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The A-List: An interview with ‘The Big Short’ director Adam McKay

By Iain Blair

Writer/director Adam McKay has become one of the most successful comedy directors in Hollywood thanks to such hits as the Anchorman films, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys and Marvel’s Ant-Man, which he wrote. Considering his resume, he just might seem like the last person in town equipped to make The Big Short, a seriously dense drama about the devastating 2008 financial crisis that is still resonating through every level of American society.

McKay was not only up to the challenge, he took the complex catastrophe and an all-star cast — including Oscar-winner Christian Bale and Oscar-nominated actors Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt — and turned the film into a riveting examination of corruption, greed and incompetence.

I recently caught up with McKay to talk about his process on The Big Short, a Paramount Pictures and Regency Enterprises film.

Adam McKay and Steve Carell on set.

What do you look for in a project, and what was the appeal of making The Big Short, considering you’re best known for comedies?
Even in the silly comedies we always have a POV of what’s going on in the world. So obviously Anchorman is skewering ratings-driven news in the US, and Talladega Nights was about Red State pride, and so on. I’ve always been interested in politics, In fact, I’ve written for Michael Moore’s TV show The Awful Truth and the Huffington Post.

So when I read Michael Lewis’ book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, it totally gripped me… the way he fused character with all this relevant information. I couldn’t get it out of my head, so two years later when my agent asked me if I had a dream project I immediately said The Big Short.

You took quite a radical approach with this very serious subject, making it very funny. So you couldn’t help yourself, while your outrage seems to simmer just below the surface?
I knew it had to be funny to sell the outrage. There’s two parts to this story: the first is where the outsiders know what no one else knows, while the big banks roll their eyes at them. They have the truth, and that part is very exhilarating and exciting, to see these corrupt banks be played by these guys. I knew that we’d always have energy and humor. Then there was the second part, when they learn that the corruption goes way deeper than they had imagined. Plus the fact that the whole world could collapse from this was a tragedy.

It’s also a genre-less story.
Yes! That’s exactly why I loved it so much. I believe the old genres are melting away a bit, so I could change tones on this. And, yes, it’s a tough subject, but learning about anything this important — to find out the truth — is exciting. We’re looking behind the curtain for the first time.

On top of a stellar cast, you got a ton of celebrity cameos illustrating knotty financial concepts.

We called them “pop culture icon characters,” and they explain stuff like “collateralized debt obligation.” So Anthony Bourdain came on, and for the end we had wanted Jay-Z and Beyonce, but found it would be easier to get Angela Merkel. So instead we paired Selena Gomez with economist Richard Thaler in a casino.

The film was shot by DP Barry Ackroyd, whose credits include The Hurt Locker, Captain Phillips and United 93. What look were you going for?
We went for a very high-energy, “you are there” feel. There have been some great movies about Wall Street — like Wall Street and Margin Call — but they always present it with everyone in perfect suits in these solid, marble buildings; I felt this experience was the total opposite. I wanted it to be frenetic and anxiety-filled — since that’s how the real people experienced it — and that’s how most of Wall Street operates. That whole facade of conservative bankers in austere offices is a bit of propaganda sometimes. Barry was key to that look, and I’m a huge fan of all his work.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and director Adam McKay.

Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd and director Adam McKay talking through a shot.

Where did you post, and what were the main challenges?
At Technicolor on the Paramount lot. I knew it was a very ambitious project with a lot of moving parts, so my main rule was that no idea was off limits; let’s try anything! I’ve never seen a post with so many ideas flying around all over the place. It was very exciting.

The film was edited by Hank Corwin, whose credits include The Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Horse Whisperer and Nixon. Tell us about how that relationship worked, especially considering the sheer volume of visual information he had to process.
Hank is just so experienced and creative, and he was so good at pulling all the material together into this coherent story. Then we hired this young composer, Nicholas Britell, who started very early and had an office right next to Hank’s. We had this great system where Hank would cut a version of a scene and then we’d ask Nick to write something for it, and he’d often plug his keyboard directly into Hank’s set-up and actually score the scene as Hank cut it. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in post. So it was a very tight, very collaborative group.

BGS-02221R      THE BIG SHORT

Do you like the post process?
I love post, and this was one of the best posts I’ve ever had, starting with the DP and editor. They’re true masters of their craft.

This has some great VFX. Can you talk about them?
The big one that’s jaw-droppingly good — and it’s so good that no one realizes it’s a VFX shot — is the timelapse shot at the start of the film. ILM did it, and I wanted to illustrate how banking has grown over the past 30 years, from six percent of the GDP to 24 percent today. That’s why Manhattan’s real estate has gone through the roof.

So ILM created a sequence with all these buildings sprouting up, and there are even occasional smudges of rain on the camera, and no one’s ever guessed it’s just VFX. But if you stop and think about it, you know there’s no way it’s real.

The other big one is the glass eye for Christian Bale’s character. That was so tricky to do, since in reality you’re not that aware of someone’s glass eye except the odd occasion when it doesn’t move, and I didn’t want it to become too obtrusive. So we painstakingly went through every single shot to get it just right, and Lola VFX did a fantastic job on it.

Where did you mix?
Also at Technicolor, and mixers Anna Behlmer and Terry Porter just killed it. I’ve never done a mix quite like it, where it was shot about 80 percent verite, but the rest is framed more traditionally and we go into montages. The sound had to be ambient and real, but then sometimes it wasn’t. So it had to be momen-by-moment.

Where did you do the DI?
Efilm with Company 3’s Stephan Nakamura (who uses DaVinci Resolve). He did an amazing job. DP Barry Ackroyd was off shooting, so I was very involved.

What’s next?
I got a real charge from doing something so current, so I have a few ideas kicking around — one about climate change and another comedy with Will Farrell about immigration.

We’re well into awards season. You’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe for co-writing this. How important are awards to you?
Huge. This is a very unusual movie, so that validation helps a lot.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

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