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Adam McKay Thinks the Future Depends on Faith

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Adam McKay is excited. You can hear it in his voice. He doesn’t talk to many “faith outlets,” he says, but he’s excited to do so now. He’s got a message for people of faith: You’re our only hope. 

If you saw his most recent feature, this may not come as a surprise. Don’t Look Up — McKay’s star-studded semi-comedy about an asteroid headed to earth and the people who ignore it — is a thinly veiled climate change analogy. But the reason it falls into the purview of Christians involves the character of Yule, a Christian dirtbag with a heart of gold played by Timothee Chalamet. Towards the end of the film, as our heroes played by the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence gather for a somber dinner which kicks off with a prayer from Yule. 

“Dearest Father and Almighty Creator,” Yule prays as they clasp hands. “We ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride.” 

To say more would be to give away a bit of a twist, but it’s a poignant and unexpected bit of filmmaking. Ever since McKay pivoted from his goofball comedy phase to more serious fare like Vice and The Big Short, you can feel him trying to be understood. Whether he’s trying to explain the trajectory of the Republican Party or the Great Recession, McKay wants his audiences to leave understanding an issue better than they did. Don’t Look Up comes at this slightly askew, hoping viewers will understand climate change a little better via a parable about a giant asteroid. But in this moment — the prayer with Yule — McKay isn’t trying to explain anything. He’s aiming higher. Maybe deeper. He’s expressing a belief that the key to fighting global warming might just be people who call on a higher power. 

When you make a movie like Don’t Look Up, you have to decide who’s on what side. Some people are going to be on the side of figuring out what to do about the asteroid. Some aren’t. How did you decide who was which?

[Laughs] Well, you know what I did? I used the old cheat of, “Let’s look at the world right now.” So I think it’s no secret that the movie is, in a lot of ways, about the climate crisis. 

But as we’ve learned, I think it’s also about deeper rejections of truths for careerism, for ego, for politics, for poll numbers, for money, for delusion. And so it’s not so hard. You just have to look around the world that we live in right now.

I’ll be honest. I was struck by Yule’s very beautiful prayer at the end. As a Christian, I don’t tend to think of other people in my faith tradition as being the good guys of the climate crisis, so your movie surprised me there. 

Yeah. That actually came out of a great conversation with one of my co-producers, Ron Suskind, who is a journalist, author from Massachusetts. And one of the great things about having people like that involved in your movie is they ask you a lot of questions. 

Ron asked me, “Where’s faith in all of this?” It was in a “duh” moment where you forget that we’ve seen faith politicized, weaponized and distorted by so many egos and self-interested parties over the last — I was going to say 10 years but I realize you could almost say 2000 years — that we forget that there is this personal relationship with faith that is really beautiful and profound that I’ve had in my life. 

The second he said it to me, it was the last puzzle piece for the movie. I knew instantly who Yule was. And within an hour, I went into this script. We wrote it and I talked to Timothee Chalamet, “I know who your character is. I know why you’re in the movie.” By my reckoning, it’s the most beautiful moment of the movie. It gets me every time I watch it.

And it almost didn’t happen!

The creative process is really incredible like that. You want to stay open and relatively humble. I live in Hollywood so I can’t be that humble [Laughs]. You really want to stay open minded and that’s a great example of it. To me the most magical piece came in at the very end of putting the movie together.

I found that moment to be a very encouraging moment in a movie that I would not, on the whole, call a very encouraging story. 

I would say this. Here’s the part that for me: We’re able to make a movie like this. I would say this to anyone who has faith — which I do. I have faith — I would say that’s a gift from a higher power: The idea that we’re able to imagine things in the future, that we were given this gift of thought and understanding. 

The big thing I talked to with a lot of these actors, and I certainly talked about it with Chalamet, is that scientists are sometimes treated by certain people of faith as outside the sphere of understanding God’s world. But I think the important thing to remember about scientists, every scientist I’ve ever met, they’re very humble. They’re very quiet. They listen, they watch. 

And what they’re listening to and what they’re looking at is, if you want to say it this way, God’s creation! It’s the universe! And from meeting with monks, with priests, with imams, whatever religion you want to talk about, when I meet with these scientists, I get the exact same feeling.

The way our movie starts is with Jen Lawrence’s character having a simple cup of tea and some toast and just looking and listening to, if you want to phrase it this way, God’s creation. I find science very beautiful. I find it very religious. And with ignoring the climate crisis, I see a lot of ego. I see a lot of greed. I see a lot of money. I see a lot of fear. And these traditionally are all the avenues that have taken us away from a relationship with our own faith.

