Jane Goodall Hopecast Season 2 Episode 13
Adam McKay – Hope is Found in Climate Action and Community Created by Laughter
In this special first ever LIVE episode of the Jane Goodall Hopecast, Dr. Jane Goodall speaks with Adam McKay, Academy-Award winning writer/director/producer. Adam most recently created the satirical Netflix comedy ‘Don’t Look Up,’ starring Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio.
In this wonderful conversation, they discuss the power of storytelling to drive climate action, the importance of humor in inspiring change, and whether the movie could have ended differently than it did. As two people with both very similar and different approaches to storytelling, and certainly different subject matters, the pair explore what it means to connect audiences with the narratives that are both relatable and spark the imagination.
Goodall and McKay also contemplate what is necessary to rewrite the current story of human history, and what audiences can do if they felt moved by the core message of the film. As climate films of the recent past have centred on the weight of the crises’ realities, this film and their conversation examine what it means to face the darkness through humour, and how film can help us all see the light, before it’s too late.
At the End of the Rainbow: Stay to the end of the episode to hear an archival clip of Dr. Goodall discussing the initial resistance she faced from the scientific community in the 1960s and how science, as a peer reviewed process, can evolve new thinking, and did – thanks to Jane.
Stay tuned…Season 2 Episode 14 coming soon!
Dr. Jane Goodall (00:05):
Many of you will remember that my mother came with me to Gombe for my first four months there. Tanzania was Tanganyika back then, a British protectorate. And the British authorities were absolutely not prepared to take responsibility for a young girl going to work in the forest. But in the end they agreed provided I took a companion with me. So my amazing mother volunteered. People say to me, “Oh, you were so brave going into the jungle.” Not a bit of it. That was what I dreamed of since I was 10. I went into the forest every morning, before light and I didn’t return till dusk, leaving mom in camp. She had one companion human, a Tanzanian cook, and she was the brave one. We shared a secondhand army tent. [No so 00:01:00] in ground sheet, all manner of creepy crawlies, including centipedes and scorpions crawled in, sometimes a snake crawled in.
Dr. Jane Goodall (01:11):
Baboons were opportunists when they very soon found there was food in our camp that was nice and that they could steal until we closed everything away in tin trunks and Dominic, our cook was often inebriated after drinking combi, a brew made from fermented bananas. She was a trooper.
Speaker 2 (01:36):
We are all connected. All our voices matter, and it will take all of our bold talents and strengths to create a healthier planet.
Speaker 3 (01:44):
Our mother are one and only. I aspire to change the world too, because of the hope she gave me.
Speaker 4 (01:57):
The earth is beautiful.
Speaker 3 (01:57):
She devoted her life.
Speaker 5 (01:57):
Together we can save the world.
Speaker 4 (01:57):
Together we can, together we will.
Dr. Jane Goodall (01:57):
What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall and this is the Hopecast. Hello, this is Jane Goodall. Today I’m joined by an American award-winning writer, director, producer, and fellow champion of storytelling, Adam McKay. Adam began his career writing for Saturday Night Live and since then has directed notable dramatic comedy films, such as the Big Short. His most recent film, Don’t Look Up, features Leonardo DeCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s a satirical Netflix comedy. A powerful allegory for our societal response or lack of response to the climate crisis. It highlights the problems faced by climate scientists who are not listened to, whose facts are ignored by political leaders and the media. And it’s a grim reminder that we only have a limited time during which to address the consequences of such behavior.
Dr. Jane Goodall (03:11):
I’m so excited to speak with Adam about how humor can help us face difficult topics and how we can work together to rewrite the current story of humanity before it’s too late. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Adam McKay. Adam, I really I’m so delighted to welcome you to this edition of my Hopecast. Because I’ve watched some of your films, I have a great admiration for you. So I think our conversation is going to be absolutely fabulous. Welcome.
Adam McKay (03:54):
Thrilled to be here. A long time admirer of you your work and I can’t wait to chop it up with you. Let’s get into a conversation.
Dr. Jane Goodall (04:09):
Yeah. Well, I think the reason that we’re actually talking now is because of Don’t Look Up. So I got a message from Leonardo DeCaprio and he said, “Jane, you must watch Don’t Look Up.”
Adam McKay (04:21):
Dr. Jane Goodall (04:22):
And I was very, very impressed by that film. And then I read some of the reviews and I was utterly shocked. I thought how can this person say, “Well, the film was lousy because it didn’t pinpoint oil and gas companies.” I mean, it’s not meant to be that sort of a film. It’s a sort of fascicle film which has such very close ties to reality. Because although it looks fascicle in many places, that’s how people have been behaving in a fascicle way. So I just want to congratulate you Adam because that film is fantastic. Quite honestly I think it’s amazing.
Adam McKay (05:08):
Thank you, Jane. And yeah the responses to the film, I’ve loved whether they’re positive or angry, whatever they are. I think we’re living in a time right now that is so hard to define. There’s so much misinformation, there’s so much confusion, there’s so much emotion about what we’re going through right now. So I never expected this movie to be the kind of movie where they lift you on your shoulders and confetti rains down. So it’s been great hearing from the climate scientists, even the epidemiologists who have experienced some of this. People like yourself who have different views of the world, that’s kind of what we were going for.
Dr. Jane Goodall (06:01):
Well, personally, I think that you have been lifted up onto people’s shoulders and lots of confetti has rained down. If people really honestly don’t believe the science, if they’re not just saying that, but if they really and truly think that the science is lying, then what is the hope for the future?
Adam McKay (06:21):
Scientifically as a fact, we are living through the sixth great extinction. We’re also as an empirical fact, living through the collapse of the livable climate. And I think what you see is… I got to work with Michael Lewis on the Big Short, and he always talks about incorrect incentives. And I think that’s really what our world is riddled with at this moment where you have news media that is taking money from fossil fuel companies for advertising, you have political leaders that have to get elected because they take donations from these fossil fuel companies and these destructive companies. And I would even go inside the fossil fuel companies, I would even say the way that the legal construct of a corporation mandates that you must only care about the share value, the stock value of a company. And I think we’re in a very frightening place right now where all these baffled incentives are colliding to create a cultural consensus, a media consensus that without exaggeration is killing us.
Dr. Jane Goodall (07:47):
We’re living in a very, very fascinating time and we’ve got all of this social media, which we’ve never had before. How is this going to play out? And that I think the kind of story Adam, that your films can really pick up on that will help people to understand what’s going on. I mean, it’s fascinating, isn’t it? Don’t you think?
Adam McKay (08:13):
Oh, it’s absolutely fascinating. We have a new weapon, which is information warfare, which we are not equipped to deal with. We are being coerced, distracted, manipulated, turned against each other in a way that we never could have imagined. And you could tell it works really well because if you pointed out people get mad and say, “What do you mean? I make up my own mind.” And then the second thing is obviously income inequality. The elites at the top have decided they, they deserve a bigger cut. And what they’ve done to the vast majority of people is they’ve left them without living wages, without resources, without a ladder to climb up, without opportunity you can’t do that. And then of course the big looming shadow over all of this is we are headed towards the most cataclysmic event in human history, which is the collapse of the livable climate, not to mention the sixth great extinction, which we are living through right now.
Adam McKay (09:21):
So it’s a crazy time, but I always find if I hold those three pillars. If I just remember those three pillars are the truth that we know that working people are being ripped off, we know that information has been weaponized in a way we’ve never imagined, and we know as an empirical fact that the livable climate is collapsing at a much greater rate than we ever imagined. If you can operate from those three, you can start to navigate yourself through this world. So that’s what we’re trying to do with these movies and these TV shows is wind our way through the chaos.
Dr. Jane Goodall (10:04):
And it is chaos. And when you think about some of the… Well, the world is not a very peaceful place right now. And there are uprisings among the people who are deprived people, who’ve been pushed under as the elite get more and the gap between those that haven’t and have not gets bigger. And that is actually underlying I think the rift in society in many different countries.
Adam McKay (10:34):
I really am a big believe that every person is good. That if you look even medically, when we’re productive, when we’re loving, when we’re connected, we do better. I think without a doubt, people are good. When they’re not, when they’re destructive, when they’re working against the common good, they tend to not be as happy. They tend to not smile. They tend to not laugh. And I really do think maybe all of this boils down to how do you connect with these people in these corporate boardrooms? And I think as someone who’s well versed in crossing over and finding a human connection with chimpanzees, maybe you uniquely are qualified to go into these corporate board rooms.
