Adam McKay’s ambitious new film, “The Big Short,” starring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling, examines one of the most damaging financial crises in U.S. history: the 2008 housing market bubble. Based on the true story and best-selling novel by Michael Lewis, the movie unfolds in the dark underbelly of the modern banking industry. When four outsiders foresee the impending collapse of the global economy long before the big banks, media and government regulators realize what’s happening, they capitalize on it by shorting the booming housing market through the invention of a clever financial instrument called the credit default swap.
At the film’s recent press day, McKay, Lewis, Bale, Carell, Gosling, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, producer Jeremy Kleiner, and screenwriter Charles Randolph talked about turning the book into a movie and adapting it to the screen, why McKay was the right person to direct, what drew them to the project, how the actors met their real-life counterparts in preparation for their roles, the decision to combine a cinema verite documentary approach with other stylized elements, breaking the fourth wall, and using celebrities and pop culture figures as an entertaining storytelling device to explain complex financial concepts to the audience.
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: Adam, what was it about Michael’s book that made you feel that you could turn it into a movie?
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. I started reading all the books I could get my hands on. 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.” I was like, “Okay.” I picked it up around 9:00 o’clock. I was in bed, and I just started reading it, and I 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’s just amazing to say it about a book that’s about mortgage-backed securities that it was a rollercoaster ride. When I was done with it, I was like, “Oh my god, this is one of the books of our times.” I was telling my wife about it and she said, “You should direct it.” I was like, “They’re not going to let the guy who did “Step Brothers” do this.” So, I kind of forgot about it. Luckily, down the road, it came back around, and I heard Plan B still had it, and it was a good jump into the project.
Q: Jeremy, people have a hard time describing or categorizing this movie. As a producer, how would you describe this film?
JEREMY KLEINER: The first thing I want to say is, when we at Plan B – Brad (Pitt), Dede (Gardner) and I – heard that Adam was interested, our thought was, “Why didn’t we think of that idea. That’s an amazing idea.” For all of Adam’s humility, we’ve loved all of his work and think he’s actually the perfect filmmaker for this. It was an instantaneous reaction for us. I like to describe this film not by using found language that’s used to describe other categories of films, but rather to try and treat it on its own terms. I think the film is a supremely personal expression of a filmmaker in command of a sensibility which incorporates elements of tragedy, of drama, of entertainment, and of humor, and doesn’t easily fall into any one species. That is a testament to the film’s strength, and what makes the film so special, and why we’re all so proud. The cast that is up here today expressed that in the range of their work, and I love to talk about the film as Adam’s film. It expresses his personal sensibility in a wonderful way.
Q: Steve, you’ve obviously worked with Adam a lot before. What do you think it is about Adam that made him the right person to direct this movie?
STEVE CARELL: He’s a smart, weird guy. We’ve known each other since the late 80’s, and he’s the same guy. He’s always been very passionate, really smart, and incredibly funny. He’s always the funniest person in the room and he knows it. He’s so shy about that and very self-deprecating, but he is. 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 that you don’t screw up in the presentation. But I agree, I thought he was the perfect choice to do this. When we first talked about the script, Adam said, “It is very intense. It’s very complicated material. But more than anything, I want it to be entertaining. It has to be entertaining.” I thought the script reflected that. He’s 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.
Q: Ryan, what was it that attracted you to this particular character and movie and made you want to do it?
RYAN GOSLING: The Jheri Curl. Adam described it to me, and I said, “You had me at Jheri Curl.” I love Adam’s movies, and in some ways, they’re not even movies. They’re like friends of mine or something. I’ll check in with the Step Brothers to see how he’s doing. I loved them, and so, to be able to work with him at all, is 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 exciting. I learned a lot. I still am learning about it. I learned a lot through the script, and obviously through Michael’s book, and then through the research process, and even through watching the film, I’ve learned the most. I thought it had a really…and Adam has, and especially in combination with Michael, with their work there’s a real… It’s very unique this film. It’s very inclusive. There’s no grandstanding. I think in the hands of a lot of other filmmakers, it could have been very, very different. Adam has a way of maintaining a sense of humor about something that’s obviously very upsetting and very unique. It was just very exciting to be a part of it.
Q: Christian, most of your scenes are alone. Is it easier or more difficult to work that way? Also, what was it like for you to see the film for the first time having not necessarily worked with everybody?
