‘Big Short’: How ‘Anchorman’ Director Took on Wall Street and Won
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.”
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