Sparty on: 'Don't Look Up' director talks 'flattering' use of MSU

In the new movie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play a pair of Michigan State astronomers who make an Earth-shattering discovery.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

In the upcoming apocalypse comedy "Don't Look Up," megawatt movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence play astronomers from Michigan State University who discover a giant comet hurtling toward Earth that will end humanity in approximately six and a half months. 

They travel to the White House to inform the administration of their findings, but they're mocked for their, what is in the eyes of some, humble educational backgrounds.

Jennifer Lawrence and Leondardo DiCaprio in "Don't Look Up."

"I'm sorry, did you say Michigan State?" asks Jonah Hill's character, who plays the pampered, clownish son of the president (played by Meryl Streep) and the White House chief of staff. "They have an excellent astronomy department," Hill's character is informed, to which he laughs and snorts a dismissive, "c'mon bro." The administration asks if they can get a team of Ivy Leaguers on it instead. 

But the Spartans are actually the heroes of writer-director Adam McKay's story, the scientists whose data and research could save the Earth, if only they could get anyone to listen to them. The movie opens in area theaters on Dec. 10 and arrives on Netflix Dec. 24.

McKay, whose resume includes "Step Brothers" and the two "Anchorman" films as well as the mortgage crisis comedy "The Big Short" and the Dick Cheney smackdown "Vice," says the joke isn't on MSU. "It's flattering to Michigan State," he says. 

"I wanted to make a joke about the kind of 'status symbol' quality of an Ivy League degree, where you see people like George Bush and Jared Kushner, who are total dolts, go to Ivy League schools, or Trump constantly bragging about going to UPenn," says McKay, on the phone Friday from New York. "Also, state school educations are some of the best educations you can get, and have been for decades."

Leonardo DiCaprio and director Adam McKay on the set of "Don't Look Up."

After deciding he wanted DiCaprio and Lawrence's characters to be from a state school, McKay researched which have the best astronomy departments, "and Michigan State’s up there," says McKay, who attended Penn State University and later Temple University. His science advisor on the film, Dr. Amy Mainzer, agreed and vouched for the quality of MSU's astronomy department. "That’s entirely why they’re in the movie," he says. 

Michigan State also worked because it makes DiCaprio and Lawrence's characters from the Midwest, "so they had to go to Washington, D.C., and go to New York and a little bit be out of their element," McKay says. 

"Don't Look Up" was filmed in the Boston area, with local locations standing in for Michigan State's campus and DiCaprio's character's Lansing home. 

The film's large ensemble cast also includes Tyler Perry, Cate Blanchett, Timothée Chalamet, Ariana Grande, Ron Perlman, Rob Morgan and Mark Rylance. "Don't Look Up" is already garnering year-end accolades, and was named one of the year's top films this week by the National Board of Review. 

When asked if any astronomers from Michigan State had yet seen the movie, McKay said he wasn't sure, and then immediately floated the idea of doing a screening at the school to his associate producer, Staci Roberts Steele. 

"We're on it," he says.