A year ago who would have thought that a fourth-wall breaking financial comedy packed to the brim with jargon and all the messy details of the housing bubble would wind up a Best Picture Oscar nominee? Especially one written and directed by “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers” mastermind Adam McKay? But alas, here we are, in the midsts of an awards race where “The Big Short” is up for five Academy Awards, and putting up a solid fight. Which is not at all to say the film is undeserving, but rather to highlight just how far out of left field this movie came from. And, to give McKay the credit he deserves for making a truly idiosyncratic, electric, and fascinating film that actually succeeds in explaining collateralized debt obligations.
Recently McKay and ‘Big Short’ author Michael Lewis sat down with Charles Duhigg for a Times Talks interview. The hour-long chat dives into the tricky art of adaptation, making finance exciting, banking regulation, and so much more. Lewis goes in depth about why the characters mattered in a nonfictional account of a market collapse; making clear that it was who these people were that kept them outside of Wall Street and allowed them the perspective to see the coming calamity. And the story — book and movie — Lewis and McKay agree, is about more than the story of banks failing, it’s about American culture and what kind of people we value.
Throughout the talk, McKay professes his admiration for Lewis’ original text – calling it one of the “great books of our time” – mostly for how the author managed to distill complex political and financial concepts into something that was easy to understand (something the film succeeds at as well). McKay refers to this particular kind of jargon as “the language of power,” and posits that the potentially “boring” Wall Street argot of the movie really isn’t as opaque as some people think. McKay and Lewis also discuss their mutual goal to bleed Wall Street of its dry cultural connotations and make it exciting for multiplex viewers, as well as digestible and fun. McKay in particular also seems to believe that no matter how much we as Americans insist that we want nothing to do with the headache-inducing ins and outs of modern-day economics, it’s a part of our lives whether we want it to be or not.
For those who were captivated by the more financially technical aspects of “The Big Short” and the reality of Wall Street, the talk will be especially enlightening. But it’s also just fascinating to have a screenwriter/director in the same room with an author and to hear everything it takes to translate best-selling book into a critically acclaimed film.
Check out the talk with McKay, Lewis, and Duhigg below and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments. — additional reporting by Nicholas Laskin