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Big Short director Adam McKay talks about finding the humor in the financial collapse

"[These guys] were doing their job. They foolishly believed that the market was fair."

Steve Carell (left) and Ryan Gosling star in The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay.
Steve Carell (left) and Ryan Gosling star in The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The previous films of director and screenwriter Adam McKay would not necessarily suggest he would be the perfect person to make The Big Short, a film about the 2008 financial crisis. At first glance, McKay is a director of pitch-perfect goofy comedies about man-children, films like Anchorman and Step Brothers and The Other Guys.

Dig slightly deeper, though, and all these films have nascent political messages buried inside them somewhere. Anchorman, for instance, has a surprising amount of wisdom about the problems with media messaging, and its sequel takes on the rise of cable news. The Other Guys, meanwhile, actually tackles the financial crisis — albeit in incredibly oblique fashion. (Its central story is a symbolic retelling of the collapse.)

So maybe McKay was the perfect director to make The Big Short. He took Michael Lewis's book about the men who saw the collapse coming, tossed in a few rounds of solid jokes, and added an underdog movie sheen to it. It's a deceptively uplifting tale about the end of the world. And it's become an Oscar frontrunner, having landed major nominations at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Critics Choice Awards, and the Golden Globes.

McKay got on the phone with me recently to talk about why a movie like this needed to be a comedy on some level, how to explain the financial crisis to an audience without boring them, and what he's most surprised hasn't changed since 2008.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On figuring out how to tell this story: "For the most part, [Wall Street movies] gloss over the details of what's going on"

Todd VanDerWerff: When you were working on the screenplay for this, what was your window into this material? It's such a complicated story to tell.

27th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala - Arrivals
Adam McKay attends the 27th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala.
Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Adam McKay: When I first read the book, I loved what a blend it was of compelling characters, page-turning pace, and at the same time information. I've read all of Michael Lewis's stuff, but I thought this specifically combined those elements more than anything he's ever written. I'd never seen a blend like that.

I've always been intrigued by the idea of breaking the fourth wall. Things like 24 Hour Party People did it well, American Splendor. In theater, we always used to play with it. I really felt like that was the way it had to be done, that kind of like the book, it had to engage in conversation with the audience.

And then I realized I really haven't seen a Wall Street movie done like that. There've been a lot of great Wall Street movies, no question — Wall Street and Margin Call. But for the most part, they gloss over the details of what's going on, and I thought, Wow, what would it be like to take an audience into these details?

I didn't find them that complicated once I'd done some research on them. The banks go out of their way to make them seem complicated. So I felt kind of confident that I could explain them, and if I could fuse that with these compelling characters and this crazy story they went through, this would be a really unique, original movie.

TV: I realized about halfway through the movie that I was sort of rooting for the economy to fail, because I wanted these guys to succeed, which is a horrible reaction to have! How did you deal with balancing that out?

AM: I actually don't think that's as bad as it sounds, because you're rooting for some shred of truth. You're rooting for math. You're rooting for there to be some justice. Theoretically, that's the way the market's supposed to work. There are bad investments, and then counter-investments.

Some people complain, "Oh, these guys were profiteering." No, they were actually doing their job. They foolishly believed that the market was fair and of course by the end of the story realize that it's been captured and compromised on many levels.

It semi-destroyed most of these guys. Not literally, but emotionally. To this day, they're still really angry and devastated by what they discovered. I loved that aspect. I love that there isn't a white-hat, black-hat dynamic in play.

TV: This movie is both really funny and really angry, and something about those two tones seems to go together really well, especially in satire. What is it about anger and humor that plays off each other?

AM: I think when you hit dynamics this warped, you kind of have to laugh. Laughter and anger are the two states you shift between. Things were so ridiculously out of whack. The numbers were so obvious, yet everyone was ignoring them. And part of it is you have these very interesting, odd characters, and you have the system kind of laughing at them. So right away, that's fun.

I think there has to be some laughter with it. You look at some of the best protest movements throughout history, and there's always a sense of humor. Look at Jonathan Swift, and Adbusters, and even through all the Bush years, it was interesting how all the comics became the best voices out there against the Bush administration. Otherwise, you just degenerate into bitterness.

On explaining things to the audience: "[These characters] are the guys who are nervous in the room"

Brad Pitt in The Big Short.
Brad Pitt stars in The Big Short.

TV: You try absolutely anything you can to make sure the audience can follow what's happening, from breaking the fourth wall to onscreen illustrations. Were there any techniques you ultimately abandoned because they weren't working as well?

AM: Yeah. Obviously the movie is crammed with a lot of information, but we were actually super careful with it as far as how many times we did that. We screened the movie a lot to find that balance. We wanted the movie to play with a rush of information and character and situations. But there were times when it was too much.

I originally had real people popping up in the movie. Occasionally, I would have the real person walk by and say, "Hey, that was actually me, and it didn't quite happen like this," or, "Hey, that was me, and that actually did happen," and that was too much. We tried a screening with that, and it punched a hole right through the movie.

