INTERVIEW: Director Adam McKay on The Big Short

FILE - This Dec. 6, 2013 file photo shows director Adam McKay from the film "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" in New York.
FILE - This Dec. 6, 2013 file photo shows director Adam McKay from the film "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" in New York. McKay will write and direct an adaptation of Michael Lewis? financial crisis best-seller ?The Big Short: The Doomsday Machine.? Paramount Pictures announced Monday, March 24, 2014, it will produce ?The Big Short? along with Plan B, Brad Pitt?s production company. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP)

The Big Short is one of the best movies of the year. The screen adaptation of Michael Lewis' "capitalism run amuck" best-seller defies easy genre categorization as it bounces between comedy and tragedy, but its depiction of the 2007-2008 financial crisis that threatened to torpedo the entire world's economy will grip you, engage you, and ultimately anger you.

The film is bracketed by terrific performances from one of the best ensemble casts of the year, including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling, all of whom give life to a crackerjack script co-written by director Adam McKay, who makes a bold entry into dramatic filmmaking after building a reputation teaming with Will Ferrell for some of the funniest movies of the last decade.

Faced with making a movie revolving around "mortgage-backed securities" and "tranches" and "collateralized debt obligations" play with mainstream audiences is no easy feat, but McKay manages it with remarkable ease. He addressed the inherent challenges in adapting the text when I chatted with him during his visit to the Bay Area a few weeks ago, and I got to pick his brain about that, as well as his work co-writing Marvel's Ant-Man with Paul Rudd.

Read on for the transcript:

You have a lot of dense terms in a film that's meant to entertain but also educate, but as a filmmaker how easy or difficult was it to maintain that balance between keeping a straight face while saying all these terms and making sure people understood them while staying true to Michael Lewis' terminology?

I think what we did with our kind of meta breaking the fourth wall 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 kind of talks to the reader a little bit, so that inspired us doing that in the movie. I just felt like the movie had to be inclusive, and 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, and I figured if the guy -- you know, a college dropout who directed Step Brothers -- can understand this, the rest of the audience can. So, that was kind of my operating premise, is this isn't that hard. It's just moving dead money around and giving it weird names. But yeah, the balance is a different question. I still felt like, ultimately, this movie had to be driven by these characters.

When I read the book, that's what drove through the book, were Dr. Michael Burry and Mark Baum and Jared Vennett, and the young guys, Jamie and Charlie, with Ben. I mean, that's the meat of this story because they're us. They're the people that the rest of the banking world doesn't really respect. They find them obnoxious. They find them weird, and also, the big question is: why did they see it when no one saw? When the rest of the world was in this delusional dance of profit and greed, how were these few people able to see it?

And in reality, there were some other people who saw it as well, but these are the ones we're focusing on. So, yeah, in the edit room, that was a big thing we looked at as sort of balancing the two and trying to get the audience to have enough information that you can then go for the ride, and then sometimes I would realize there's no way anyone knows this, so I would have to stop the movie and go, what the f*** is a synthetic CDO? And for the most part, the audiences we've been screening it for really love and feel like it pulls them into the movie more.

For such a dark topic, how did you strike that balance between comedy, tragedy, and drama, and what made you want to have a certain amount of each element?

Anytime you're learning the truth about something gigantic that's affecting you in ways that you're not even aware of, there's a bunch of different emotions you have, I think I always find I'd much rather know than not know because when you don't know, then this collapse happens, you lose your job, you're broke, you're like, what the f*** is going on?

And it sucks. You feel powerless. You feel confused. So, I think anytime you start understanding a language or a world, there's an excitement to it even if it's bad news, just to start to master the language, and start to go, wait a minute; this didn't happen by accident! And to kind of penetrate that veneer of confusion.

So, I felt like the original book had that excitement, that I was getting a look into a world that I normally wouldn't look into, would not understand. So, that's some of the energy I think you're seeing. The funny parts are the fact that these guys are unusual characters, and they're kind of us. So, it's just always enjoyable to see guys that have figured something out that a giant, monolithic corrupt system hasn't. It's a little bit like a card-counting movie.

So, I found myself rooting for them for stretches. So, that's where you get that fun/funny tone comes from, and then, at the same time, when they all discover that the system is them, and it's way bigger than they thought it was, and that the whole system is corrupt, they all have a little bit of a "there's no Santa Claus" moment. These guys all really believed in the market. They really, truly believed that the market corrected itself.

