Q&A with 'The Big Short' director Adam McKay
By ALYSSA ROSENBERG | The Washington Post | Published: February 9, 2016
Adapting "The Big Short," Michael Lewis’ dense book about the housing bubble and financial crisis, for the big screen ought to have been an impossible task. But Adam McKay, whose always slyly political comedies have become blunter as the years have gone on, pulled it off, making a movie that, believe it or not, is at its funniest when guiding audiences through complicated financial concepts like synthetic collateralized debt obligations. And McKay did it to the tune of five Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Christian Bale, who plays hedge fund manager Michael Burry.
Last week, McKay and I spoke for an hour about where "The Big Short" fits into his filmography, making movies in an age of omni-present fact-checking, the diversity movement in Hollywood and whether the entertainment industry is actually liberal (the answer to that one began with actual laughter).
The Washington Post: I wanted to start out with sort of a broad question and ask you about "The Big Short" in the context of your other movies. Because it’s been sort of amusing for me to watch people talk about this film like it’s a huge departure, when to me, it seems like there are a lot of common elements: There’s a clear political worldview, there’s Steve Carrell, there’s an interest in people who find themselves dealing with this moment of big social change. But I would be curious to hear more about how you think the movie fits with movies like "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights," because I see that, but that doesn’t mean that’s necessarily how you see it.
McKay: Yeah, no, that is definitely how I see it. ... Obviously, in the ’80s, you saw our culture get more conservative. But in the ’90s, the early ’90s, it really started to feel real. It started to feel, like, ’Oh my God, our Democratic president is becoming more monied and more corporatized. ’And so I just think this big change happened in America, and I think it’s probably a change that happened worldwide, where just trillions of extra dollars went online, you saw, with technology, people becoming more interconnected, and all these more complicated ways of gaming the system became very common. And all of a sudden, our politicians started playing ball with it and, you know, not just the banks, but our system got captured by this big money.
Anyway, that’s the broad point of view. So we were always kind of playing around with that, even back in Chicago, when we were doing Upright Citizens Brigade and we were doing Second City. This was always a topic we were messing around with, we kept talking about those corporate box restaurants, like Macaroni Grill and you know, whatever, there’s thousands of them, Chili’s and stuff. There was just a change that was definitely happening. And I remember my castmates there, we all were noticing it.
So I look at kind of everything we’ve done through that lens of where is America headed? And if you look at our movies, even the absurdist comedies like "Anchorman" definitely was fueled by us watching televised news and realizing, ’Oh, they’re not talking about anything anymore.’ They’re giddy when there’s an animal story, and they’re giddy when there’s a salacious crime story, and they’re not telling us how our state legislature voted today, and they’re not telling us about the trade deal that was just signed that will affect hundreds of millions of people. So even though we came from comedy, and we like to laugh, it was always for us, it was driven by a point of view, by something that was going on. ...
So, yeah, as silly as the comedies are, they came out of this change that we were just aware of and commenting on, and when I was at "Saturday Night Live" we were commenting on, and you know, so, "Anchorman" clearly came out of that, even though it’s absurdist, crazy stuff. You look at the gang fight, they’re all news stations battling to be No. 1 in the ratings. We were definitely making comments on us while making ourselves laugh.
And then kind of the big moment was when Bush got re-elected and we were just stunned. And we realized, ’Oh my God, we just re-elected that guy after one of the worst first terms ever?’ And that was, "Talladega Nights" came out of that. We kicked around the idea of NASCAR before, because we were fascinated by it, and when that happened, we were like ’Let’s go to the deep South. Let’s see what’s going on down there.’... And then with "The Other Guys," things started to get more overt as things got crazier. We felt like we were being pretty overt in "The Other Guys," but people didn’t quite pick up on it. But for us, we were then going after it a little more aggressively.
And then the one, really, that I think is the most overt of all the absurdist comedies we did was "Anchorman 2," where the reason we did the movie was because we had this idea that Ron Burgundy was the guy who was going to single-handedly destroy the integrity of news journalism, TV news journalism, or even just journalism in general.
One through-line that I see in a lot of your work is people realizing in some way that the system is rigged. "Anchorman" is sort of the story of all of these newsmen who are incredibly discomfitted when suddenly they have to compete with a woman; they’ve been benefitting from this system that put them ahead. "Talladega Nights," again, to a certain extent, it’s a movie about corporate race-fixing, you have this team where one guy’s always going to be No. 1, one guy’s always going to be No. 2. "The Big Short" is a movie about people who realize the system is fixed a certain way.
I think so! You know, a word that we always come back to, and my wife knows I’ve railed against this, is the word "career." I actually think the word career is a really awful, evil concept. The idea that your personal track is all that matters. I think the way these systems become corrupted is through career, and that people only look at their own progression.
