The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Big Short.
What drew you to this story?
Adam McKay: We had done a movie with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg called The Other Guys, and the goal of that movie was to do a comedic parable of the collapse. I did a lot of research on that movie, read a lot of books, and actually talked to a bunch of economists, and then we made the movie and the laughs were so big no one ever figured out that it was about the collapse. I still love the movie. So off of that, I just got a bug for this, I’ve always been politically active through the years and I started realizing that 80% of politics is basically economics. It started explaining so many weird decisions I’ve seen through the years, and of course when you start thinking that, eventually you come across “The Big Short.” I picked it up one night at 9 o’clock, and was in bed, and couldn’t put it down; read it until like 6AM. But I just assumed that, you know, I’m a comedy director, I’m known for Talladega Nights and Anchorman, no way would I ever be able to direct this, so I forgot about it for a bunch of years. Then, it was about two years ago, my agent said to me—you know, we’ve done a bunch of different kinds movies, like Ant-Man and Anchorman 2, and then I produced some stuff, and he said—”You’re doing a lot of stuff. You could probably, at this point I can ask you the question, if you could anything, what would you do?” Before I knew it, I just said, “The Big Short.” He called Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company, and the script was open.
“what would happen if Selena Gomez actually gave us a salient explanation of a synthetic CDO?”
Can you talk about getting involved with this project?
Steve Carell: Adam gave me a call and sent me the script, and I read the book. Up to that point, I think I knew as much as most people knew about the collapse, which is not a lot. I was astounded by how much I didn’t know. Adam and I talked about it. He said, “above anything else, I want it to be entertaining; it has to be accessible and entertaining and funny in parts, and tragic in parts.” It’s exactly the type of thing that interests me, and I thought it was very relevant, timely. I thought the character was really interesting. I didn’t think twice about it; I jumped right in. And to get to work with Adam. We’ve known each other since the late ‘80s, I think, so we go way, way back. He just seemed like the perfect person to direct this because he’s passionate about the subject matter, intelligent, but also had a sense of humor that doesn’t—his anger doesn’t get in the way of the humor, and is able to do both simultaneously.
The comedic bits that explained financial terms were amazing. Reading through the script and seeing parts like Margot Robbie in a tub, how does that impact you as your think about your character, knowing that you’re in a film where these things happen?
Carell: It definitely helps understand the kind of movie we’re about to do because a lot of it, I never met Christian Bale until a few days ago at the premiere. I had no idea, I hadn’t seen any of what he did. And Brad Pitt and his team, I didn’t see any of that either. We’re an ensemble and we’re in the same movie, but it was the script that allowed us to see that we were all, the tone of what we were all doing. Margot Robbie in a bathtub, like that definitely sets a tone. You know that that’s not exactly the tone of what you’re character is doing, but you know that there’s a buoyancy to the movie as a whole, so you can play within that.
McKay: We all know, for those of you that have read the book, it’s an amazing story, and the characters really drive it, like Mark Baum and Dr. Burry. But also, I just felt like you can’t do this story without showing the audience that all this esoteric, and supposedly high-minded financial talk, really isn’t that complicated, that they want us to think its complicated. I had to find a way to do that, and I think one of the reasons we all get distracted from a lot of the issues that matter, like the global banking system, which obviously affects all of us every single second, is that we have pop culture, kind of white noise going all the time. The idea was, what would happen if one of the elements of that pop culture/white noise machine told us things we needed to hear? Like what would happen if Selena Gomez actually gave us a salient explanation of a synthetic CDO. So it was a little bit of a joke, but also we were trying to comment on what we are really hearing everyday, and what do we need to hear? And we kind of knew when we were making it that there were many film professors around the country that would say, “You can’t do that!” But we just ultimately felt like we have to tell this story, and has to get out there, and if we skim over the details, then it could also be accused of saying, “Well you ignored the details.” Truth is. the details aren’t that complicated, it’s all about moving debt and capital around, and then renaming it; that’s really all it is. So that was kind of the idea was the blending pop culture, this distracting pop culture, with what we really need to hear.