Adam McKay is not afraid of comedy or drama. If you look at his movies like Step Brothers, Vice, The Big Short, you'll find a wide array of tones, actors, styles, and distinct points of view.
McKay has never shied away from challenges, so when he wanted to make a dark satirical comedy about the end of the world, he leaned into what he's good at: making people laugh and cringe at the same time.
Editor's note: Some spoilers for Don't Look Up follow.
In his new movie, Don't Look Up, we follow two scientists from Michigan State who discover a comet is headed toward Earth. When confronting the president and her son, played by Meryl Streep and Jonah Hill, they're dismissed and pushed aside as leaders bring in Mark Rylance's tech billionaire to solve their problems. The movie takes its cue from climate change and capitalism and leans strongly into the selfishness of humanity.
There are lots of funny moments, many of which were not in the script and that they found on set through collaboration.
When crafting this story, McKay relied heavily on the actors to shape not only the scenes but even the huge beats, like the ending.
McKay told Variety that the end credits scene on a new planet can be traced back to some improvisation on the set. McKay loves when actors come up with ideas and extend scenes. He wants to give his performers time and elbow room to work within scenes.
So how did they get from that philosophy into an end credits scene featuring nudity and a killer alien bird?
McKay said, “We were shooting the scene with Rylance, Meryl, and Jonah in the BASH control room for the second launch. 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!’”
The cameras rolled as they improvised. They worked it and reworked it, deciding that Hill's character would die after eating human flesh, but Streep's character should escape Earth. Once they knew that, their improvisation led them to a new planet. They wanted her to be eaten by a creature.
McKay continued, “Mark, Meryl, and I kind of cleaned it up a little bit, 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!’”
And that's how the middle of the end credits scene was born.
Improvisation also led to another hilarious moment, where Hill's character is the last man on Earth. They were shooting on a very cold day, and the scene was when they had to emerge from the rubble and see that Hill's character is still alive.
McKay said, “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. And then Jonah improvised the beat about ‘Like and subscribe, I’m the last man on Earth!’”
This kind of freedom draws stars in, and lets them take part in the creative process. It's fun and makes the set feel alive. With this kind of freedom, to even change an ending, you can really feel people embracing their characters and disappearing into them.
So the next time you're on set, try to work with the actors to craft the story. Play through some scenes and see if you can find new ways to get the themes and tone across. You can build off that and lean into a more naturalistic style if that's part of your intention.
Let us know your thoughts about this shooting style and the movie in the comments.