‘Don’t Look Up’ co-creator on the importance of struggling with scary things
Nominations for the Academy Awards were announced on Feb. 8. “Don’t Look Up,” a scathing disaster-comedy about Earth’s looming destruction and society’s inability to confront the threat, received multiple nods, including for best picture and best original screenplay. Denver-based journalist and writer David Sirota co-created the movie, along with writer-director Adam McKay. It premiered in December on Netflix, and quickly became one of the streaming platform’s most widely viewed films of all time.
Sirota joins Colorado Edition to discuss how the story came about, how audiences have reacted to the film, and the importance of staying focused on the crises in front of us.
These highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Erin O’Toole: What was your reaction to the news that you'd been nominated for an Oscar?
David Sirota: When this project started out, I was thrilled that just a movie was going to be made. Then when we got the cast that we got, I was thrilled that it was probably going to be something of a big movie just by virtue of the fact that that it had people like Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep.
Then, when it became the second most watched movie in the history of the world's largest streaming platform, I was kind of blown away. That was not something I really expected. I was thrilled, because I think the movie has such an important underlying message. And then to get an Oscar nomination? I mean, I've said it to my wife and family -- that's a life plot twist I never, ever imagined, ever.
So, I'm still kind of having an out-of-body experience, and I can't believe it actually happened. And the reason I'm truly thrilled that it happened is because I hope it further amplifies the movie's underlying message about the need for our society to do a better job of taking science and facts seriously, especially when there's science and facts about the imminent crises threatening our world.
For those who haven't seen it, the plot revolves around a pair of scientists, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, who discover a huge planet-killing comet is hurtling straight toward Earth. They go on a media tour to warn the public and to try to galvanize a response, but they find their concerns are not taken seriously by the government, and certainly not by the news media who just find the whole thing too unsexy to give it any attention. Could you share the story of how you and Adam McKay, who also wrote and directed the film, came up with the idea?
Sirota: After Adam had done “Vice,” the terrific movie about Dick Cheney, he and I were talking about what his next project should be. He and I have been friends for a long time, and I said, "Listen, you have to use your superpowers of mixing comedy and political themes for a movie about climate." And he said, "Yeah, I know, but I've been trying to think about how to do that, and I don't want to do a kind of Mad Max dystopian sci fi horror film. And so I'm trying to figure out what to do."
A little while later, we had a series of conversations about some climate reporting I was doing in my journalism work, and I was lamenting that while they were what I thought were good stories, important stories, it was hard to get traction with them. And at one point I said, "You know, it really feels like an asteroid is headed towards Earth and nobody cares." And he said, "Wait a minute. I wonder if there is a nugget of this movie idea that I'm looking for in this?"
And we started spitballing scenes, going back and forth. What would actually happen if an asteroid was headed towards Earth? Would we really take it seriously or would it be frivolized and distracted from in the media? And we started, you know, developing some scenes and he said, I'm going to go write a screenplay. And I said, OK, cool. And he went and he wrote a draft of a script brought it back. We polished it up. He implemented a bunch of the notes that he and I went back and forth on.
And then he said, "I think Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence are interested in this," and I was kind of like, “Well, that's great. But it's Hollywood and everyone's interested in everything, and there's a huge gap between what seems to be moving forward and what actually gets made.” But very soon after that, him being Adam McKay, he was like, "This is actually happening. So they're sending the papers over. This is literally happening."
Part of climate denial is this impulse to look away from something that's scary, or to tell ourselves it's not that urgent. This movie is saying we have to struggle with scary things right in front of us and that those things are urgent.
And I was kind of blown away, like, I truly couldn't believe it at one level. But then again, listen, Adam McKay is an incredibly talented force. He has made terrific blockbuster movies in the past. And so if anyone was going to make a movie like this, it was going to be him.
The other thing worth saying is that the cast itself -- I really credit them because these are major actors with huge audiences and they, in a sense, took a risk on a movie that they knew was going to be a controversial movie with controversial themes. And it's an easier path for actors and people at that level to simply avoid controversy. I'm not saying they're martyrs, or it was a huge sacrifice. But what I'm saying is that they that these actors could have easily just said, "It's a little too controversial for me, I know. I want to play it safe."
And instead, the actors in this movie leaned in, they said, “Listen, you know, we believe in the message of this movie and we're willing to put our credibility and fame out there to try to get this message out.” So, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to both Adam McKay for using his skills and also to the cast for being willing to use their platforms for this underlying message.
You mentioned that people went in knowing that it was going to be controversial -- and the reaction to the movie is really polarized. People love it or they hate it. Is that something that you were expecting? And how do you interpret this wide spectrum of reactions?
Sirota: I was definitely expecting it. And I was expecting it for two reasons. In general, I think movies that are made about the here and now are more prone to people having strong opinions as opposed to movies that are about that are set in the safety of history or set in the safety of pure fantasy. When you make a movie about now, everybody naturally has their opinions about now.
Then, the second factor, when you make a movie about the here and now that is political and has political themes in it, then you're talking about something that's guaranteed to generate passionate responses on all sides. And I think that's healthy. I think that's good. I was not surprised by it at all.
And I think the conversations that it's sparked have been terrific. I think people have a right to criticize the movie. I think obviously people have a right to love the movie. And I think the fact that it has gotten such a huge audience suggests a pent-up demand for movies, TV shows and news coverage that wrestles with the issues that are scary, the issues that are controversial, the issues that maybe we don't want to talk about because they're terrifying.
This movie is in part, an allegory about climate change. Climate change, I would argue, is one of those issues where we know it's happening. It's pretty scary, and rightly so. And so, part of climate denial is this impulse to look away from something that's scary, or to tell ourselves it's not that urgent. And so this movie is saying the opposite. This movie is saying we have to struggle with scary things right in front of us and that those things are urgent.
The climate reporting that I do, this movie, all of that is grounded in the idea that I as an individual have an obligation to try to make the world a better place for my children -- and that we, collectively, have a responsibility to do that for future generations.
I think the reaction to the movie, in terms of just the sheer numbers of people who are watching the movie, suggests that people actually want to struggle with this. Maybe they've been afraid to. Maybe there's been a hesitancy to, but that there's kind of a release -- like, OK, we're finally starting to talk about this. And even if it makes folks uncomfortable, that's OK.
And I think part of that is that the comedy helps with that. That we're in some ways in this movie, you're laughing at the idea of how we distract ourselves and why we distract ourselves. And the humor is that the movie is saying that some of the things that we all know to be true, but that we don't explicitly say out loud.
You mentioned the film is an allegory of climate change. And also, themes of government corruption figure in pretty heavily. I'm thinking about the Bash Mobile character (Peter Isherwell), who's wealthy, he's influential, and he literally has bought himself a seat at the table when decisions are being made about how to handle this threat. I'm curious if you have gotten reaction from real world people in these areas, like government officials or climate scientists, to about how these issues are presented on the screen.
Sirota: We've gotten a fantastic response from climate scientists who have in general said the movie embodies how they feel, trying to get the science out there, trying to grab the world by the lapels and make the science part of the day-to-day political and media conversation in America, and that the movie makes them feel seen. It makes them feel heard, and diagnoses that key information problem. We've heard from lawmakers who have seen the movie, who have similarly said the movie is a clarion call for various pieces of climate legislation.
So, what has been gratifying to me is seeing the movie being used to embolden those who are sounding the alarm. Seeing the movie used by movements that are trying to save our world. I mean, ultimately, my work as a journalist is not different in some senses from the work that I did on this movie. I mean, obviously, reporting real world facts about the day to day is very different from writing and helping write a screenplay. But the point is that the throughline in that work is to try to spotlight the major issues of the day and make them part of the conversation so that we can address these problems.
And I would suggest that right now, one of our biggest problems is essentially denial. We can look away. We don't have to look up. We can distract ourselves. We can trivialize facts. Facts just become cannon fodder in a partisan war and a media war, rather than things that we take in and constructively act upon. That system of distraction -- we are all immersed in it, including myself. I mean, there are characters in this movie who are trying to both lead the fight to get the science out in the movie; but you see that they, too, are participating in this system of distraction. We have to basically recognize that this system of distraction is the obstacle to us actually doing the things we know we need to do to address the crises in front of us.
