David Sirota went from advising Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign to co-developing the story for Adam McKay’s film “Don’t Look Up,” which was nominated for — among other things — the Academy Award for best picture. It didn’t win, but Sirota was in Hollywood for the big night. He joins Ryan Grim to discuss why Hollywood is so averse to political films, the difficulty of generating interest in the climate crisis, and, yes, the slap.
[Deconstructed theme music.]
Reporter: A new Netflix film captured imaginations this holiday season. “Don’t Look Up” has become the second-highest-streamed movie ever on Netflix.
Leslie Jordan: Here are the nominees for original screenplay: “Don’t Look U.!” Screenplay by Adam McKay; story by Adam McKay and David Sirota.
David Sirota: Everyone’s been asking me whether I got the Oscar, like, $150,000 swag bag, which I didn’t. Apparently that swag bag only goes to rich and famous actors and directors who don’t need it.
Ryan Grim: [Laughs.] That’s perfect. That’s everything right there.
DS: It really is. It really is.
RG: We’re joined by David Sirota. Last time David was on Deconstructed, he was talking about his podcast Meltdown, which is about the way that the financial crisis and — more accurately — the failed response to the financial crisis kind of paved the way to the crisis that we’re in now. So I would suggest that if people haven’t listened to that yet, I think it’s only on Audible. Is that right?
DS: That’s right.
RG: So if you have Audible, check it out. If not, I actually ripped off Audible once by doing their month free, then canceling it when I was done with that. Or to go back and check out the interview we did with David.
But, more importantly, for this episode, David is the writer of — is that the actual credit or “story by”? In Hollywood, they’re very particular about what the exact credits are. So what was your credit for “Don’t Look Up”?
DS: So, I shared the “story by” credit on “Don’t Look Up.” So Adam McKay and I came up with the overall story of “Don’t Look Up,” he wrote the script, I gave him lots of notes, and we came up with a bunch of scenes. He wrote the script, but I was the co-“story by” credit.
RG: And David’s also the founder of “The Daily Poster,” which is now levernews.com, kind of progressive investigative news outlet that’s been doing a lot of great work, former speech writer for the Bernie campaign, former Hill staffer, all sorts of different hats.
I actually don’t know if I’ve told this story on here: I first met David in the spring of 2003, when I was a student in David Broder’s journalism class at the University of Maryland. And what David Broder, instead of having to teach, he would just bring people in that he respected to have them talk to the class. And one of the people he brought in was a Democratic Hill staffer named David Sirota.
Do you remember —
DS: I do remember.
RG: — speaking to his class.
DS: I do. He drove me over to the class. He picked me up on Capitol Hill in his little car and drove me over to the class. And for folks who don’t know, David Broder was the so-called dean of the Capitol Hill, Washington press corps.
RG: For like decades.
DS: For decades. Yeah. So it was an interesting kind of honor to be asked to go speak to his class. I was sort of shocked about it.
I was working on the House Appropriations Committee when George Bush was president and the Iraq war was happening. And because there were a lot of spending fights, we had become one of the few places that were really putting up any kind of public fight with the Bush administration in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq War. It was a really stifling time on Capitol Hill and in Washington, where this sort of worship of the wartime president was at its peak. And our little team at the House Appropriations Committee, where the President still had to come and ask for money to spend, we were trying to put up the good fight.
RG: And one of my memories of that class was that David Broder used to answer his phone in the middle of class.
RG: “This is David Broder.” And it was a lesson I took with me. He had no idea who it was. The lesson I took with me was just always answer your phone.
DS: Yeah, the problem with that lesson right now, by the way —
RG: Yeah, it doesn’t work anymore, really. And, actually, I don’t follow that anymore. I don’t.
DS: The problem is that the spam calling on a cell phone? You don’t know whether you’re answering it. And if you answer the spam phone call, then it encourages them to put you on another spam list because you answered your phone.
RG: Yeah. I get so many spam calls because up until maybe a year, year and a half ago, I still stuck by that Broderism of “answer the phone,” because you never know who might be calling you.
So you got nominated for an Oscar for best story. I mean, it got a ton of Oscar nominations, right, for a variety of different things?
DS: Right. Four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Score.
RG: So that meant you got to go to the Oscars. And I’m fascinated by what that kind of cultural experience is like.
So like, first of all: Does every single nominee get a seat in the Oscars? How big is the place? Are there politics about who gets the seats? I mean, clearly there are politics about where you get a seat, because Will Smith is right there, like seven feet away from Chris Rock. But does everybody go or how does that work?