That's why they did this for a living, and to this day, when you talk to all of the guys, they're still depressed to find out that the market was corrupted. And then, obviously, in the end, they all end up getting stained by it. So, it's a big, complicated true story. It doesn't really follow typical narrative arcs that you would find in a Syd Field screenwriting book because it's real life. So, that's how you get these multiple genres coexisting in one movie, which is kind of the way life works.

So, it was more of a function of their emotions throughout this journey.

Yeah, and, obviously, us as an audience interacting with them, but I would say it's their emotions. I would say if you found a trade like this, you would be very, very excited, and you would go, "Oh, my god!" And then, people would come in, and people would laugh at you, and you'd be joking around.

You'd go, "I think we got it," and then to discover on the second half of it, like, "Holy shit! We're betting against the entire world." And all these guys, when you talk to them, are just very bummed out, and a bunch of them left the business, and they're still so disgusted that no one went to jail, and really kind of popped their view of the world.

You come from a background of improv, theater, and in theater it's very common to break the fourth wall, address the audience. Why do you think, in film, people are more reluctant to do that or it's more unconventional to do that?

Yeah, there's definitely a snobbery about that I've noticed where it's a film school thing. In film school, they teach you: show, don't tell. They literally do exercises with it. They hammer it. Friends of mine who were properly trained in film school will talk about how you get in trouble if you tell and don't show. So, I think it's kind of 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 is a movie that I love, and there's such an energy to it, and I never forgot that movie. American Splendor -- Scorsese's done it a bunch with Goodfellas and Casino. You freeze the frame, you talk. That new show, Narcos, on Netflix, does it a lot. So, I think it's just changing. I think early on there was a power to film, in the thirties, forties, and fifties, where the showing...that's the way it should've been.

We should've been showing a lot. I think now, because there's so many different mediums going on -- there's YouTube videos, iPhone, just tons of different stuff going on -- that we can blur it a little bit more, that film can sort of put its toe into other mediums. So, I'm less precious about it. I find it really exciting to do that, but some of the old formalists: "You cannot do that!"

You worked with four blockbuster-level, A-list actors with this movie. How much direction did each of them require, and are there different techniques you had to use when working with each of them?

You kind of dial into each actor and what they need. In the case of Bale, he comes to set, he is the character by the time he arrives, but still, he's sort of internalized all the guy's physical tics and emotional outlook, and he's got his look, but we're trying to find the right pace for it, and how much you let out, and if you want to see a full tour de force of what the guy is in every scene. So, he and I just worked a lot in when to use different aspects of the character, and is that too much?

We were constantly having a discussion about, occasionally, you know, the real Michael Burry's will just get loud for no reason when he's talking to you, and we talked about when to use that, and he'll occasionally have a bit of a pronounced stutter, and when to use that. And then, we started talking about things from the book about the real guy that we didn't believe.

We're like, "I don't believe he would've done this here." So, checking in with Christian -- he's completely grounded in the guy but you're trying to find the right times and places, and make sure it feels real, and then sometimes you're improvising a little bit. Sometimes I'm saying like, for this one just lay on the floor and throw a tennis ball up for a bit, and maybe yell at one point.

So, we just kind of goof around at moments. Carell is very different. Carell almost hunts down the truthful moment like he's got a pack of dogs. When he doesn't have it, he gets very pissed at himself. He's like, "Aah!" and he's just chasing it and chasing it, and when I do comedies with him, it's not like that, but with this I realized my job was to be like his hunt master, and the two of us would just chase it down, and I would realize he's off, so I would push him with a note.

And I would say, "F*** it! Try this. Forget the script, do this! Try just yelling at him for this take; we won't use it but..." So, you're kind of always just nudging at him, pushing it, and then when you get there, it's very cool because he'll never say, "We got it," but suddenly he's just silent. And I'll go, we got it, and then he just won't say anything, and we move on. But he's really, really hard on himself in this kind of great way.

And then Gosling had a very odd role in this movie. He's inside the movie and outside of the movie. He's a character and he can talk to the camera. So, he was closer to a writer/director. The way he and I would talk was closer to the way Will Ferrell and I talk, as far as: what can you do here? Is there a new thought? We were constantly rewriting lines together and kind of playing with it. But he's a super-collaborative, funny guy, so we had a blast doing that.

And then, with Brad Pitt, Pitt just came in with this fully formed character, and he had the hair, the beard, the look. He said, "Leave the tag on my tie. I want to have this. I want my office to have a water chart." He knew exactly who this guy is. I was like, hey, I want to do this scene in the kitchen. He goes, "Yup, I want to talk about seeds and Monsanto, and saving seeds," and I was like, great! And then, within that, we would improvise because he really enjoyed improvising, and then the same kind of thing.

