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“It’s funny,” says Adam McKay — the Oscar-nominated co-writer and director of The Big Short who heretofore was known for the raunchy comedies he made with Will Ferrell, such as Anchorman and Talladega Nights — as we sit down in his guest house to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “The whole time we were making the movie I never thought of it as, ‘I’m doing something different.’ You just chase the movie, is kind of all you do. But there’s no question we’re thrilled with the reaction it’s getting.”
(You can click above to listen to this episode or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde, Benicio Del Toro, Lily Tomlin and Eddie Redmayne.)
As he shares in this conversation, McKay, 47, grew up in Pennsylvania, obsessed with comedy and movies. He dabbled in standup while a student at Temple University before dropping out and heading, with a friend, to Chicago, the home of long-form improvisation. There, he co-founded the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improvisational sketch comedy group that gravitated towards “more aggressive comedy” than the already-established The Second City. And while he remembers that as “an amazing time,” he also recalls “we weren’t making any real money,” so he eventually auditioned for — and landed — a gig as an understudy for the main cast of Second City, which at that time included Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.
McKay’s life changed forever when SNL chief Lorne Michaels, during a scouting trip to Chicago, hired him for the show. McKay had auditioned material as a performer, but also submitted samples of his writing, and was brought on to the show as a writer. He eventually rose to head writer and began directing, as well. And it was during his time at 8H that he developed a special bond with Ferrell. The two “discovered that we had remarkable similar tastes in comedy and the way we worked,” he recalls, and set about collaborating on a script called August Blowout. Even with Michaels’ support, that project went nowhere, so they turned their attention to another, called Anchorman — which was turned down by every studio in town. It was only after Ferrell’s success in Old School that the project was revisited.
Ferrell and McKay went on to work together on a plethora of projects, many under the banner of their tongue-in-cheek production company Gary Sanchez Productions. (They also created Gloria Sanchez Productions to develop comedies by and for women.) Among them: “The Big Five” films that Ferrell starred in and McKay directed (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, The Other Guys, Step Brothers and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues); other Ferrell vehicles on which McKay served as a ghostwriter (Elf, The Campaign, Get Hard); and at Funny or Die, their comedy website that has become a veritable assembly line production facility for viral videos.
“As slapsticky and absurdist as they are,” McKay says he and Ferrell always wanted their comedic films to be about something. For instance, The Other Guys was “a comic parable for the [economic] collapse and for Bernie Madoff” — and the making of it fueled McKay’s interest in finance and economics. (He was already a politico, having written and/or directed many of SNL‘s funniest political sketches, taken Ferrell’s George W. Bush character to Broadway in 2009’s You’re Welcome America; and penned many an op-ed for The Huffington Post.) This led him to Michael Lewis‘ 2010 book The Big Short, which he devoured in one night-long sitting. He saw cinematic possibilities for it, just like Lewis’ other books-turned-films Moneyball and The Blind Side, but adds, “Two years went by and I just assumed, because I was a comedy director, that there was no way I would get a shot at doing this.”
Then, when “things were going really well and I started to branch out from the comedy” — he had written Ant-Man — McKay was asked by his agent, WME’s Cliff Roberts, what he would like to do if he could do anything — and he said The Big Short. Roberts set up a meeting for McKay with the production company Plan B Entertainment — led by Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt — which owned the book’s film rights. McKay pitched them on his vision for the project, including breaking the fourth wall and explaining financial complexities directly to the audience. And Gardner, he recalls, was like, “Duh, how did we not think of this?!”
At the time, Plan B already had “a very good script” by Charles Randolph, McKay notes, so he wasn’t starting from scratch. Instead, with actors in mind for each of the major parts (but never dreaming that all would ultimately agree to play them, he reworked the existing version. “I just put it into a bit of a faster-gear, I broke the fourth-wall, I put in the explanations, I made the [Jared Vennett]-character the narrator, I rewrote a bunch of scenes, just kind of changed the timbre, and yet kept these great sequences that Randolph had written,” he says, adding, “He had written some of my favorite lines in the movie.” The result was a script with which both men are delighted — a rarity in rewrite situations. “We kind of blended these styles,” McKay adds.
In the end, the strength of the script attracted the participation of a dream-team cast led by Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and McKay’s longtime collaborator Carell; cameos by the likes of Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez; and first-rate craftsmen like cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and film editor Hank Corwin. And, under McKay’s direction, the pieces gelled so well that the film ended up winning the top prize of the Producers Guild of America; landing noms for the best ensemble Screen Actors Guild Award, as well as for the best director Directors Guild of America Award and best adapted screenplay Writers Guild of America Award (the latter two are still pending); and five Oscar nominations, including two for McKay — best director and, with Randolph, best adapted screenplay — plus best picture.
Most importantly to McKay, the film is calling people’s attention to an important issue that had been fading into the background. “The conversations about bank reform and the power that the banks have just stopped at a certain point,” he says, “and you’re not hearing it in the presidential debate.” He continues, “The conversation kind of went away, and the truth is these banks have gotten way bigger — 30 to 40 percent bigger; the ratings agencies are three times bigger; and this is a major problem. When this goes south it affects us all.” And he adds, “My dream would just be that candidates — whether they’re for Senate, Congress, president, state reps — be peppered with questions. ‘Why are you taking from banks? And if you’re taking that money, why did you then vote against reform? It seems to me like you’re selling us out.'” (He’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, explaining, “The main reason I’m a Bernie guy? He takes no money from banks, no money from oil companies, no money from weirdo billionaires.”)
So what’s next for two-time Adam McKay? Can he go back to raunchy comedies, or is his career changed forever? He laughs off the question. “It may be a super-dark drama; I’m sure I’ll do more comedies with Ferrell; it may be something similar to The Big Short, where it’s kind of that collage-y style, but about a different subject. I think the nice thing that’s happened from this is I’m now able to say that sentence.”
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