Five years ago, Adam McKay was working on The Other Guys, another in his string of Will Ferrell movies about sputtering dumbasses that began with 2004’s Anchorman. McKay had been reading a lot about the banking system, because part of the plot of The Other Guys — the part that didn’t involve the Rock jumping off a building, or Eva Mendes treating Ferrell like a sex god — revolved around bumbling cops bringing down a scheming billionaire. So he settled in with a new Michael Lewis book about the 2008 financial meltdown, The Big Short.
“I picked it up at nine at night and was up until six in the morning,” says McKay. “The way Lewis writes has such a gallop to it. It just felt like, ‘Why wouldn’t this be a movie?'”
The book was perfect for a comic-book fan like McKay — Lewis makes heroes out of social misfits with special powers (though more mathematical than super) who saw through the chicanery of the greed-drunk banking industry. But not everyone saw this movie as a given — even after successful film versions of The Blind Side and Moneyball, Lewis himself never imagined anyone could find an onscreen treatment for credit-default swaps and the other complicated financial instruments that drove the subprime-mortgage disaster. McKay — the former Saturday Night Live head writer who founded Funny or Die with Ferrell in 2007 — had a solution: “My big idea was inspired by movies like American Splendor and 24 Hour Party People, where characters directly address the audience,” he says. In this case, cutaway celeb cameos to explain the wonky stuff: Margot Robbie, sitting in a bubble bath, talking about the housing bubble.
In 2014, McKay set to work rewriting a script that Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company had developed. McKay kept a list of his dream cast next to his computer: Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Melissa Leo, Steve Carell. When the script circulated, every single person said yes. Pitt, who McKay thought would be onboard only as a producer, even asked if he could play the small role of Ben Rickert, a former trader with a survivalist bent.
Some will see The Big Short as a hard left turn for the director of Step Brothers. But whether or not you’ve noticed, all of his movies have been social or political satires, even Step Brothers. “Our idea was that consumerism turns grown men into babies,” he says. The NASCAR spoof Talladega Nights lambasts a red-white-and-blue consumer culture that turns every inch of life into a brand. “Michael Moore called me after it came out and said, ‘You just made the most subversive film in the country, and no one even knows it,'” McKay says.
McKay grew up working-class, the son of a waitress and a bank-teller/musician father in Malvern, Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia. With a semester and a half left at Temple University, he pulled the plug on college and a semisuccessful stand-up career, sold his comic-book collection to buy a Chrysler New Yorker, and drove to Chicago to study improv, listening to Jethro Tull on the 8-track player along the way. He started there in 1990 and quickly made a name at Upright Citizens Brigade and second City, leading to an SNL audition in 1995. Smart enough to know his future was in writing, not performing, he gave producer Lorne Michaels some of his sketches. McKay’s star at SNL rose with Ferrell’s, so after four seasons (two as head writer) he was able to remake his job to concentrate exclusively on the short films that became his ticket to Hollywood, as well as the blueprint for Funny or Die.
He and Ferrell made kind of a big deal out of send-ups of bro culture that bros themselves loved (and memorized) — their five movies together grossed $725 million on combined budgets of $313 million. But it was a less successful strategy when tackling the financial system. McKay calls The Other Guys a “kind of silly allegory for the financial collapse” that failed to get its message across.
The Big Short gets its share of dark laughs as the world hurdles over a cliff, but there’s no missing the point. Especially not given the agitprop moments in the narrative by the bond trader played by Gosling, who notes at the end that blame for the economic catastrophe landed harder on poor people and immigrants than it did on the banks. No one in Lewis’ book makes this observation. “That’s the one time you could feel me commenting in the movie,” Mckay says. “Although I would argue that’s just a fact: When the economy foes south and no one knows why, they blame immigrants and poor people.”
McKay is a Bernie Sanders supporter (“The bankers love Hillary”) who thinks the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 destroyed broadcasting (“All the news became ratings-driven” — which, not coincidentally, is also the plot of Anchorman 2). He hopes the release of The Big Short will help steer the discussion during the coming election cycle. “When I saw the first two Republican debates and no one was talking about bank reform, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Even the Democrats were being a little quiet about bank reform. We actually need this.”