Media

David Sirota on Meryl, Jennifer and the Birth of Don't Look Up

(From left) Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are among the stars of Don't Look Up, based on a story co-conceived by Denver-based David Sirota.
(From left) Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry are among the stars of Don't Look Up, based on a story co-conceived by Denver-based David Sirota. Netflix/@davidsirota
Denver-based David Sirota is best known as a journalist whose work has appeared in many national and local publications, including this one, and he played a prominent role in the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders. But while he has some well-known show-business connections ("Dave Sirota" is a recurring character on The Goldbergs), the latest item on his résumé is still a stunner: He receives a story credit and is a co-producer on Don't Look Up, a movie that debuts on Netflix and in theaters today, December 10, and is considered a likely Oscar contender thanks to its acclaimed director, Adam McKay, and a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry.

The IMDB summary line for the film — "Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth" — makes it seem like a broad brink-of-doom satire. But while Sirota acknowledges that Don't Look Up delivers plenty of guffaws, he stresses that the script McKay penned based on the ideas the two of them conceived has much more to say.

"I think one of the genius things about how he wrote this movie," Sirota maintains, "is that he's using the techniques of a blockbuster, Armageddon-style action movie in order to deliver a very serious message in part about climate change and whether we accept basic science."

Here's how Sirota outlines the project's genesis:

"I've known Adam for a very long time, all the way back into the early George W. Bush administration," he begins. "He's a politically aware, politically engaged person, and after his movie Vice [about ex-veep Dick Cheney] came out, we were discussing the climate crisis. I said to him, 'You've got to use your superpowers to do some kind of climate movie, but it can't be a Mad Max, post-apocalypse film. It's got to be something that uses your comedic powers.'"

Adds Sirota: "We were bouncing ideas around, and at one point, I said, 'It's really like an asteroid is headed toward Earth and no one seems to care.' And he said, 'Wait a minute. I think that could be the movie.' So we spitballed it a little more, had fun with it, threw out some different ideas, and then he wrote the script. I gave him some notes, he polished it some more, and then he said, 'We're really going to do this.'"

Sirota's reaction? "I didn't eye-roll him, exactly, but I didn't really believe it was going to happen. But then, all of a sudden, they're sending me the paperwork."

Filming took place in Boston during a pandemic period when the Colorado General Assembly was in session, and because his wife, Emily Sirota, is a state representative, David wasn't able to visit the set, which he admits is "a real bummer." But the Sirotas were able to attend the movie's recent premiere, and at the afterparty, David got to thank Streep for her work. He admits that while she "was super-nice to both of us, she was much more impressed by Emily's work in the legislature — and rightly so."

Here's a clip in which McKay and Lawrence talk about Sirota's contribution to Don't Look Up.
As for the movie itself, Sirota is proud that it addresses important issues of the sort that don't often find their way into major motion pictures.

"Hollywood is caricatured as a liberal place, but I don't think that's true," he says. "In general, I think Hollywood is somewhat cautious about challenging corporate power and questioning the status quo, because it's a big business. So getting something like this made, which does challenge power and the status quo, is unbelievably rare; it almost never happens. So it's a real accomplishment that Adam was able to use his platform, his notoriety and his skills to even get this project off the ground."

That the results are funny is an important benefit. "Adam is able to use the techniques of comedy in a way that a mass audience is comfortable with and enjoys — and he's able to use those techniques to deliver very serious messages," Sirota says. "He's a guy who doesn't believe comedy has to exist in isolation from important issues. So he uses comedy with a mission — to express values and question power. If you read it as just an action movie, you're missing the point. The thematics are there to raise some of the most uncomfortable questions of all — questions that are ultimately about human survival."

While working on a high-profile movie might seem like a huge pivot for Sirota, he doesn't see it that way — and he feels the same about his time on the Sanders campaign. "I'm proud to have done it, and I'm obviously disappointed that we lost," he says." But I believe all of these different projects and causes are part of one larger journey."

This trek includes Sirota's work on The Daily Poster, a news organization he created, and Meltdown, an eight-part podcast about the financial crisis that's accessible on Audible. But he'll also be keeping a close eye on the reaction to Don't Look Up.

"I hope that people go see this movie with an open mind," he concludes. "There's going to be a lot of reviews of this movie that are all over the place. My guess is that it's going to be polarizing. Some people are going to love it, and some people are going to be mad about it. There will be a lot of emotions over this movie. But I'd love for people to ignore the noise and go to the theater or fire it up on Netflix and get ready to laugh — and potentially get ready to cry."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts