Adam McKay is best known for directing broad comedies with Will Ferrell like Anchorman and Step Brothers. But his new film, The Big Short, is a different beast.
It’s the story of how four investment-bankers — played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Finn Wittrock and John Magaro — saw the devastating financial meltdown of 2007–10 coming when no one else did. It’s a lighthearted look at a dire situation. Call it a dramedy.
“When I read this book it did everything I wanted to see in a movie,” he says. “It was funny, it was tragic, and the characters were amazing. I think it was a case of running into one of the great books of the last 20 years that shows what is really going on in our modern world.”
McKay knows how to milk a laugh out of a scene but he also knows that the level of understanding the viewer needs to get why the housing bubble burst is above the level of most MBAs.
“It’s like 2 + 2 = fish,” says one banker, expressing disbelief at the financial manipulations used by the big banks. In the film he takes pains to explain how Wall Street likes to use confusing terms to make you think only they can understand what they do.
“We wanted to be the first Wall Street movie that took you behind the curtain, that really said, All these confusing terms you hear, all the ways the banks make you feel stupid or bored … it’s actually not that hard. If the guy who did Step Brothers can understand it you can too.
“We were trying to show that this thing that half of Wall Street doesn’t understand, these derivatives, mortgage backed securities, they’re actually pretty easy. They bundled a bunch of mortgages, they sold them, made a ton of money. Then they ran out of good mortgages so they put crappy mortgages in and coerced the ratings agencies to give them AAA. That’s it. That’s the whole story.”
McKay has an a-list cast but he didn’t want to make the movie all about the stars.
“It would have been very easy to just do this character story and just show these guys being affected by it but I wanted this thing to bridge a gap. I think there is too much stuff in our society where people just think, ‘Ahhh banking! It’s boring. Politics! Who cares?’ The truth is, this stuff is exciting, It’s the language of power. Once you get hooked on it, it gets addictive.”
The Big Short is a look at our recent past, but McKay warns this is not a historical drama or cautionary tale, rather it’s very much a going concern.
“All the effects of this collapse are still completely in play. All the same questions are still in play and they fixed a few things but they didn’t fix the main, weight bearing beam beams that caused this problem. So this is an active story right this second. That is one of the main reasons we made this movie, we want people to understand that. This isn’t over.”