To ignite a spark in Adam McKay’s step, simply mention Jesse Moss’ documentary from last year, “The Overnighters.” A recent Netflix watch by the writer/director of “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” has left him blown away, and willing to explore every facet when I sit down with him in Los Angeles. But how would he pitch such a reveal-heavy film? “A minister in this oil-rich town lets these transient workers sleep in his church, and all I’ll tell you besides that is if I had to explain where America is right now, I would have you watch that movie.” It’s fitting, and gracious, considering that we’re here to talk about McKay’s latest film, “The Big Short,” which explains how America got to its present state by focusing on its recent financial past.
Focused on the housing and credit bubble that burst in 2008 to several trillions of dollars worth in losses and taxpayer-bought bailouts, McKay’s film highlights his political and dramatic impulses from frame one. Not to say it doesn’t feature the same left-field humor that marks his previous comedies – McKay takes his star-studded ensemble (Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, among many others) to some truly bizarre places. Dense, digression-heavy, and briskly paced, it’s two hours spent laughing until reality sets in.
As we spoke to McKay following the film’s AFI Fest premiere (our review), he explained the unbelievable truths of Wall Street, the key image that made him tackle the project, and the pre-“Anchorman” pitch to Judd Apatow so crazy it actually angered the “Trainwreck” director.
How did you enter into this project and put your own spin on it?
You first think of the other projects that have gone into this world. They had this austerity to them, this kind of blue and gray color scheme portraying Wall Street like it’s cold and ominous, like in “Margin Call,” or the first “Wall Street.” There’s “Wolf of Wall Street,” which I love, but that’s more about a crook living a crazy lifestyle and not Wall Street. So I wanted this to be rumply and real. What I loved about Lewis’ book is you can feel the clothes on the people, who aren’t dressed well to begin with.
I also didn’t want to do a bunch of medium shots of people on phones. I wanted to go inside of it. When you start thinking like that you start thinking of one DP: Barry Ackroyd. I rewatched all of the ‘Bourne‘ films and I realized, this is the way it has to be done. But then I had the style, breaking the fourth wall and having these explainers come in. I started thinking, “Can you blend that verite Greengrass/Ackroyd style with some more traditional and framing styles? And occasionally can I go to a medium or wide or the dolly, even though we’re going to be doing this handheld?” Actually, the movie I was really, really inspired by was “24 Hour Party People,” that was the one.
In terms of its mix of playful formalism and more realistic aspects?
Exactly, that films was breaking the fourth wall and commenting on scenes, and yet it was handheld-y and dirty. I just remember I saw that film in theaters with my wife and I went, “That’s about as entertaining a movie as I’ve ever seen in my life.” I love that movie and talk about it all the time. I’ve always had this idea of broken fourth wall/realist mish-mash, and I thought if ever you’re going to do it it’s with this subject matter, which can be insanely boring if you don’t do it right.
I’ve read that you’re attracted to characters who think they’re number one, and actually aren’t. In “The Big Short” I realized you’re following the people next to the people who think they’re number one.
That was the thematic center that drew me, this focus on seeing behind the superficial. Also feeling in some ways that our popular culture isn’t valuing the correct ideas; we’re valuing presentation more than we ever have. That’s always happened, but look at the leading men in the 1970s: Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Dustin Hoffman? These were the movie stars? And the truth is it was a different time back then. Presentation is so important now, never more so than in the financial world. It’s important what suit you wear, how you dress, unless you’re an uber hedge fund genius like Michael Burry. But it even hurt him, as he wasn’t able to open a second fund when he wanted or get seed money. He wasn’t able to schmooze, and it made it very difficult for him to do what he needed to do. Even though he’s one of the most brilliant minds in finance.
When depicting these versions of real characters, did you use Lewis’ book as kind of a shield? If an event was in the book, was it fair game for the film?
It actually annoyed me because the movie is entirely accurate except for two things that aren’t completely true. [SPOILERS] The “Morgan Stanley going under as a threat to Frontpoint” wasn’t as direct as we say in the movie. It was actually that “Morgan Stanley could go under, the whole system could go under, holy shit, we gotta sell”. They were stunned that Morgan Stanley was teetering, but they would not have lost their money had they gone under. But I had to have it for drama, so I fudged that.
