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.