‘Don’t scrutinize Up’ Producer Kevin Messick Says the Film’s Ending “Twists the Conventions of the Traditional Hollywood Disaster Movie”
‘Don’t Look Up’ Producer Kevin Messick Says the Film’s Ending “Twists the Conventions of the Traditional Hollywood Disaster Movie”
The producer tells THR about the “six-dimensional chess” of shooting during the pandemic and why some studios didn’t “embrace” Adam McKay’s ending.Producer Kevin Messick’s Don’t Look Up journey was bookended by history-making events. On Jan. 6, 2021, as rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, Messick was in Boston preparing to film a riot scene incited by Jennifer Lawrence’s disaffected graduate student, Kate Dibiaski. It was a high-tension moment, as cities around the nation were on alert for further unrest. The scene ultimately went off without a hitch when it filmed Jan. 7.
Now, more than a year later, the Adam McKay-directed best picture nominee continues to have surprising resonance. During the first week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as many civilians were fleeing, Messick was surprised to hear an NPR story in which a restaurant owner stayed so his staff could have shelter. “They started cooking borscht for everyone. It made him feel better,” says Messick. “As he was sitting there eating with his friends and his family, he said, ‘It’s just like that scene in Don’t Look Up, where they’re eating dinner as the end of the world is happening.’ “
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In a conversation with THR, the producer talks Meryl Streep’s surprising improvisational skills and the copious sticky notes it took to keep track of quarantine schedules for the cast and crew, including stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ariana Grande.
What are your memories of watching that dinner scene with an audience for the first time?
From the very first time we screened it, that was the highest-rated scene in the movie. People loved the emotion of it, and they tapped into it at the end of this crazy absurd, satirical, boisterous journey that this is where these characters ended up. In a weird way, it twists the conventions of the traditional Hollywood action-disaster movie, where the day is saved. In this case, the day is not saved. That was the biggest risk when we sold the project. That was the ending that Adam believed in. And it wasn’t an ending that all studios embraced, but Netflix did.
You were one of the first big productions to film after COVID-19 shut down the industry. Did those COVID safety measures put a burden on your budget?
Whatever was the safest route, it didn’t matter the cost. It was complicated. It was like playing six-dimensional chess, with testing and protocols and the timing. You couldn’t shift your movie schedule for different events because only people that had quarantined and tested in a certain way and at certain times could show up on set. We found this great testing company early on. I brought them to L.A., and I used them on our Lakers series [HBO’s Winning Time]. They have these mobile labs. So instead of sending your PCR test out and getting it back 24 hours later, you’d get it back in 90 minutes. In Boston, we could test 600 people before they went to work and walked onstage. We never shut down. Ever. But that process was incredibly expensive.
What was life like when you weren’t on set? It sounds quite isolating.
It was one of the bigger mental challenges. The cast and the key crew, we paid them to be in a bubble on weekends as well. Nobody could see anybody, nobody could have family come, you couldn’t travel back and forth. I’m a single parent. I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, 16th birthdays, New Year’s. You’re also [up] in the business of your actors more than you would be on a normal film. If somebody wants a husband or a wife to visit, or a girlfriend, there are protocols. All it takes is one mistake, and it brings the whole movie down.
What were some of the most challenging issues for you to sort out?
One of them was the concert scene. How do you shoot Wembley Stadium? You can’t go to Wembley Stadium. How do you shoot the gazillion extras? Well, you can’t have a ton of extras. How do you shoot in the wintertime with Ariana [Grande]? There weren’t a lot of stage spaces. So, it was this old, drafty warehouse that we used for a couple of our sets in the movie. [Crowd extras were added using CGI.] Then there’s the scene where Jen gets up at the restaurant and she speaks the truth. She says, “You wanna know what happened? A bunch of rich people are going to get even richer!” And there’s a riot that breaks out. We shot that Jan. 7. On Jan. 6, they’re filming the precursor to that scene. All the actors were just like, “Holy crap. Art and life are kind of in a strange dance here.” And then all the major cities in America were given warnings for similar events that could happen. We were shooting the riot scene in downtown Boston the next night. It was just a very strange time. And then Ariana had just landed. We were shooting the concert that weekend, in the midst of this incredibly challenging time for the country. It had a particular resonance across the things that we were shooting that week.
What was it like to see these actors bring their own improvisation to it?
It makes the scenes that [McKay] wrote sparkle a little more because you’re getting the input of the best actors in the world. To our surprise, Meryl Streep was an amazing improviser. Who knew?
As a producer, you describe this film as a puzzle. What were some of the toughest pieces to fit together?
There’s a big scene where Mark Rylance gives a speech as the CEO of BASH. That location was going to be turned into a field hospital the next day because of the uptick in COVID that was happening that month on the East Coast. And then there was the inability to change things for weather or any other reason, just because of the protocols. Whether you’re a movie star, or have one line in the movie, you had to quarantine for eight days. And then during that eight days, we’d test you three times. If you passed those three tests, then you could come to work. That was true for Leo and Meryl and Jen. That was true for Ariana and her whole entourage when they came out. You’re keeping track of this big grid of when people are eligible to go to work based on their quarantines and testing. It was a lot of stickies in my trailer.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.