Adam McKay on The Big Short’s 2015 release: ‘We were a little surprised too’

Oscar season is not known for its surprises. Yes, there are always pretenders and contenders, but the awards-industrial complex has a way of slotting the entire field months in advance, from the fall festival favorites to the prestige Christmas Day releases. It’s the reason you can click on an Oscar prognostication site and see that four of the top-eight picks for Best Picture — Joy, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight, and Bridge of Spies — have not even been screened yet. 

So it was a rare treat when the trailer for The Big Short popped up online Tuesday morning. The film was on no one’s Oscar radar, simply because no one expected Paramount to release it this year. Based on Michael Lewis’ book about the 2008 mortgage crisis that nearly pulled the entire world economy into the abyss, The Big Short stars Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Steve Carell as the financial savants who recognized the fatal flaws in the murky real-estate market and then bet heavily on the bubble bursting. Adam McKay, the former Saturday Night live head-writer best known for his Will Ferrell collaborations like Anchorman and Step Brothers, fell in love with Lewis’ book and convinced Pitt’s Plan B that he was the guy to bring it to the screen. 

The Big Short will premiere as the closing-night gala film at AFI Fest on Nov. 12, before a limited opening in theaters on Dec. 11. It will open wide on Dec. 23.

On Jan. 29, 2014, EW interviewed McKay about the super-size cut of Anchorman 2 that was being released in theaters. Before saying good-bye, he mentioned his next meeting: a sit-down with Plan B to discuss “a bunch of ideas for [The Big Short],” a project that seemed dead in the water. Just 20 months later, he’s in the editing bay, putting the finishing touches on a hugely ambitious film with a ridiculously talented cast. So yes, he’s kind of a big deal. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This obviously wasn’t a surprise to you, but I woke up this morning and got to see this lovely trailer drop out of the sky and into awards season. It was the thrill of my day, so thank you.
Oh, that’s so cool. We were a little surprised too. We did not expect to be ready, and then we did our first screening and were like, “Holy crap, this is pretty close.” So yeah, we had to kick it into fourth gear. 

Was this always a 2015 release in your head or were you operating with the idea that you had more flexibility?
I think in the back of our minds we figured we were going to go for it next year. But there was a little part of us that like, “Hey, if it all comes together…” But that never happens with movies. There’s usually one stumbling block that hits you, one surprise. And in this case, it just hasn’t happened. So we did our first initial rough assembly, the editor’s cut, and I already was like, “Man, this is pretty damned good.” And then when we put it all together and threw it up here on the lot for a crowd of like 300 people, it played. We couldn’t believe it. So that was when I told the studio I think we can get this ready. I didn’t see any re-shoots, I didn’t see any brick walls or any puzzling questions, and those are usually the things that eat up time. And the studio agreed. 

It’s a great book. But the subprime-mortgage debacle that sparked the financial meltdown is very complicated for a lot of people. What’s the story you want to tell that turns a Michael Lewis book into a great piece of movie entertainment? 
I had read the book shortly after it came out [in 2010]. Someone had told me it was really good, so I picked it up. I knew Michael Lewis obviously. And then I ended up staying up all night and reading. I couldn’t put it down. And the next morning, my wife said to me, “What were you doing? Why didn’t you sleep.” I said, “I just read the most amazing book.” And then I tried to explain it to her and it made no sense. I was trying to talk to her about mortgage-backed securities, CDOs, synthetic CDOs. And that’s when I really marveled at the story, because I realized that there were these complicated financial instruments that were essential to knowing the story. But it was really about the characters, and that’s what drew me to it, this idea that we sort of picked the wrong heroes, that the people we need to be listening to are the ones who don’t make eye contact, the ones with a bad haircut, the ones who don’t dress well. That’s what I loved about it. I knew that I had to explain these financial instruments, but I also knew that if these characters were strong, and you understood their perspective, they could carry us through it. 

Were the actors already onboard when you came along, or did they sign up later?
It was one of the fastest schedules that I’ve ever been involved in. I was in a situation [after Anchorman 2] where I was talking about what movie did I want to do next, and I told my agent my dream movie would be The Big Short. “Why wasn’t that ever made?” And he called Plan B, and Plan B was like, “Funny you should ask, we have a script that kind of got stalled.” Fortunately, Dede Gardner, and Pitt, and Jeremy Kleiner were open to the idea of the guy who did Step Brothers coming on and doing this movie. I rewrote the script and did the adaptation and suspected it was pretty good. I thought like, “Oh, I loved the book enough that I got the essence of the script.” Then we were talking to Paramount, who also really liked the script, but then they started giving me notes for development. Sort of on a lark, I just said, “Do you mind if I send this to some actors, just to see if there’s interest.” And they sort of offhandedly were like, “Sure.” And it was really in a matter of two weeks that we got everyone saying yes. It was kind of crazy. Christian Bale read it, I had one conversation with him, and he was in. And then Ryan Gosling read it, loved it, hesitated, and then he was in. Carell read it, he was in. And then Pitt read it as a producer, with no intention of being in it, and was like, “I’d love to do this character.” So that was really what put the whole thing into hyperdrive. All of sudden, my leisurely rewrite became a time-dependent rewrite, and suddenly we had a line producer budgeting the script, and boom, that was it, we were off. 

Was this a different directing experience for you, because it’s not Step Brothers or Anchorman? Are these different muscles, or is a story a story and a movie a movie? 
I think a story’s a story and a movie’s a movie. It was different in this sense that when you’re doing a comedy, all day every day when I’m directing, I’m thinking of alt lines and alt jokes and I’m thinking of how to push the actors and I’m thinking of premises to throw them, to take what’s written and bring it even more to life. So there’s much more of a mental taxing going on when you’re shooting a comedy. Whereas with this, it was really a treat because we got to get into the nuances of the shots and the details of the performances in a way that I’ve never gotten to do before. It was just such a nice slow pace that I really enjoyed. I kept joking that I felt like we were working in Europe. You would do six takes. You would do seven takes, eight takes. And then you’d go, “You know, I think maybe there’s something more to another one.” And you’d check in with the actor, “You want to do one more?” And when you’re doing a comedy, you’re not really doing that. You’re at a breakneck pace the whole time and just pushing and pushing. So there’s the fact that you can do scenes, you can do shots, and there’s no responsibility whatsoever for a laugh. It just has to be beautiful or interesting or elucidate character or give information. So in that sense, it just felt incredible free, like a big wide-open field in front of me. I really loved it. 

You have an ensemble of A-listers that would make David O. Russell jealous. Whether it was the first day or the first week, is there a feeling-out process where these actors are testing each other, because I imagine they’re constantly competing for the same roles.
There’s such a difference between people that are establishing themselves and people that are established. These guys are all so successful that they most of all just appreciate each other. So there was no real feeling of competition or territorialism going on, but there was a feeling of everyone’s got to be on their game because everyone respects everyone around them. The other secret to this movie is beyond the sort of known actors that we have, the ensemble around them — Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, John Magaro, Finn WittrockHamish Linklater — these guys were incredible. That was the cool thing to watch, as soon as we starting going — Ryan Gosling’s a player, he’s an actor. And it became this ensemble spirit that was really cool to watch develop.

I think for The Blind Side and maybe even for Moneyball, Michael Lewis was happy to hand the book over to other people and go relax. Was he involved and what type of back and forth did you have with him? 
I had lunch with him to start the whole process and really hit it off with him. He’s a great guy. He struck the perfect posture, which is, “I’m here if you need me.” I definitely checked in with him several times about details of the real story, to get his take on certain things. Obviously, one of the tricks when you’re adapting a book like that is you have to decide what to put in and what not to put in, so we would discuss that sometimes. Like, “Do you think I can get away with not saying this?” and talking about the priority of what’s important to get across. I was happy to show him the script when I was done with my first draft and he was incredible excited by how ambitious it was. He actually just came and saw an early screening the other day, and was really, really excited by it, genuinely. You can always tell when someone’s plastering on smile just to be polite but he really seemed thrilled but it. 

You’ve worked with Steve Carell for a long time. Recently he’s become an Academy Award-nominated actor for Foxcatcher, so tell me how he’s changed and become a big shot and his trailer is bigger than ever before. 
[Laughs] Yes, very sad. He’s slowly developed a British accent, which no one calls out, and he’s very full of himself. But it’s kind of incredible to watch his progression. You know, I worked with him back at Second City in Chicago like 25 years ago, and we used to always marvel at him as just a comedic technician. Every line delivery was perfect. All the physicality he would strike, his approach to scenes, was meticulous. Always, always, always. So for me to work with him on this movie, it was kind of a Duh moment because I knew he was good, but then I saw how rigorous he was in approaching each of these scenes. His approach as far as how hard he works is right on par with a Christian Bale, as far as the detail he gets into and how hard he is on himself. And it all kind of made sense, like, “Oh, of course, the guy who was this amazing comedic technician 25 years ago would have the same approach to a different genre or different emotional state.”

I’m so glad your film is coming out in December, obviously, so people see it during awards season. But also, and perhaps more importantly, because we’re already feeling the pull into this big presidential election. January will bring us Iowa and New Hampshire, and it’s not a bad reminder for people to go to the movies and be like, “Oh yeah, this happened and, gee, did they fix it?” because the answers might be a little frightening. Are you pleased that this might become part of the conversation as we pick our next president?
Very much so. Obviously, nowadays the election season lasts so long, which is really not very healthy. It kind of becomes a horse race more than anything. I’ve been noticing in the debates we’ve been seeing, there’s almost no talk of bank reform. It’s kind of incredible actually. Especially when you consider how close to absolute catastrophe we were in 2008. I really think most people don’t realize how close we were to falling off the cliff when the paper markets froze that one day. And what that really means. So yeah, that’s definitely why you do stuff like this. You’re hoping in some small way to affect the conversation and I would be overjoyed if that would happen. Certainly we need it. 

You said this cut you showed Paramount was very close. What do you still need to do? What are you working on after you hang up the phone with me?
You got me in the editing room right now. We are grinding away. We have two little areas of the movie that are little clogged, where I’m just trying to get them to flow. It really all relates to the fact that this movie is really about the whole world and you have this ensemble of characters from different parts of the country and you have this event that’s effecting the entire planet. It’s so large and ambitious, yet you want to make sure the engine that’s driving it keeps a nice pace. You don’t want the movie to completely slow down. You don’t want people to get fidgety. Because it’s very difficult material, there’s no question, and the trick is to really portray it in as exciting a way as possible. Truth be told, it is really exciting stuff. So that’s what we’re really trying to do. From my comedy training, it’s about meticulous timing and I just want everything to be crisp. And if we are going to slow down, that we’re doing it intentionally and making sure it’s the right tone and the
right voice. So we’re sort of moving around a couple things and making sure that the thing has the right angle of ascent, I guess you would call it.

What’s the running time now and what are you aiming for? 
We’re getting pretty close. I’m not exactly sure because we did a bunch of work yesterday and today, but without credits, we’re around 2:02, 2:03. The first cut I showed the studio was 2:22, so we’ve done quite a bit of work. And that [version] still worked, that’s what was so encouraging about it. So yeah, it’s just fine-tuning right now. 

I know it’s probably not a priority for you right now, but last year, some films like Selma struggled to meet the deadlines to get their screeners out to qualify for guild awards nominations. Is that of concern for you?
It’s not so much a concern for me, but Paramount’s definitely talked about it. Because they were bummed about what happened with Selma, though I shouldn’t speak for them because I don’t know. But they did say it was a priority to get the screeners out and according to our schedule and where we’re at, we will get the screeners out. So I think it’s going to go well.