CHRISTIAN BALE: You know, I didn’t work with anybody. I met Steve for the first time last night. Ryan and I had met before. I really love just working by myself. It’s so much fun. And then, you’d just have a go at it, which was with Adam, because he’d have a mic, and he’d just talk shit to me whilst I was in the office, or made fun of what I was doing, or whatever. But it’s amazing how much you can get done when there’s nobody else. We shot for nine days and we just banged out pages so quick, and like Steve was saying, played around with it so much. When you’re by yourself, you don’t worry about the continuity at all. With each and every take, you can just do whatever the bloody hell you want. I love it. I want to make every film that way.
Q: Charles, you were the first person to try and tackle Michael’s book. How did you approach that task and what was the most difficult part of that process?
CHARLES RANDOLPH: Plan B and I agreed early on that we were going to honor the book and the complexity of the narrative in terms of all these characters, all their arcs. It was really a matter of figuring out how to dramatize this information and how to do it in the most entertaining way possible. We finished the script. It was good. Then, Adam came along and he added this layer to it that just was genius. It was this ability to deepen it and make it entertaining on a whole different plane. I like to think we did a lot of heavy lifting on the dramatic stuff, but what really worked is when Adam’s voice brought it all together.
Q: Michael, why do your books make such good movies?
MICHAEL LEWIS: I have a new theory about it. None of my books were written as movies. I didn’t have in the back of my mind when I decided to write about credit default swaps that someone was going to come along and make a movie of it. I mean, I really thought it was hard enough to write a book about it. The characters are the only thing that made it possible. They were so rich. They would carry a reader through the complexity. The books have been lucky in the hands they’ve landed in, in the movie business. The reason they’ve been good, I think, is that in order to make a movie of one of these books, you have to really know what you’re doing. They’re not easy books to do, so it attracts passionate interest. Otherwise, it wouldn’t get made because it’s just not obvious. So, the fact they’re not obvious, in a weird way, is a filter. It filters out really crappy filmmakers and actors because they need obvious. They need obvious and they’re not looking for a challenge.
Q: Is there a book of yours that you’d like to see turned into a movie that hasn’t been already?
LEWIS: “Liar’s Poker” was my first. It seems to me the most obvious, and I’ve actually written a script for it. I don’t understand why that never happened, but it never happened. You know why it never happened? It’s because people, even at the time, said, “No one wants to go see a movie about Wall Street.” It’s a hard subject to get to a popular audience. I think it’s just a big mistake in popular culture not to see the importance of the subject. That happens. Like politics in Washington were basically ignored until “The West Wing” came along. And now, people would have a field day with the material. So, I think Adam may have actually built a bridge between the subject and popular culture. And maybe, over that bridge, “Liar’s Poker” can crawl one day.
Q: Jeremy, Hamish and Steve, your characters at FrontPoint Partners seemed to have such a natural chemistry and there was a rhythm to the dialogue and your relationships. Did you guys spend time hanging out off of the set?
HAMISH LINKLATER: (joking) We would go over to Steve’s uninvited and just wait for him. And during that waiting process, Jeremy and I became friends. Steve never came out of his place.
JEREMY STRONG: Hamish and I had known each other for years, and we both spent some time at Seawolf Capital where the guys we were playing are now. I felt like our task was to learn how to capture the flavor of this world, the idiom of it, and the tone of it. That was a real challenge for all of us who were novices in terms of understanding what any of this stuff was. And then, the camaraderie which is such a part of that culture, that just sort of happened organically and was part of the environment that Adam created, which was such a playful, free one that invited everyone to go out on a limb.
LINKLATER: Steve invited us to dinner one night actually, but he did sit at a table about five feet above us.
CARELL: After that dinner, we all piled into a rental car that Rafe (Spall) had rented, and Rafe’s not used to driving in this country, and he’s unfamiliar with New Orleans as well. So, we were driving in the rain, mostly down the wrong side of the street. That was a frightening and bonding experience.
Q: Steve, Christian, and Ryan, did you meet your counterparts before you did the movie?
CARELL: I did. I met the person my character is based on. I had breakfast and I went over to his apartment and 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. I was frankly surprised to be offered this part and I was very excited, although I felt like one of these things is not like the other when you say Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale. I was talking to Adam before I started, and Christian was shooting his stuff. We were talking about characters, just checking in. I said, “How’s it going?” and he said, “Oh my god, Christian is unbelievable. It’s incredible. It’s transcendent.” And I thought, “Oh great! How am I going to follow that?” It was intimidating. This entire cast is just full of great actors. I think every part really stands on its own, and there are really wonderful, complex, nuanced, performances all across the board. So, that was exciting for me to just be a part of that ensemble.