So we were always conscious of that delicate balance, of how much you could step out of the movie and get back to the movie. It was like a game of Marco Polo — jumping in and out of the pool and making sure we were in the pool enough. There're a lot of techniques, and we tried to hit them at the right points, and at a certain point not do them at all. There's a 35-minute stretch where they don't really break the fourth wall pretty much at all.

TV: The film's editing occasionally feels like a collage of images and ideas. What was the process of finding that like?

AM: Early on, we talked about how a lot of great Wall Street movies have been made, but in general, the way they tend to depict Wall Street is in a cold, austere, monolithic way. A lot of locked-down shots, of marble walls and people in perfect suits. It really felt like these characters were the opposite side of that. They're the guys who are nervous in the room, can't make eye contact, don't dress well, have bad haircuts. And in talking to them, there was a lot of anxiety and excitement and energy to their experience.

So [editor] Hank Corwin and I made a conscious choice to get that frenetic energy in there, and at the same time we didn't want it to be stuck in offices the whole time. We wanted the audience to draw that connection that the decisions being made in these offices were vital to the creation of the MBS [mortgage-backed security]. It's the hallmark of the Michael Lewis story that he shows how it affects people's lives in this big way.

I had it in the script that there were cutaways to pop culture events and things that were going on in the world that we were focusing on instead of the impending collapse. And Hank, God bless him, one of the great living editors, really took it to the next level and started playing around with these collage elements.

My favorite moments are when the collapse has happened and there are cutaways to a tent city and people's possessions are in the road. I found it really powerful. I feel like if we hadn't done that, hadn't opened the movie up to the world, it would have lost impact. I felt like the whole point of the movie was, yes, it's all this esoteric language, and oh, God, it's so boring. But guess what? It's not boring. You can get it, and look what it did to the world.

TV: You balance the tone so well in this film in that it's very high energy, and then as you enter the second half, it grows sadder and more melancholy. How did you modulate that?

AM: We deviated from the book a little bit in that case. Michael Lewis didn't quite shift gears the way we did. I did want to get that exciting energy of discovering new knowledge or learning about things that was so exciting in the book. But ultimately when the crash hits, we in no way wanted to under-represent it. Hank and I went out of our way to show little pops of people being hit by it. Personally, we have a lot of people who were affected by it, close family members, a lot of people who lost jobs. We felt like to treat the ending with anything less than tragic tones wouldn't be fair.

It also so happens that it lined up with the characters' arcs quite well, too. They all really were devastated by where it all ended up. The ones who remain [in the industry] are still just as angry as ever that no major reforms were done, that no one went to jail. We had Dodd-Frank, but the pillars of this collapse haven't changed. You talk to these people, and they're still just wracked by the insanity of that. They're just as angry now as they were back when it happened. Tracking the character story led us to that tragic ending, but we were also respecting the fact that millions of people's lives were ruined by this.

On looking back at that time: "We had to have all old technology brought in"

The Big Short - NYC Premiere
Adam McKay (center) attends the New York City premiere of The Big Short with the film's cast.
Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

TV: You end the film with the reminder that only one person was arrested out of the midst of this and a grim proclamation of where things are headed. What were you surprised by when you were researching what happened after?

AM: There's a couple big issues we didn't address. The biggest one is too big to fail and bailing out those banks. Too big to fail is still with us, and it's actually worse in some ways. We'll have to address that in some ways.

I also think we need to be more strict with capital requirements. That's a great way to create some firewalls or levies to make sure this doesn't happen again.

And then the third thing that's jaw-dropping is a lot of this was caused by a dark market of derivatives, and the fact that we didn't even attempt to get into a discussion about a derivatives clearinghouse so we can track [them] is kind of amazing to me.

But the bigger point is I'm always just amazed how the conversation was cut off. We got Dodd-Frank through, and it kind of stopped. That was it. You heard about fines being paid through the Justice Department, and yet all the indicators and numbers showed they [the banks] were getting bigger and bigger. The conversation didn't continue at all. When you think about the effects of the collapse, you could argue it was actually bigger than the Great Depression. We were able to contend with it a little bit better, but it was a massive, dangerous collapse. The paper markets froze one day.

But we stopped the conversation! Maybe that's because of our crazy news cycle. I think most people to this day still don't really know fully what happened. At the end of the day, I would say, yes, those reforms should be enacted or at least discussed. But the thing that surprised me is that this conversation isn't still going on.

TV: What were you most surprised by when you looked back at the early 2000s, in terms of period trappings?

AM: The number one thing was the technology. I really thought, "Oh, clothes haven't changed that much! Cars kind of look the same. This shouldn't be so hard." Then my third day, my prop master Mychael Bates, who's fantastic, said, "Oh, no, no, no. Computers looked completely different. And everyone was using BlackBerrys." And I said, "Oh, my God." We had to have all old technology brought in.

The Big Short is playing in theaters nationwide.

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