DS: So I believe every nominee is invited with a plus one. So I got to go with my wife, Emily. And then I requested a couple of more tickets. And the good news is I got four other tickets: I brought my parents, I brought my brother-in-law and his wife, and it was a grand old time.
I was told that there’s about 2,000 or 3,000 seats in the Dolby Theatre. So it’s a really giant theater. I mean, I was sitting probably two or three rows behind Will Smith in the center. They had us at sort of tables, and I think they created the table system during the pandemic to keep people spread out.
But yeah, we were right on the floor and amid all of these stars and celebrities. And I definitely felt like a stranger in a strange land, kind of fish out of water. But it was one hell of an experience.
RG: Are the celebrities in a way fascinated by you? Because if there’s a bunch of fish that are all the same, and then all of a sudden, there’s a different fish, like this guy who’s involved in politics and investigative journalism? Or no, they’re like, if you’re not in Hollywood, they almost can’t see you unless you have a tray with a drink on it or something.
DS: Right. Right. [Laughs. Right, I mean, it’s definitely, it’s kind of like D.C. in the sense that it’s a one-company town, or a one-industry town. I was told a long time ago, when I started dipping my toe into the Hollywood world, that some people would find it particularly interesting that I worked in politics, because that’s something different. And Hollywood is kind of fascinated with Washington and politics — and vice versa, by the way.
DS: Washington is sort of fascinated with Hollywood. So you know, I mean, one line I heard said to me was that if Washington is Hollywood, for ugly people, as the phrase goes, Hollywood is politics for beautiful people.
DS: So there’s a lot of politics going on in Hollywood about basically everything, right? I mean, everything from where do people get to sit at the Oscars to who gets nominated. There’s politicking to who wins the Oscars. I mean, these are all little political worlds.
But, I will say one thing that stood out to me in this whole process — and granted, I’ve only been part of this process for one year, but it got me thinking — was that our movie was was not a real apples-to-apples movie with the other movies that were there, in the sense that our movie was explicitly political. It was explicitly in the here and now. And if you look at most of the other films that were nominated, most of those films are very different from that: They’re not really explicitly political; a lot of them are set in the past. It’s not to make a judgment about that. But I did have a feeling going into the Oscars that our movie was quite a bit different from the norm of the movies represented at the Oscars.
And I think that’s kind of interesting in the sense that we’re living through unbelievably political times right now. We’re living through a moment of, I would argue, existential crises when it comes to the climate, when it comes to the pandemic and the like. And there weren’t that many movies represented at the Oscars that were kind of struggling with, negotiating with, wrestling with the here and now of politics and the divisive issues of the day right now. And I don’t know exactly what the takeaway from that is, but I think that’s clear.
RG: Yeah. And politics now is so much more even personal and emotional than it was, say, in the 1990s. There was a recent survey that said that there is a vastly increasing number of people would refuse to date people from a different political party, which is, I don’t know if it’s new, but it’s different than it was a couple decades ago. And so in a polarized environment like that, if you go in with a movie that is going to be loved by a kind of one side, and it’s gonna be hated by the other side, which cuts your audience down, Hollywood might want to say, well, let’s just do stuff that’s in the past or in a fantasy land. And I’m curious: Was that a topic of conversation among the artists, and writers, and actors that you were with throughout this — how long were you out there? Like a week or less?
DS: Yeah, I was there for a week.
I mean, I think that’s right. I think if politics is now seen as personal identity in a way that it wasn’t necessarily in the past. In other words: I’m this or that party and that’s how I organize my self perception and organize my life.
RG: Right. It represents your values. Right.
DS: Exactly, then, what that encourages, I think, in decisions about cultural programming is risk aversion. OK, we want to make cultural products that don’t even get into that, because if we want the widest possible audience, then if we take a side, politically, it alienates us from one part of the audience.
DS: And so I’m not saying that’s the way I think about it. I’m saying: I think that’s the way some of the folks who run the cultural industries think about things, because they’re thinking about how to make sure their cultural products reach the broadest audience. And so what the effect of it is, in practice, is cultural products that don’t necessarily struggle with those issues, for fear of political controversy, for fear of alienating a piece of the audience.
And so when I was out there and talking to folks about this, one piece of feedback was that Adam McKay — the great Adam McKay, my friend, and collaborator, and just an all-around fantastic guy — that he’s the guy who has figured out how to do movies, television shows, and the like, that do explicitly deal with political issues. He’s kind of the go-to guy for that. The feedback is that Adam is the one who can do that stuff, and it’s harder for others to do the kinds of things that he does. So that’s, in a sense, it’s sort of his lane, quote-unquote.
