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People Are Smart: Adam McKay on "The Big Short"

Along with being one of the most popular American comedy directors working today, Adam McKay is a full-blown and necessary populist for American cinema, using the platforms of absurd blockbusters like “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” to create political and cultural satires that inspire awareness within mainstream audiences. While playing with the popular man-child aspect through Will Ferrell’s enabled idiot characters, McKay has constructed necessary critiques on the likes of sexism in the workplace (“Anchorman”), product placement and flaming patriotism (“Talladega Nights”), Ponzi schemes (“The Other Guys”) and garbage news appetites (“Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues”), creating a unique comedy of high and low brow that could only be achieved by a director who speaks in accessible means to audiences (as with his Funny or Die ownership as well). If anyone were to make an ensemble drama that wide audiences could connect to—about the intricate failure of housing bubble, nonetheless—it would very likely be McKay. 

The crystallization of his populist touch comes with “The Big Short,” which expresses an invaluable belief from a blockbuster filmmaker that an audience can learn the terms they may not know, but still be spoken to in the proper language (as the film speaks at a college-level terminology about CDO’s, subprime mortgages, tranches, etc). Similarly, the film’s full aesthetic package shows how he can engage the viewer directly (pop culture inserts, fourth wall-shattering explanations, documentary inserts) to orchestrate a welcoming yet educational experience about a subject has been possibly alienating in so many other similarly-themed films before (“Margin Call," for one). With an extremely charismatic ensemble that includes Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling as four men who tried to make money off the inevitable housing crisis in the mid 2000's, McKay arms his audience with knowledge, exemplifying that understanding finance is more over-complicated than it is inaccessible. 

RogerEbert.com sat down with McKay to discuss his new film, the "superhuman" member of his acting ensemble, why he personally believes that audiences can learn from studio movies, and much more.

Looking at some general responses to the film, it seems that people are surprised you’re behind “The Big Short”—but the case could be made that your previous films have all essentially been satires. When you’re making movies, do they start off with that type of intention, or they do eventually evolve into satire? 

I think definitely the absurdist comedies we have done in the past always have a core of satire to them. Clearly “Talladega Nights,” “Anchorman,” even “Step Brothers” to some degree. But with this movie, it’s funny, I never started by thinking I am going to make a satire. It’s kind of just the elements of the story are that. You’re talking about a system that is so preposterously corrupt, and you’re talking about a large body of people in the world financial system that were so shockingly blind to it. You’re starting with proportions that are so large, I was a little bit surprised when I started cutting it together, that it did have some satire in its DNA. And we always talked about how it never really pegs itself to one genre, and there’s elements that are satirical, there are elements that almost like a thriller/heist, and then clearly the end is just full-on tragedy. What I liked about the movie was that it didn’t peg to a genre, which gave me a lot of freedom in writing. 

There have been other political projects and references along the way in the films you’ve either produced, written or directed. But, of all things, the closing credits of “The Other Guys” was one of the moments in which your filmmaking got a bit angry, as accompanied by a version of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” played by Rage Against the Machine. It was one of the first times you went head-on with these statistics, while trying to connect them with an audience. How did that influence what you wanted to do with “The Big Short”? 

That was an accident [laughs]. Here’s what happened: I thought we were making this movie that was a comedy parable of the collapse. We put the movie up, everyone laughed at it, they enjoyed it. The movie did great. Because they were laughing at how funny Eva Mendes was with Wahlberg, they didn’t notice the whole structure of the movie was built around a parable of the collapse. And so I just naturally put those credits in, like, “Oh yeah, the whole movie is about this. The pension funds get raided to pay for the big people, this is what happened.” And everyone was like, “Where did those credits come from?” I think A.O. Scott wrote some review where he said, “out of nowhere”! And then I realized that it wasn’t the audience’s fault, that’s my fault. The laughter was so big in the foreground that it kind of skewed the optics on that. It’s kind of funny, it was a little bit of a miscalculation. But I’m still glad we put them in, I don’t regret it at all. I love them, they’re beautiful credits. 

Among your strong ensemble in "The Big Short," Christian Bale is so fantastic in his isolated presence as the brilliant, tender Dr. Michael Burry. How much time did you get to work with Bale?

I think it was nine or ten days. His character was completely isolated in the story, basically never left his office. It was amazing because we got to just bear down on his character, and you also have someone who is walking in the building who has done so much prep and got the real clothes from the real guy. He asked for a little liver spot on his face that the real guy had. If you look closely, Bale has a couple marks on his face that he asked make-up people to put in. I had never seen anything like it. He left, and we were like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He really became the guy. 

And you got him to truly play the drums too, in one of the film’s best scenes. 

That was insane. Two days before we start shooting, he’s playing around with his kids on a trampoline with his kids back in LA. Trampolines, doctors call them injury machines. He lands wrong and his whole knee goes WONK! I hear that he twisted his knee. He comes to New Orleans, and it’s huge, and I said, “You didn’t twist your knee, you tore something.” And he said, “Oh no, no, it’s gonna be fine, gonna be fine.” And I said, “You can’t do the drums, we need a double.” And he said, “No, no, it’s gonna be fine, gonna be fine.” And I got him to go a doctor, who told him that he tore his ACL, MCL, patella, meniscus, and something else I’ve never heard of. Completely shredded his knee. I go, “There’s no way you’re playing the drums,” and he said, “I am playing the drums.” The scene you see him doing, he’s got a devastated knee, he’s doing double kick-drums, [playing] Pantera. Insane. He really is a superhuman individual. 

How did you test this movie? How did the edits change in the process? 

I played it a lot. More than the comedies. I tested it every week. I think with this we did six tests, and usually for the comedies we do four. 

My editor [Hank Corwin] was so mad at me. One night I’m working with Hank, one of the all-time great editors, “The Tree of Life,” “Natural Born Killers,” amazing, brilliant. And so we’re working one night, it’s 1 AM and we have another screening coming up and he’s just up there and working and he says, “I’m just so tired. We’re doing these screenings all of the time. You know what? Fuck them! FUCK them!” And I go, “Hank? Who’s them?” And there’s a long beat and he just goes, “I don’t know.” And I go, “Hank, ‘them’ is me!” It was important because the movie is built around having a conversation with the audiences. It had to communicate with them. I needed to see what they were understanding rhythm-wise, if we were breaking the fourth wall too much, if certain scenes were getting too tragic, if certain scenes were getting too funny. We actually had some scenes that we toned down the funny on. And I just had this specific idea of how I wanted the tone to progress, we just kept pushing and kind of testing. 

You have experience in making movies that may not have immediately connected for people in the first viewing (as commonly with "Anchorman"), but then after time and with another shot resonate and even repeated. Did that give you a confidence that you could pull off connecting with an audience with "Big Short"?

Here's what happened. We did a rough cut screening, so that was Hank’s cut, and we watched it in a little room with just six or seven of us. Rough cuts are always awful. Any director will tell you. David O. Russell once told me that it takes him a week to recover from the editor’s assembly. It’s just the way it’s designed. And I thought, “Oh my god, that wasn’t so bad.” I said, "let’s get to work," and so we edited for two weeks and I said, “This is starting to smell kind of right. I want to put this up in front of a crowd.” And Hank’s like, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “No, no. I want to put it up.” So bless the studio, they said they’d pay for an audience for us, and they got 300 people to come to the lot and their theater, with 300 regular people and we put it up and it was 2 1/2 hours long, and it was a half-hour longer than it ended up being. And it worked. We did a focus group, and I listened to the people walking out, and I even looked through some cards. But most of all, you sit in the audience and you can feel it. And I go, “Am I crazy, or did that just work? That kind of worked!” I then said, “I think we can have this movie ready for the fall,” and with how the economy is behaving, I’m worried and I invited the studio. I remember everyone saying, “You’re nuts, you haven’t even finished your director’s cut.” And we got it to 2:20 and the studio agreed, and we just kept chasing it. 

There’s a distinct populist aspect to your films. In the making of “The Big Short,” which is essentially about educating, what made you personally believe that people can learn from a studio movie? 

I mean, I suspect it, because I’m me, and I was a college dropout English major who made the movie “Step Brothers” and loves comic books and my favorite movie is “Kung Fu Hustle.” And I like a bunch of movies, but I like entertaining shit. I watch “The Walking Dead.” But then I also will read financial books, too. So I knew that if I understood this, and that if I was able to explain this to my wife in like five minutes about what really happened, I thought, “This is bullshit. These guys are making this more complex than it really is to cover up what happened.” And that was my central thesis of the movie.

And you see so many movies about these same ideas and with these words, but they don’t often give the audience a sense of it. 

And it drove our consultant ... Adam Davidson, who is a brilliant financial journalist and we had the best time working with him, I essentially would tell him that I think half of economics and finance is bullshit. I think it’s designed to protect the money to keep it in the rich people’s hands. And he’d go, “You can’t say that!” And then he would joke and go, “... 20%!” So we had this ongoing conversation, and then when I put [the film] up, people got it. I had a guy in a focus group raise his hand say, “I don’t even know what a stock is.” And then the focus group said, “Do you know what a CDO is?” And they replied, “Sure. It’s when you take the parts of the MBS that didn’t sell and you repackage them so you’re reversified.” And Adam Davidson leaned in and says, “I don’t think you understand, 70% of Wall Street doesn’t know what a CDO is, and that guy just explained it.” So, people are smart, man. People are really smart. And I just never, ever had one encounter on this movie where I explained to people what happened where they didn’t get it. I think sometimes people see the movie and there’s a lot of information and it’s moving very fast, and they’re a little overwhelmed, which I’m fine with. I think that actually is a natural response to it. Some people don’t, but some people do. I had one guy tell me, “Ahh, I’m too dumb, I didn’t get it.” I said, “Well, wait a minute. What’s a mortgage-backed security?” And he says [in a raspy voice], “That’s where they took the mortgages, put ‘em all together, and I guess they ran out of good ones so they put in the crappy ones.” And I said, “You got the whole movie! You’re not dumb.” 


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