And then the only other thing that isn’t true was the family tragedy for Steve Carell’s character — the real one was way worse in that it involved a small child. The real family asked to not put it in, and I said, “You got it.” I asked if I could fictionalize something else, and they agreed to have the brother, which is still pretty awful. We tweaked names, but most of it is true. That’s why I have characters say in the film, “This actually happened.” Because I don’t want people to think it’s bad writing that, for example, Frontpoint found the tip through a bad number, or Bear Stearns going under while Mark Baum is giving a speech. If you saw that in a fictional script you’d think, “This is just cheeseball.” [END SPOILERS]
The film is so dense, editing-wise. Was it daunting going into the first assembly cut?
I was very lucky with this movie, simply because I had one of the five best editors in the business, Hank Corwin. He’s a monster, skilled and gifted. He did “Tree of Life,” “Natural Born Killers,” “JFK”. He’s also the uncredited guy that top people — Ridley Scott, Michael Mann — bring in. He runs his own commercial editing house, so I think he’s super rich off of that; he doesn’t have to work all the time and only does stuff that he likes. I had this idea of this movie, and he was cutting exactly the way I thought it.
Was there a line or scene in the film that you thought, “I need to make this just so I can put this in”?
Oddly enough it was the death of the child. That was the central image I had when I started writing the script. And then when I couldn’t use it in the movie, I realized it didn’t matter. I realized what I liked about it was that a character who had suffered this tragedy had changed the way he viewed the world. So we came up with the brother and it still worked. I think it works better actually, I think the small child would’ve been so hard to go through.
The other one I had was Ben Rickert (played by Brad Pitt) showing up with the face mask in the airport. That’s not even in the book, I just knew that when that character arrives he’s going to wear a mask coming down the escalator. Actually, no, the first image that I wanted to put in was Michael Burry’s glass eye falling out onto the football field. I just thought the image was the whole movie in that one thing. Just a small child covering his eye, and everyone pointing and laughing at him.
That image, and the “Phantom of the Opera” theme playing over Vegas later, puts a very theatrical tone over the film.
I was going to play some hip-hop or club music over Vegas, and we kept putting it in and Hank said, “It looks like ‘Entourage’ .” And then he put that track in and said, “We should do Vegas like a Gothic horror.” I was like, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me.” That and my other favorite cue in the movie was John Ashcroft singing “Let The Eagle Soar” — our assistant editor had that idea. It’s Colorado, which kind of has a red state vibe to it, so we put that in and immediately it was like, “That’s staying in.”
I was struck by those weird touches that made it into the film, and I wondered how many times, like with Paramount or Marvel, you’ve had to keep the business side of your projects in check with your insane takes.
Maybe… hundreds of times. [laughs] That’s life as a filmmaker going into the studio system now, for sure. I was trying to do Garth Ennis‘ “The Boys” at one point, and I took it to every studio, every production financing place in town. And they were always like, “No.” I had this crazy pre-viz reel that I’d done, and it was insane, like superheroes doing cocaine. And they all said, lazily, “So it’s like ‘Watchmen‘?” And then eventually I started realizing that no one was going to do it, and I started pitching the craziest aspects of it, embracing the fact that they hated it.
So that’s always been the case.
When I started, I just didn’t know what you pitched to whom. So the first time I pitched to Judd Apatow, I had about five ideas, and one of them was a bunch of runaway skate punks who hole up in this abandoned house, watching craggly TV and smoking pot and doing ecstasy. And then one day a show with Aaron Spelling comes on, and they just become transfixed by it. They decide that Aaron Spelling is the root of all evil and they’re going to travel cross-country and kill Aaron Spelling.
Apatow got mad at me. He said, “That’s not funny.” I explained, “No, it’s not real, they’re not really going to kill him. The idea is that it’s a cultural war, we’ll have funny stuff on the way like ‘Slacker’.” But he really got mad at me, and it was actually the last time we spoke for about a year. And then later we got to be friends and now we’re totally cool. I brought that up to him later and he didn’t remember. He said, “That is a fucked up idea, though.”
“The Big Short” opens in limited release on December 11th, and everywhere on December 23rd.