It is reasonable to ask if Adam McKay, Oscar winner for The Big Short, creator of other classics such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, has made it to Cavan recently. For the last few years, McKay has spent much of his downtime in a stylish house by a remote lake in that great county.
“I wish I was there. I can’t wait to get back,” he says. “My mom’s family is from around Co Cork. My dad’s side is more from Antrim. My dad’s side is Scotch-Irish. So it’s kind of a kind of a blend. I’m from all over the place. I looked through a bunch of beautiful areas, but it just seemed like Cavan was a hidden gem. I found this beautiful house right on a lake. And it was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted a quiet place to write. And, and I loved it had proximity to Dublin.”
Some sort of pandemic has kept him away, but he will be back for the "holidays". This will be a busy Christmas for McKay. Don't Look Up, a sprawling satirical comedy starring Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep and everyone else, is just starting its journey into awards season. A special screening is being held at the Light House Cinema in Dublin on December 16th to honour the writer and director with the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival's Volta Award. Others to have received that gong for career achievement include Angela Lansbury, Daniel Day-Lewis, Danny DeVito, Julie Andrews…
"That is awfully nice," he says. "I saw the list of past recipients and it made me quite humble. That's pretty cool. I believe I saw Ennio Morricone on the list."
McKay has moved in an interesting direction over the last few decades. Born in Denver, raised in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, he made his way through the legendary comedy scene in Chicago and to a tenure with Saturday Night Live. He directed Anchorman, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers. Then came an interesting swerve with The Big Short in 2015. An examination of the 2008 financial crisis, the picture worked as both a postmodern comedy and an educational tool. I was there to see him win his Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
“I had absolutely no idea how it worked,” he says. “I woke up the next morning with my wife in bed and there’s an Oscar sitting on my side table. I turned to my wife and I said: ‘How the f**k did that happen?’ After you win they take you through these hallways with different rooms. You walk in and you’re getting your portrait taken. Then there’s a room with 150 press. After all these rooms in these hallways, I come out the other end and there is Cate Blanchett in the most stunning gown you’ve ever seen. As if she just descended from heaven.”
Don't Look Up is closer to The Big Short and Vice – his 2018 take on Dick Cheney – than it is to the earlier, broader comedies. The premise is easily stated. The resulting chaos easily fills the film's generous 145 minutes. DiCaprio and Lawrence play astronomers who discover that a comet is set to destroy the planet within the coming year. They go to see President Streep but, distracted by trivia and upcoming mid-term elections, she refuses to get properly alarmed. The mainstream media is more interested in a scandal concerning a popstar played by Ariana Grande. Nobody is listening.
Okay, what’s this really about? Viewers are bound to think of the establishment’s sluggishness on climate change, but there is more to it than that.
“I initially thought the movie was about climate change,” he says. “That was the impetus for writing it. But, in making it, I discovered it’s really about our befouled lines of communication. It’s really about how we’ve profitised even the simplest exchanges between ourselves. And we’ve turned so many basic conversations into sales pitches. I was aware of that. But I wasn’t aware of the degree until after I made the movie.”
Don’t Look Up suggests that social media has turned us into the dog from Pixar’s Up. Twitter and Facebook are the squirrels distracting us from what’s really important.
“Yeah. Ha, ha! I remember reading a terrifying article saying a lot of the algorithms that they use for social media, that they use for our phones, that they use for advertising are based on slot machines. They’ve been around for a long time. But they’ve just gotten more and more effective. What they’ve learned is it doesn’t matter if you win or lose; it just matters that you engage. Engagement is the profit centre. And the last thing anyone wants to hear is just straight-up bad news.”
It hardly needs to be said that an orange shadow hangs over Streep's version of a ghastly president. She is vain, uneducated, incurious and interested only in retaining power. I wonder if this version of the commander in chief could have existed without Donald Trump.
Thank God for all the other filmmakers who did movies that blended genres, like Get Out and most recently Parasite. These movies are funny. But they're also sinister and they're heart-breaking
“If you want to look at that character as a stew there’s definitely a couple of healthy tablespoons of Trump in the mix,” he says. “But Trump doesn’t live by any kind of narrative. So he’s almost impossible to put in a movie. The closest character I can think to compare him to would be Brick Tamland in our Anchorman movies.”
Tamland is the slow-witted weatherman played by Steve Carell.
"I really wanted President Orlean to be a mixture of a pretty horrendous run of poor leadership in the White House," he continues. "You go back to the performative empty suit of Ronald Reagan and the used-car-salesman quality of Bill Clinton. The dangerously underqualified George W Bush with sociopathic throat-slitter Dick Cheney over his shoulder. Even Barack Obama. He really had a polish, but when you look back he buckled at every turn to big money and really did not rise to the challenge. And then, of course, the giant rotten plum on top being Donald Trump. It's been a cavalcade of horrendous leadership."
McKay supported Bernie Sanders in the last election. Could he have made a difference?
“I think Bernie Sanders could have gotten elected if not for the Democratic Party,” he says. “They made sure to take him out. He had a surprising amount of support from the right wing, from frustrated people who wanted someone not to play the game. My mom and her husband, who voted for Trump and are very right wing, told me they kind of liked Bernie Sanders. What? You have this hunger for someone to step up and not play the same game.”
Raised in an ordinary sort of home – his parents divorced when he was seven – McKay studied at Pennsylvania State University and Temple University, but dropped out of the latter before completing his degree in English literature. Moving to Chicago, he helped form Upright Citizens Brigade – Amy Poehler was also in at the beginning of that improv group – and found work with the eye-wateringly influential Second City company.
“Chicago is a really interesting city,” he says. “I could, without exaggeration list 50 or 60 people that were there when I was there who have become writers, directors, actors you see every day. It was quite an amazing time to be there.”
McKay was then also a performer but, when the inevitable move to Saturday Night Live came along, he settled behind the keyboard and, by 27, found himself head writer at the show. Looking down through the list of films he then directed, I see quite a few that, indifferently reviewed on release, became major hits on home video. Anchorman is the obvious example. But you could say the same of the still underrated Step Brothers.
“They did quite well. Everyone was happy. We got to have the enjoyment of the successful release. But the fun thing is really to see how it starts to stick to the culture over the next couple of years. I remember one time I was at a bar and someone said a line from Anchorman. And I thought they were talking to me. I was, like: ‘Oh, hi!’ And I realised they were just saying it.”
I wonder if he felt he was doing a different job when he moved on to The Big Short. That film is certainly very funny. But it is based on a big, serious book by Michael Lewis and it takes seriously its remit of explaining credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations. It is in its own category.
“One thing that really struck me was people tend to think of comedies as a lower genre,” he says. “Thank God for all the other filmmakers who did movies that blended genres, like Get Out and most recently Parasite. These movies are funny. But they’re also sinister and they’re heart-breaking. And because of that there’s a freedom now in writing that I’m really, really loving.”
McKay has fingers in many pies. He is a producer of the unavoidable TV series Succession. He helped develop recent film hits such as Hustlers and Booksmart. Pressure comes with that degree of success. In a weird irony, he suffered cardiac problems while making Vice, a film about a man dogged by heart attacks for decades, and has been steering back towards a healthier path.
“I had a heart scare when I finished filming,” he says. “I changed all my habits as people will do after a heart scare. I’ve lost 35 pounds. I’ve stopped smoking regularly. I’ve cut down on the drinking and the carbs and blah, blah, blah. And, yeah, I just had a check-up. That was three months ago. And the doctor was like: ‘Oh my God, you’re healthy!’”
It was almost certainly the Cavan air that did it.
Don't Look Up is in selected cinemas on December 10th and will stream on Netflix from December 24th