You'd just kind of kick him sometimes, emotionally, and go, hey, 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, but then you get people like Melissa Leo who basically just lands, gets off the plane, walks on the sets, smokes the scene, 14 takes, says goodbye, gets on the plane, and leaves. And you're just like, where did that come from? Yeah, but it was fun, but you're totally right. Everyone kind of has their different thing they need.

I was surprised at how true to the book the film is, however, I was wondering about the thought process behind, for example, keeping Dr. Michael Burry as Michael Burry, but Steve Eisman became Mark Baum. What was the thinking there?

That was all just little tricky privacy things from the real people. If you notice, in the book, we fictionalized the family tragedy. The real tragedy that Mark Baum goes through is the loss of a small baby, and it was so awful, the family's like, "Please don't put that in." We were like, yeah, I don't think we want to put it in, either.

So the second we fictionalized that tragedy to be his brother's suicide, he's like, "It's weird to have it be my real name. People are going to think my brother killed himself." And I was like, you know, I don't care so long as all the real stuff's in there, if a name's different because you can tell from reading the book, it's really accurate to what actually happened.

And then, in the case of Jamie and Charlie and those guys, they were just like, "Look, we've got families. We live in neighborhoods. Use our first name but not our last name," and I'm like, I don't care. Same with the guy Lippmann, but then Burry was cool with it, and the other guys used their first name, so it ended up being about 50/50. But it was odd. The one thing I really didn't care about were names. I just, as long as everything else was true, I was cool with it.

So, some of the bankers who don't look so good in the movie, some of the guys who are kind of assholes, we had to change their names. They can sue you. Even though everything they did is accurate to what they did, we had to change their names. But the movie really is like 99% accurate. There's one thing that we tweaked where Morgan Stanley is going to go down, and it was going to take FrontPoint down, and that connection actually wasn't 100% as solid as we portrayed it.

Yes, FrontPoint was in trouble because of it because the whole market was bubbling up, but they weren't directly tied to Morgan Stanley. However, when Morgan Stanley was going down, no one would trade with FrontPoint anymore. So, it's this -- it basically is true, but not entirely. That's the one single thing in the whole movie we kind of tweaked. Otherwise, it's all true.

Coming from the world of making really big studio comedies, how difficult was it to pitch yourself to take on a very different project?

You're 100% right. I mean, I've tried to make other movies. I tried to do Garth Ennis's The Boys at one point, and I couldn't get anyone to make it. I did this amazing pre-vis. I had a whole take on it, and that was a case where I went to all the studios in town, and I could feel when I was pitching it, they're like, "He's a comedy guy." And it was a tricky, ambitious project, but it didn't help that I was a comedy guy in their eyes.

In this case, I got very, very lucky because the company that I went to, Plan B -- they had the book -- are the coolest people in the world. So, I had already met with Pitt. Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner are super open-minded, really thoughtful, so the second I pitched my take on it, they were like, "Why didn't we think of this? This is perfect." So, they were 100% behind me from the beginning, and then, basically, at that point, you've got to put up or shut up.

Then it all becomes about the script, and when Paramount got the script they actually liked it. They're like, "Hey, this is pretty good," and then the next step is casting, and then obviously, we got this incredible cast so we were good to go. But I give all the credit in the world to Plan B for being open to talking to me about this, and not only open, but really excited about it.

It definitely helps to have the producer on set.

Yeah, without a doubt.

How deeply involved were you with Michael Lewis in translating the book into a film? Were there any parts where you guys had different opinions on how the scene would play out?

Basically, I had lunch with him before we were going to get going, and he basically just said to me, "The book was my baby. You take the baby to college now." And I go, "Michael, you want more contact than that," and he goes, "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 first, and everyone was saying Dr. Michael Burry, but then some people were saying Lippmann, who is Jared Vennett, and I kept hearing both these things. So, I just went to Lewis, I go, "What the f*** is going on? Who seems like it's Burry, right?" He goes, "Yeah, it's Burry." He goes, "Don't listen. All these other people want credit for it. It was Burry. He came up with it way before anyone else. So, don't listen to them."

And then, sure enough, I went back to the people that were saying it was this other guy, and they're like, "Yeah, you're right, it was Burry." So, that was the one time I checked in with him, and other than that, I mean, he read the script. He loved it. I think there was a little part of him like, you think you can pull this off?

