Author Michael Lewis joins Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and director Adam McKay for a freewheeling conversation on the making of their biting satire about the financial crisis, victim blaming and what happens if The Donald actually makes it into the White House.
This story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Seventy-seven pages into his 2010 best-seller, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, author Michael Lewis stops to congratulate readers with a "gold star" for getting this far. After all, the detailed analysis of the financial-industry machinations that led to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and the Great Recession (and, arguably, the election of President Obama in 2008) is a whirlwind of such headache-inducing terms as collateralized debt obligations and triple-A tranches woven together by the personal stories of the men who foresaw the implosion and made millions. "Nobody wants to read about credit default swaps," jokes Lewis today. "And nobody wants to see a movie about that."
Nobody except Adam McKay, the former Saturday Night Live head writer turned director of such unserious movies as Anchorman and Step Brothers, who in March 2014 persuaded Brad Pitt's Plan B production company, Regency and Paramount to let him bring the book to the screen. McKay, 47, co-wrote the script (with Charles Randolph), tackling head-on the complexities of the subject matter and bringing a satirical edge to the material — a funny, angry, Michael Moore-style piece of advocacy in which the entire American financial system is the villain, complete with characters talking incredulously to the audience and actress Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages while sipping champagne nude in a bathtub. With Steve Carell on board as investor Steve Eisman (whose name is changed in the film), Christian Bale as neurologist turned hedge fund manager Dr. Michael Burry and Ryan Gosling as a composite character based on Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann, the $28 million film came together in January (Pitt took a small role as an angel investor, and Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Finn Wittrock and many others round out a deep cast). In one of the faster turnaround times for a studio movie, The Big Short was ready for its well-received premiere Nov. 12, ahead of a Dec. 11 release and a spot in this season's awards race.
While the events of the movie took place nearly a decade ago, the subject matter has been thrust into the spotlight via the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton, who has accepted $20 million in campaign contributions and speaking fees from banks and financial institutions, is beating back accusations that, if elected, she might be too cozy with the banks that caused the financial crisis. "Clinton Defends Image of Being Soft on Wall St." read a front-page New York Times headline Nov. 22, a day after the former secretary of state was heckled at a rally in North Carolina. "I have the toughest, most comprehensive programs for dealing with Wall Street," she told a crowd. Responded a man with a Bernie Sanders sign: "By taking their money!"
Fittingly, Sanders has received money this campaign season from McKay, one of Hollywood's most reliable Democrat donors, who has given millions to candidates and causes — but not to Hillary this season. McKay stumped for Obama in 2008, helping the candidate ride outrage over the financial collapse and government bailout into the White House, only to see the Obama administration refuse to prosecute the architects of the implosion. It's a topic McKay addressed when he joined Lewis, 55; Carell, 53; Bale, 41; and Gosling, 35, for a lively group interview and photo shoot Nov. 13.
“We’ve shown the movie to economists and finance people, and they all say the same thing: Not enough has changed,” says McKay (second from right). He was photographed with (from left) Christian Bale, Lewis, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell on Nov. 13 at Line 204 Studios in Hollywood.
Obama came into office on the heels of the massive disruption detailed in The Big Short and promised to do something about it. Adam, are you disappointed in him?
MCKAY Oh, heck yeah. They whiffed on that. They really made a bad call. There's this talk in D.C. that if you put these bankers in jail, you're putting the economy in jeopardy. No, you're putting the economy in jeopardy by not putting these bankers in jail because it means they're going to do more of it.
The argument was that Obama didn't like the bailout, but the alternative would have been Armaggedon.
MCKAY Here's the funny thing: When the paper markets froze, I didn't even know what that meant. Short-term business lending had frozen, which means that you can't get fluoride for water for municipalities. Hospitals can't get medicine. If that had been allowed to stand, we would have had riots in the streets. So there is no question they had to do the bailout, but it's just the conditions of the bailout and the fact that we even got there. Obama came in, and he didn't prosecute anyone. His Department of Justice guy [former Attorney General Eric Holder] worked for a law firm [Covington & Burling] that represented a bunch of the big banks. And now he's back working for that [firm]! So I thought that was a travesty.
Who should have been prosecuted?
MCKAY This is just me, and keep in mind I directed Step Brothers, but for sure the shell CDO [collateralized debt obligation] companies that those banks set up, I thought that was flagrant fraud. They would create these fake companies over in Jersey and just feed 'em all the tranches [groups of bad loans] that they couldn't sell. That's just flagrantly illegal. I also think the ratings agencies [did not do] any due diligence, just taking those fees. Because, you know, they all went public. They have to keep their stock up. Those were really flagrant.
