Adam McKay’s The Big Short might look like a departure for the man responsible for some of the funniest mainstream films of the past decade, but in many ways it feels like a natural progression from his 2010 comedy The Other Guys. That film finished with statistics breaking down the reasons behind the 2008 financial crash, and his new film goes deeper into that subject, telling the story of a small band of investors who saw the crash coming before anyone else did and profited by betting against the housing market. An adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling nonfiction account, The Big Short attempts to explain the economic crisis in an entertaining and energetic way, and I met with Adam McKay last month to discuss it.
The Big Short was published in 2010 and The Other Guys came out in 2010. Was there an overlap there?
Without a doubt, yeah. I was doing a lot of research on the economy because we were trying with The Other Guys to do a comedy parable of the collapse. We had this idea that we were going to do a big silly laugh-out-loud comedy that also sort of mirrored Madoff and the collapse. Unfortunately I think the laughs obscured that, so when we had those end credits a lot of people were like, “Where did that come from?” and we were like, “No, the whole movie was about this!” Whatever, I still love the movie, but the result of it was that I started reading a lot of books about finance and economics in general. I got very interested and had a lot of conversations with very interesting people, and when you start doing that you inevitably come across The Big Short, so that's how it crossed my path.
You say the laughs obscured the message there. Was that something you had been thinking about for a while, trying to get these more serious and pointed ideas into your broad comedies?
Yeah, definitely. With Anchorman 2 we obviously wanted to criticise the ratings-driven and profit-driven news media, and we did it pretty overtly in that one. We are talking about very different movies, obviously, with Anchorman, The Other Guys and The Big Short. With the big laugh-out-loud comedies it's very tricky to get a point of view in because the laughs dominate so much. What was so refreshing about this movie is that I didn't feel like I was operating in any one genre, I don't feel like it's a pure comedy and I don't feel like it's a pure drama, and that was incredible. I loved the fact that every scene I wrote could just be what it needed to be, and I could change tones whenever I needed to. I didn't expect that with this movie and I ended up loving that aspect of it. It was one of the most enjoyable scripts I've ever written, precisely for that reason.
Michael Lewis has said that he thought the book was unfilmable. When you read it, did you instantly see a movie in there?
I did, I actually had a very strange experience. When I started reading it, there were certain images in the book that I just saw immediately; the glass eye on the football field, I never forgot that, to me it's the central image of the entire movie. There were several images in the book that I kept seeing – Carell's hand doing the zero – and a bunch of them ended up in the movie. I just thought the characters were incredible, and also the question of why they could see what nobody else could see. What has our culture become that millions of people, and actually millions of brilliant experts, didn't see any of this and why they were able to see. That was so intriguing and it had such a great mystery to it and so many great images, I thought that could be a great movie. The only real question was the information. I made the decision that I was actually going to explain the collapse, that you're going to actually hear all the esoterica, and then I quite simply said, screw it, I'm going to break the fourth wall. The number one rule of film is 'show, don't tell' but too bad, I'm breaking the rules. I feel like you do what's necessary to tell each story as it comes along, and in this case I felt it had to be done.
Because in this case particularly, the whole movie is exposition. Every scene has so much information to impart to the viewer. I was thinking about comparable exposition-heavy films and the one that came to mind as I watched it last night was actually Oliver Stone's JFK.
That's really interesting. By the way, same editor.
Yeah, I only realised afterwards when looking him up that he was Stone's guy.
I mean, it's a little bit like All the President's Men, right?
I guess the Stone comparison felt apt because it also maintains this high energy style, it's very intense, very visual, constantly moving. I wondered if he was a reference point for you at all.
When I actually entered the movie, one of my first thoughts was that I didn't want it to look like the other Wall Street movies that we've seen, even though they're brilliant movies, like Margin Call and Wall Street. They always show Wall Street as very monolithic, the people all look perfect and very powerful, it's locked-down shots and occasionally a little dolly, but these guys are the guys who can't make eye contact in a meeting, they're nervous, they dress poorly, have bad haircuts. I wanted this to have the anxiety that these guys have, everything was intense and scary, the world was collapsing around them. So that sort of edgy style that you're talking about, where we edit in the middle of lines, information is flowing and constantly changing, that was very intentional and it felt like how these guys had experienced that story. The idea of JFK, though, is fascinating, I'd never have thought of that. I just hired Hank Corwin because I knew he was a ballsy, innovative editor and I wanted someone to really go for it on this movie, but it had never occurred to me, that's really interesting.
To push the comparison a bit, they're both stories about these vast, almost inconceivable conspiracies.
And both stories, actually are really simple. JFK assassination? Lee Harvey Oswald shot him. The financial collapse? They had mortgage-backed securities, ran out of good mortgages, and put in shitty mortgages. That's really it, and in both cases there are people trying to make it incredibly complicated. There is actually a name for it, a neuropsychological name for that, where you look at a simple event and make it incredibly complicated, and I can't remember what the name of it is, but they always cite the JFK assassination as one. Have you been to Dallas and seen the book depository?
I've only seen the images in books and films.
Here's the craziest thing. I go to Dallas because I'm doing some show there, and we stop by the book depository. I'd always heard that it's this incredibly difficult shot because it's so far away, but it's so close you can't believe it. I'm not kidding, it's right there. [points out of the window] the road is here, and the building is right there, I'm like, “He shot him through the window! What's everyone talking about?”
Your version of JFK would have been a hell of a lot shorter than Stone's.
No kidding. Twenty minutes! Anyway, I'm getting way off subject, I'm sorry, but that is an interesting correlation with JFK, I like that.
I guess Barry Ackroyd is a key collaborator in that sense too. He's a cinematographer with a very identifiable style.
He was my dream choice for the movie. My first thought, I absolutely wanted him. You know, there's a lot of people talking on phones, there's a lot of people in offices. If we stay in mediums or just clean singles on those, we're dying, whereas the way Barry shoots, I think he's one of the best living DPs at getting inside these moments. With each scene we would talk about how much we wanted to fracture them. I would say, “Are we going super-impressionistic on this one? Are we going half-impressionistic?” and then we would try to dial it appropriately for where we were at. Oh yeah, he was essential to this movie, and a true joy to watch at work. I also love what he does with the long lenses, that sort of Cassavetes style, where he's way off the scene so the actors have this freedom to really behave, and all of the actors love the way Barry shoots. It's completely like a documentary, and that was essential to this movie too, where you really needed to feel these people behave in these offices, it needed to feel loose and sloppy.
In terms of working with the actors, your previous films have always been very heavily developed through improvisation and we often see multiple different versions of a scene in the outtakes. Did that approach change here with the different type of material?
I always use improv, going back to my days in Chicago. I had done some directing of dramatic pieces and I actually directed a dramatic improv show at one time, and I just find improv helps in a lot of ways aside from comedy. It makes the acting much more naturalistic, it frees up the actors to take risks and fail, because the whole premise of improv is that you have to fail, and what I really got out of it in this movie were mistakes. It was so good when an actor would laugh in the middle of a take and we'd put it in the movie, or people talking over each other, or just Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater and Jeremy Strong all shooting the shit in that office, we got so much improv out of that. Then there were other sections where I didn't improvise at all and I was just trying to get that emotional quality going, but it was nice for the actors. Everybody knew that it's not a Mamet script, you don't have to say 'and' exactly three times and 'the' twice, it's okay as long as we get the vibe. So if you're talking about proportions, when we do the comedies we do a lot of improv and in this case I probably did about 20% as much as I would do in a comedy.
I think it's fascinating the reaction that a film like this gets and the reaction that your previous films get. You might get great reviews for your comedies, but they never get talked about in terms of awards, etc. like this one instantly has been. Do you feel frustrated at all by that?
No, not at all. The interesting with comedy is that it takes like 30-40 years, and then they become more esteemed than a lot of the dramas. I remember saying to my grandmother one time, it must have been so cool when you were young, you got to see the Marx Brothers” and she said [disgusted tone] “We didn't watch the Marx Brothers! They were low comedy.” I said, what? They were the greatest comedy team in cinema. She just said, “No they're not, we hated the Marx brothers.” [laughs] It's amazing, the Marx brothers in their day and age were considered crappy.
A cheap vaudeville act.
Exactly, cheap vaudeville, and now they're just revered, so comedy 30-40 years later comes out of the wash quite nicely. WC Fields still holds up, Laurel and Hardy, all these great old comedies. But most of all, if anyone asks if we are ghettoised, I just say we don't care because we have so much fun making them, and they are so enjoyable, and I'm so happy when they're done. I remember three weeks after Step Brothers came out I was walking down the street and I heard three separate people quoting the movie in a six-block stretch in New York City, so just to feel those movies permeate the culture is so exciting. It's the coolest experience in the world. So I have no complaints about making the comedies, but it is funny how this one goes on all the lists, you're right.
I remember telling people that Steve Carrel should be nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Anchorman in 2004. It seemed so obvious to me.
I totally agree. 100% It's a funny thing, I remember Michael Moore calling me when Talladega Nights came out and saying, “You just made the most subversive movie of the year and nobody knows it. Don't tell anyone.” [laughs]
Your films have always had those subversive and satirical elements
Always with every single comedy Will and I do, we bury a point of view at the centre of it. We have a five-minute conversation, we go “Let's never tell anyone this, but this movie is actually about how consumerism turns grown men into children, now let's never speak of it again.” [laughs] We always do that game, and obviously Talladega Nights was about this crazy red state pride, and we were like, “What the fuck is going on? Bush has a 90% approval rating?” So we wanted to go into the belly of the beast with that one. We try to never hit it too overtly, although I think with Anchorman 2 we hit it pretty overtly, we just had a stretch where we thought, “Fuck it, let's just do it. Ron Burgundy invents trash TV.” I think this movie, The Big Short, has some elements of satire to it, but I also think there's a lot of stuff in there so it jumps around from genre to genre.
So thinking about audience reactions, what kind of impact are you hoping to have with The Big Short?
I don't know how it was here, but after 2008 the frustrating thing was that we sort of made a bunch of noise, the Occupy was great but faded away, they did Dodd-Frank, which kind of got watered down in the States, and then it just stopped. Nobody talked about it anymore. It didn't go away, we're still in the midst of dealing with that collapse right now, and I just thought that was crazy. Now they're talking about getting rid of some of the little reform that we did do in the States, and I just think, do people even know what that reform is? Quite simply, I would just love it if it kickstarted that conversation a little bit, that's all, if it even just did that I would be so happy. Even if it kickstarted it in a way that became an argument, just to remind us, especially with what's going on in the States right now with all of this anti-immigration and anti-poor people talk, just to remind us what caused this. This is what caused it, and we should remember that. It doesn't mean we have to vilify every single banker, banking is good when it's regulated properly, but we need to be smart about it and we need to have a discussion. If I saw a 10% or even a 6% uptick in the conversation, I would do backflips.
It is good to see a film like this coming out of a major studio.
It's kinda shocking too, yeah.
When you mentioned the way Anchorman 2 took on 24-hour news, I think that's something we get a sense of in this film too, that we have more news sources than ever before but paradoxically less information.
Without a doubt. I mean, I don't remember any major news outlet that made any attempt to explain the collapse. I just remember tonnes of misinformation, op-eds, “It was the poor people buying the stupid mortgages,” it was all that kind of crap. At no point did a news person say, look this isn't that complicated: it was the mortgage-backed securities, they were making billions, they ran out of good mortgages, they put crappy ones in. That's it. Like, I just said it in thirty seconds.
You must be pretty well practised at explaining that by now.
[laughs] Yeah, that's true in fairness. But the news is a major problem in the United States, I mean that's how you get a guy like Donald Trump. I keep saying about Donald Trump: does anyone know that the last census in the United States says that more immigrants are leaving the US than are coming in? Doesn't that end the entire Donald Trump candidacy? Why are we talking about building a wall when more Mexicans are leaving than coming in? I keep bringing this up and people ask me, “Is that true?” Yes! It's the census!
His soundbites carry so much more weight than any facts, though. In this media climate, how do we get past that sensationalism to get people to pay attention to facts and figures?