But, of course, the downside of that — and it’s fantastic, it’s great for Adam — is that it’s sort of like: Well, if Adam is doing it, then the rest of the industry doesn’t have to do it, because he’s got it.
RG: [Laughs.] Right. McKay’s got it.
DS: He’s supposedly got it covered. Yeah, he’s got that! And what’s frustrating about that, is that no, everybody should be doing that. We need more content that is struggling with the here and now, that is making the audience uncomfortable, or at least wrestling with issues that make the audience uncomfortable. The idea that one guy’s got it, and everyone else should go over here and do other stuff that doesn’t wrestle with that stuff, I just think that’s not serving what the audience wants and needs. And I would argue that the success — the popular success — of “Don’t Look Up,” the second-most-watched film on the world’s largest streaming platform, second only to “Red Notice,” the movie with The Rock and Ryan Reynolds, a kind of adventure action movie, the fact a climate movie even got close to a blockbuster movie like that, I would argue that suggests there’s a huge pent-up demand and a huge potential audience for films and television shows that do explicitly struggle with issues that are scary, that are in the here and now.
And, again, I think the reason that our movie elicited such a reaction — and I knew it was going to elicit a big reaction, some people loved it, some people hated it — is because when you’re struggling with the here and now, everybody has a passionate opinion about the here and now, in contrast to you may not have a strong opinion about movies and television shows set 40 years ago, 50 years ago.
RG: Like “Henry VIII.”
DS: Yeah. Right. Exactly. You may not have like a really passionate, political response to that. But if you’re talking about, you know, how does the president and Congress deal with an emergency and there’s a movie about that, or a satire about that, you’re gonna have, probably, some kind of serious opinion.
RG: I wonder if his particular politics play into this a little bit. I mean, on the one hand, he obviously has a unique talent that he brings to all the different projects he does, but also Hollywood is, and tell me if the stereotype is correct, having been in it now for a little bit, that it’s just kind of partisan Democrat. Like, it’s kind of a superficial: We’re Democrats. And not going much deeper than that. Whereas McKay has always been willing to criticize Democrats, as well as criticize Republicans, and “Don’t Look Up”is no different. Like everybody comes in for criticism there, including the protagonists of the film. Like, the scientists have all sorts of problems that he sends up — that you both send up — as well.
So do you think it’s his willingness to go after Democrats as well, and liberals as well, in some of the other shows that —?
DS: Yeah. I mean, I would broaden it a little bit and say it’s nominally Democrat. It’s however you want to characterize it — the left-of-center, MSNBC, liberal middle, right? He has produced movies, television shows, and the like which don’t just indict the right — although he does have plenty, I mean, watch Vice, one of my favorite movies, and there’s a lot about them, obviously, it’s all about the neocons and the like. But yes, he’s somebody who’s willing to have a political analysis that shows the complicity of the center of the Democratic Party, the kind of “liberal” power elite that runs the Democratic Party. And I put liberal in quotes, because I’m not actually sure how liberal or left that part of our politics are. But I think that is the part of politics that doesn’t get a lot of criticism, and that the criticism is not accepted all that well, because it can be easily framed as: You’re helping the Republicans. Right?
I mean, I think that’s the world we live in now, which is stifling in this sense, that our politics have become so tribalized — that you’re either a Democrat or you’re Republican that, especially on the Democratic side, it has made it much more difficult to have an analysis outside of that, let’s say, progressive or left-anchored analysis of politics, without being accused of helping the far-right. We live in a world where the argument that was made about Ralph Nader in the 2000 election — oh, you helped elect George Bush — has now become baked into how people view politics, Democratic politics. If you are a Bernie Sanders, if you are The Squad, if you are an activist or an organization criticizing the Democratic Party from the proverbial left, you’re actually making common cause with the right, as the argument goes. And I reject that argument, but I think our culture is so sensitive to that argument that that’s why, in a sense, McKay’s work is in part seen as so controversial, because he’s willing to make that analysis. And I would argue that that analysis is correct.
DS: That analysis, his analysis, is honest and real. Like if you can’t admit that the corrupt center of the Democratic Party is part of the problem on so many issues, then you’re not being honest with how the world works.