LEWIS It's breathtaking to me that Goldman Sachs was creating bonds so that they would fail. So that they could bet against them. That's just nuts. The whole point of Goldman Sachs is to put a stamp of approval so everybody thinks, "Well, they've underwritten [them], they think this is sound." And instead, they're perverting the process. It's pollution in the financial system. That the people who did that at Goldman Sachs didn't end up in jail, that amazes me.
“I love playing real characters because you create a mannerism, and the director might question that, but you’ve got the evidence,” says Bale. “You can just call him over and chat with him for a little bit and go, ‘See, right?’”
Do you think anyone running for president will do anything on this issue? Hillary? Bernie Sanders?
MCKAY Nothing significant, no. I think Bernie Sanders would, but I don't think he'd ever have the Congress to back him; they would block him. It's really about Congress, not so much the president. You could fix this in a week. It's not hard, like have a clearinghouse for derivatives; you can see what's being traded, where the risk is going. Bring back a new version of Glass-Steagall [the law that separated investment and commercial banks, repealed in the 1990s], have a transaction tax and then four other things Michael could say, too.
And Trump would make this worse?
MCKAY Uh, well, Steve Carell loves Trump, so I don't want to cross any lines here. I don't want to get him upset. (Laughs.)
CARELL I've made no bones about that. (Laughs.)
MCKAY Ryan's a [Ben] Carson guy. Carell's a Trump guy. Trump. That's like, you're treating an appendectomy, would it make it better or worse if you just threw a cat on it? (Laughs.) No! That's just raw insanity. Would it help if we set 20 house cats loose in the White House? America starts to crumble at that point.
This is a tough subject to make fun of. Why did you want to do it?
MCKAY What excited me about the book was the idea that you were taken into this really elaborate, complicated world through these characters you identified with that were outsiders, that were vulnerable, that thought differently. It was entertaining; it was tragic. It was sometimes heartbreaking. And yes, a little educational. As far as having a political or policy position to it, I never really looked at it that way.
How much consulting did you do with your real-life subjects?
GOSLING The character I play is loosely based on a real person [Lippmann], but he's also the narrator of the film and the tour guide through this world. It was a challenge because I'm trying to play him but at the same time have one foot outside of the movie and be almost like a talk show host or something. I wouldn't want someone to play me, unless it was Steve.
CARELL I met with [Eisman]. We had breakfast. I read up on him.
“That’s just the way he gives notes,” says Gosling of McKay. “You grab a bag of hamburgers and you go to a graveyard.”
Other than changing his name, was there anything he asked you to alter about him or complaints he had?
CARELL He said he had better hair. That was his one comment. He was very, very proud of his hair. He said, "My wife married me because of my hair."
BALE Michael [Burry] came to visit the set a number of times. And he's a fascinating individual. We just talked for, it was like eight or nine hours straight. I became very fond of him. I love playing real characters because you create a mannerism, and the director might question that, but you've got the evidence. You can just call him over and chat with him for a little bit and go, "See, right?"
The book and the film both go into detail on the kind of person who bets against conventional wisdom or who wagers on bad things happening. Are any of you that kind of person?
LEWIS No. I'm very conventional. The only thing that's odd about me is where I'm from. I grew up in New Orleans, and the rest of the country feels like an alien place to me.
MCKAY Well, the people that take the short position in Wall Street, they don't look healthy.
LEWIS It's absolutely true.
MCKAY It actually takes a toll on you because you're betting against the hope of the future. A lot of these guys look hunched over and pale. It's what happened to Dr. Burry.
MCKAY Dr. Burry almost had part of his lower intestine removed, he was having such stomach issues. As soon as he unwound his position [in credit default swaps], all the problems went away. In some ways, that's the core of the movie, that idea of how hard it is to step away from the pack and say you're wrong. No one wants to do that.
“It’s like a horror movie,” says Carell of the boom and bust of the 2008 financial crisis. “It’s a romp until it’s not.”
Do you worry audiences will have a hard time rooting for the financial collapse of the country?
MCKAY No, what I loved about it from the book is how complex it is that you're rooting for these guys. The way the market's supposed to work is, if there's a bad investment, you short it. So they're kind of doing their job. Then the story expands times 10 once they realize they're shorting themselves. They're shorting actual reality. And then it gets scary and very complicated.
How familiar were you all with these issues before signing on?
BALE Familiar to a point.
CARELL We all have personal stories that relate to that time. The minutiae of what went down, no. But when you start peeling away the layers of the fraud and the duplicity, it's incredibly terrifying.
GOSLING [The financial complexities were] all to make you feel stupid so that you don't ask questions.
BALE Most businesses do that, don't they? Certainly lawyers with legalese. The movie industry to a degree does it as well. You think? Because it's all about protecting your own —
LEWIS It's creating a barrier [to the truth].
BALE Protecting your ass.
Have you ever tried to read your own deal on a movie? Hopefully your lawyer understands it because there are only two guys at every studio who do.
MCKAY He's right.