BALE: (joking) I did actually ask the Hair and Makeup Department – I don’t know if they did it or not – but I just said, “Can you drop a hint every now and then when Ryan and Steve are working just how much their favorite week of shooting was the first week?” I did meet with Mike Burry. I just think the guy is wonderful. He’s such a charming man and so phenomenally interesting. We talked for hours and hours. He was incredibly generous with his time and his thoughts to me. I really wish that I can see the movie with him one day. It was a great character.
GOSLING: I got a chance to meet the guy that my character is based on. The situation is 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 tour guide through this world. At times, I felt like a talk show host. I’d break the fourth wall and introduce a new guest or a new segment. So, we really had to take some liberties with that character, because obviously it was very different from the real person, but I had an opportunity to meet him. And I agree, it was tough to follow the first week of Christian Bale. When I arrived, the first thing I said to Adam was, “How’s it going?”, and he said, “Christian learned to play double kick on drums. What are you going to do?”
Q: The film has one scene that touches on everything that happened – the realtors burying their heads in the sand, the bankers bragging about their bad loans, and the landlords running away with their tenants money. Did you have a sense that you were acting out scenes that happened thousands of times to people in real life?
BALE: Well, I was by myself in the office.
MCKAY: I think it was more Hamish and Steve. They were the two that were involved in that part. I can say that while we were shooting the movie, there was a distinct sense that this story was still going on around us and that in a way the 2008 collapse hadn’t ended, that all the damage had just been pushed onto different books, government books. Every day there were stories coming out about what was going on in the financial markets. 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 five or six years ago that we were just sort of reprising. It was constantly in flow and flux. I’d never experienced that before. I’m sure when I did “Step Brothers,” there were two grown men living together somewhere, but there were no news reports of that. In this case, it was extremely exciting to have this thing be a living, breathing movie as we were doing it. 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. Sometimes I would ask them to improvise. I’d be like, “Hamish, can you just talk about the Libor rate came in 2.5 percent up?”, and Hamish would just look at me and go, “What the fuck?!” I’d say the big thing is that this is a living, breathing story right now, and it just charged the entire movie with an incredible amount of energy.
KLEINER: There was something that I think was in maybe one of Michael’s books. It was this expression that people used called “IBG/YBG,” “I’ll be gone. You’ll be gone.” It was this prevalent attitude that no one was really accountable for anything because they’d be out of there. That’s something that we experienced in the film and in doing our homework. It’s something that’s still prevalent.
Q: Adam, can you talk a little bit about how some of this stuff is still going on today?
MCKAY: As I was saying before, it’s a story we’re still in the middle of. I think what happens with our popular culture in our country is that we don’t always get the information out that we really need to hear. It was really interesting when we started screening the movie to focus groups, and the person running the focus group would say, “How many people were affected by this collapse?”, and three people out of twenty would raise their hand. One time even the focus person said, “I think it’s more than that.” You realize that there’s just not that information out there and that people aren’t as connected to these forces that have a huge impact on their lives. Most people still don’t really know what the TBP is. They don’t really understand the reform that was needed after this collapse. It’s not their fault. It’s just that the information is not in our culture. It’s not being talked about. So, that was always a big drive for the movie. Will it happen again? I’m not an economist, but it certainly seems like a lot of things weren’t fixed that they should have fixed. I really hope it doesn’t happen again, but there are some scary indicators out there.
Q: Michael, given what’s going on in the market today, do you think you’ll write a follow-up book?
LEWIS: For me, one of the things I really loved about the movie was the way it got across stuff without saying it, as odd as that sounds, because there’s a lot being said with the actors speaking directly to the audience and all of that. One of the things that gets across very well is how drenched in mistrust the whole environment is. Nobody trusts anybody in the movie, and that is an honest reflection of the financial sector. Nobody trusts anybody, because nobody is trustworthy. There’s a behavioral problem at the bottom of all of this, and it’s that people have been incentivized to behave in untrustworthy ways in roles that really demand trust and have been for a long time, and that behavioral problem hasn’t been fixed. I have no idea if there’s going to be another financial crisis. One day there will be, but I have no sense of whether that’s imminent. But I do have a very strong sense that the behavioral issues haven’t been addressed. There’s been some reform around the margins, but the incentives to behave in a trustworthy fashion have not been put in place. So, you’re going to get the same problem. You sense that the mistrust since the financial crisis, that the problem has metastasized, because now the financial sector is angry at the rest of the society for not trusting them, even though they’re not trustworthy. It’s a poisonous relationship right now between that part of our society and the rest, and the movie gets to it beautifully. Am I going to write another book about it? I think I’ve shot my wad on Wall Street. I’ve done three of them, and I don’t really see the benefit of doing another. I’ve got other things I’d really like to do.
Q: There’s a layer of levity underneath the more serious moments. I’m curious about the inspiration for some of the scenes in this film where you have people you’d never expect, like Selena Gomez or Chef Anthony Bourdain, explain to the audience a complex financial concept. How did that story device come about?
MCKAY: The idea goes back to once again, what is our popular culture telling us? What is the information that it is giving us? So, it was the idea of taking these pop icons, these familiar faces that we’re used to seeing in a very fun, entertaining format, and suddenly having them tell us real, salient financial information. In the case with Selena Gomez, we know her as a pop star, and then suddenly she’s explaining one of the more complex financial instruments that you can buy. That was definitely a theme throughout the movie. We also knew practically, too, that there’s just no way to explain these complex instruments without some sort of device. When the idea came about of let’s play with pop icons, let’s play with our popular culture, somehow it felt right. We were doing that too with all the cutaways with what is going on in the world, showing the iPhones being sold, showing rap videos, like what were we all thinking about when this was going on. One of the tricky things you get with financial movies sometimes is that you end up with a lot of scenes in offices, which certainly there are in this movie, but we wanted to make it feel like it connected to the world at large, especially during the collapse when people really were suffering. So yeah, it had to be connected to all of that.
Q: Adam, one thing I really liked in the way you made this film is that there’s a sense and a tone of a documentary. It made the story very involving and pulled you in. Was there a purpose in why you wanted to bring something like that?
MCKAY: It goes back once again to how we perceive Wall Street and how we perceive our financial institutions. They go out of their way to make themselves seem austere, unimpeachable, legitimate, beyond reproach. You’ll see that in some of the financial movies, too. They’ll oftentimes shoot it like that. There’s a lot of straight lines. There’s a lot of dark shadows. They look very impressive. I think the whole nuance of Michael’s book was that these are real people. These are guys that aren’t always dressed the best. These are guys working in weird locations who are different. I really wanted to bring that human moment-to-moment drama to every phone call, to every scare that these guys would get to this discovery, because that’s the way it feels to these real people doing it on Wall Street. This stuff is exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s infuriating. I just knew Barry Ackroyd. He’s one of my favorite DP’s ever, and anything I’ve seen him shoot, I’m immediately pulled in. I think “United 93” is a masterpiece. The movie came out a couple years after 9/11 had just happened and it still pulled me in. He and I started talking and I asked, “Could you do a form of a movie that combines that verite doc style with some stylized elements? Are audiences ready to take that jump to go to a framed shot of Anthony Bourdain cutting fish back to the hand-held documentary style, and are we able to jump around?” We felt like people are used to these styles at this point. I don’t know if you remember when “The Bourne Identity” came out, there were people going, “It’s making me sick. I can’t watch it.” And now, that’s just de rigueur. That’s just how we shoot those action films. We really felt like that allowed us to take this big leap.
Q: A follow-up to the question about celebrity tutorials, what were those shoots like where they were being asked to explain things that most of us would have trouble articulating? There must have been some funny moments?
MCKAY: I think the funniest was that you have this guy, Professor Dick Thaler, who is probably about to win a Nobel Prize, next to Selena Gomez, and Selena Gomez ends up holding his hand through the scene because he’s not a performer. This guy could be one of the 20 minds on planet Earth who could get us through a crisis like this. That was hilarious. These guys are all stone cold pros. When Margot Robbie showed up, she knew every line. Anthony Bourdain probably spends about 70 percent of his life in front of a camera, so he didn’t even [blink]. There was no shift at all. But yeah, we did a little playing around. There was one take where I was like, “Margot, just at the end go, ‘So fuck off!’” And she did it so funny. I was like, “Oh, that’s going in.” Then, we had a bottle of fake champagne, and I was like, “I actually have a nice bottle of champagne,” and she said, “Get it out here!” She got a little bit tipsy when she was doing it. They were amazing. They just came in. It’s a very strange spot to be in, but for all the professional actors, it was like no big deal. They knew what was going on. It was also incredible how all of them have stories about how they were affected by the collapse. Each of them talked about a relative that lost a job, lost a house, something that affected them. Pretty much all the actors in the movie had stories like that. We had one actress, who plays the real estate agent, and she actually lost her dad because of the collapse. He had lost all his money and suffered a health tragedy, and they always tied it to the collapse. So, there were all kinds of really sad stories of how this thing affected everyone.
Q: For the actors, how was it for you to deal with all the complex financial jargon and financial numbers? Was it hard to follow sometimes?
BALE: I’m terrible with numbers. For me, 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 found is that in watching the film, like Steve was saying, it’s entertaining first and foremost, so you get it. It’s not a big, complex math class where a lot of people like myself find themselves going to PTSD mode in a movie when you start hearing figures. It’s not like that. It just sort of slips in very nicely and easily, and even if you don’t remember exactly what the names were, that’s the whole point. The industry tries to make you feel dumb and it works. But you understood the point, and that’s the essence of it. It’s getting down to what does it really mean for people on the street and every day. I was really surprised and proud of myself 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.
Q: Steve, you brought up earlier that you saw this cast and you were blown away by it, and yet, to me, you were the star of the film.
CARELL: (laughing, joking to McKay) So, that first week wasn’t so good?
Q: Out of all the characters in the film, yours was the one audiences could relate to the most. How did you go about creating that character and making him so relatable to audience members?
CARELL: I saw him as a human being. He’s a guy. I identified with the fact that he felt very much alone and that he was approaching this seemingly against insurmountable odds and saw himself as this knight. It’s complicated obviously because it’s morally and ethically ambiguous, because he certainly was going to benefit from it all. And there were tragedies and there were things about his personal life that informed how he navigated this world as well. I liked the fact that all of these people are just humans. I think the scene in which Brad’s character, Ben Rickert, turns and says, “Don’t dance,” is such a crystallizing moment. That, to me, is the entire movie boiled down to just one small, seemingly inconsequential moment. “Don’t dance.” And it’s the way he delivers that as well. I mean, it’s so heartfelt and so human, and he’s so connected to the tragedy behind all of this. There is an enormous conflict going on within all of these characters. It was challenging. And then, the language, of course, was challenging. Like Christian said, you learn as much as you can, and you try to get a grasp of it, and then you hit the press junket and you have no idea what you’re talking about. (Laughs)
Q: Adam, in terms of this story that you were telling, were you ever concerned that a lot of the material, the complexities of these derivatives, and the things these characters had to talk about would go over audience’s heads?
MCKAY: No, I actually wasn’t. I was very encouraged by Michael’s book. I was an English lit major and I’m into politics, but hadn’t really followed finance or economics, and I was able to follow it. So, when I started getting into the script, I just read the book over and over again and I read a bunch of other books. My goal became to explain it, at the time, to my 9-year-old daughter, and I was able to do it. No problem. And then, my wife came and saw it. She’s a director as well. She has no interest in finance or economics. She saw one of the early screenings, and I said to her, “Did you track everything?” She was like, “I tracked everything I needed to. I completely got it.” You’re not supposed to get it all. They could spray numbers at all of us all day long to try and confuse us, but as long as you get the shape of the fact that they bundled mortgages, sold them for fees, bundled the stuff they couldn’t sell, sold those for bigger fees, and then sold bonds betting against those bonds, that’s it. That’s literally the entire story in those two sentences I just said. So, I was pretty confident. I didn’t know what was going to work and what wasn’t. I knew there was a chance when we put the film up that the Anthony Bourdain explanation or Margot Robbie could just be odd and come out. So, it was really encouraging when the audience loved it right away. All the focus groups and everyone we’ve talked to said, “I love those. Thank god for those.” And then, we’re playing with the style of breaking the fourth wall. Stylistically, we decided to just open this movie up. There were always questions about that. But, oddly enough through the whole process, the crowds were with us. They may miss some numbers. They may miss some phrases. There may be questions. But like Christian said, you get the overall physics. You get the overall emotional physics of what’s going on and that’s what’s important.
“The Big Short” opens in theaters December 11th.