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A critically acclaimed drama about the complex maneuverings of our most powerful financial institutions, directed by the guy who made Anchorman and Step Brothers?
It’s not as crazy as you might think.
“The people who know me aren’t very surprised that I did this,” says filmmaker Adam McKay, the director of this month’s modern-recession drama The Big Short. “It’s something I’ve always been very into: Politics, finance, and economics.”
The 47-year-old director has always tried to inject those interests into his films: unblinking Tea Party-style patriotism in Talladega Nights, Ponzi schemes in The Other Guys, and cable news in Anchorman 2. Now, with The Big Short, McKay brings the serious stuff to the foreground. In adapting journalist Michael Lewis’s best-selling account of the financial collapse of 2007, McKay had to make the dry economics of subprime mortgage bonds somehow compelling to mainstream audiences.
He began with the cast, pulling together several big stars (and a handful of emerging names) for the film’s three distinct storylines. Steve Carell plays the righteous head of a small hedge fund; Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) and John Magaro (Orange is the New Black) are part of a scrappy financial-fund crew operating out of a California garage; and Christian Bale is an off-putting financial visionary who only wears cargo shorts. Ryan Gosling, meanwhile, plays the slick bond broker who bounces between their stories. Their mission: Short the housing market, which, at the time, was the rock of the American economy.
Without getting too jargony, here’s how the heroes — if you can call them that — of The Big Short made some of the best bets in recent financial history. Despite working at opposite ends of the country — and of the industry — they all saw that banks were peddling increasingly dicey bonds made out of increasingly dicey home loans; these loans were already beginning to default, because Americans couldn’t pay their mortgages. So while the rest of Wall Street, which was then high on short-term gains, turned a blind eye to the obvious cliff it was careening towards, these guys made bets that would pay off big-time once the industry hurdled off the edge.
Or, as McKay explains it: “They combined a bunch of mortgages and mortgage-backed securities, sold them and made a fortune. They ran out of good mortgages, so they started putting crap in there. That’s it, the end.”
McKay spoke with Yahoo Movies about the film, the fallout of the financial crisis, the Democratic primary, and much more.
Anchorman 2 was pretty scathing in its satirical origin story of the modern TV media, so this feels like a next step.
That was the reason we made [Anchorman 2], for that element. I was really surprised when it came out that not that many people talked about it, but that was literally the reason we made the movie: To talk about how [the emphasis on] ratings and for-profit [news] destroyed broadcast journalism as we know it. And we loved the idea that Ron Burgundy was the one to think of it. I think we have been playing with [those ideas with] each movie through the years, sharpening the view.
The odd thing about this movie is there’s not really a raging point of view to it, because it’s not really a right-wing [versus] left-wing subject; it’s more that most people just don’t know about it.
True, but only one political party — the Republicans — defends the bank deregulation that led to the crisis. The Democrats, meanwhile, are still split on how to treat the banks. So the story is inevitably political in nature.
If you look at how much money certainly a lot of Republican candidates have taken from banks, they’ve taken a lot. But then, Hillary Clinton has taken a lot from banks, too. But you’re right: One party will at least pretend to some degree that they’re going to do something about it, whereas the other party won’t even pretend. They want to get rid of more regulations. But friends of mine that are Republicans are just as mad about this as anyone else. The party leaders may have and different agenda and game they’re playing, but I think the average person [is frustrated]. My mom and her husband are very right-wing, but they love the movie, they’re completely on board with it.
McKay on the set of ‘The Big Short’
You endorsed Bernie Sanders a few months ago. Does he stand any sort of shot at this point? Would you be disappointed if it wasn’t him as the nominee?
I think with this process, you back the candidate you like. And my love for Bernie Sanders is really simple: He takes no money from really big companies. And anyone who does that gets my vote. It’s really simple. I don’t want candidates owned by the banks or oil companies, and he takes zero. So I will support him all the way through the primaries and then, if he doesn’t win, I’ll make my next choice. I love that he’s been in there. He’s been in the debates, he’s been pushing the discussion. I think he’s made Hillary adjust some of her positions. Any guy who takes no money from big companies gets my vote — I don’t care what chance they have of winning or not winning.
Hillary didn’t convince a lot of people with her argument for why she took Wall Street money at the second Democratic debate.
I’m not crazy about her positions on Wall Street. A lot of them have changed very recently. She’s been a great, great friend to the banks, and I don’t think we can afford to do anymore of that. I think we really need to tighten up some of these regulations, for the good of everyone, for the good of banks and the good of businesses. I don’t know if I totally buy that she’s up for that challenge. She’s a good woman though; she’s tough, she has a lot of positions I agree with. But I want to see a day and age where these people don’t take any money from big companies, because when they take it, I know they’re bought and paid for.
One of the big central points made by this film is that Wall Street execs want people to think that what they do is so difficult that only they can do it — and thus deserve those big salaries and to be left alone.
We need banking — banking is a healthy and good thing. But at a certain point, these banks started making so much money, they were then able to lobby our Congress. And they kind of just captured our government to some degree, and [the government] stripped away all these regulations. Banking was working really well before they got rid of all these regulations. We didn’t have any boom-bust cycles for like 40 or 50 years, and then they stripped out all this junk and now all of a sudden the whole market is constantly undulating. And I think it’s just once again, people just assume, “These people are the experts, I’m too dumb, it’s all too complicated.” And what I discovered in reading about it, it’s actually not that complicated. It’s just about moving money and debt around.
