How Adam McKay Managed to Write and Wrangle Stars for 'The Big Short' (Q&A)

Adam McKay
Victoria Will/Invision/AP

The comedy helmer gets serious (and thrown headfirst into awards season) with a star-studded cast playing out the drama of a real-life financial collapse.

Known for comedy hits like Step Brothers, Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Adam McKay might not be the first person who comes to mind when thinking of a writer-director for a financial drama about the credit and housing collapse of the mid-2000s. But while prepping for 2010’s comedy The Other Guys, McKay, 47, discovered Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and was hooked.

McKay, who wrote for Saturday Night Live, co-founded Funny or Die and penned the script for Marvel’s Ant-Man, then got Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt on board. Paramount put The Big Short on the fast-track in time for awards season, and it will debut Nov. 12 at AFI Fest as the closing-night film.

Ahead of its world premiere, McKay spoke to THR about his dream cast, breaking the fourth wall and how he hopes his timely film will spark discussion.

How did you end up getting to write and direct this movie?
We were doing a lot of research about the financial crash for The Other Guys. I came across The Big Short, which you pretty quickly do when you go into that subject. I just assumed it would be a movie, but then I figured, "Someone else will do it. I’m a comedy guy." Then about a year and half ago, my agent said, "If you could do any- thing, what would you do?" Right away, I just said, The Big Short.

He called [Pitt’s] Plan B, and fortunately they were open to the idea of me doing a big rewrite on it and directing.

Was there any apprehension about hiring you, since you’re known mostly for comedy?
I’ve always been pretty politically active, and even when I was on SNL I used to write a lot of the political cold openers — that’s always beena big part of who I am. But you’d have to ask them. I’m sure somebody had a moment of, "Really? The guy who did Talladega Nights is going to do this?"

My big idea was to break the fourth wall, to talk to the audience periodically throughout the movie. If they were cool with that, then they were cool with what I was going to do.

Why did you want to break that wall?

I told Michael Lewis that he had a footnote in the book where when they describe synthetic CDOs [collateralized debt obligations], he actually said, "If you followed this to this point, you deserve a gold star." And that was what sort of cued me to, "Oh, the author just talked to me." I’ve always been fascinated by breaking the fourth wall. The show that’s really done it well recently is House of Cards, very artfully.

There’s also kind
of a snobbery among filmmakers against narration, which I’ve always been interested in. Some of the great movies of all time, like Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now and Election, all use practical narrators or just straight narration. That’s why I think I was so excited about it. I knew this was a chance to play with this kind of form that I felt was there for the taking.

This is quite a cast. Did you have actors in mind while writing?
I always think about who’s playing the roles. I had these names on the board. When I turned in the first draft to Paramount, I said, "Would you care if I sent this to some actors just to see what they think?" Within two or three weeks, they
all started coming back saying, "Yes." And it slammed the movie into a really fast gear too, because guys like that will have really tight schedules.

How did shooting The Big Short differ from your previous films?
The larger structure was fast-paced, but the actual day-in, day-out shooting was not. Usually when I’m shooting comedies, all day long I’m thinking of alternatives for jokes. There’s about nine plates spinning at all times because I’m also the writer. In this case, I half-jokingly said it felt very European, it was very relaxed. We could really get into the nuance of characters. It was one of the more pleasurable shoots I’ve had.

How would you compare the way Bale, Carell and Gosling work?
The two that I would really compare to each other are Carell and Bale. Both do tons and tons of preparation. And Carell is very hard on himself. He really pushes with each take and wants to keep digging and digging. Bale does so much work that by the time he shows up he basically is the character. I think Gosling is closer to kind of what I’m used to in a sense that he’s really improvisational. He obviously does loads of preparation, but he’s very playful.

Do you hope The Big Short sparks a bigger discussion on the subject?
It’s a movie, so you don’t want to act all crazy about it, but I hope
in some small way it pushes some discussion. It’s kind of amazing that we had the largest collapse since the Great Depression, but we all seem to have forgotten. And not many of the problems were fixed. There’s a lot of misinformation that’s purposely spread. So I think with the presidential election coming up, I’m hoping in some small way it brings back some discussion.

Are you going to write Ant-Man 2?
I was talking to [Paul] Rudd about it the other day. We’ll see what happens, but that would certainly be fun. I loved working with Marvel. And I have a couple of projects in development. One of them is more dramatic, one’s more comedy, still with a little bit of political teeth to it. And there’s a TV show idea I’ve been kicking around.

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