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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
On the afternoon of Nov. 23, The Big Short is premiering in New York, just a cab ride away from the epicenter of the financial meltdown of the mid-2000s. The film’s Brad Pitt is livid that greed continues unfettered and justice is elusive. “It’s disgusting. It makes me angry,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter of the Wall Street-generated housing and credit bubble that left millions without a home due to foreclosure. “What I liked about the film is that it tries to explain to people how they got screwed.” Pitt, who also produced the $28 million film through his Plan B Entertainment, hopes the film spurs the public to question exactly how this happened. In a wide-ranging conversation, Pitt talks about why he opted for a small role, how comedy director Adam McKay won the job and whether or not he blames President Obama for the lack of accountability.
How did you become involved as a producer?
Well we got the book. We’re sitting on this great book by Michael Lewis, and it was a subject that I really wanted to take on — still wondering, questioning, angered by the fact that this whole collapse happened and people suffered as they did, and yet no one was held accountable and nothing seemed to change. And it’s true nothing has really changed. So we were lucky to win Michael’s book and we set about developing the script, so we started with Charles Randolph, and we got a really smart, insightful script but still, this kind of material is very, very difficult to get made these days. So I had met Adam McKay a few years prior. We were looking, talking about doing a film about Lee Atwater that he had developed. And I walked away completely charmed by him and absolutely impressed with his knowledge of global affairs and his wit. And my partners had been talking to him at the same time about something, and it just made sense. It just felt like the perfect [fit] if we could get Adam on. It would be the perfect kind of balance and delivery system for this kind of material. And it’s fair to say once it went through Adam’s filter, we really felt like we had our script, we had our story.
This felt like one of the quickest films to move from option to production. From your perspective, was it unusually quick?
Yeah. Once we had [the book], it was very, very quick. We had it at Paramount, and again this is challenging material for them to gamble on, certainly in today’s paradigm. So I immediately jumped in. [With] projects like this, studios need, for better or for worse, marquee value to sell the thing on. So like 12 Years a Slave, I gladly jumped in to help with that aspect. Our first choices were Christian, Ryan and Steve, and I think it’s just a testament to who Adam is and how Adam developed a script, and they all jumped in immediately. That all happened within two weeks and we were up and running, heading to New Orleans and trying to figure out how to shoot New York [in] New Orleans.
Why was it challenging material?
There’s no guarantee the movie is going to get to what it’s become. We believed it would, and we believed in Adam and we believed in the players. There’s just no guarantee. And you know with the growing expense of P&A, these kind of midrange films about complicated material, studios can lose a lot of money on. So you know without some kind of comfort there, I’ve just seen many of them just not get made. It’s no one’s fault, it just didn’t fit their business model anymore. We all did it for the fraction of [our] worth because we wanted to get this story made. And that’s just the reality of today’s market.
You took a very small part. Why not one of the leads?
Well actually, I was supposed to, but I was committed to doing another film that was going to overlap with this that ended up not happening. So it wasn’t in the cards for me. Though truthfully, these guys were all better than I could have been, and I think it just worked out perfectly. So if I’m going to jump in, then where can I jump in and pull my corner of the sheet and not be distracting in any way. This is what felt right to us, what developed into a mentor-student relationship in our storyline.
What was the film that posed conflict with this one?
[Angelina Jolie Pitt and I] were trying to get Africa made, which is still trying to get made. It’s an Eric Roth script.
In your own personal opinion, do you think that people should go to jail for what they did to the financial system?
I think people should have been held accountable, yes I do. What we’re seeing now is that greed is still alive and kicking, and banks are bigger than ever. There’s a few more safeguards than before where they can’t risk as much debt, but the worry is that as time goes by, people forget, [but] the same things are being done, being done outside the banking system, but the same behavior is going on — and we also got to look at our credit rating system. It’s an absolute joke. I think what the film tells us and what time tells us is human nature cannot be completely trusted. We need regulation. We need really smart regulation, and there’s been a few attempts at it, but nothing like when [senators] Chris Dodd and I think Al Franken were going after the rating system, which got nowhere.