But there is a lot of difficult terminology, and people have very short attention spans. You had guest appearances from Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain to explain the financials. Were you worried about how much people understood the details?
[The producers] kept saying to me, “You think you can get people to understand this?” And I was like, “I can do it, it’s not that complicated.” For the first screening, I was a little nervous. But right way, they all got it. I knew when I asked my wife, who has no interest in finance or economics, and she said, “It was no problem.” There were some people who felt like they had to understand every single detail, and when they didn’t, they thought they were confused. And I would always say to them, “Did you get the general gist? Then you got the movie.” Overall, our test screenings and previews, everyone seems to go with it pretty easily, kind of remarkably easy, actually.
The movie changes some names from the real ones in the book. Why some and not others?
Jamie (played by Wittrock) and Charlie (Magaro) changed their last names [from Mai and Ledley to Shipley and Gellar], but that was just purely for privacy. They said you can use our story, but we don’t want our last names. In the case of [Steve] Eisman, who became Mark Baum (Carell), there was a family tragedy, and we actually changed that because the real tragedy was so much worse and involved a small child. The family didn’t want it in there and we were happy to comply.
One of the most pointed and important lines in the movie is, “They’re not confessing, they’re bragging,” It’s in reference to the Wall Street bankers peddling the bad mortgage products, and it epitomizes the whole story.
I love that line. It really tells you that, “Hey, guess what? This is legal!” But that’s what’s so crazy about this collapse and our corrupt banking system: Most of the corruption is legal, because they change the laws.
When Wall Street came out, people idolized Gordon Gecko, which was the opposite of the point Oliver Stone was trying to make. And sort of in the same way, you have really charismatic — though not evil — protagonists. And, if they make money at the end of the story, it’s because they’ve won their bets that the entire economy has collapsed.
One of the other things I loved about the book is that it’s morally ambiguous. It’s not a guy in a white hat riding into save the day, because that’s not how reality works. Unfortunately, this system is so broken and flawed that the best we can do for heroes were these guys. And they’ll each tell you they weren’t looking to be heroes; they were just doing their job and ended up stepping into a really dark and scary place that, to this day, they all seem really shook by.
It is this bittersweet thing: That whole world is about money, and in the end, they get that money, and they just feel dirty. That’s what I really loved about the ending: These guys didn’t get their money and go dance around the room and pop champagne. They all felt like, “What did I give up for this? We’ve all lost in a way.” It was one of the more unique things in this story, because nowadays, we live in a very materialistic country, and the idea that you could make that much money and feel crappy in the end, I thought was really powerful.
At one point, Jamie and Charlie go to a reporter at the Wall Street Journal to try and show him their evidence as to why the market might be corrupt. But he turned them away, saying he couldn’t afford to anger the sources he worked to court over the years. And that really resonated, even for someone who covers movies.
I think that pervades all aspects of media and journalism. It’s like baseball: When everyone knew that all the players were on steroids, none of the baseball media was reporting it. And it was really weird, because I had friends who had the inside scoop, and they were like, “Oh yeah, they’re all on ‘roids!” And I was like, “How are we not hearing this story?”
And what you realize is those reporters can’t do that story, because if they do, no players will come on their show, and if they don’t get the players, they’re off the air. And I think the same thing goes on with those Sunday Washington shows, too. You can’t ask follow-up questions, you can’t pin down a politician on a flagrant lie. Because guess what? Nobody from that party is going to come on that show.
And I actually had a bit of compassion for the Wall Street Journal guy, because what do you do when you hear a story like that? The real Jamie and Charlie were apparently not very good at telling the story, and they probably did sound like crazy people. But at the same time, the media has to take some blame. No one caught, it and no one was out ahead of this. They were all having such a good time riding off the big banks and their success that no one thought to stop a second and check out what was going on. Why were home prices so high when wages were flat or negative? That just doesn’t make any sense.
I’d say the equivalent in my industry — and not that I had any inside knowledge on this — was the Bill Cosby situation, where people later on would say, “Oh yeah, we kind of knew he was shady with women.”
I gotta tell ya: The only thing I’d ever heard about him was that he was kind of a little bit of a pervy guy. I’d heard that he hit on women that I’d known, but I’d never heard any of that stuff. I didn’t know about it until Hannibal Buress said it. The stuff about knocking women out, I was shocked when I heard that. Was that widespread knowledge? I had no idea.
I think in the case of this Wall Street thing, it’s math. It’s just basic numbers and you have thousands and thousands of people working on this stuff, and no one caught it? Really? But I think that’s why we need government regulations [for finance]. The reason we pay our taxes is so the government helps us not be put in that situation.
So if Anchorman was about local news, and Anchorman 2 was the rise of cable news, what would a third Anchorman be about? The internet? Ron inventing listicles?
That was what we kind of talked about. We talked about doing one that was about the rise of the new media. I also thought there was something to the idea — and who knows, maybe we will do one some day — I also thought it’d be cool to have Ron Burgundy get embedded in the Iraq War. We kicked around that idea. But we’ve never got that serious about it, but it would have to be the next stage of what the media has become. And I think you’re right, I think it’s the internet. The only thing is by then Burgundy would be getting pretty old. So maybe it’s a movie we make in 10 years, when Will’s aged up and it actually makes sense that you can set it in 1997 or 98.
Watch the trailer for ‘The Big Short’ Below: