The Big Short: How To Make A Comedy About The Financial Crisis

Oscar-nominated writer-director Adam McKay explains how he pulled it off

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Adam McKay's background is in comedy. From improv performer at Chicago's legendary Second City, through to main writer on Saturday Night Live, then co-founder of Funny Or Die, before going on to write and direct big box-office comedies such as Anchorman, Talladega Nights and The Other Guys.

So how did he come to write and direct a movie about the sub-prime mortgage collapse?

Adapted from Michael Lewis's book of the same name, The Big Short has earned four Oscar nominations, including director and adapted screenplay nominations for McKay himself, who has managed to weave a comi-tragic-educational take on the biggest man-made financial collapse in history.

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It was a chance for McKay to combine his story-telling credentials with a long-held interest in current affairs. As Anchorman and The Big Short actor Steve Carrell told The New York Times: "Adam's sense of outrage is infectious, but his anger doesn't preclude his ability to be funny about it... So the fact that he took this movie didn't surprise me at all. It seems like a perfect fit."
 

ESQ: So when did you first come across the book by Michael Lewis?

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AM: I think I read it after we did the movie The Other Guys. I read it in one night, couldn't put it down. I just thought this is one of the great books of our time.

If you want to understand what it's like to live through one of the biggest events of recent times – this is one of them.

ESQ: Did it make you angry?

Yeh, angry but also intrigued, interested. Lewis is so good at taking you inside that sub-culture of finance, behind the curtain. There were a lot of different feelings and we tried to capture that in the movie as well.

ESQ: It's a funny book as well as a deadly serious one. Is there an abusrdity to how it all unfolds that almost suits comedy?

Yeh, and the fact that you have these characters that are so idiosyncratic and strange and you've got these banks that are so pompous rolling their eyes at them; right away that's an enjoyable dynamic.

ESQ: Obviously the book has time to explain difficult concepts, whereas you didn't. Tell us about some of the techniques you used to overcome this.

While reading the book I kind of knew you had to do things like have the characters talk directly to camera. To break the cardinal rule of filmmaking which is show don't tell and to open the movie up and there were some movies I'd seen that had done it well.

One of my favourite movies of the last 10 or 15 years is 24 Hour Party People by Michael Winterbottom. I thought he did it masterfully in that movie. Energetic and smart and hip and yet I was still involved. I also did a lot of theatre in Chicago and we always used to play around with breaking the fourth wall with great results. The only downside is if you stay in it too long you lose the heart of the movie and we were just very conscious of that in the edit room.

ESQ: How well-known are the specifics of this story on the US?

Everyone was aware of it because the effects were so widespread. Millions lost homes and jobs and unemployment was up to 11 per cent. But the trick was most people on the street didn't know the real cause and the banks spread misinformation on what caused it. Every time we do a movie there are four or five motivating factors for why we want to do it and I'd definitely say that one of them was the fact that this narrative was never comprehensively concluded or fleshed out since the collapse.

ESQ: Is that one of the reasons you assembled such a stellar cast, to help make this story accessible?

It certainly helps a lot to give the movie profile and best of all they are all incredible actors who were able to pull of these characters so masterfully.

ESQ: What do you think the message of the film is? What lessons can we learn?

I would just love it if people saw this movie and because of it started talking more and if someone is up for reelection started asking questions like why they take so much money from banks and what is going on with reform. 

ESQ: Can it happen again?

The good news is that if you look at the arc of human civilisation over the last 4,000 years it seems to be moving in the right direction, we seem to be learning. At the end of the day I'm still optimistic because corruption doesn't work. If it did, we'd see a lot more of it. It's still around because people get lazy and want quick returns but more and more you're starting to see people see the dynamics of it.

The Big Short is in cinemas now