Interview: The Big Short Writer-director Adam McKay

tbs_1-sht_teaserNew York premiere of 'The Big Short'The Big Short sneaked up on me. On us all. When awards season began, it wasn’t really in the conversation.

After all, here was Adam McKay, the filmmaker behind (admittedly awesome) Will Ferrell comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys, and co-creator of the Funny or Die website co-writing and directing an adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2010 non-fiction book about the devastating collapse of the housing bubble in 2008.

I even skipped the first press screening back in November because I was busy, and while the film looked intriguing, it didn’t seem vital.

I was oh-so wrong. Not only is The Big Short extremely, must-see vital, but it’s one of my favorite films of 2015.

(Update: The Academy now agrees, nominating it for Best Picture, McKay and his co-writer Charles Randolph for Best Adapted Screenplay, Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor, and Hank Corwin for Editing.)

Like Lewis’ book, The Big Short focuses on three groups of investors, all of them outsiders or oddballs in some way, who, for various reasons (not always altruistic) bet against the housing market. Bale plays Dr. Michael Burry, a socially awkward California hedge fun manager who first susses out the fatal flows in the mortgage-backed security bubble. Steve Carell is Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman), an angry, crusading Wall Street hedge fund manager who can’t stand seeing the system continually cheat the little guys, and who teams up with Ryan Gosling’s Jared Vennett (based on Greg Lippmann), a more morally pragmatic bond salesman. And John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are two younger hedge fund managers trying to get their feet in the door with the help of their retired, cynical mentor, Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert (based on Ben Hockett).

the-big-short_0McKay’s smart, highly entertaining, and always infuriating film comes hard at the banking industry and Wall Street with a dynamic, irreverent, often profane and darkly funny ferocity. Even though the three groups never actually meet, overall The Big Short has the desperate precision and immediacy of a heist flick, only with much higher, more real stakes for the global economy.

I sat down with McKay in Chicago in early December to talk about The Big Short.

The Big Short is in theaters everywhere.

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I’m sure everyone asks you about making an issue film like this after years of making comedies. But what are some of the things you don’t get asked that you’re dying to talk about?

Adam McKay: Yeah, everyone asks me what it’s like to go from comedy to something more serious, and the answer is not that exciting. The truth is you’re still making movies. I still used a little bit of improv. I love all kinds of movies, and I’ve written different kinds of movies, and done rewrites on films you’ve never seen my name on. To me, the most intriguing part of this movie is just, “Why did these guys see it and no one else saw it?” That’s the part I could talk about for hours.

bigshortbale900And that they did so with all this general tide of greed-fueled delusion pressing back against them.

McKay: Completely. You look at that chart of housing prices and how flat it is and then it just goes “whoosh” upwards, and anyone can look at that and say, “Oh shit, we’ve got a problem.” Then all you have to do is ask the next question—I argued with a guy from the Wall Street Journal about this—which has to be, “How many of these mortgage-backed securities are out there?” And you’re there. And no one did that? I’m fascinated by that.

To me, the movie is about more than banking. It’s that question about how an entire society can go willfully blind, and then why do certain kinds of people see it—these outsiders who obviously aren’t part of the herd? To me, that’s really the core of the movie. A lot of people want to talk about the financial aspects and where we’re headed. But that question to me is the big, meaty center of this movie. And I’d apply that to the Iraq War as well and a lot of the stuff that goes on in D.C. with gerrymandering or not funding the 9-11 rescue workers. Where’s the conversation about that?

You have that poolside scene in the film with the Securities and Exchange Commission employee saying the SEC is too underfunded to fully investigate or prosecute irregularities and fraud. Meanwhile today, the head of the Federal Election Commission is saying the same thing about being too underfunded to prevent campaigns and super-PACs from colluding in the post-Citizens United landscape. So it comes down to whether elected representatives are actively working to defund these efforts because they go against theirs or their backers’ interests.

AR-AL617_FILM_G_P_20151210130412McKay: How are average Americans walking around okay with restricting people from voting? Literally the pillar of democracy that all of our grandfathers fought in World War II to protect. I don’t care if you’re right wing, Tea Party, left wing, that is the center of America. And they have found a way to disenfranchise millions of voters. That question is intriguing to me.

All of this gets at a sort of righteous anger and furious indignation that flows through and energizes the film, especially as embodied by Carell’s Baum.

McKay: What’s funny is that the puzzle pieces, the actual parts of the engine of this movie, once you put them together, there’s just anger there. It’s not even something you have to try to do. Baum is angry and does think the whole system is bullshit. Burry (Bale)  is the guy who loves the comfort of numbers, so when the numbers don’t make sense, he’s thrown off—he almost had to have surgery, his stomach was so upset.

So you see these guys, yeah, they’re expressing anger and anxiety and tremendous amounts of fear, especially the young guys, but it’s kind of built into the DNA of the story. The one part I added where maybe I gave a little extra jab of the knife was in the end when Baum said we’ll be blaming poor people and immigrants, and then the film does that little “But he was wrong, we put everyone in jail… Naw, just kidding!” I definitely put a little whip cream on it with that. But other than that, it was all stuff that happened and real characters. The truth is that the real story is beyond infuriating, and there’s no other way to really tell it.

BigShortBaleIt’s interesting that when your various protagonists start to see that the whole system is rigged, Burry finally responds with anger because he can’t stand to see the numbers manipulated. But by that point Baum just has that resigned defeatism of, “Well, of course they are.”

McKay: Exactly. I always got the sense from the real Dr. Burry that he found a lot of peace and comfort in the certainty of math. He told me that heavy metal, speed metal is modern classical music—he loves the symmetry of it; he loves just swimming in the comfort of numbers. And when those housing numbers didn’t make sense, it ripped him up. On top of that, everyone around him hated him and wanted to sue him. To this day he’ll tell you it was the worst time of his life.