That sounds very beautiful and, when you put it like that, natural. So why do you think it is that science and spirituality are so often set up as enemies? 

Here is the real truth. We documented the split and it was instigated by very nefarious parties that knew exactly what they were doing. 

There’s a great book called Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, and she’s a reporter. Everything in the book is sourced. It’s not a conspiracy theory book. It tracks the history of how the exact divide that you’re talking about happened. And it was perpetrated by people that wanted to make a lot of money, that wanted to shatter our collective will as a people.

One of the most amazing things about us, human beings, is our ability to work together. Well, guess what? Our ability to work together is a direct threat to greedy individuals who just want to profit. So, at some point, they figured it out. It’s documented beautifully in Invisible Hands

They literally created churches — and I’m talking about old money billionaires — they created churches that would create the homilies that would then circulate around the country explaining why it’s OK to be selfish and wealthy, and why it’s OK to not care about the poor. 

And it really worked. It really infiltrated the South and the Midwest. It was a very conscious decision to mess with how we view the world. And it’s really heartbreaking because I’ve seen it happen in my life. A lot of lovely, lovely people have been really befouled by these manipulative messages, and it’s too bad.

And by the way, let me be clear. I’m not talking right wing, left wing. I’m here in California where yesterday, the Democrats, the supposed “left wing,” just decided not to vote on universal healthcare. 

So this is about greed. This is about ugliness, ego and power. It goes right across that red-blue line. And anyone who thinks differently is fooling themselves. 

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think you’d make a movie like this if you didn’t have hope that things could change. But I admit, looking at the state of the fight for the environment right now, hope feels like a stretch.

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Let me be clear: We are in serious trouble. We are way past the warning stages. We had those stages back in 1965. We had them in the ’70s. We had them in the ’80s. We have blown past those moments. 

There was a climate model that just came out of a group called Climate Analytics. You won’t hear about it in the media because, guess what, they run advertisements for gas-powered cars and oil companies. So, no one is reporting on this. But this is a reputable, scientific model that says by 2030, half of our days for planet earth will be once-every-hundred-year heat events.

I know we get hit with a lot of information, a lot of white noise, a lot of bright colors and sounds, but really take that in. I read that article. I couldn’t believe it. Half of our days will be a once-every-hundred-year heat event! 

And these are scientists. These aren’t oil companies. These aren’t greedy billionaires doing this. They’re just trying to understand what’s going to happen. And their models, when it comes to predicting temperatures, have been really accurate. 

So, I read that and I really had a chill go down my spine. And then I looked at our media and no one was reporting it. And I was calling friends of mine who are in the media, going, “What are you doing? How are you not reporting this?” 

I think it’s very important for us all to feel that urgency in our bones. Let’s not pretend. If your house is on fire, your house is on fire and pretending everything is cool and you can still hang out in your den because that room isn’t on fire is delusional. 

So far, this isn’t sounding very hopeful. 

[Laughs] I’ll go back to a faith-based approach here! We were gifted with fear and urgency for a reason and we need to use it right now. 

Here is some really good news. We have science. Science is amazing. Science is Excalibur. Science is the ultimate gift from the higher power because it can do incredible things. In my opinion, these are holy people. These are really the people that are paying attention and listening to the creation of the universe. 

And we have it! We can do it! We have renewable energy. We have some initial promising technology about carbon removal. There are a lot of really powerful tools at our disposal. The problem right now is no one is using them.

Our leaders have been blinded by their own sense of power. Our economy is corrupted. We need to break away from those forces and really demand change. We need to totally unplug en masse and stop this insane machine that we’ve created of power, ego, economy. 

And you know what’s crazy about it? You look at the religious texts throughout history, they all have this story. Whether it’s Jesus casting the money lenders out of the temple or whichever religion you subscribe to, this is an old, old story. We know exactly what to do. And I really am a believer that people of faith are going to be the bedrock of this movement.

That’s quite a statement. I really hope you’re right. 

I wasn’t just saying it! I really feel like faith is going to be the bedrock of this movement. Because faith taps into our higher powers, our humility. We need to, first off, supplicate. We need to get down, bow our head on the ground and acknowledge reality. And I just think a lot of our society, a lot of the advertising, marketing, PR, power, greed, has taken us away from that.

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