Look Up is available to stream on Netflix.
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