Director Adam McKay Does Not Shortchange with The Big Short

The Big Short is about the circumstances that led to the subprime mortgage crisis that expedited the 2008 economic collapse—and surprisingly it's one of the most riveting, edge-of-your-seat thrill rides of 2015. According to director Adam McKay, striking the necessary balance between data and drama or “trying to give the audience enough information, so they can go for the ride” was one of his greatest challenges on this project. SF Weekly spoke to McKay, best known for big-budget comedies, starring Will Ferrell, such as Talladega NightsStep Brothers and Anchorman 1 and 2, about translating Berkeley writer Michael Lewis's novel The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine to the silver screen, branching out from big-studio comedies and directing four blockbuster actors, none of whom are Will Ferrell.

There is no shortage of dense trading terminology in The Big Short. How challenging was it to make it comprehensible and entertaining?

I think what we did with our meta breaking the fourth wall [with explainers] was inspired by Lewis's book. If you look at his book, he does a lot of footnotes where he tells you, 'If you're still keeping up with what I’m saying, you deserve a gold star.' He talks to the reader a little bit, so that inspired us doing that in the movie. I just felt the movie had to be inclusive.

One of the ways the banks get away with ripping us off is they make us all feel stupid or bored by financial talk, so I really just wanted to open it up in a fun way, because the truth is once you get it, it's actually a really energetic, exciting world. It's the language of power. I figured if a college dropout, who directed Stepbrothers can understand this, then the rest of the audience can. So that was my operating premise—that this isn't that hard. It's just moving debt and money around and giving it weird names. The balance is a different question. That was a big thing we looked at, was balancing the two, trying to give the audience enough information, so they can go for the ride. Then sometimes I would realize there's no way anyone knows this, so I’d have to stop the movie and say, 'What the fuck is this?' 

You come from a theatrical background, where the fourth wall is regularly broken, yet somehow in film this narrative technique is still frowned upon.

There's a snobbery about it that I’ve noticed, and it's a film school thing. In film school, they teach you to show, don't tell. They do exercises, and friends of mine who have been properly trained will talk about how you get in trouble if you tell, don't show. It's become this unspoken rule, but some of my favorite movies of all time involve breaking the fourth wall or using narrators like 24 Hour Party People, American Splendor, and Scorsese's done it a bunch with Goodfellas and Casino, where you freeze the frame and talk. Narcos on Netflix does it a lot, so I think it's changing. I think early on, there was a power to film, in the '30s, '40s and '50s around showing. Now there are so many mediums going on—YouTube videos and iPhone—that now we can blur it more and film can dip its toes into other mediums. I find it exciting to do that, but some of the old formalists say you cannot do that.

The beauty of Michael Lewis's book is that he tackles a devastating event connected to the 2008 economic collapse, but does so with humor. You've only upped the laughs in your screen adaptation.

Anytime you're learning about something gigantic that's affecting you in ways that you're not even aware of, you have a bunch of different emotions. I always find that I’d much rather know than not know, because when you don't know, then this collapse happens and you feel powerless and confused. Anytime you start understanding a language or a world, there's an excitement to it. Even if it's bad news—just to master the language, and start to go, 'Wait a minute, this didn't happen by accident,' and to penetrate that initial veneer of confusion. So I felt that original book had that excitement of looking into a world I normally would not look into. Some of the excitement and the funny parts are the fact that these guys are unusual characters, and they're kind of us. So it's great to see guys who have figured something out that a giant, monolithic corrupt system hasn't. It's a little bit of a card counting movie, so I found myself rooting for them in stretches, and that's where that fun, funny tone comes from. 

Coming from big-studio comedies, how difficult was it to pitch yourself to direct this very different project?

You're right. I tried to do Garth Ennis's The Boys at one point, and I couldn't get anyone to make it. That was a case where I went to all the studios in town, and I could feel them thinking, 'He's a comedy guy.' It was a tricky, ambitious project, but it didn't help that I was the comedy guy in their eyes.

In this case, I got very lucky because the company I went to, Plan B, they had the book and are the coolest people in the world. So I’d already met with Pitt, and producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner are super open-minded, really thoughtful. So the minute I pitched my take on it, they were like, 'Why didn't we think of this? This is perfect,' so they were 100 percent behind me from the beginning. I give all the credit in the world to Plan B for being open to talking to me about this. Not only open but really excited about it.

How closely did you work with Michael Lewis to adapt his book to the screen?

Basically, I had lunch with him before we were going to get going. He said to me, 'The book was my baby, and you take the baby to college now.' I said, 'Michael, I want more contact than that,' and he said, 'You don't need to; just go make it.'

The one time I called him, there was some dispute about who came up with the trade [against subprime mortgages] first, and everyone was saying, Michael Burry, but some people were saying Greg Lippmann, who is the Jared Vennett character in the film. He said, 'Yeah, it's Burry. Don't listen to all these people who just want credit for it. It was Burry who came up with it way before anyone else.' I think there was a part of him that thought, 'Can you really pull this off?' But he read the script and really dug it. 

You worked with four A-list actors: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt on The Big Short. How much direction did each require, and did you employ different techniques with each of them?

Yes, you dial into each actor as far as what they need. Christian Bale is totally grounded in his character by the time he arrives on set. But we were constantly checking in about the times and places to use different aspects of the character and making sure it feels real. Steve Carell is very different. He almost hunts down the truthful moment like a pack of dogs. I realized my job was to be his hunt master, and the two of us would chase it down. Ryan Gosling was closer to a writer-director. He's a super collaborative, funny guy, so we were constantly rewriting lines together and playing with it. Brad Pitt came in as a fully formed character. Within that, we would improvise because he enjoyed that. You kick them emotionally sometimes, too, and go 'What if in this take you're more pissed off?' Or I would tell another actor, 'Don't listen to him when he tells you to shut up, and you know you'll get a bigger response.' So the usual kind of directing.

What was your experience like not working with Will Ferrell on this project?

I can say this: life is 20 percent less enjoyable anytime Will Ferrell's not there. He came to visit us for three or four days on set, just because he wanted to hang, and we had the best time with him. Yeah, I always miss him, but I think it was good we did something separate. I actually, at one point, talked to him about doing a cameo, and he was like, 'McKay, do one without me. Come on, you have to do something a little different.' We'll do more together in the future. But yeah, every set is slightly less happy without Will Ferrell on it.

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