And on the other hand, you have Pitt as the wise, sad hermit on the mountain.

McKay: That’s how I described it to Brad: The old gunfighter picking up his rusty gun again. Or his old samurai sword for one more go at it.

103240148-bigshort.530x298In Michael Lewis’ book and your film, what’s fascinating is how all these systematic failures still come down to the actions of individuals. Not one person, but many, at the very ground level, making decisions based on fear or self-preservation, or just an unwillingness to go against the herd.

McKay: I like to think Lewis even goes further—what he loves to do is find some new idea that happened, good or bad, that we didn’t notice coming about, that changes everything. Then from that change you get that individual going, “Ah, my hands are tied.” It’s all because of this one thing, the mortgage-backed security, which, in fairness to [its creator] Lewis Ranieri, was not a bad thing. It got mutated.

I love how Michael Lewis finds these ideas, like, “You know, the passing game got more popular, so the left tackle got paid more,” or, “You know, baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, which is weird, since all the other sports do, so it forces these guys to go to a Yale statistician, which then changes the face of baseball.”

So in this case, the billions they started generating from exotic derivatives changed the face of banking and also gave them enough money to start lobbying Congress seriously. They basically bought our government, and so ratings agencies aren’t doing their job, the SEC is asleep at the wheel; Congress, the Fed, all asleep at the wheel.

I noticed all the Barry Bonds clips throughout the film. In Twilight of the Elites, Chris Hayes uses baseball as an example of an institution collapsing under scandal and corruption.

McKay: I always thought Major League Baseball was a perfect metaphor for what’s happened to our government and our financial system. If you look at it, it’s the same exact dynamics—baseball destroyed itself and will never be the same again because of what it did. It was all short-term fixes to get the home run numbers up. They moved the fences in, all the journalists knew they were doing steroids but none of them reported it out of fear of losing access to the players, and they damaged that game maybe beyond repair. I used to be a giant baseball fan, but the historic record—which is the foundation of baseball—is forever damaged. So yeah, I definitely made a point of putting Bonds in there.

bgs-01810r2.0The film also does a fantastic job of using catchy celebrity appearances to entertainingly explain otherwise dry or complex concepts.

McKay: For some reason, the second I read the book I had that idea of doing those little explanatory vignettes. The idea came out of once again this question of, “Why didn’t anyone else see this?” And then I started thinking about our culture and how much time our culture spends talking about pop culture and who’s dating whom and celebrities.

And I wondered what would happen if that pop culture actually gave us information, so I just wanted to spool that through the movie, like the Ludacris video and the iPhones and Facebook thumbs-up and then go to these pop celebrities like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain and beautiful Margo Robie in a bath tub. This is the aesthetic and the values of pop culture, but actually telling you really salient information. I liked that contrast.

I knew there was no way to write all that information into dialogue between characters. It’d be really clunky, like, “So wait a minute, you’re telling me the CEO…?” “That’s right!” If you have to do that, you’re just dead in the water. I felt like Lewis’ book was so alive that it allowed for a little fraying of the edges and breaking the fourth wall.

Out of all those, what idea was the hardest to present in layman’s terms?

McKay: Collateralized debt obligations were really tough to explain because they’re so fucked up, so toxic that you could spend an hour talking about CDOs.

25-big-short-lede-pittAnd your film makes clear that these are intentional complexities designed to confuse and obfuscate.

McKay: But when you strip away all the language that’s confusing, it can be pretty simple. I practiced over and over again, trying to make this simple—I understand what you mean about the complexity. But the basic story is this guy created mortgage backed securities and they started making billions and billions of dollars. It was a great idea. But they ran out of good mortgages, so they started putting shitty mortgages in. The End.

That’s the entire the movie. And yes, there were CDOs created to cover the losses, and then synthetic CDOs became this contagion that spread all over the world, which made it worse and worse. But really the entire story is just that simple.

Your director of photography is Barry Ackroyd, best known for his hand-held cinematography on white-knuckle Paul Greengrass films like United 93 and Captain Phillips.

McKay: That was a very big choice that we made. There’s some really great Wall Street movies made over the years, like Margin Call—I really love Margin Call, Wolf of Wall Street, the original Wall Street is really good and holds up surprisingly well, aside from the giant cell phones. We wanted to show the other side of Wall Street. I wanted to show the guys who were anxious and had bad clothes and haircuts. When you talk to these real people, this whole ride was very stressful and upsetting. I never wanted cool, calm phone calls. I never wanted that sense of marble walls and stationary shots. I wanted to go inside these moments, and no one does that better than Barry Ackroyd.

You can have a scene that’s just a phone call with Christian Bale and Barry Ackroyd will shoot it so that you feel every ripple of emotion. I’ve heard some people say that it’s disconcerting, and I do use stable shots sometimes. Whenever I show Lawrence Fields, his chief at Scion Capital, I shot him a little more stable. I did mix it up. But it’s supposed to be disconcerting. These guys were wrecked. Two of them were having panic attacks because of this. One of them almost had half his colon removed. One guy went into almost a suicidal despondency. And two of the guys ended up quitting the business. Even though they made a fortune, none of them are tap-dancing about it to this day.

the-big-short-brad-pitt-steve-carrell-ryan-gosling-christian-bale-book-michael-lewisI was reading Lewis’ book on Kindle, and it has this feature that shows you which passages numerous other readers have highlighted. I began to notice that despite all the shocking and infuriating information in the book, most of the highlighted passages were of bits Lewis included to show the kind of blindly ambitious thinking that got us into the mess. Readers were highlighting things they saw as advice for how they could beat the market themselves.

McKay: Oh, that’s the most depressing thing ever. Our poor country. We’ll get back on track someday, we will.

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