In “The Big Short,” director Adam McKay tackles a seemingly impossible task: make the 2008 financial crisis entertaining.
Terms like "credit default swap" and "collateralized debt obligation" could easily put any audience to sleep. But thanks to some deft performances and at least a few tricks from editor Hank Corwin, “The Big Short” manages to make America’s financial ruin engaging.
So engaging, in fact, that the film won the top award from the Producers Guild of America last weekend. Nineteen of the past 26 best picture winners from the Oscars had first won the PGA’s top honor, so “The Big Short” must now be considered the frontrunner for the Academy Awards.
What were the challenges in taking the book by Michael Lewis to the screen?
Dede Gardner: I think we as a community have been conditioned to not bother understanding those terms inside the lexicon of banking and finance and Wall Street. That's part of the objection that Michael [Lewis] makes and that the characters make. Which is to say, well, you may not know what that means, but it's still your right to ask.
But that's the whole point of the story. The things that people describe so glibly they don't really understand. You have a scene where Ryan Gosling, playing Jared Vennett, is trying to sell the idea that he understands why the housing market is about to collapse using the cube-stacking game Jenga. Did that become kind of the driving force, to look for visual ideas to tell the story of these financial instruments?
Gardner: I think that was the beginning of this idea for opening a portal for untraditional explication. How far can you push it? How far outside the bounds of traditional storytelling could we go to explain, define, make comprehensible terminology that heretofore had sort of sat on a shelf?
Jeremy Kleiner: And then Adam McKay, of course, brought this entirely other idea of almost making the film a character. Everything from the cameos to the editing style — Hank Corwin worked a lot on trying to give the film a visual identity that makes it a cinematic experience.
Adam McKay's body of work includes the "Anchorman" movies — he comes out of comedies. When did he enter the process and why was he a good match for the material?
Gardner: Well, we'd been fans of Adam's forever. I think anyone who has seen his work with some consistency can detect a pretty ferocious mind at work — someone who clearly cares deeply about major issues. He's just chosen, up until now, to express those frustrations inside a comedic space.
When he called, we said to ourselves, We're so stupid! That's how you do this!
Gardner: Meaning if you invest in someone who has the confidence that absurdity can be as impactful as seriousness, then you can probably ride that. Or you can sure try. We had stayed inside of a slightly more serious, traditional space. The minute you hear Adam McKay's name, and you think about his work, and you think about how brave I believe him to be as a filmmaker and artist, everything sort of blows open. You think, Oh, we've been so limited in how we've approached this. We have to blow it up.
Is that where you seize upon the idea of having people like Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez explain very esoteric ideas like credit default swaps? Is that something that Adam brings? Or was that already percolating?
Gardner: That was Adam. Ryan Gosling's character as the narrator, breaking up the fourth wall, that was Adam.
Kleiner: Cameos, voice-over — he took the underlying structure but he created the surface of these attributes that liberated us from a feeling of, as Dede mentioned, the oh-so-serious nature of it which, ironically, through the other channel allows us to access those elements of the story.
There's a scene toward the end of the film where the character played by Brad Pitt, Ben Rickert, talks about the real, human cost of the financial collapse — how people will lose their homes, their savings, and some of them are actually going to die. When you're talking about the movie and figuring out where you want it to land comedically, how do you find the right tone? What was the navigation on that?
Gardner: The structure of the film is a very deliberate reflection of what happened, and how it felt. And it's a noose tightening. It's closer and it's closer. But everyone's looking around. It gets tighter and tighter. And then you just feel sucker-punched. And I think that was a very deliberate choice on Adam and Hank's [Corwin] part, to make the film experientially a reflection of the event.
What kinds of conversations do you hope "The Big Short" elicits among people who have seen it?
Gardner: I think primarily we're interested in people recognizing the danger of forfeiting their right to inquiry. That if you give up the right to ask questions of supposed industries or communities or systems that claim expertise, you're really only forfeiting your own power. And I'm completely guilty of it myself. You get on the phone with your mortgage broker and you say, What? What is that? They say, Ah, don't worry about it. And I go, Okay! But that's not right. It's my livelihood. It's my children's. It's preposterous, actually, and frankly embarrassing. But it's true. If we did anything, it's that people walk out and say, You know what, I'm going to go back and ask those questions. I have the right to do that. That we might be able to slow down some profiteering.
Kleiner: I think Dede's right. Mark Baum says it in the film — Steve Carrell's character. We've been conditioned to think certain ways about certain things. The politics of the world, the political parties — here and in Europe, and outside of Europe — have been shaped by those events. You know austerity and those questions are connected to this.
The 2008 financial crisis is an incredibly... It's a seismic event. We're still living in that. That's why we don't think of this as a period piece.
You're having a screening of the film at the Brookings Institute, an old, Washington think tank that has delved into the relationship between government and economic policy. Assuming that the film continues the conversation maybe in a legislative or economic policy way, what might come out of a screening for an organization like that?
Gardner: One of the things we've been most encouraged by is the bipartisan reaction. I think we had a tweet from Bernie Sanders and from Bill O'Reilly in the same morning.
But it's very much the sort of engine of Adam's intention. It's not a partisan issue. Everyone has a salary. Everyone has hopes and dreams for where they can invest their money. Everyone wants to do the best they can with it, and they don't want to be subjected to any sort of predatory lending. I guess if anything came out of Washington, that would be amazing.
"The Big Short" is currently in theaters and has been nominated for Best Picture at the 88th Academy Awards.