By Andrea Gronvall

The Gronvall Report: Adam McKay On THE BIG SHORT

After months flying below the radar of industry watchers, The Big Short arrived in theaters late into awards season to shake things up. A bravura, full-throttle adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller about the Wall Street crash of 2008, the movie is directed and co-written (with Charles Randolph) by Adam McKay, who is best known for collaboration with Will Farrell on hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and The Other Guys. McKay’s step up here is sizable¾in ambition, although surprisingly not in terms of budget, as the reported $28- to $29 million it took to make The Big Short is only a couple million north of the budget for Anchorman.

But McKay got his money’s worth, and it’s all there on the screen, starting with a kick-ass ensemble headed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt as brilliant investors (some very eccentric) who see (a) that America’s housing market boom has been built on shaky mortgages and bad loans, and (b) how they can profit from the disaster waiting to happen. What could have been an indecipherable parade of financial terms like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations becomes instead a heady brew of rapid-fire dialogue, dynamic camera work, and sly cameos by celebrities playing themselves (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain) as they directly address the camera to explain the obsfucation of high finance. Considering the widespread devastation caused by the 2008 market collapse (from which, it hardly needs saying, we are still recovering) this is gallows humor, but of a very fine order. Equally fine is the drama, which succeeds largely because the flawed characters at its center are nothing if not recognizably human.

An ingenious stroke was to hire Barry Ackroyd as his shooter. Ackroyd was nominated for an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and a BAFTA Award for his work on Captain Phillips; his next project with Greengrass will be the latest installment of the Jason Bourne franchise. Throughout a dozen films with social realist director Ken Loach, Ackroyd honed a verité style that adds layers of immediacy and authenticity to already true-to-life material. In The Big Short his images offer effective counterweight to McKay’s biting assessment of the absurdities of Wall Street.

It was a homecoming of sorts for McKay when he stopped in Chicago to appear at the film’s local premiere. He got his start here as a founder of the improv sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s married to Shira Piven, a film director in her own right (Welcome to Me), who’s a member of the Piven theatrical family, practically a dynasty in these parts. I caught up with the charming, owlishly bespectacled McKay while he was literally stretching his long legs across a coffee table during press day at the Ritz-Carlton.

How did you decide on Barry Ackroyd as your cinematographer? His career has shown such vitality and range, from his long association with Ken Loach to an amazing war film like The Hurt Locker. He’s phenomenal.

I couldn’t agree with you more. He’s one of the greatest in the history of cinematography, ever. I didn’t want the film to have that kind of marble-clad, austere look that a lot of movies about Wall Street have had, and knew that he would capture the energy, the life of our characters and settings.

What was your working method with him? How did you communicate?

Working with him was one of my happiest experiences in film. Barry operates the A camera, and like John Cassavetes, he favors long lenses. He likes to stand back from the action, and watch the scene unfold, like it’s an event. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near the actors. Which is good: that way, the actors don’t know where exactly they’ll be in the shot, so they’re forced to remain in the moment of the scene. And he had a very capable assistant on the B camera. Between the three of us, we developed our own language. Watching each day’s footage I learned Barry’s style, and also how to tweak it, when I wanted. I told him, if you see something happening that you like, you have to go for it; you’ve got a green light from me. But there are also moments where the movie is a little more formalistic, like where we had to frame specifically to break the fourth wall, or for other reasons.

I’m curious about how certain shots came about. For instance, one of my favorite funny moments is in a scene at the Las Vegas forum where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is challenging the speaker. It’s a wide shot from near the back of the room. Carell is outside frame, until his character gets so outraged at the half-wit at the podium that his left arm shoots out into the frame to make an emphatic zero sign, and all his indignation and fury just radiate off of each digit. Whose decision was that? Yours, I’m betting.

You noticed that! Yes, I saw how Barry was framing the shot, and suggested that if he moved the camera a little, to throw Steve out of frame, it would be funnier.

You wrapped shooting when? You tested a lot over the summer, I read.

We finished shooting toward the end of May. And yes, I did test the film with audiences a lot, maybe five to six times, because our movie is a little bit of a conversation with viewers. We were looking for the right alchemy between a serious subject and the lighter moments where we try to explain what happened. Mostly we discovered that audiences were able to understand complex terms like CDOs, which was crucial.

It’s refreshing that there aren’t any heroes in your film. The three groups of maverick investors that you focus on are sympathetic only to the extent that if they hadn’t done what they did, they’d have been squashed by the impending economic meltdown that only they, apparently, foresaw. Well, maybe not so much Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who set too much into play. But with the others, it was more or less a case of “eat or be eaten,” because that’s what the market is, or at least how the market has been defined by our contemporary brand of capitalism.

The way the market is supposed to work is that for every investment there’s a counter-investment. Mark Baum was an investor who was intent on rooting out corruption because to do so was good for the market, in that corrupt companies could not ultimately succeed, and therefore were bad for business. And so he would “short,” or bet against, investments that, after much research on his part, he identified as bad or fraudulent. Michael Burry believed in value; he had this astonishing capacity to crunch data, and he believed that numbers didn’t lie. And Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) had this theory about how people underestimate the chances of bad things happening. As for these guys not being heroes? I think the one thing you can say they did was stare into the mouth of the beast.

I was interested to learn that you’ve been a social activist from your earliest days in show business. What are you involved in now?

There are a number of causes that I support: the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Sandy Hook Promise. Gun control is a big one for me. I’m also involved in fighting climate change. I donate money, and every now and then I’ll do a fundraiser. Or “Funny or Die” will post a video. I try to pursue activism, on some level, in everything I do. Definitely, over the years I’ve learned that you can do a lot through comedy, or the occasional op-ed in “The Huffington Post.” You just keep at it.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon