Q&A: David Sirota

The co-writer of the hit Netflix film Don’t Look Up talks about the role of a strong media, human weakness and how billionaires won’t save the world.

The World Today Published 24 August 2022 Updated 31 August 2022 3 minute READ

David Sirota

Journalist and writer

Don’t Look Up is a film about climate change, but there are striking parallels to the pandemic. How do these two crises overlap?

Whether it’s climate change or the pandemic, the movie is about our reluctance to accept and constructively act upon basic science. A lot of evidence shows we simply refuse to accept and act on the science of climate change. There have also been moments during the pandemic where it has felt the same way – for example, with mask and vaccine policies.

I think we are caught in a culture that is hostile to inconvenient facts, especially if it might require any kind of change of behaviour, such as requiring the rich and powerful to sacrifice privileges or change their habits at all.

Profit is clearly embedded in a lot of the discourse and policy as it relates to the pandemic, specifically vaccine patents. The pandemic has been a way for major drug companies to make huge amounts of money. It’s been arguably a huge success for them – and let’s be clear, the vaccines were developed with a lot of public funds.

So, the Covid vaccine is not just some free-market success story. The hostility to making the vaccines more widely and cheaply available is reminiscent of the storyline in Don’t Look Up when the tech mogul sees the comet crisis as a way to make more money.

And that is a huge problem adjacent to this hostility to basic science.

Your film made a powerful, and often hilarious, critique against corporate media. Why is it important to satirize how the US media covers serious issues?

The way the media frames and distracts from important issues explains a lot about why our government doesn’t feel the need to take these problems seriously. Democracy is predicated on the idea that an informed public will demand that its government do rational things.

Part of having an informed electorate is a media that does the informing. I don’t think we have a media that really does a very good job of informing in a constructive way.

One mission of the movie is to hold up a mirror to this and say, look, the information ecosystem that we’re all surrounded by is part of why our government is so dysfunctional. Government leaders don’t feel the need to act rationally or take science seriously if they know that their constituents are not well informed.

At one point, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Dr Mindy, begins to become corrupted after starting out as a scientist eager to save humanity. What were you trying to convey there?

Kate Dibiasky (a PhD student played by Jennifer Lawrence) and Dr Mindy represent two parts of the human brain. Kate represents the part that’s brutally honest, sees a dysfunctional system, tries to sound the alarm, and then gets frustrated and essentially gives up.

Part of the dysfunction of the system is that it offers all sorts of enticements for people to keep their mouths shut

Dr Mindy sees the same science and tries to make this dysfunctional system work. And part of the dysfunction of the system is that it offers all sorts of enticements for people on the inside to, if not keep their mouths shut, at least go along to get along.

So, for a time, he tries to push the boat without rocking it. He tries to essentially have his cake and eat it – get the glory, fame and celebrity while also trying to do the right thing. And then he realizes that’s a false choice. It’s impossible.

As someone from Indiana, I enjoyed when Dr Mindy and Kate Dibiasky were sent ‘off the grid’ – meaning they just went back to their hometowns in the American Midwest. Was this a comment on how large swathes of the country are dismissed by urban elites?

There were two jokes on this – that one you describe and also the joke in the White House where Jonah Hill’s character eyerolls them for being from Michigan State and sort of scoffs at the idea that a public research university would be as good as the Ivy League schools.

What we were trying to poke fun at there was both the general disdain that Washington elites have for the rest of the country and the disdain that Trump-like fake populists have for the middle of the country, the kinds of people they purport to represent.

When Dr Mindy and Kate Dibiasky go back to Michigan at the end of the movie, the scenes there feel a lot more normal and rational than everything happening in Washington. There is an underlying commentary that Washington is the place that’s full of insane people. The workaday locales in this country are not perfect, but they’re much more normal and rational.

What do you hope the audience takes away regarding this idea of big tech ‘saving’ us?

I hope the idea of technology saving us will seem ridiculous

I hope the idea of technology saving us will seem ridiculous. Billionaires and tech triumphalists are not coming to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves.

The movie is sceptical of the idea that the profit motive can provide solutions for crises. It challenges this false religion that says billionaires can profit and solve problems that billionaires are creating.

I think this is an idea that billionaires created to prop up the status quo and to prevent any kind of radical action that needs to be taken on so many things – whether it’s the climate crisis or, here in the United States, the healthcare crisis. Whatever crisis there is, a cadre of wealthy elites is always saying, ‘We can fix the problem and not restructure society and not ask any billionaires or oligarchs to sacrifice anything.’

At a certain point, that’s false, and lots of choices are zero-sum choices. Either we’re going to solve the problem, and people with lots of wealth are going to have to change or sacrifice a little bit; or we’re not going to solve the problem, and people with wealth and power will get to keep hoarding their wealth and power while everybody else suffers.

Has anything surprised you about the response to the film?

One interesting thing was that lots of people across the political spectrum really liked our movie. There was this expectation among film critics that only liberals would like it. But the feedback we got, and the size of the audience, suggest that people from across the political spectrum enjoyed it.

I think this is because the movie gave voice to undeniable truths about the information ecosystem in our society. We have a problem with political dysfunction, corruption and media dysfunction.

One last thing I was thrilled about was how the demand and support for the movie showed that audiences don’t need to be infantilized and there is a pent-up demand for content that struggles with big, scary, controversial questions and issues.

I hope one legacy of the movie is that the content creation industry leans into that and says, ‘We don’t have to infantilize our audience with stories from the distant past, or fantastical stories that don’t have anything to do with the here and now. Audiences want cultural products that make us think.’

That’s my hope.