Dr. Jane Goodall (11:29):
Here’s a good example. I had to go into the medical research labs to see for myself how the chimps were being so horribly mistreated. It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Our closest living relative in a five foot by five foot cage, there because their bodies are so like ours and just being used to as experimental guinea pigs, so to speak. I had to go in and when I had to face the NIH people who were responsible the first time I went in, I didn’t know what to say. I mean, there they were sitting around the table and there was me having just seen with my own eyes this horror. So what am I going to to them when I was trying to fight my tears? So what I said to them was, “I imagine that every caring, compassionate person will feel as I feel about the conditions that I’ve just seen.”
Dr. Jane Goodall (12:27):
Well, they couldn’t say they weren’t caring and compassionate, could they? Not really? So we had the conversation and that eventually led to more conversations and it led to sitting down and working out what could be done and how change could be made. If you don’t talk to people, how can you ever expect them to change? So I learned very early on the way that you have to move in this very difficult world. And I learned that life isn’t black and white, and that sometimes compromise must be made, various compromises as long as you don’t compromise your values.
Adam McKay (13:10):
So true. I mean, I agree. I really feel, feel like there is a beautiful human-animal-planet Earth creature connection between all of us. And the approach you’re talking about… That’s an amazing story where you went in there and you connected with them as humans. And by the way, Jane, can I ask you what was the result of that?
Dr. Jane Goodall (13:37):
Well, it was a long, long battle, but there are no more chimpanzees in medical research in the United States and I don’t believe anywhere in the world. But you know the interesting thing about this? The reason that the National Institute of Health decided to retire all their 400 plus chimpanzees into sanctuaries wasn’t just on ethical grounds. It was because not one single experiment that was being done was either beneficial or potentially beneficial to human health. And that’s the case with all of these animal experiments. If chimpanzees who share 98.7% of our DNA aren’t reliable indicators of a medical treatment being good for us, then how different it will be for dogs and cats and guinea pigs and rats and mice. And you’ve said this earlier, we are at a stage where we have access to knowledge and understanding that we didn’t have before.
Dr. Jane Goodall (14:45):
And we just have to use that and help corporations understand that they can do really well if they give more than they take. So given that the world is gradually changing, given that there is more awareness of the environmental problems that we face, the devastating environmental problems that we face you chose to end Don’t Look Up as the end. Why did you choose to do that?
Adam McKay (15:22):
So our approach to the movie was we were asking a lot of questions. And one of the questions we were asking is, “Are the stories we’re telling now representative of the world we’re living in now.” So the operating idea behind the movie was that they’re not. That we’re in a different era and we’re confronting different challenges than we’ve confronted for the last 50, 60 years. And so a big part of the idea was that we’re used to third acts, the last part of a movie working out okay. Especially… People forget. Don’t Look Up is mostly a comedy, a ridiculous comedy. And we’re very used to that ending being happy. So that was something from the beginning I wanted to do. I wanted to break that tradition and end with an ending that was not per the storytelling formula, because the goal of the movie was to give people a kick in the pants to allow people to laugh about the craziness of the last 5 or 10 years.
Adam McKay (16:32):
Because I believe when we’re all together there’s community and to instill a sense of urgency, but also to feel emotion about what we could lose. And I love that ending because the line from Leonardo DeCaprio that he says at the end of the movie, this is a spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the movie. He says, “We really did have it all. Didn’t we?” And that’s it. And I feel like that’s the gratitude, that’s the grief, that’s the love, that’s the connection that we’re missing right now. And that’s due and large hard to a bunch of different factors. Whether it’s our phones and social media, greed and profitization and splintering our communities. But that was really the goal of that ending. But movies can only do so much. So there are a lot of other stories to be told about this.
Dr. Jane Goodall (17:34):
Yap. And I sort of want to jump in at the end of your movie that I think the message I would have is this is what’s going to happen if we don’t get together and take action now. That we still have a window of time, we have more than the six months of your movie. But not that much longer and if we just continue sitting and looking back and saying, “Well, it’s nothing to do with me.” Then that ending that you showed so dramatically could be reality. Therefore, we’ve got to muscle up and can get together and make the change that we can if we will.
Adam McKay (18:14):
What I see over and over again is people don’t understand how tight this timeframe is. And there is just a release of a climate model from a group called Climate Analytics. That projects that by the year 2030, 50% of our days will be once every 100 year heat events. And I read this and I reread it and I reread it and I talked to scientists friends of mine. I’m like, “Am I missing something?” And they’re like, “No, you’re not missing anything.” And then I turned on my broadcast news and I read my print news, now it’s online. And I didn’t see one single mention of this story. That is a massive story. If you really think about the fact that half of our days will be the hottest day you have ever experienced. And by the way, that doesn’t mean certain days won’t be even hotter.
Adam McKay (19:16):
That means trees will dry up. That means fires will be way more frequent. It will shut off power. If there’s humidity, it will create wet bulb events. So this is eight years away. So I think at everyone wants to do the right thing. I think everyone is confused by a lot of nonsense and BS that we’re hit with through commercials, through our leaders talking out the sides of their mouth, but that is a scientific model from a reputable group. And from the other scientists I’ve spoken to, they’re still peer reviewing it. It seems very likely. And that alone should scare us and at the same time, give us a focus and action that we need right now.
Dr. Jane Goodall (20:05):
Yes. And if we take heed of what science is telling us, if we think about what changing around the world because of people’s actions, then that gives you the energy and the hope to move ahead to counteract this doom and gloom that’s real. But we don’t just want to sit and say, “Well, in 2030 that’s the end.” We want to say, “We’ve got those years to try and make change.” Right?
Adam McKay (20:40):
I couldn’t agree more. I mean, here’s the difference. If this was 2030 this thing is going to happen and we have no answer, well then maybe we should all be praying, and having dinners hugging each other. What’s crazy about all of this is is we have the answer. We have renewable energy, it’s cheaper than fossil fuels. We have brilliant scientists who are willing to dive into carbon removal. We have brilliant engineers who are willing to help us build sea walls. And none of these things by themselves are a single answer except maybe the renewables, but that’s what’s crazy about it. We’re laying in our. Our house is on fire and the stairwell is clean and the front door is clean, and what we’re doing right now is we’re just laying in bed saying, “Oh no, it’s just smoke. It’s probably the incense.” Or we’re laying in bed saying, “Well, there’s nothing I can do.” There is a lot we can do, but we got to shake these leaders, these media people, these corporations, we got to shake them hard.
Dr. Jane Goodall (21:54):
And we’ve got to shake our own behavior, that’s key too. We’ve got to plant trees, protect forests, we’ve got to clean up the ocean. Because all these things are helping to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So we know what we have to do as you say, let’s get together and do it. And I think your films might help us to move in that direction. We have a chance, but only if we take action.
Adam McKay (22:24):
Yeah. I mean like it or not, whatever job you do, whether you’re a lawyer, a gardener, a singer, a hair stylist, we’re all now climate hair stylist, climate lawyer. I’m a climate filmmaker, right? Whether you like it or not, whether you believe it or not, we used to say years ago, it was for our grandchildren and grandchildren. It’s not anymore. It’s for us right now. And the smoke, the fires, the wet bulb events, the rising waters, the storms, all this stuff is coming right this second.
Dr. Jane Goodall (23:16):
The poet said, the world will end, not with a bang, but a whimper, but actually the world could end with a bang. My great hope is that the young people have become so aware, they have become so informed… The alternative ending to the movie, which isn’t the one you should have done, but there could be an alternative ending, which would be that all the young people persuade us to interact with the world in a different way, to take actions that we are not taking but we know we could. And if science and nature are allowed to work together, we could have a different ending to a movie like that.
Adam McKay (24:02):
We can definitely do it. I mean, we’ve seen what mankind can do when we really get behind something. And there’s no question with concentrated effort, with lots of resources behind the science right this second, we are running out of time, but we can do it. And I just call on everyone not to tolerate this, make it your number one priority. Action is so wonderful and freeing. It really is a wonderful thing. It’s worse to be in a cage of anxiety, feel powerless, but when you really start taking action, it is one of the best feelings in the world.
Dr. Jane Goodall (24:45):
No question. And the great thing is that when we do something and see that it makes a difference, makes us feel good. If you feel good, you want to do more. You want to feel better. And you as a filmmaker, I mean, you influence millions of people with your films.
Adam McKay (25:05):
Each one of us is a concentric circle of influence. We have ourselves, we have the people we love, we have our community, our town, and then we vote for our leaders, we buy our products, and just hit every one of those concentric circles. And Jane is 100%, right. It will start to feel good. Why doesn’t your local school have solar panels on it? Why is your town still using gas cars? Why are you still eating red meat 20 times a month? I mean, honestly, reducing red meat is a big thing, it really is. So there’s all these little things we can do. But just this movie and this experience really lit me up in a way that just looking at the truth is empowering. That it’s so much more stressful to avoid the truth, to hear a bunch of clap trap and misinformation. And I’ll always choose just being aware of what’s going on. So that’s a good place to start. If you’re wondering where to start, do a bunch of reading, get the books, go online, ask questions and you’ll feel the energy build.
Dr. Jane Goodall (26:18):
Adam, you love satire. I think we all do actually. But what made you take that path in your films? What drove you to use satire to speak the truth?
Adam McKay (26:32):
Yeah, I really felt like these last 10 years, some would even say 20, 25 years have been so tumultuous and overwhelming. Looking at what’s out there and the way we talk to each other, whether it’s through news, whether it’s through TV shows, music, movies, I just felt like there wasn’t a whole lot out there that was trying to figure out of times we’re living in. And I think one of the great ways that you can deal with tough times is to have a little perspective to make it a little different. And there’s an incredible book I read called Deep Survival. That’s by a guy who studies why people tragic accidents like being lost at sea or lost in the woods. And I actually read this after I had written the script, but he talked about one of the top three skills to have in those situations is a sense of humor. Because to have a sense of humor, it means you must have perspective.
Adam McKay (27:44):
You must be outside the situation. And what really gets us with traumatic times is that they overwhelm us. We don’t have that perspective. So it was funny because I’d already written the script and then I read this book and I was like, “Oh, we still have to laugh. We still have to have joy. It doesn’t all have to be doom. It doesn’t all have to just be action.” There’s some great books written about the bombing of London during World War II. And what always strikes me about those books is that yes, people were suffering, people were dying, but there was also this tremendous joy and there were parties and there were music. And I think it’s really important that all of that exists. So I think satire is a good genre for these times. Because it also holds a lot of different emotions. You can watch satire and feel sad and laugh and have perspective. Yeah, I have a feeling that the next couple projects I’ll do will live in that rough zone of laughter, sadness, drama.
Dr. Jane Goodall (28:55):
Very funny you brought in World War II because I was going to say exactly the same. We got through the war with the British sense of humor. Some of the shows that were put on it was… I was only a child, but I still remember. I still remember ITMA which was a satirical skit and the key punchline by the woman in it saying in a very, very sad voice, “It’s being so cheerful that keeps me going.” Well, Adam, I think that we have used up our a lot of time, which is very sad cause I could go on talking to you for ages, but I just want to thank you so very much for agreeing to have this conversation and I’ve gained a lot from it. So thank you and next time I hope we meet in person.
Adam McKay (29:51):
I would love that so much. What a thrill to speak with you. As a great admirer of your work, you give me a lot of hope, you give me a lot of spirit.
Dr. Jane Goodall (30:01):
I think we’ve helped each other then in that case. So thank you Adam very much. Think what it was like when the professors told me I’d done everything wrong. Giving the chimpanzees names wasn’t scientific, they should have had numbers. And I couldn’t be talking about their personalities or their minds capable of solving problems. And I certainly couldn’t talk about them having emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, despair. But luckily when I was a child, I had a wonderful teacher who taught me that in this respect, anyway, those professors were absolutely totally wrong. And that teacher was my dog, Rusty. You can’t share your life with any animal whether it’s a dog, a cow, or is a pig, a bird and not know the professors were wrong. And today you can study those things, you can study animal intellect, and personality, and emotions. It was good that I hadn’t been bullied by science.
Dr. Jane Goodall (31:23):
Feel hopeful and inspired to act with the Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host, Jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer. Enna Garkusha is our producer and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Shyr. Sound design and music composition for the conservation chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.