So if you look at all the movies, we love to play with the idea of — and Will’s so good at doing it — of these characters (who) are having great careers, but are actually hurting what’s going on around them. If you look at Ron Burgundy, there’s no question. He’s No. 1 in San Diego, all he cares about is being No. 1, he always has to be the guy, it’s all about ego. And you look at Ricky Bobby, it’s the same thing: I’ve got to be No. 1, screw everything else. To a degree, "Step Brothers," those guys are having anti-careers, but they’re very comfortable and love the track they’re on. And we always play the idea that these guys hit a calamity and then see the bigger picture, to some degree. ... But yeah, I would say that’s something I always kind of grind on.
You see it in "The Big Short," where the journalist tells Jamie (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie (John Magaro) [two smaller-time investors who stumble onto the idea of shorting the housing market], ’Hey, man, I’ve got to pay my bills. You want me to blow up my career because of this crazy hunch of yours?’ And to a some degree, I don’t blame the guy. The guy has a kid and a wife. You do have to be a little careful. But it’s kind of the conundrum of American culture, is when you get everyone thinking individually, powerful forces have won at that point. There’s no movements then. It’s everyone just checking their own paycheck in their own back yard. And I think systematically, that’s happened to some degree.
You mentioned the scene with the newspaper reporter, and that actually gets at the next thing I wanted to ask you. Because you have this great Michael Burry (Bale) speech at the end of the movie about authority and where people sort of vest authority, and who they take as authoritative. This movie is about a small group of people who, among the larger group of people who predicted the financial collapse, figured out how to make money off of that impending crisis. But that doesn’t quite resolve the larger question of who do you listen to.
You know, it’s such a funny answer for me to give you as a guy who majored in English in college, and I’m not in any way what I’m about to describe, but I think the answer is math. I think that’s who we trust. And you see it. The guy who caught Madoff, it was just math. He looked at the odds that someone could be having these returns and they were one in three billion or whatever it was. It was just pure math. He was completely unaware of the social matrix, he just looked at the math.
And that’s what Burry did. Burry was a guy who was not a part of the popular culture. He was a guy who was pretty isolated with his family, and even his wife was an immigrant. And he just purely looked at numbers, and that’s how he came to it. And I think that’s usually the answer. Just look at the stone-cold reality and the math. And again, that’s another subject that we’ve been told over and over again is very boring.
But it’s an interesting question, right? Because one of the things the characters find when they go to Miami is this sort of widespread financial illiteracy. Not everybody’s going to take higher math. So what are they going to do? It seems like one of the points of the movie is that financial literacy should be an emergency educational priority in this country.
That’s been one of the three big things I’ve been saying when we’ve been talking, doing Q&As. I always say, look at your candidate: If they’re taking money from banks, oil companies or billionaires, don’t vote for them. And then the second thing I say is, why in God’s name are we not teaching finance and economics in our public schools. It just seems like absolute madness to me.
One of the things I found interesting about "The Big Short" is that it’s really a piece of explanatory moviemaking. But I was curious about how you calibrated the relationship between the film and the audience, because the risk of a film that’s explanatory is that it either condescends to the audience or overwhelms them.
It’s a great question. And it was a big part of what we worked on. I think the Michael Lewis book has just, he has an excitement about him when he learns about stuff. And he always conveys it really well. When you read a Michael Lewis book, you’re kind of discovering it with him. And whether it’s "Liar’s Poker" where he goes into this world and thinks, ’Oh, I’ll do this,’ when you’re reading it, you’re experiencing it with him where he realizes ’Oh my God, this world is so messed up and strange,’ and you’re kind of discovering it with him.
So, we wanted the movie to have that same kind of energy. I’m a guy who’s not an economist, I’m a guy who’s not an expert on finance, obviously. So I just tried to treat it like the movie was talking to me. And no one wants to be talked down to. No one wants to be told that ’Oh my God, if you’re not getting this, you’re not that smart.’ Because it’s generally not true. It’s all about how you explain stuff, and people learn in different ways. So I wanted the movie to kind of have that enthusiasm of discovery. And I figured if we had that sort of excitement of discovery to it, it could never be condescending. ...
But so what we did is we tested the movie a lot. By tested, I just mean screened. And some nights I wouldn’t even look at the numbers or the cards, I would just sit in the audience to just see how it felt when they were being told this stuff. And generally the key line was the line where we had Dr. Burry talking to the Tracy Letts character, Lawrence Field (who backed Burry’s hedge fund), about what he had discovered. And the language started to get really complicated.
