The Big Short, an adaptation of Michael Lewsis’ sobering novel about how a handful of Wall Street outsiders saw the 2008 global economic collapse coming and managed to profit off of it, has been one of the biggest surprises of the awards season for one very specific reason: no one seemed to know that director Adam McKay had this kind of move in him. The guy who directed Anchorman, Campaign and Talladega Nights made a two-hour dramedy about mortgage backed securities, credit default swaps and wealthy Wall Street traders and hedge fund managers (played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt) convening in conference rooms and restaurants to plan their counter-investment strategies. Not just that, McKay managed to make all of that simultaneously understandable and riveting, showcasing some almost avante-garde directing and editing skills [check out my review].
That I didn’t see coming, but perhaps I should have. McKay has never made any secrets about his own political activism, and even though his movies like Anchorman and Campaign are broad, silly comedies they have distinct points of view. The first Anchorman is a reflection on sexism in the American workplace in the 70sm, and its sequel is a condemnation of the rise of 24-hour news infotainment. Campaign is a cry for campaign finance reform. That’s all just buried underneath West Side Story brawls between newscasters, impromptu renditions of “Afternoon Delight” and Will Ferrell accidentally punching a baby. Does The Big Short signal a transitional step in McKay’s career? From the moment he co-wrote the infamous Neil Diamond: Behind the Music SNL sketch with Will Ferrell, those two have been forever linked. In fact, McKay co-runs Gary Sanchez Productions with Ferrell and Chris Henchy, and he’s a producer on Ferrell’s current movie (Daddy’s Home) and his next one (The House). However, is he rethinking how he should go about getting his points across in his movies from this point forward?
Here’s what he recently told Deadline:
I think things have changed in the world. There was a period in the late ‘90s, 2000s where doing absurd, laugh-out-loud comedies with a kind of secret, satirical edge was a pretty good way to play it. As our society has continued to sort of spiral out in this really strange way, I’m just not sure that’s the method anymore. It was exciting to do a movie that was about a story happening as we were making the movie. This collapse was in ’08 but the repercussions are still evolving and changing. You look at things differently as you get older, and this feels like the right type movie to do for the time that we’re living in right now. I think in the future we’ll probably do a little more work and go after issues that are a little more on the surface, as opposed to absurdist comedies that we made. There’s no question we’ll still do comedies; I just think there’ll be a different tone we’ll develop.
How did he end up in the director’s chair for The Big Short?
I really feel that The Big Short is Michael Lewis’ masterpiece [he also wrote the novels Moneyball and The Blind Side], his most ambitious work. And when I read it I was just, like, oh my god, I have to make this […] I thought there was no way anyone will let me make this movie, so I just forgot about it. About two years later, Anchorman 2 had come out and done really well, and then I did Ant-Man [he co-wrote the script with Paul Rudd] and that was looking good. My agent, Cliff Roberts, asked if there was anything I really wanted to do if I could and I remembered The Big Short. Turned out to be one of those right-time, right-place moments, because the script stalled at Paramount. And the folks at Plan B said, “We are open to the idea of Adam McKay doing it.” We had this gangbusters meeting, where I pitched them my vision and they were completely into it.
How did he decide to use multiple fourth-wall breaking celebrity cameos to humorously explain the most complicated sounding economic concepts in the movie?
When I first read the book, what I liked was that the characters are the central backbone of the movie. Their vulnerability, their oddness, their pain ties us to the story. But I also loved that there was a sense that the book was having this really respectful conversation with the reader about how all this stuff works, the end goal being that, yes, it sounds very complicated, but it’s actually really not that complicated. I knew that that conversation had to happen in the movie, but it had to be done with the right alchemy because you’re right, you don’t totally want to throw us out of these characters lives by breaking the fourth wall too much. I’ve done a lot of theater in Chicago where we’ve played with and had success with breaking the fourth wall. And I saw it done well in the movie 24 Hour Party People and American Splendor. There is energy to it and an excitement that wakes up the audience, and that felt perfect for this movie.
What was his approach to the tricky turn the movie has to take when the outsiders who were betting against the banks briefly got screwed because they had no idea how corrupt the system really was?
I always viewed the first half of the movie a little bit as a thriller, little bit of a satire. Yeah, it’s got some funny stuff. But it’s got a lot of energy. And then, after Vegas or during Vegas is when they really go, like, “Oh, my god, we’re alone on the other side of the room on this investment and the whole system has been compromised.” At that point it becomes a bit of a tragedy. I never read it one way or another, as a comedy, a thriller or a tragedy. The movie goes through two or three phases. Then, they see that they’re not just betting against these banks, they’re betting against themselves, they’re betting against the world and that everything has been compromised. To this day, when you meet the real people, they’re still just in shock. They really, truly believed that the market works. And when they found out that it was rotten to the core, it really upset them. A bunch have quit, and to this day they are just as mad as ever.
Was he personally affected by the 2008 economic collapse?
I certainly had no idea it was coming but was fortunate to have had a smart business manager who took a lot of my money out of the stock market and saved me a lot of money. But I had a very close family member lose their house, and a bunch of close friends lose their jobs. We all felt it in the movie business. …. Studios reduced the amount of movies they were making and you saw the work decline and a whole new kind of scrutiny of criteria put towards what movies get made. I feel it really changed the film business in a big way. I’m lucky. I work in this crazy world of filmmaking where I was buffered enough. But I had a lot of family and friends who were heavily affected.
Now that he’s directed Anchorman co-star Steve Carell in a more serious movie, could he next do the same thing with Will Ferrell?
[Will] was already shooting another movie we were producing, Daddy’s Home, and was going right into a movie with Amy Poehler, The House, which we’re also producing. It was a good problem to have, him shooting two movies. We did talk about a cameo, but he was just so cool about it. He said, “You know what? Go do a movie without me. I think this is great for you.” But I too have thought about exploring that dark side, that edge he’s got, in a different kind of role. We’ve discussed it a bit. [Foxcatcher director] Bennett Miller’s right. It’s there.