I mean, not to get too far afield here, but if you can’t look at something like student debt, or drug prices right now, and look at the center of the Democratic Party — Joe Biden refusing to sign executive orders to cancel student debt, reduce student debt, or lower prescription drug prices — if you can’t admit that and you think somebody mentioning that is somehow disloyal and helping the Republicans, then you’re not living in reality. And I think McKay’s work, and I think our movie “Don’t Look Up,” is aimed at presenting or at least criticizing, in part, the reality of that situation, which of course is going to elicit a particularly strong reaction. And I’ll just add one other thing: I think it elicits an even stronger reaction than if you just criticize the right — that, yes, the American right is hostile to critiques of its ideology, certainly — but that the center of the Democratic Party is just as hostile to honest criticism of its corruption as the American right is to criticism of its extremism and corruption.
RG: And how invested are people in defending the center of the party out in Hollywood? Because I could see it going either way. But to me, it seems like for some of them, it’s just like the way that in, say, the former Soviet Union, or in China, like if you rise to a certain level, you just join the Chinese Communist Party. Like, that’s kind of what you do. [Laughs.] It doesn’t mean you kind of have bought into all of the politics and ideology of it, but like to rise through the ranks, that’s what you do.
So if that’s the kind of looseness of the connection that people feel with it, I could see why it would be easier to just say: You know what? Let’s just skip all this anyway. Because I don’t really feel like dealing with it.
DS: Yeah, I think at the top of the industry, and we’re speaking broadly here, but I think at the top of the entertainment industry, there are a lot of folks who are real, big-D Democratic Party kind of people, at the very top.
RG: With big amounts of money to candidates across the country.
DS: Yeah. Yeah. Right. I mean, those big-D Democrats. I think, a lot of them, their political analysis doesn’t go much farther than: The Democrats are, if not good, they’re the rational, quote-unquote “normal party” and the Republicans are extremists, and they’re gonna fall off the deep end.
RG: They’re going to follow science.
DS: Right, exactly. But I also think that just because you’re a big-D Democrat in the context of politics today, doesn’t mean your ideology is particularly progressive, especially on economic issues, or unions or regulation and the like. The Democratic Party is, in a sense, one of the two parties of big business. So I think if you’re at the top of one of the biggest businesses in America, and you’re a Democrat, it doesn’t mean you’re some Bernie Sanders Democrat or the like. It can mean you’ve chosen one of the two big business parties to affiliate with.
But I will say this: I think at the rank-and-file, quote-unquote, “talent level” — what I mean by that is not the executives, not the folks running the industry, but the actors and the screenwriters, and the producers, and the like — look, I met a lot of people who wanted to talk to me about what it was like to be Bernie Sanders’ press secretary way back and speechwriter on his presidential campaign. I met a lot of folks who definitely don’t seem satisfied with the Democratic Party, and who have a much more progressive analysis of where they believe the country should be going, and a lot of dissatisfaction with where it is going. And so I do think there’s kind of a tension between the folks who make movies and television shows — the artists — and the industry.
And so I think what’s great about McKay is that he exists in a space where he’s been able to actually make cultural products at scale and bring in incredibly well-known and talented artists, actors, and the like to produce those cultural products, and the industry, I think, has supported him because the products are successful. I mean, ultimately, that is how the folks at the top of the industry are judging things, which is, in some ways, it’s like an apolitical judgment: Hey, if this TV show or movie is successful, that’s good for the bottom line, and so that’s a success, and so success begets success. So all of McKay’s past movies that have been so commercially successful have helped create the space for him to do more of that.
In some ways, it’s kind of like he hacked the system. Like, he found a glitch in the matrix.
RG: That’s profit.
DS: Yeah, exactly.
DS: So it was such a thrill to be able to work with somebody who has found the glitch in the matrix, right? I mean, I started out with “Don’t Look Up,” I couldn’t believe the movie was actually going to be made. Like I remember saying that to him: I cannot believe a movie that says what we’re saying is actually going to be made on a huge platform.
And, ultimately, the reason it was made was because a) he’s an amazing script writer and an amazing director, and b) I think that Netflix wasn’t making a political judgment, they were saying: Adam McKay is successful, he’s got a great script, he’s a great filmmaker, and this is going to be a bottom-line success for us.
And so, McKay, he came to the table saying: I want to make this movie. It’s an important message.
And the Venn diagram is Netflix’s interest: We want to make a successful product. And McKay’s interest is: I want to make a successful product that has a set of political messages that may be controversial, but I believe are important. Like, they found agreement. And that is a glitch in the matrix.
RG: And he wound up getting, like half the tables near the front of the stage probably had an actor who was in “Don’t Look Up.”
DS: [Laughs.] Right.
RG: Were you there for — or how did the slap go down? You had left the room or something at that point, right?