And every night I would be in the audience and would feel the audience kind of seize up, like ’I don’t know what they’re talking about.’ And right at that moment, we got the timing exactly right, we would have Ryan Gosling come in and say ’Do you feel bored right now? Do you feel stupid?’ And you could just feel, like, this warmth go over the audience of, like, ’Oh my God.’ And by the way, if (New York Times columnist) Paul Krugman were in the audience, or whoever, or (Planet Money co-host and consultant to "The Big Short") Adam Davidson, that person then would laugh, because the people that did understand would laugh at that moment because they know that generally they know that people aren’t going to know what that is.
We really looked at the timing of those moments, we looked at the tone of the explanation, and you know, the key moment is when Margot Robbie’s in the bathtub (explaining mortgage-backed securities)], and we improvised this on the set, but it came out of that tone, where at the end she goes, "Now (expletive) off." And it was a big laugh from the audience because it’s playful, it’s in their language. We just had to be careful that not for one second did we feel that we’re so cool because we know something you don’t. The spirit of the movie had to be the opposite of that. It had to be, hey, we found something out, check it out.
There’s been this huge rise in the number of pieces that fact-check Hollywood movies about politics, economics, history. And it’s something that’s interesting for me to watch as a critic, because it’s a way for policy journalists to get in on these movies. But I’m curious to know what it’s like to make a movie knowing that those pieces are out there and are going to be written. I think people are always going to nitpick an adaptation from a book to a movie, but how do you decide how to operate in that environment, I guess I’m asking. I don’t know if that makes sense.
No, I know what you mean. Well, you know, one of the driving forces of the movie is we are going to go past the jargon and expertise of this world. And we’re going to let a person going to a cineplex in Houston know about this world. So the kind of intention of this movie, and I talked about this with Adam Davidson, I talked about this with everyone I worked with, Nicholas Britell, our composer, who is also a financial expert. So we talked about this. The intention of the movie was to go beyond expertise and sort of re-democratize the discussion of finance and banking. So we knew we were going to take it on the chin, a little bit.
In fact, it was very funny, we did a screening for a bunch of journalists and hedge fund guys, and Mervyn King (a former governor of the Bank of England and chairman of the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee) showed up. And at the end of the screening, we went around the table ... Davidson asked everyone, ’What do you think the complaints about this movie are going to be from the financial community?’ And Mervyn King, I thought, had the most interesting answer. He said, ’You’re going to find certain people aren’t going to like this movie because they liked to be the experts.’ And I thought, ’That is so smart.’ And it’s going to annoy them. They’re going to find things to kind of pick at. And I thought, boy, especially for a guy like Mervyn King to be saying that, I thought that was really fascinating.
So we kind of knew we were going to get that. We actually are really happy with the arguments and Grep Ip kind of taking issue with part of the film, and then someone responding to Greg Ip, and the guy from Politico, what’s his name, (Michael) Grunwald, the (former treasury secretary Tim) Geithner biographer, and then two other people writing pieces back against him. It’s great! That’s exactly what this was supposed to do. But most of all we’re happy with the people in Omaha who are walking out going ’Holy crap!’ That’s really what the movie was made to do. We knew because we were linking to serious professionals, there would be those complaints. There would be people saying, ’Wait a minute, this exact point isn’t right.
But we fact-checked it as much as we could. We went through everything with a fine-tooth comb. Davidson was brutal on the script, and other people who read it were brutal on the script. So we beat it up as much as we could. We tried to check every direction to make sure we had everything in a row, knowing full well we’d still take it on the chin from certain quarters.
What do you think filmmaker’s obligations are when they’re adapting something as complicated as this, or adapting non-fiction in general. Because I know Jezebel had its complaints about (the decision to cut financial analyst) Meredith Whitney (a character in Michael Lewis’ book who also predicted the financial crisis early, but didn’t make a short sell based on that realization), and I’m not really interested in litigating that specific argument because I think you’re right, she is a minor part of the beginning of the book, but how do you make those decisions about where the core of the story is?
You know, I’ll even talk about the Meredith Whitney thing. We did have a discussion in the beginning about, do you recast certain roles to make it more diverse. And the only reason we didn’t do any of that kind of stuff and fictionalize too much is because I felt like the whole thrust of this movie had to be ’We’re going to tell you how it really was.’ And if we started recasting characters right away, I would have then had to have characters in the movie be saying ’That’s not really the guy that did this.’ My whole initial premise for the movie is that we are going to be as aggressively truthful with an audience as we can be.
And so right away, it threw out the window the idea of radically recasting characters, or combining people. So, that went out the window pretty quick. I think it’s different for each movie. ... With this movie, we were pretty aggressive with wanting to, with feeling an almost journalistic responsibility to it. You know, and when it came to the Wall Street Journal scene, we went and fact-checked it and had sources that said no, they had gone there three times, and gone to the New York Times a couple of times, and with every element of it, we did as much as we could to make sure it’s accurate.
