When it comes to adapting a complex, whip-smart account of the collapse of the U.S. housing bubble into a deftly paced, easily understandable and, most importantly, entertaining film, one might not automatically turn to the writer behind Will Ferrell’s comedies. However, it worked.
Indeed, "The Big Short," which translates author Michael Lewis' acclaimed 2010 bestseller “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” into one of the most admired films of the year, is stylishly assembled, and alternately comic and tragic at the right moments. That's in large part due to filmmaker Adam McKay, the creative force behind "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and "The Other Guys," and the co-writer of Marvel’s “Ant-Man.” And then there's that cast: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, who also produced the film.
That powerhouse ensemble, minus Pitt, gathered recently to discuss their approach to material others might never have imagined them collaborating on.
Adam McKay: I was very interested in the financial crisis. I’d done some research for a movie I’d done called "The Other Guys," which was supposed to be a comedic parable of the collapse. So I started reading all the books I could get my hands on, and at a certain point when you’re doing that you come across "The Big Short," and a bunch of people told me "You have to read it." And I was like "OK," and I picked it up around 9. I was in bed, and just started reading it, and couldn’t put it down. It had this page-turning energy to it, yet at the same time it was explaining financial esoterica to me and then at the same time the characters were heartbreaking and real and specific.
It was just amazing to say it about a book that’s about mortgage-backed securities, but it was a roller-coaster ride. And when I was done with it, I just go, “Oh, my God, this is one of the books of our times.” But quickly, I was telling my wife about it and she’s like, “You should direct it.” And I was like, “They’re not going to let the guy who did 'Step Brothers' do this!” So I kind of forgot about it. And, luckily, down the road, it came back around and I was able to jump into the project.
Steve Carell: Adam is just a weird, a smart, weird guy. We’ve known each other since the late ‘80s, and he’s the same guy. He’s always been very passionate and really smart, incredibly funny. He’s always the funniest person in the room, and he knows it. No, and he’s so shy about that, and very self-deprecating, but he is. You know, every time I’ve worked with him, he’s always the person with the most unique, the funniest idea, the idea that you wish that you’d had, and the one that when he gives it to you, you hope you don’t screw up in the presentation.
I thought he was the perfect choice to do this. And when we first talked about the script, Adam said, "It is very dense, it’s very complicated material, but more than anything I want it to be entertaining, and it has to be entertaining." And I thought the script reflected that. And so, yeah, I mean, he’s sort of a dream director to work for and with as an actor, because he allows you this enormous freedom to fail and to explore and you feel protected by him.
Ryan Gosling: I love Adam’s movies, and in some ways they’re not even movies, they’re like friends of mine or something. Like, I’ll check in with "Step Brothers" just to see how it’s doing, you know. I love them, and so to be able to work with him at all was exciting, and then to get this script and to see that it’s sort of a departure for him and to be able to be a part of that as well just made it more exciting, you know, but I learned a lot – I still am learning about it.
I mean, I learned a lot from the script and then obviously through Michael’s book, and then through the research process and even through watching the film, I’ve learned more. So I thought it had a really – and I think Adam has, especially in combination with Michael, their work, it’s very unique, this film. It’s very inclusive and there’s no grandstanding, and I think in the hands of a lot of other filmmakers it could have been very, very different. But Adam just has a way of maintaining his sense of humor about something that’s obviously very upsetting, and I think it’s very unique and it just was a, you know, very exciting thing to be a part of.
Christian Bale: Adam would have a mic and then he’d just talk shit to me whilst I was in the office or make fun of what I was doing or whatever. But it’s amazing how much you can get done when there’s nobody else. Because, I mean, we shot for nine days, I think. And man, we just banged out the pages so quick and could just, like Steve was saying, you know, play around with it so much. And when you’re by yourself, there’s really no continuity that you got worry about. So each and every take, it’s like, just do whatever the bloody hell you want. So I loved it. I want to make every film that way from now on.
Carell: I met the person this was based on. We had breakfast and I went over to his apartment, met his family, and he came to set a few times as well. So yeah, I got to pick his brain and find out about how he factored into this world. And I was frankly surprised to be offered this part, and was very excited.
Although I felt like one of these things is not like the other, when you say Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale. I was talking to Adam before I started, and Christian was shooting his stuff, and we were talking about characters and just checking in, and I said, “How’s it going?” And he said, “Oh, my God, Christian is unbelievable. It’s incredible. It’s transcendent.” And you know, [I'm thinking] "Great, now I have to follow that." So it was intimidating because these are great – like this entire cast, it’s just full of great actors. I think every part really stands on its own. I think it’s a really wonderful, complex, nuanced performances, all across the board. So that was exciting for me to just be a part of that ensemble.
Gosling: I got a chance to meet the guy that my character is based on. The situation was a little different in my case as well, because the character that I play in the film has a role in the film but he’s also the narrator and sort of tour guide through this world, and at times felt like talk show host. You know, I would just sort of break the fourth wall and introduce a new guest or a new segment. So you know, we really had to take some liberties with that character because obviously it’s very different from the real person,
But yeah, I an opportunity to meet him, and I agree, it was tough to follow the first Christian week. The first thing I said to Adam was, “Well, how’s it going?” And he was like, “Oh, you know, Christian learned to play double-kick drums. What are you going to do?”
Bale: I did meet with Mike Burry, and I just think the guy’s wonderful. He’s such a charming man and so phenomenally interesting and we talked for hours and hours. And incredibly generous, you know, with his time and his thoughts, to me. And I hope – I really wish that I can see it with him one day.
I’m terrible with numbers, you know, and it went in one ear, it stayed there throughout filming and as soon as I was done filming, it went out the other ear again. But what I’ve found is that in watching the film, it’s entertaining first and foremost and so you get it, you know, it’s not a big, complex math class, which, you know, a lot of people like myself sort of go into PTSD mode whenever you start hearing figures like that. It’s not like that. It just sort of slips in very nicely and easily and even if you don’t remember, you know, exactly what the names were.
And that’s the whole point, right? That these industries to make you feel dumb, and it works. You understood the point, and that’s the essence of it, getting down to it, is what does it really mean for people on the street and every day? And so yeah, I know I was really surprised and kind of proud of myself that I did get it, that I did get it all, and how much fun it was actually, in getting that as well. Fun in understanding that, and then tragic in understanding the consequences.
McKay: I can say that while we were shooting the movie, there was a distinct sense that this story was still going on around us, that in a way the ’08 collapse hadn’t ended, that all the debt had just been pushed on to different books, government books, and every day there were stories coming out about what was going on in the financial markets. And so this movie was very unique in the sense that it felt like an alive movie that was happening in the moment. It wasn’t something that happened, you know, five, six years ago that we were sort of just reprising. It was constantly in flow and flux. And I’d never experienced that before. You know, I’m sure when I did "Step Brothers" there were two grown men living together somewhere, but there were no news reports of them, so I wasn’t aware of it.
In this case, though, yeah, it was extremely exciting to have this thing be a living, breathing movie as we were doing it. And it was really cool to see all the actors picking up the language of the financial world and having questions and some of them doing research …I would say the big thing is the fact that this is a living, breathing story right now, just charged the entire movie with an incredible amount of energy.
“The Big Short” opens Wednesday nationwide.