Writer-director Adam McKay ("Anchorman") stopped in town recently to talk about his foray into serious filmmaking - "The Big Short," adapted from Michael Lewis' book about the housing bubble and the 2008 meltdown.
He chatted with movie critic Gary Thompson about the movie, based on the true story of against-the-grain investors (Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt) who saw the bubble forming, and found a way to profit when it popped.
The roots of the meltdown are notoriously complex, but your movie goes fearlessly, and cleverly, into the financial nitty-gritty. Did you worry about challenging your audience in this way?
We felt that with this movie, you absolutely have to explain it. You have to show the esoterica of it. Otherwise, the audience is going to have to take you at your word too much, to just trust you that something bad went on. So, yeah, we wanted to explain it, in detail. That was kind of the big idea of the movie: We're actually going to explain it. And I think audiences can get it.
Yes, especially when you have seminude women like Margot Robbie on camera doing the explaining.
That was the other big idea. Can you co-opt the language of pop culture and use it to inform? That was the most exciting thing to me about the movie. And the celebrities we used, they got the joke immediately. Margot saw the script and she just flipped.
I've seen a few celebrities actually play around with this in real life. Benedict Cumberbatch with the paparazzi, saying, stop looking at me, look at the Syrian refugee crisis. And of course they immediately stop taking his picture. But it's a really fun "what if?" What if every time Kim Kardashian were on TV, she would talk about rising CO2 rates and ice core samples taken from the arctic?
For all of its zany trappings, though, your movie is pretty sobering. Even the guys who make money don't feel that great about the way the money was made. After all, the economy is in ruins.
A: The key scene is the final scene, where Carell makes $200 million and makes a billion for his fund. Can you, as an audience, feel sick to your stomach when that happens? And if that can happen, we knew we were in good shape. We knew we weren't going to be glorifying it.
It's tricky, though. The so-called wagers they were placing became a part of a crazy structure of the very instruments they were betting against.
These guys are not white-hat heroes. But the system had become so corrupt. you couldn't have clean heroes.
And what has been the reaction to the movie, especially on Wall Street?
We did a screening for a bunch of hedge fund guys and bankers and financial journalists to kind of vet the movie and they loved it. Mervyn King, the former head of the Bank of England, shook my hand, like, five times. It was crazy.
These were the experts. We expected them to say, you're wrong about this or about that, but they were like, nah, you pretty much got it.
And all of them, to a man, and these are pretty conservative people, they all said the biggest shame of this is that nobody went to jail. They all sounded like Bernie Sanders.