You brought up an interesting point about factual accuracy and diversity in casting. Part of what struck me about the movie is that, factually, this is a story about what a community that’s mostly white guys did. It struck me as a case where the diversity argument was sort of counterproductive, in that if this is a movie where women and people of color are playing characters who were originally white guys, you kind of don’t get the truth of that environment.
I’m kind of with you. It’s a strange thing when people complain about diversity in a movie like this, because I definitely think diversity is a big issue, and should be complained about and addressed, especially with the arts and filmmaking. So I’m in 100 percent agreement with the controversy.
But with this movie, I feel two things. I feel like, No. 1, I’m glad that you’re concerned about diversity, but, you know, if I was making "All The President’s Men," would you want me to have Nixon’s Cabinet be really diverse? Because, like, you’re right. Part of the point of the movie is this is a white, male-dominated world, and maybe it shouldn’t be.
So it felt, I just felt like no way, I’m not going to put women in these positions when a system was collapsing and they weren’t really in those positions. Because I do agree with you, I think part of the story of Wall Street, is it’s a white, male, it’s a boy’s club, no question, though it’s slowly getting better in small, small ways, and we’re occasionally seeing CEOs of Fortune 500 companies that are women, and we’re a hell of a lot better than we were 100 years ago. It’s still a big part of the story. So I always have to curb my frustration when I hear that complaint, because it comes from a really good place. But I think any time I’ve talked to anyone one on one about it, they always go oh, yeah, I didn’t think of that. And then it’s over with.
I think part of that is there’s just a sort of reflexive habit of assuming that stories with casts that are largely white or largely male are meant to represent the norm instead of being about subcultures that are specifically white or specifically male.
I think you’re 100 percent right. And actually, if I had known, I could have. Well, I don’t know. Could I have had a character call it out in the movie? That might have felt a little sweaty, actually. I think you just take it on the chin, you let it speak for itself. That wouldn’t have felt right. But yeah, yeah. I think you’re right. I think it comes from a good place, though. So on the list of things to be annoyed by, it’s pretty low. But I do hope that people understand that was a conscious choice on our part.
We were talking a little bit about diversity, and one of the things that’s been interesting about this Oscar season is a lot of the discussion about who wins Oscars and what kinds of movies win Oscars are, to a certain degree, they’re about diversity, but they also implicate what kinds of movies are Oscar bait. One way to appeal to the Academy is to make a movie that has implications for timely political debates but that raises those issues from a historical distance. There are exceptions. "Crash" and "The Hurt Locker" are definitely more contemporary. But though Hollywood is constantly labeled liberal, I’m curious if you think this tendency suggests a more moderate streak among the Academy voters.
First off, you’re 100 percent right about the historical commentary movies. Since we’ve had "The Big Short" out, I get a lot of scripts. And I swear to God, 70 percent of them are historic scripts. They’re like, looking at an issue through something that happened 40 years ago. There are a lot of those scripts around. And I always say, ’I’m not interested in that. Why go back 40 years when it’s happening right now?’ And people say ’Well, isn’t "The Big Short" kind of a historical thing?’ And I go ’No, it was seven years ago. We’re still in the middle of it.’ So you’re 100 percent right about that. That’s such a funny observation, that there are these historical scripts that kind of give this distance.
It’s safe, right? Like you’re not implicated.
Exactly. Exactly. ... The second thing is, as far as Hollywood being liberal, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. Look who owns the studios? Viacom, Comcast, Disney. They want to make money. That’s all they care about. And the idea that Hollywood is liberal: Yeah, you have a lot of artists, you have a lot of writers, directors, costume designers. You have these artists everywhere, and generally, that’s going to skew a little more to the left.
But Sony has a faith-based division and they make Christian movies for, generally, for the right wing. The movie that came out after "The Big Short" is the Benghazi movie from Paramount. And I’m not going to name anyone’s names, but I know so many pretty hard-core right wingers around Hollywood. There’s whole companies that skew hard to the right.
Vince Vaughn’s been very public about his political beliefs, so I’ll list him as a person who, even though I don’t agree with his beliefs, I will work with Vince Vaughn. I think he’s really funny, he makes me laugh, we used him in the "Anchorman" movies. So the idea that like, anyone to the left is avoiding anyone to the right, or any stories are breaking in these studios to the right or left is the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard.
It is all about the bottom line. They want to make money. The reason they made "The Big Short" is because it was this type of movie with these types of actors at the right budget and they felt they could make money.