A riveting cautionary tale with black humour and quirky characters
When four outsiders see what the big banks, media and government regulators refuse to — the impending collapse of the global economy — they have an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of the modern banking industry where they must question everyone and everything.
Based on the book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game), the screenplay was written by Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs, The Interpreter) and director Adam McKay .
McKay is best known as the comedy mastermind behind Will Ferrell blockbusters including Step Brothers and Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, as well as the Tony Award-nominated Broadway Show ‘’You’re Welcome America.”
But five years ago when he read The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine he became fascinated with a farce of a different kind. Intrigued by the mixture of comedy, drama, and outright tragedy in Michael Lewis’ brilliant behind-the-scenes look at the lead-up to the global economic meltdown, McKay yearned to take a break from absurdist comedies and bring The Big Short to the big screen.
“I started reading the book at around 10:30 at night and thought, ‘I’ll just read 40 pages,’” McKay recalls. “I couldn’t put it down. I ended up reading the whole thing that night and finished at six in the morning. The next day I told my wife about the characters and how the book weaves together all these different storylines and how it’s like a ‘get rich’ story that’s ultimately about the fall of the banking system, corruption and complacency, and how it’s funny and it’s heartbreaking at the same time. And she’s like, ‘You should do it.’ And I said, ‘I’m the guy who did Step Brothers.’ I didn’t even look into it, because I just assumed a Scott Rudin or a Plan B had already bought the rights to this book.”
Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B Entertainment, had in fact partnered with Paramount Pictures to develop The Big Short as a motion picture.
Producer Jeremy Kleiner found striking similarities between the author’s approach to baseball and Wall Street within author Michael Lewis’ book Money Ball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. “Money Ball and The Big Short both look at familiar subjects that people think they undertand and ask big questions,” says Kleiner.
“The Big Short also has this very distinctive element in that the protagonists are not ‘do-gooders.’ We thought all of that was very exciting, so Paramount, our partner, stepped up to acquire the rights. That started the journey for us.”
After McKay finished directing the hit sequel Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, his agent challenged him to name the movie he most wanted to make.
“Before I even knew what I was saying, I told him, ‘If I could do anything, I would do The Big Short.’” Plan B sent McKay an early version of a screenplay written by Charles Randolph. “I saw some good stuff in the script and I also knew exactly how to make it better,” McKay says. “I met with Jeremy and Plan B president Dede Gardner and gave them my pitch.”
The resulting screenplay incorporated McKay’s signature wit into a story about an era-defining moment in recent U.S. history.
“People know me from movies like Talladega Nights and Anchorman or the Funny or Die videos, but I’ve always been involved in different causes,” says McKay, who mastered political satire as head writer for “Saturday Night Live” before launching his movie career. “I feel like it’s your job as a citizen to pay attention to what’s going on in politics and society. You can be a clown and get sprayed with seltzer bottles but you’ve also got to vote and know what you’re talking about.”
The book that got McKay and Plan B so excited about making a film about the events leading to the banking crisis comes from the mind of master non-fiction storyteller Michael Lewis.
After working at a big Wall Street bank himself in the 1980s, Lewis wrote the bestseller Liar’s Poker, a funny and revealing look at the lucrative and deceptive world of bond trading.
The author had no plans for a follow-up until the 2008 financial collapse. “I started reading about how big banks like the one I had worked for lost hundreds of billions of dollars trading in the subprime mortgage-bond market,” Lewis recalls. “The banks had become the dumb money at the table and were losing huge amounts … so I wondered, ‘How does that happen?’”
In search of answers, Lewis met with former investment bankers who’d lost their jobs after the meltdown.
“We’d go out for a beer and they’d tell me off the record, ‘The only reason I’m explaining to you why I lost 10 billion dollars on a single trade is that you’re the reason I’m in the business. I read Liar’s Poker and that got me excited to be a Wall Street trader.’ After a few conversations I realized, ‘Jesus Christ, I created this crisis!’ I had a personal stake in these dummies responsible for losing all this money who had been led into the profession by this book I wrote. So then I tried to sort out how these institutions at the heart of capitalism became stupid and did such suicidal things. Banks like Goldman Sachs are filled with extremely bright, well-educated, best-and-brightest types from Harvard, Yale and Princeton.”
But it wasn’t these Ivy League former Masters of the Universe who ended up being the protagonists in Lewis’ book. Instead, he turned his attention to the misfits who defied the prevailing wisdom of banks, government regulators and media pundits and bet everything they had on an unprecedented failure of the American housing market. “I found out about these outsider oddball types on the periphery who figured out just how corrupt the system had become,” he says. “These are the guys that made The Big Short a book and not just a magazine piece. The guys who bet against the banks and made fortunes — those were the characters who interested me.”
A Cinematic Page-Turner
With its fresh, irreverent take on one of the most widely covered stories of the century, The Big Short transforms a dark chapter of American history into a riveting cautionary tale shot through with black humor and quirky characters.
Carell hopes the film rattles a few cages. “If I were at a cocktail party and someone asked me what this movie is about, I’d say, ‘Do you remember when subprime mortgages went bust and all these companies went out of business and not one person went to jail? Do you remember that? Do you remember how everything just exploded? And then the government came in and bailed everybody out and everything seemed okay? That’s what this movie is about. It’s a horror movie and way scarier than the way I just described it.’”
McKay envisions The Big Short as a call to action for moviegoers who are fed up with predatory business practices. “This film explores how an entire culture can get caught up in the mania of a corrupt system,” he says. “In my cartoonish fantasy dream, my hope for this movie would be that people get really mad and upset and walk out of the theater and ask their congressman how he’s been voting on banking reform. That would be my dream. My dream would be for everyone to tell their congressmen, ‘If you’re not for breaking up the big banks, I don’t care if you’re right wing or left wing — you don’t get my vote.’”
Activism aside, McKay hopes The Big Short takes audiences on an exhilirating and edifying ride through the astounding world of Wall Street’s shady financial dealings. “It’s strange given the heavy subject matter, but if we’ve done this movie right, The Big Short should be enjoyable as well as eye opening. Michael Lewis writes very entertaining books about very powerful subjects, and they’re real page-turners. In the same way, I hope The Big Short flies by.”