That's what we're trying to do with The Big Short. It didn't even occur to me until you said it like that, but that's exactly what the movie is trying to do. Actually for years we have been playing around with this idea, of how do you bring out the power and the excitement of the truth, of real facts? I find them far more exciting than misinformation and misunderstanding. Here's the good news, though; we screened this movie in far-off suburbs and cineplexes, and people responded to it, and people in the focus groups explained the crash back to the focus group leader. People were mad, and you could feel it when Steve Carell says, “I have a feeling we'll be blaming immigrants and poor people,” it got applause in several theatres, in pretty conservative suburbs outside Los Angeles. I don't know, we'll see, but that's the game, I think you just described it perfectly.
What are your thoughts on where the political discourse in America goes from here? The country seems so polarised and entrenched politically. Do you have any optimism?
I go back to the news media, I really do. When they got rid of that fairness doctrine and allowed the news media to talk in opinions, that was a major law change in the 1980s and nobody noticed it when it happened. That's what birthed Fox News, and when Fox News and Rush Limbaugh came on the scene that's when that polarisation started, and you saw a segment of our country just drift away from facts. Really what's happened to political discourse in our country is when you're arguing with somebody on the other side, you're arguing with a religious person. Nobody wants to talk data, nobody wants to talk facts, nobody wants to talk history; I'll just say something to someone, and they'll say, “You're a liberal.” End of discussion. It's heartbreaking, it really is, and it's probably not going to end so well. We're probably going to end with some kind of political or social crash of some kind...actually, I don't know how it's going to end. The real crash would be if Donald Trump became President. I mean, that's unfathomable.
It's unfathomable in a sense but it's also not, because he's gone from being a joke figure to the leading Republican candidate and when you watch those rallies, the fervent support and the influence he exerts is terrifying.
I honestly think if Trump becomes President it's kind of like the end of America. I think we would become something closer to Russia. I was in Moscow and I thought, if America isn't careful we could become this. It's just totally corrupt, unregulated, and I think if Donald Trump becomes the President of the US you'd see us really slip, and I also think you'd see a million people leave the US. You could see a mass migration.
And you see what's happening in Canada with the optimism surrounding Justin Trudeau, and you couldn't have a sharper contrast just across the border.
I love that the right wing in the US still talks about how awful Canada is and then you go up to Canada and it's so clean, you don't see any homeless people in Toronto, everyone you talk to in any kind of little deli or something is making a living wage. I just had a friend and his wife move to Toronto, his wife is Canadian and my buddy said, that's it, I'm getting out of here. He sent me a letter saying he's got dental care for his kids, full healthcare, the school's amazing. I think if Trump becomes President you'll see a million people leave the US, I really do. It would be an amazing story.
So what do you have lined up next?
At this stage, going around talking about the movie and stuff, I'm half-thinking about ideas. I have two or three that I'm looking at. There's one I'm really interested in, it's almost hard to describe, but it would be a near-science fiction movie. You know how they talk about how CEOs of big corporations tend to be sociopaths? The idea would be that 30-40 years in the future, we openly celebrate sociopaths, and you'd want to be a sociopath to succeed. It's almost like our culture has become such that we celebrate sociopaths the way we celebrate great athletes. I guess it would be in the vein of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, but maybe more stylised and even a little darker, so I'm kind of kicking that around. Then I have another idea that's kind of a big epic...I hate to say it because it sounds boring, but it's actually really cool...a climate change movie. And then there's a comedy that I'm working on with Ferrell.
Speaking of Ferrell, there's one last thing I really want to tell you. I've long though that the "Aim for the bushes" gag in The Other Guys is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in a cinema, and I can still remember how my stomach hurt from laughing so hard at that screening.
[laughs] I'll tell you this. Will and I routinely talk about how we think that's the funniest thing we've ever done. The two funniest things I think we've ever done, and this is just us saying it, are the family grace scene in Talladega Nights, which I love – all that Coke and KFC on the table and the house with the jetskis – that, and jumping off the building. When we finally got that song “There goes my hero...” I ran around the edit room going, “Oh my God, you've got to hear this song.” The second that song went in the whole thing came together. There's nothing more fun than watching an audience deal with that scene. When we'd screen it they'd think “No way, they'd never survive that, this is bullshit,” and then when they hit the ground there's this moment of stunned silence, and then it explodes. That scene makes me laugh so hard, I love that you said that. I'll have to tell Will.
The Big Short is released in UK cinemas on January 22nd