Christian, how was working with Adam different than other directors you've worked with, like Christopher Nolan or David O. Russell?
BALE Adam uses a microphone, so he didn't have to actually look at me. "That's crap; do it again."
MCKAY It's all accurate.
GOSLING Yeah, Adam will only talk to you if you bring a bag of hamburgers and you go to a graveyard.
That sounds like a story.
MCKAY It sounds crazier than [it is]. When you're on the set, there's a crew around you. And I want to have time with the actor. I want somewhere that's quiet. And usually we're hungry. So I get a sack full of hamburgers and I'll look for a graveyard. We go and we sit there in a rainy graveyard for two hours, just talk about acting. [In New Orleans,] there are graveyards everywhere. [Also,] I took Christian into a boiler room for three hours and just screamed at him, mostly in German.
BALE Really helped. I got it.
“Why aren’t we learning about this on the news?” McKay asks of the Wall Street fraud detailed in the movie. “Why aren’t we learning about it through documentaries? Why isn’t it discussed in debates? And what are we hearing about instead?”
You've a deep cast of great actors. Got any good stories from the set?
MCKAY Marisa Tomei is a thief. She will take shit out of your trailer. (Laughs.) Finn Wittrock gets in a lot of fights. Here's one of the funniest ones: Billy Magnussen plays one of the mortgage brokers with Max Greenfield. And he's the sweetest guy. He shows up for like two days, and he's a young guy, so he's partying down in New Orleans. At one point, he wants to do his laundry, and he sees a bunch of laundry in the washing machine on our wardrobe truck. He takes it all out, and it's wet, so he just shoves it in the dryer. And then he puts his clothes in the washing machine. What he doesn't realize is, these are like $15,000 worth of wardrobe for Carell; these are like Brioni tailor-made.
CARELL And the next day I put on my shirt, and I was like, "I couldn't have gotten this fat in one day …"
MCKAY He felt so bad.
CARELL You fired him.
MCKAY I did. I fired and sued him.
GOSLING In front of everyone.
MCKAY It was a public firing.
McKay’s “qualification for the [directing] job is that he doesn’t care what I think,” says Lewis.
Since the housing meltdown, real estate prices have skyrocketed again, especially in New York and L.A. Are we in for more trouble?
MCKAY There's no question there's an asset bubble going on across the globe. But the bigger point is we didn't make enough change; the same shenanigans are going on.
What do you hope to accomplish with this film? Is change possible?
MCKAY I hope that people hook with these characters. Then maybe a few conversations start. There have been several presidential debates where they don't even talk about bank reform, which is insanity. It's a movie; you can't really expect it to [cause] some giant change. But if it spurred on conversation, I would be delighted. From the focus groups, it's pretty amazing. We've seen 20 people at a mall argue with each other about the banking system.
The film argues that instead of bankers, poor people and minorities took the blame for the crisis. What do you mean by that?
MCKAY You're seeing it now. Rather than talking about trade policy or minimum wage, rather than talking about business stimulus, instead what are we mostly talking about with the presidential campaigns? Building a wall to keep immigrants out. We had a census not too long ago, and it actually showed definitively more immigrants are leaving than coming in. So it's literally a nonissue. But people don't understand these complex financial structures and instruments. They know something's wrong, and they go toward what they understand. You see the same thing in Greece; there's a rise in the neo-Nazi movement there.
Did working on this movie inspire any of you to be more active in the financial markets?
BALE God, no.
CARELL Not at all. [My money] is in a mattress. I sleep on it every night.
MCKAY I was dumb enough to start thinking I could short things. I was talking to a friend about McDonald's. We were like, McDonald's can't keep selling this food they're selling. They're going to go down! So I called my business manager. I said, "I want to short McDonald's." And he goes — Lewis knows how funny this is — "I think that's a bad idea. Let me check with our guys and see how it looks." And I go, "OK. Because I really like Shake Shack." And he goes, "Yeah, my guys are long on McDonald's. They say it's very strong. They're in a bunch of mutual funds. The real estate holdings. They are changing their menu." And since that time, McDonald's has gone up 25 percent and Shake Shack's stuck where it was. My guy saved me from that.
Does the U.S. financial system need to fall into chaos for anything to change?
MCKAY Here's the thing: Corruption doesn't work, whether legalized or illegal. It's going to fail. What we're upset about is there is no need to have to go through this. Why don't we pass some basic laws?
LEWIS You see changes in the culture. Since the financial crisis, the relationship of the financial sector to the rest of the society has gotten much more precarious. Any time it's talked about in Washington, nobody is a friend of the banks. It's when it's not talked about it's dangerous because the money then takes over.
Studios often set up screenings with politicos in Washington for movies that raise social issues. Are you trying?
MCKAY They're talking about it. Washington is tricky. Maybe it'll be Trump and Carson. (Laughs.)
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