But he definitely dug it, and then the greatest moment was he saw our third to last screening, and he just went on and on about, and really effusively loved it, and was like, "I can't believe you did this!" And we could tell he just wasn't being polite, so of course, we all reacted like giant geeks, and he was like, "Why are you guys so excited?" I was like, you don't get it. You're Michael Lewis; we're geeks. We're excited that you like our movie. He's like, "Oh!" So, yeah.

Steve Carell continues to surprise as his career goes on, always showing new layers. You've known him for years. Has he always had this in him, the whole time, or is he actually evolving with every project?

I think he's definitely evolving. You know, the times I started thinking, I mean, everyone knows he's kind of the most...he's got a little bit of Peter Sellers to him in the sense that he's very meticulous and mathematical about the way he goes about doing comedy, and it's all very small, precise choices, so I always knew he was a really detailed technician. But I don't think I started thinking, "Oh, wait a minute, he can play these other ranges!" Until -- what was it? -- Little Miss Sunshine, I thought he was pretty good in that, but then I thought, well, alright, he's a good actor.

We always knew he was a good actor, and then he did the one -- what was it called? -- where they went to the beach house, and the kid worked at the amusement park. Way, Way Back? Yeah, that was the first time I thought, holy shit, this guy's really good. There's a whole anger there that I didn't know he had, and all these other complex emotions, and then of course, Foxcatcher just absolutely blew me away. I mean, I know some people said, well, he had a lot of makeup on. No, there's an amazing performance there.

I actually love that movie up and down. I just think that movie's a masterpiece. So, that's how I ended up casting him in this role. I thought, son of a bitch, I think he can do this. I think he's got the anger. I think he can transform enough, and then I was just knocked over by what he did on this. The real scene where I thought, oh, this guy may be a great, great actor, is when he yelled at everyone at the table, and is like, "We sell what I say!" He showed up that day in that state with this dark cloud over him, and just took that scene over. It was so amazing to watch.

What was it like not working with Will Ferrell?

I can say this: life is 20% less enjoyable. Anytime Ferrell's...he came and visited us for three or four days on set just because he wanted to hang. We had the best time with him. Yeah, I always miss him. He's the best. We always have a great time, 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, go do one without me. Come on! And we'll do more together in the future." But he even was like, "Yeah, come on, you've got to do something a little different." But, yeah, every set is slightly less happy without Will Ferrell in it.

I was wondering if I could ask you about Ant-Man, which ended up being my favorite superhero movie in awhile.

Oh, thank you!

Now that there's a happy ending to how that movie turned out and how it's been received, I was wondering if you could reflect on sort of the pressure cooker of working with Paul Rudd to craft what that movie became.

God, I've got to tell you, it didn't feel like a pressure cooker. It felt like I was in heaven. I grew up on Marvel Comics, and I met with Kevin Feige, and I could tell right away, I was like, oh, this guy gets it. Because sometimes you meet with these executives, and you're like, they kind of get it, and the bummer of that is you'll write something really cool and then they don't get it, and it was so much fun knowing that if we wrote something cool, Feige was going to be excited about it.

So, we just had the best time, man. It was just Rudd and I holed up for two straight months in a hotel room, know, we got to write giant action sequences. Everyone assumed I was just doing the comedy, but we rewrote huge parts of that movie. You know, the whole Falcon fight and the Avengers thing, we got to write, and it was so much fun, and obviously, rewrote a lot of the characters and kind of the arc and stuff.

I told Feige afterwards, "Man, anytime you need me, give me a call because that was a blast." And he says, "Is there anything you want?" I go, "I want one thing. Can you get me an autographed Ant-Man poster from Stan Lee?" And four days ago, I got an autographed Ant-Man poster. It's a holy relic in my house.

So, I'll tell you, man, the reason Marvel keeps doing it well is they know what they're doing. They really do. Feige is a super sharp dude, and he's surrounded by a bunch of sharp guys who really listen to the fans, who really get a sense of when things are getting played out or it's time for a change. I mean, they really have their ear to the ground as far as what people are looking for and what the next change is.

Will you be back for part two?

I told them I would. I go, if you want me, I'm here. So, I don't know what their plans are, but it may just be another rewrite situation since I have other stuff I'm working on, but I told them, anytime, anywhere.


Many thanks to Adam McKay for his time. The Big Short is now playing at a theater near you, and I highly recommend it. For more movie talk, be sure to check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: