The Frame

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Adam McKay's 'The Big Short' is a factor in the Oscar and presidential races

by Elizabeth Nonemaker | The Frame

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(L-R) Jeremy Strong, Steve Carell, Adam McKay, Ryan Gosling, Brad Grey and Brad Pitt attend the premiere of "The Big Short" in New York City. Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

"The Big Short" just barely snuck into this year's Oscar season. Most moviegoers hadn't heard of it at the time of its Dec. 11 premiere, and that's partly because the filmmakers were originally looking at an early 2016 release. But since then, not only has "The Big Short" landed five Academy Award nominations, it has also become one of the most talked-about movies of the year.

Director Adam McKay says the conversation that the film has generated is exactly what he hoped for. The director of comedies such as "Anchorman" and "Step Brothers," McKay has always aimed to be topical in his films — but it usually gets washed away under the deluge of jokes. But "The Big Short" — adapted from the Michael Lewis book of the same name — was a different story. Dramatizing the lead-up to the 2008 financial collapse, the biggest creative challenge of the premise was whether any part of the story could entertain.

Adam McKay sat down with The Frame's John Horn and Vulture's Kyle Buchanan for The Awards Show Show to talk about the making of "The Big Short."


Kyle Buchanan: I know the movie was originally pegged for a 2016 release. When did that change? 

It tested really well. It was amazing. Crowds were really excited. That's why we released it early. We were always talking about March [2016], like Cannes. You chase a festival like that and let the movie simmer throughout the year. And it was really when we did a rough screening of the editor's cut, and usually those are awful.

But the editor's cut was pretty damned good. We kept our mouths shut, edited for about two to three weeks, and did a friends-and-family [screening]. And I [thought], This is working. We should have been months away from bringing Paramount in, but I was like, I want to bring them in now

We brought in all the senior executives from Paramount, well before my director's cut was done. And thank God they all walked out and said, You're right. It's playing.

John Horn: At what point did you realize it was going to connect with audiences and get critics' attention?

All we were doing was working on the movie. Some of our sound mixers would say, I think we have a special one. I was like, Stop it! We were putting out an unusual movie about finances. It wasn't really until the release started that we started going, Holy crap!

Buchanan: And I have to think that, given the subject matter, the box office success must have been really gratifying to you. 

It's the best news. And then you mix that with the word-of-mouth. When you read the Twitter comments, and the op-eds, and you see that it's causing trouble — that there are some arguments going on between financial experts and journalists. This is what I wanted.

We've had other movies, comedies, where you just hope they do well so you get to make another one. And you kind of know with comedies, they're going to go on cable and [audiences will] watch them there. So it's a totally different game. Whereas this movie is right now. It's active. Bank reform is being talked about. We're in a presidential election. So this one needed to get on its feet much faster. I was so happy when I saw Forbes going after it, and the New York Post, and a guy from Politico really went after it. Then people came back and defended it, economists and financial journalists. I was like, Yes! This is what we wanted.

Horn: Is that more satisfying to you than the awards attention and the box office, that it's starting a conversation?

Yes. That's the number one thing I'm excited about. That was why we made the film. And I would even say, more exciting than these arguments and columns, are the regular audience members.

And I don't usually read Twitter a lot ... but it's been really cool to see. There was one kid. He looked like he was about 22 and he [wrote], "I just saw 'The Big Short.' I don’t know how to feel." And I was like, That is the coolest! He's encountered something he's never encountered before. So yeah, that's the most gratifying thing.

What's great about the awards, obviously, praise from your peers is awesome and always will be. But it puts a light on the movie and helps it get out there, profile-wise. Don't get me wrong. The 12-year-old in me is doing backflips that we got nominated for Oscars. No, the 47-year-old in me. But it all kind of connects — the box office, the word-of-mouth, the awards. And it was also really edifying to see the American public go see something this challenging and [say], Thank you for challenging us.

Horn: Do you think this film has become part of the conversation around the election of the next president? I know you support Bernie Sanders, but have you seen it bleed into the conversations around both parties' candidates? 

I think there's no question it's had an impact on the Democratic candidates. Bernie Sanders has openly referred to the movie several times. Also one of the big issues with Hillary is her cozy relationship with the banks — that's been discussed quite a bit. It was natural that this movie would affect that side of the aisle. 

I'm not so sure about the Republican side. But I look at this movie as about halfway through its lifespan. I think we've got a lot more box office. We have the on-demand, we have the iTunes, the cable, the Netflix. I look at movies as having a two-year life span. And then you really know what they've become. 

Buchanan: This is a year of upheaval, in terms of diversity and voting in the Academy. I've noticed you've pushed back on Twitter when people tar your movie as being emblematic of [the lack of diversity]. You say this movie is about how white guys screwed up the economy.

Yeah, it's a tricky thing. We're doing a true story. For us to recast Wall Street as diverse does a disservice to diversity. Part of the dynamic of Wall Street is it's a lot of white guys in a boys' club who tanked the economy. So I knew, coming into it, that it would be a lot of white dudes. I did the best I could with all the ancillary roles to get a little diversity in there. But the story is about a bunch of white guys. You couldn't recast "All The President's Men." It was a white boys' club movie. It had to be. 

You can't not go after targets that are dominated by white men because you're afraid of lack of diversity, because the overall message of our movie is: Who got hurt the most by this collapse? African-Americans, minorities. This is a movie about how lack of diversity actually hurts our country. I just want to remind people what the point of the movie is. 

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