Kevin MessickProducer Don’t look up trip was reserved by historical events. On January 6, 2021, as rioters stormed the United States Capitol, Messick was in Boston preparing to film a riot scene sparked by Jennifer Lawrence’s disgruntled graduate student Kate Dibiaski . It was a time of high tension, as cities across the country were on high alert for further unrest. The scene ultimately went off without a hitch during filming on January 7.
Now, over a year later, the Best Picture nominee directed by Adam McKay continues to have surprising resonance. During the first week of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when 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,” Messick says. “As he sat there eating with his friends and family, he said, ‘It’s like that scene in Don’t look up, where they dine as the end of the world is happening. ”
In a conversation with THRthe producer talks about Meryl Streep’s surprising improvisational skills and the many sticky notes it took to keep up with the cast and crew’s quarantine schedules, including stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Ariana Grande.
What are your memories of watching this dinner scene with an audience for the first time?
From the first time we screened it, it was the highest-rated scene in the film. People loved the emotion and they harnessed it at the end of this crazy, absurd, satirical, loud journey that’s 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 recorded. It was the biggest risk when we sold the project. This was the end 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 shoot after COVID-19 shut down the industry. Have these COVID safety measures weighed on your budget?
Whatever the safest route, whatever the cost. It was complicated. It was like playing six-dimensional chess, with tests, protocols and timing. You couldn’t change your movie schedule for different events, because only people who had been quarantined and tested in a certain way and at certain times could show up on set. We found this great testing company early on. Took ’em to LA, and used ’em on our Lakers series [HBO’s Winning Time]. They have these mobile labs. So instead of sending your PCR test and picking it up 24 hours later, you’ll get it back in 90 minutes. In Boston, we were able to test 600 people before they went to work and went on stage. We never close. Never. But this process was incredibly expensive.
What was life like when you weren’t on set? It seems quite isolating.
It was one of the biggest mental challenges. The key cast and crew, we also paid them to be in a bubble on weekends. Nobody could see anybody, nobody could bring their family, you couldn’t go back and forth. I am a single parent. I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, 16th, New Years. You are too [up] in your actors’ business more than you would be in a normal movie. If someone wants a husband or wife to visit, or a girlfriend, there are protocols. All it takes is one mistake and it brings the whole movie down.
What were the most difficult problems for you to solve?
One of them was the concert stage. How do you photograph Wembley Stadium? You can’t go to Wembley Stadium. How do you photograph the millions of extras? Well, you can’t have a ton of extras. How do you film in winter 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 film. [Crowd extras were added using CGI.] Then there’s the scene where Jen gets up in the restaurant and she’s telling the truth. She said, “Do you want to know what happened? A lot of rich people are going to get even richer! And there’s a riot that breaks out. We shot this January 7th. On January 6, they film the precursor to this scene. All the actors were just like, “Holy shit. Art and life are kind of in a strange dance here. And then every major city in America received warnings for similar events that could occur. We were shooting the riot scene in downtown Boston the following night. It was just a very strange time. And then Ariana had just landed. We were shooting the concert this weekend, in the midst of this incredibly difficult time for the country. It had a particular resonance in the things we were shooting that week.
What was it like seeing these actors bring their own improvisation?
He does the scenes that [McKay] wrote a little more shine because you get input from the best actors in the world. To our surprise, Meryl Streep was an incredible improviser. Who knew?
As a producer, you describe this film as a puzzle. What were the hardest parts to put together?
There’s a big scene where Mark Rylance gives a speech as CEO of BASH. This location was going to be turned into a field hospital the next day due to the spike 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 protocols. Whether you’re a movie star or have a line in the movie, you had to self-quarantine for eight days. And then during those eight days, we would test you three times. If you pass these three tests, you could come to work. It was true for Leo and Meryl and Jen. This was true for Ariana and everyone around her when they came out. You keep track of this big grid of when people are eligible to go to work based on their quarantines and tests. There were a lot of stickies in my trailer.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.