Elizabeth Warren, too.
Elizabeth Warren as well, you’re right. But nothing has really changed. It’s just packaged in a different way or going down [in] a different venue.
And Bernie Madoff is the only one who has gone to jail.
Yeah, but that’s not connected to this in any way. It was a Ponzi scheme, and he was an absolute easy bad guy. I’ve tried to ask a few of the experts, “Why wasn’t anyone held accountable?” and the answer seems to be that the government didn’t go after them in 2009 because they were too worried about affecting the bank bailout, and that’s as much of an answer as I’ve been able to get.
And yet there are so many victims here.
Mortgages, savings, pensions. Yeah, it’s disgusting. It makes me angry. What I liked about the film is that it tries to explain to people how they got screwed. The language is intensely tricky, so people are relying on the people giving them advice. It’s rigged to be so confusing that no one could even begin to understand until suddenly there are loans adjusted without anyone really aware of what’s really going on.
Do you think this film will do anything to make people say, “Enough is enough. These people have to be held accountable?”
I think it lifts the sheet up a little bit and makes it more visible of what’s going on and what could happen again. So many people got hurt. It triggered a worldwide economic collapse. There’s no reason it couldn’t happen again at this point.
You’ve worked with Michael Lewis before on Moneyball. Is he somebody you have a relationship with?
Yeah, I have great respect for Mike. Michael is able to take what should be normally dry and uninteresting material — certainly convoluted material — and bring a clarity to it. I think it’s because of his writing that we can see a way into a film because of the way he breaks it down.
Adam is not an obvious choice for this type of material. What made you think he could handle this topic?
First of all, what he and Will [Ferrell] put out is really prolific. But it was his interest in national and world affairs. He’s the smartest guy in the room, and it’s quite evident from sitting down with him. You could see he was right for it, and it was a lovely confluence of interests, us coming together on this thing. And I hope he does more [films] like this. I’m sure he will, because he’s got a unique voice.
Do you have any plans to work with Adam again?
We don’t have anything. We’ve talked about a few ideas. He’s got hundreds of ideas, and we’ve talked about a few ideas, but nothing concrete as of yet.
Any plans to work with Steve, Ryan or Christian again?
I don’t have anything specific. I only have one thing that I know I’m doing next. It’s [an untitled World War II love story opposite Marion Cotillard at Paramount], so I don’t think those guys will be in it.
You’ve been working with Brad Grey for a long time. What does Paramount bring to the equation that is different form the other studios?
Brad Grey’s been a longtime friend. We’ve certainly been in the trenches on some films, like World War Z, when we really had to buckle down and pull it through. So I think we got that combat-in-the-trenches closeness. We just work well together. We just have a relationship.
As a studio, is Paramount more hands-off?
No. They’re certainly opinionated, which I appreciate. They’ve been helpful in that way. They would push back and say, “You know what, this scene or that scene …” So, we push back. Conclusions are made. Good conclusions are made.
Tonight is the premiere in New York, ground zero of bank malfeasance in America. What kind of message are you hoping to send to the New York banking community?
My message is more for the people who got screwed, who lost their homes, to understand how this happened. And for the public to understand how this happened and begin asking questions. And for the powers that be, I hope this resonates with them too and [they enact] tougher regulations and more safeguards and certainly an overhaul of the ratings agencies. It would be my dream.
Have you been disappointed at all that President Obama hasn’t done more? You’ve been a supporter of President Obama, correct?
Yes. I am just disappointed no one is being held accountable. Because without those kind of incentives not to behave this way, why shouldn’t it happen again? A lot of people made a lot of money.
What scene was the most gratifying to shoot?
Well, the reason I wanted to do this, where I thought I could be a value to this story, was where [Pitt’s character Ben Rickert] reprimands his proteges on exactly what they’re doing, what it means to be betting against the American economy.
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