I'm wondering if you have a prescription for that. How do we break out of that media distraction bubble?
Sirota: Well, I think for those of us working in media, myself included, I think what we have to do is make editorial decisions that try to always focus the content on what is at stake for millions and millions of people; that it's easy to write about gossip. It's easy to write about kind of things that don't really matter, frivolous things. It's much harder to focus on, in a day-to-day way, on the things that really affect millions and millions of people, and we understand why. I mean, it's an easier read to read about this or that celebrity and what their dating or marital status is, than to read about why the health care system is harming so many people and not providing enough medical care to so many people.
It's harder to engage with the idea that we have to really do this or that thing on climate. But it is up to us in the media to focus our coverage on those serious issues and to bring forward the imagination and creativity to make those stories compelling. And that shouldn't be too hard a lift, right? I mean, here's the thing when you think about climate: I don't buy the idea that the audience isn't interested in climate change. If we in the media cannot make the story of a threat to the human species compelling, that's a problem. That's our problem. That's not the audience's problem; we're doing something wrong. So that's inside the media.
The other thing I would say is that the audience has to try in whatever way it can to support the media organizations that are doing the right thing so that if you're watching, if you find yourself consuming media, your main media sources are distraction and frivolity and propaganda. You should be asking yourself, where can I find better news sources, where the information is factual and making story selection decisions based on what is actually important. And when you find those outlets, support them.
And I would argue there's a great deal of local journalism that is out there doing this work right here, especially after the Marshall Fire, we're seeing just a lot of great reporting that isn't shying away from these hard topics. Are there any other journalists or organizations that you're following that are doing a good job?
Sirota: Sure. I mean, look, you know, we run the Daily Poster, which is a reader-supported news organization. It's one of a number of reader-supported news organizations that are trying to focus on what's really important. We do follow the money investigative reporting about corruption and the like. The American Prospect is a great magazine that's doing that every single day. I name that as just one example of many.
If all of us, right now, do everything we can to mitigate and halt the worst effects of climate change, it’s going to take the rest of our lives. But if we don’t do that work, it is going to ruin the lives of future generations. So, we need to do that work as soon as possible.
My point is not to say, "Go look at this or that news organization." My point is to say to everybody listening, actually ask yourself the question, "What are my news sources?" Don't just accept that as a passive decision. Don't just be a passive consumer. Ask yourself, where am I actually getting my news? And are these the only sources of that news? Or are there better sources for me that I can trust? And the way you should ask whether you can trust it, is does the news seem to focus on what is actually important as opposed to what's not important? And is the news that's being reported grounded in verifiable facts?
I know I can tell you the reporting that we do -- we try to make it as transparent as possible. You don't have to trust me when I report a story. There's all the links to the source material. You can just check. You can fact check me. Make sure that that we're telling you the truth because we want to build that trust. That trust is so necessary.
You mentioned your family earlier, and I'm wondering if you saw this project, "Don't Look Up," as in some way looking out for your children's future?
Sirota: One hundred percent. I think about that every single day, that the climate reporting that I do, that this movie -- all of that is grounded in the idea that I, as an individual, have an obligation to try to make the world a better place for my children and that we, collectively, have a responsibility to do that for future generations. And it sounds a little bit corny or a little bit cheesy or maudlin, but that is what grounds me every single day. And I think that we need to have that on our minds all the time, that our kids and the kids of our kids who aren't even here yet are relying on us to make decisions that allow them to have, for instance, a livable ecosystem. When we don't focus on that, we are saying that our short-term satisfaction and happiness is more important than their ability to survive. And I reject that.
You know, in my own religious tradition, there is a quote that I think about a lot, and I'll kind of paraphrase it here, but it's that: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon that work. We're not going to solve climate change in one day or one month or one year. If all of us right now do everything we can to mitigate and halt the worst effects of climate change, it's going to take the rest of our lives. But if we don't do that work, then it is going to ruin the lives of future generations. So, we need to do that work as soon as possible.