Adam McKay on The Big Short

Will Ferrell's regular collaborator Adam McKay gets serious with The Big Short, a star-studded and angry look back at the financial meltdown of 2008. We're pleased to report his latest film still has plenty of laughs. McKay talks comedy and the crash

Feature by Philip Concannon | 11 Jan 2016
  • The Big Short

“Look, this isn't that complicated,” Adam McKay tells The Skinny. “They had these mortgage-backed securities, they were making billions, they ran out of good mortgages, they put crappy ones in.” We're sitting in a hotel room in central London, and the director of Anchorman and Step Brothers is explaining the 2008 financial crash with the efficiency and calm authority of a man who has run through this speech countless times. “That's it,” he adds with a chuckle. “Like, I just said it in thirty seconds.”

Explaining the cataclysmic financial collapse of seven years ago in an understandable and humorous manner is exactly what McKay is attempting to do with The Big Short. His film is an adaptation of Michael Lewis's acclaimed non-fiction book and it focuses on a handful of characters who saw the cracks appearing before anyone else did. Investors like the socially awkward Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and the permanently riled Mark Baum (Steve Carell) were viewed as misfits and outsiders by Wall Street high rollers, but when everything fell apart they made a fortune. Their simple but risky gambit was to bet against the banks, and to then sit back and wait for a couple of years, until the foundations of the entire American housing market began to crumble.

“I just thought the characters were incredible, and there was also the question of why they could see what nobody else could see,” McKay says when asked about his initial experience of reading the book. “What has our culture become that millions of people, and actually millions of brilliant experts, didn't see any of this? That was so intriguing and it had such a mystery to it, and so many great images. I thought that could be a great movie.”

McKay insists that he knew he could make this work as a film as soon as he read it, and he brushes off the author's own suggestion that his book was 'unfilmable'. “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.”

That fourth wall is broken in a variety of ways throughout the film. Ryan Gosling's slick banker Jared Vennett is our guide, frequently interrupting scenes to address the audience directly, while the complex machinations of the banking world are delivered by celebrities like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez, appearing as themselves to tell us how sub-prime mortgages or collateralised debt obligations work.

The remarkable thing about The Big Short is the fact that every single scene is densely packed with exposition, and yet the film avoids feeling bogged down. When The Skinny saw the film, the screening was unfortunately interrupted towards the end, which meant that we had to catch up with the last half-hour on DVD the next day, and this rupture highlighted just how vital the film's sense of constant forward motion is. It moves with an aggressive, propulsive energy that sometimes recalls the work of Oliver Stone, and perhaps it's no coincidence that McKay cites Stone's regular editor Hank Corwin as a key collaborator here.

“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,” he says. “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.”

If it all feels like a far cry from McKay's work with Will Ferrell, perhaps we shouldn't be so surprised. He agrees with the observation that all of his films have had subversive and satirical elements, although he wonders if viewers were too busy laughing at the onscreen silliness to notice. “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,” he says. “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, but 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. It was one of the most enjoyable scripts I've ever written, precisely for that reason.”

“The real crash would be if Donald Trump became President” 

Fans of his broader comedic work shouldn't worry, however. Adam McKay hasn't turned his back on that world. He reveals that Ferrell is currently revising a script for their next collaboration, and he dismisses any talk of frustration that comedy doesn't earn the respect or the accolades that more serious fare (such as his Oscar-touted current film) routinely does. “The interesting thing with comedy is that it takes like 30-40 years, and then they become more esteemed than a lot of the dramas. WC Fields still holds up, Laurel and Hardy, all these great old comedies,” he says. “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.”

Can The Big Short permeate the culture in the same way? It's an angry movie, and McKay wants people to come out of the cinema being angry about what they have seen. “Here's the good news,” he says: “we screened this movie in far-off suburbs and cineplexes, and people responded to it. 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.”

McKay is hoping for a more open and productive discourse, although he is warily eyeing another potential disaster on the horizon. “The real crash would be if Donald Trump became President. I mean, that's unfathomable. I think if Trump becomes President you'll see a million people leave the US, I really do. It would be an amazing story.” They say comedy is tragedy plus time, and McKay has already shown us that he can get laughs from a financial meltdown, but maybe some things really are beyond the joke.

The Big Short is released 22 Jan by Paramount