DS: Yes. So they had just announced the winners — and losers — of the screenplay awards, the adapted and original. And I want to be very clear about this, and McKay and I talked a lot about this, that we were prepared to go into the Oscars up until about a week before the Oscars knowing and thinking that we had absolutely no chance to win. We were shocked that we got nominated in the sense of the politics of our movie. The Academy is often not interested in platforming explicitly political movies. So we were shocked and happy that we got nominated. But we were prepared to go in there thinking: Hey, we literally have no chance to win any awards at all. It’s great to be nominated, but we just don’t have any chance.
Then, about a week before the Oscars, Adam and I won for Best Original Screenplay from the Writers Guild, the WGA, which is a huge award.
RG: Which is the writers!
DS: And I was completely shocked. But, yes. It’s like a big-deal award. So Adam and I talked about this, about how it kind of messed with our minds, because it was like that was awesome to win the WGA award for original screenplay. But it also was like: Wait a minute, I wonder if we have a chance to win the Oscar, right? Like, it kind of had gotten into our mind. So when we didn’t win — and, by the way, we practiced all week, he and I practiced all week with each other, making our faces look happy when we didn’t win, right? Like we actually practiced that. And actually, we told Paul Thomas Anderson that —
RG: What’s the key?
DS: You have to literally practice looking happy when you’re not happy. Right? So like literally, and we told Paul Thomas Anderson this, he was sitting right next to us, because the buzz was “Licorice Pizza” was gonna win — and “Licorice Pizza” didn’t win, by the way. So after “Licorice Pizza” didn’t win, we told Paul Thomas Anderson, we were sort of commiserating, and we said to him: Listen, Adam and I were practicing like, “And the winner … ‘Licorice Pizza’ and Adam and I would clap and look happy. That’s how we practiced and we told Paul Thomas Anderson that, and I’m not sure it made him feel any better.
DS: [Laughs.] But, anyway, that’s a long way of saying “Belfast” wins.
J.K. Simmons: And the Oscar goes to…
Elliot Page: Kenneth Branagh. “Belfast.” [Cheers and applause.]
DS: So Adam and I practiced, we were clapping and looking happy. And Coda won for Best Adapted Screenplay. And so me, Adam, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Peter Sarsgaard went out — Peter Sarsgaard is Maggie’s husband — we went out to the bar for a drink. You know, the announcement was made, take the edge off, have a drink. We’re having a drink. And we were actually kind of talking about how weird the Oscars were in the sense of there hadn’t, up until that point, been much mention of the outside world, like what’s going on in the world. It was a very Oscarish kind of show. And I’d never been to one.
And I think we had said something, it was sort of about: Where are the politics in this show? Like, there’s no mention of climate change or anything. And all of a sudden somebody came up to us and said something like Will Smith had slapped Chris Rock.
[Audio of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock.]
Chris Rock: Oh wow. Wow. [Audience laughs nervously.] Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me. [Audience laughs.]
DS: And like, if you hear that, you don’t even know what it means, right? Like if you haven’t seen the video clip and somebody says that and you’re at the Oscars it doesn’t really make — like, what does that even mean? That doesn’t make sense, right?
So something about it was on delay, it didn’t go out on TV, or in theory it didn’t go out on TV.
So we went back a little while later. And what was bizarre to me was that so then we see Will Smith get named Best Actor, and he gives the speech where he’s crying and sort of blubbering.
Will Smith: I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse, you got to be able to have people talk crazy about you in this business, you got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you got to smile and you got to pretend like that’s OK.
DS: And he’s obviously making reference to what had just happened.
WS: I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all of my fellow nominees.
DS: But it was hard to understand what he was referencing because we hadn’t seen it, we’re like trapped in this bubble. And it was just so weird that all happened.
And I’m getting texts, my phone is like blowing up: “Oh my god! Were you there for the slap?” And I had to basically admit to people: I wasn’t even there. I should have been 10 feet away, but I was out at the bar, feeling bad drinking with Maggie Gyllenhaal and Peter Saarsgard, and Adam. We weren’t even there.
And actually, Peter texted me, I texted him afterwards and I was like: It’s really hilarious we were outside at the bar lamenting what was going on at the show and the sort of lack of politics and the like, while the biggest moment of the show was unfolding, which was two celebrities essentially fighting with each other. And he basically texted back and said: Yeah, it was perfect timing to go get a drink. [Laughs.]
RG: And so like my understanding was there was like a standing ovation for Will Smith when he’s giving his speech. And so here you are, there’s a standing ovation, but you don’t really understand what is being ovated. Like, what are people celebrating? It’s all confusion. How do you handle that situation? Do you stay seated? Do you stand up because you’re like: Well, everybody else is standing up, I guess I gotta stand up. What was that moment like?
DS: Honestly, I can’t remember if I stood up or not. But I do remember not knowing what was going on? Like, I was confused about why Will Smith was crying. Honestly!
DS: And I haven’t even gone back and watched it. But his speech seemed, if you didn’t know what had just happened 30 minutes ago, then his speech seems totally incoherent. So I didn’t know what was going on.
But in retrospect, it’s totally bizarre that the sort of the slap happened, and then it was as if nothing happened, and then he goes up and he wins and everyone’s cheering. Like, I’m not exactly like — listen, 20/20 hindsight, I’m not exactly sure — I mean, there’s a good argument to be made that he should have been removed, or there should have been some interventions or something.
RG: Did you see anybody come up to him?
DS: No. I mean, Denzel Washington made some reference — I think he sort of said something to him on the stage. But, listen, it wasn’t like he was all of a sudden radioactive in that room after that happened. Like, physically. Meaning, just like, the show went on. I mean, it was literally like: The show must go on. So if you were like me, if you hadn’t seen what had happened, and you came back into the theater, you just think oh, nothing happened. Like, it’s just the show continues, which is kind of really, in retrospect, is kind of insane.
RG: I heard somebody speculate that everybody was applauding and because of the power dynamic that you talked about, that he’s going to keep making huge movies, and people want people want to be close to the people that are at the very top. And so it’s not Stalinist, but there was this joke in Soviet Russia that the person who stopped clapping first was gonna get dragged out by Stalin’s goons. And so he would be applauded for like 45 minutes, like people like just falling over in exhaustion applauding, that there was a similar version of it —
DS: Well, listen, I mean, the power dynamic is real in this sense: Had I gone up on stage and slapped Chris Rock, I would be in a jail cell.
RG: [Laughs.] I’m trying to imagine that.
DS: Right? I would have been dragged away immediately. Right? So obviously there is a power dynamic in that sense. And I think there’s also like: Look, Will Smith knows everybody there.
And I should step back and say this: One thing that’s interesting, not surprising, is that everybody in that room knows everybody, right? I felt like a fish out of water in the sense that I knew nobody in that room. But everybody has worked with everybody. So everybody is essentially familiar. It’s like a small town. Everybody’s familiar with everybody. So, in some ways, there’s like this casualness about it. So Will Smith is a guy who’s been in the small town forever. And so I don’t know, if there was kind of eye rolling or —there was a sort of a vibe of like, this is a family spat. This is not a big international moment on television in front of a billion people. But yes, the power dynamic is such that if it had been someone else who did that, I think the reaction would have been very different. Will Smith really is like an institution in Hollywood, and he has been an institution in Hollywood for decades.
Now, I will say, one thing that’s fascinating to me about this is that Will Smith has been, if not angling for, he’s been in the orbit of getting an Oscar, for decades. And what’s incredible to me is that 30 minutes, 40 minutes before he’s about to finally get the Oscar that he’s been in the orbit of for 30 years, he has this — I don’t know if it’s a breakdown, or just he cracks or — and I kind of wondered. And, to be clear, this is not to absolve him at all. What he did was outrageous and unacceptable. But I kind of wonder how much the pressure of the moment, and the anticipation of the moment, was also at play in his reaction. In other words, no matter how big a star you are in Hollywood, when you’re in that room and you’re waiting to see if you’re going to win the Oscar, you can tell that that pressure, that anticipation, that anxiety, I mean it is all throughout that room no matter how big a star you are. You could sort of sense that.
And so I just think it’s interesting.
DS: Because you think like Will Smith has been famous and a huge Hollywood institution forever —
RG: Who cares about —
DS: Does he really care about getting an Oscar? Right.
But one thing that I have learned from the Oscar experience, not a huge revelation, is that the Oscars do this incredible job of building up their importance. From the moment I was named a nominee, there was all this messaging about the history of being a nominee, and you’ve joined this sort of incredible 95-year history, so they do a really amazing job of sort of creating a self-perception of the significance of being a nominee and winning an Oscar. And it’s kind of amazing that it is understood and gets into the psyche of even the biggest stars.
RG: It says something interesting about humanity and the human condition, too, that there’s this idea that neoliberalism has tried to inject into the bloodstream that money is the only thing that really can motivate people, but it’s not true.
DS: No, no.
RG: People are much deeper than that.
DS: I mean, listen: Money makes the world go round. But power and status, which are obviously related to money, are also huge forces. And the Oscars are, in Hollywood, considered the ultimate form of status.
Now, I want to be clear: Getting the WGA award is as meaningful to me as being an Oscar nominee or — if we had won — winning an Oscar, because that is an award from the most successful, best writers in that industry given to other writers. But the WGA is obviously not as well-known and, in a strange way, is not as quote-unquote “prestigious” —whatever that word means — as an Oscar. Because, and if you start really unpacking why that is, it’s really fascinating how the Oscars have kind of created, how the Academy has created, this thing that’s kind of intangible. But it’s so powerful, right?
I mean, the Academy Award, think about how — somebody said to me, they said, there are four or five cultural labels that will exist in your obituary, if you ever get them. And it’s a Nobel Prize; a knighthood, arguably; the Pulitzer Prize; and an Oscar or an Oscar nomination is on there.
And what’s interesting is you start asking: Well, why is that? And it’s actually hard to answer that question. Like, I’m not even sure why exactly that is. But in one sense, it’s kind of a credit to the Academy for their skill in creating this talisman, this award that is so well-known and kind of revered for reasons that are hard to explain.
RG: Right? It kind of is because it is.
DS: Exactly. I mean, just as somebody who works in politics and worked on campaigns, I kind of marvel at the brilliance of that, because it’s like a Jedi mind trick. I mean, the funny thing is, you can ask my wife, I was not caught up in this at all. Like, I was like: It’s amazing to be in a nominee, and it’s incredible, I can’t believe the movie got made. And by the time they were announcing who won the nomination, I was like: I really hope we win. And then inside my brain, I’d be like: Why do I care if we win? Like, I don’t even know why I care. I can’t answer why I care.
RG: [Laughs.] Yep, they win.
So was this a one-time, a dalliance with Hollywood? Or you got another project? What’s your relationship now with this industry? You’re thinking of another project?
DS: Yeah, I mean, I’ve got a couple projects that are in the works. I have no idea if they’re going to go forward. That’s one thing I’ve learned about Hollywood is whether something is going to happen or not can change every day, can actually change every hour. So the way to survive, I think, in that world, is to put as many irons in the fire as possible and hope one comes back. So I’ve got a couple, and I should say they all deal with politics and sort of the issues of the day.
I mean, I certainly will say this for myself, which is that I don’t want to do movies, television shows, and the like if they’re just kind of frivolous stuff, or escapist kind of stuff. If I’m going to work in and around that industry a little bit, I want it to be based on my values and my politics. And I should add that if I end up doing more work in Hollywood, that’ll probably limit the opportunities. But I’m OK with that. Because, I mean, this is why I love Adam McKay so much. He inspires me in the sense of somebody who’s willing to infuse their work in that industry with his values knowing that that can make the path more difficult.
But I kind of go back to this old quote that I’ve been thinking a lot about from politics lately, and it’s a Lyndon Johnson quote, and it’s the quote of “What the hell is the presidency for?” And that was Johnson basically talking to his advisors about the Civil Rights Act, and they were sort of saying maybe you shouldn’t push it forward now. And he said: Well — to me, the thrust of the comment is — what’s the point of being in this office? If not to do these kinds of things.
DS: And I think there’s actually a deeper lesson in that for everybody who does any of this work, which is if you’re working in and around politics, or you’re in journalism, or you’re in Hollywood, what’s the point of doing that work if you’re not going to infuse it with your values? Yes, it’s going to make your path harder. For me, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make, as long as I can sort of survive, and then I’m willing to limit opportunities, if that’s the cost of having the work be based on your values.
By the way, there’s another, I’m not sure if this is an apocryphal story or not, but I’ve heard this story told a couple times about another guy in Hollywood, the recently departed Ed Asner — great, amazing actor with great politics. And as the story goes, somebody asked him: Hey, why are you so political? Why are you going out and helping these movements and using your platform to push progressive causes when you know that may cause controversy, may make it harder for you to work as an actor?
And as the story goes, his response is: I do that because I want to be able to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror. I want to be able to know that I’m not just sort of selling out or focused on myself. I’m here to do things that are based on my values. And I think like That’s why Adam McKay is such an inspiration to me, [he] is somebody who is at the top of a enormously powerful industry, who has been willing to use essentially his political capital in that industry to make things that aren’t just entertaining, although they certainly are entertaining, but to infuse them with values, knowing that that is going to cause controversy and the like.
RG: And, at the same time, what’s it been like watching the rollout of the film and then the reaction to it. I know the initial reaction started out all this conversation about Adam McKay and his beef with Will Ferrell.
RG: [Laughs.] Instead of his focus on the movie, which is about the way that culture trivializes existential threats, and then it ends with a multi-day conversation about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on stage while it’s, what, like 70 degrees in the North Pole?
DS: [Laughs.] I said to McKay, at one point, I said it kind of feels like we’re Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiasky. It’s like a meta version of our movie unfolded with the release and promotion of our movie. I mean, I put it out there, the speech that I had in my pocket, and folks can find it at levernews.com, I put out this little speech, right?
And by the way, they told you at the Oscar nominees’ lunch to make the speech really short. So some folks have emailed me being like: Was that really all you were gonna say? I was like: Listen, they tell you at the very beginning —
RG: Right. They play that music.
DS: — you have 30 seconds, so it’s basically you have one line of thank-yous, and one line of whatever you want to say. And what I was gonna say, if we had actually won, I was gonna say: Everybody in this room has an absolutely enormous amount of power. Every single person in that room, all the nominees, all that industry, has so much power. Please use that power to sound the alarm for climate action. The comet is coming.
I didn’t get to say that. And to be honest, that was the biggest disappointment for me, was not not getting a statue, was that is that I really wanted folks to hear that. And instead, the takeaway from the entire award show is this fight between celebrities. And I think the entire experience, the positive way of spinning it is that the entire experience of releasing and promoting the movie kind of proved the accuracy of the movie’s depiction of the world.
DS: We’re fighting to get the climate message out there, and it starts with a Will Ferrell controversy and ends with this thing about Chris Rock and Will Smith. So I would argue that “Don’t Look Up”’s depiction of the world was proven by our experience.
And I think the kind of negative spin/take on that is: If you can’t get the message out, or if the message is suppressed or blocked on a movie that had hundreds of millions of people watch it, and it’s still that experience. You could kind of wonder: Is any message going to get out? I mean, the negative side of my brain says: We just made a huge movie, and did it make any impact? No pun intended.
The other part of me is like: The whole award show circuit and the like is easy to distract you from the impact it did make. Right? I mean, I kept saying, and I believe ultimately, that whether we won this or that award, or didn’t win this or that award, or how cool it was to be nominated, or we didn’t win the Oscar, the success of the movie is hundreds of millions of people watching it, is the climate movement using “Don’t Look Up” or “just look up,” as a clarion call. That’s the true success of the movie. And that’s way bigger than any award.
RG: Right. And I think it gave people a language to decode what they’re seeing in the real world. “Don’t look up,” or “just look up” are good examples. So if you’re looking at the fossil fuel industry’s propaganda around climate change, and you can try to dissect and deconstruct that on an intellectual level, or you can say, that’s like the guy who says he’s for the jobs the comet’s going to bring —
DS: [Laughs.] Exactly.
RG: — and you understand it right there.
RG: And it gives people that ability to understand it in the same way that “Dr. Strangelove” gave it to the kind of [indistinct] hawks —
DS: And I will say, one other thing that I really enjoyed about the whole Oscar experience, and maybe I’m deluded, maybe not. But one of the reactions that I most consistently received from actors, from other directors, at the Governor’s Ball after the Oscars was essentially some version of: Thank you for making this movie.
In other words, it wasn’t just: Yeah, your movie was great. Or: Hey, I really liked your movie. It was essentially: Thank you for doing this particular movie.
And what I take away from that is that there are a lot of artists and people working in Hollywood, who appreciated that we made a movie that did lean into the climate message, and the message about science, and that there was almost an appreciation for how rare that is and an appreciation that we managed to pull it off on such a big scale.
So that’s encouraging to me in the sense that the reaction wasn’t like: Oh, you guys are weirdos. It was almost like a whispered: Man, thanks so much for doing that. Right?
Which says to me, there’s not only an audience appetite for this kind of content, but I think there’s an appetite among the creatives in Hollywood to do this kind of thing and an interest in doing more of it. So my hope moving forward is that same message I was gonna say if we had won the Oscar, which is like let’s do more of this! We just proved that it can be commercially successful. So let’s do more.
So if one of the legacies of the movie is to help create the space for more Adam McKays, right? Like, 15-20 other Adam McKays who make movies like this, that would be a huge accomplishment as well.
RG: I think it makes us all feel a little bit less crazy. I’ll say it, too. Thank you for making this. It made me feel less crazy watching it unfold like that.
And congratulations. It is, as they say, an honor just to be nominated. And thank you for joining me here on Deconstructed.
DS: Thanks for having me. Really appreciate it.
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