Adam McKay is a giant. At 6'5" he may be tallest comedy director in America and he's used to being asked all of the clichéd questions that go along with being of great height, including whether or not he plays basketball. Which, of course, he does, and is why the first comments he offers to the 6'4" correspondent in front of him—that'd be me—are some pointers about playing power forward. "I can step out and hit a jumper," he says with a faraway game-day look in his eyes. "I'm 47 years old, so I don't jump. You should develop that 16-foot set shot, because it can really extend your game."
This is good advice, and it's also a fine place to start talking about McKay's new comedy The Big Short. Not because it has anything to do with the beautiful game, but because this adaptation of Michael Lewis's nonfiction account of the 2007 financial crisis—told from the point of view of those who saw it coming and tried to teach the banks an expensive lesson in the process—finds the former Saturday Night Live head writer and erstwhile supreme bro-teur (Anchorman, Step Brothers) simultaneously expanding and refining his skill set. A wryly hyperbolic satire of unchecked greed that at once evokes and surpasses The Wolf of Wall Street by actually deigning to explain high-finance machinations—in this case, exactly how and why America's banks packaged and sold pu-pu platters subprime mortgages until the economy came tumbling down—the film is at its funniest when its creator's anger bleeds through its glossy surfaces.
During a stopover in Toronto to promote the film, McKay proved all too happy to talk about The Big Short's relationship to his earlier work, the challenges of directing a movie about serious subject matter, and whether it's hypocritical to make cinematic heroes out of people who got rich by betting against the super-rich.
VICE: There are some very funny scenes in this movie where celebrities appear out of nowhere and directly address the audience to explain these complicated financial concepts. It feels like you're making fun of the idea that we only pay attention to things when famous people talk about them.
Adam McKay: That was our thinking. We wanted this film to not just be a bunch of scenes in offices. So [editor] Hank Corbin and I threw in a lot of clips of popular culture, and a lot of songs, too, like the track by Ludacris ["Shake Your Moneymaker"] and other things. We had this idea: What would it be like if that Kim Kardashian side of popular culture suddenly started telling us things that we needed to hear? What if every time Kim Kardashian was on camera she was talking about the Libor rate scandal? That's where that came from. We wanted to poke fun at this need we have to consume pop culture while at the same time using it to communicate some information.
So you're trying to take the mystery out of it all?
I'm an English major who dropped out of college. So if I can understand this stuff, I knew other people could. The more I looked into it, it all got simpler and simpler. Like, it's not that hard. I just thought the trick to this movie, beyond the characters and the question of how they saw what they saw coming, is that there's too much of a gulf between the experts and other people at this point, especially in the States. Everyone trusts that bankers are going to do the right thing, because they don't understand what that thing is. Everyone trusts the government, because they don't understand that either. Somewhere along the line, people stopped asking questions, and I don't know if it's because they felt cowed or dumb, or that stuff is boring. There's a lot of messaging in the States that this stuff is boring. It's not boring at all. It's the language of power. My daughter takes chemistry, and she said it was boring, and I was like, chemistry is literally like Merlin Class, like if there's a class that's close to what a wizard would do, that's it. And she said "ohhhhhh," and got into it. So [that direct address] was the boldest step we took with the movie, and some people are responding to it really well, and others don't like being told something in a movie. Because the rule of moviemaking is always 'show, don't tell.' I'm like: fuck that! You can do both.
It's as if "didactic" is just a totally dirty word.
I don't think it's started traveling yet, but are you familiar with the musical Hamilton? I saw it and thought that they were doing the same thing that we were doing. It was so close. I mean first of all, the hip-hop in it is amazing, the rhymes are great, and I'm a big hip-hop fan. But it's more that I didn't ever really understand the Federalist Papers before that. I realized, "Oh, the Federalist Papers were an argument." I thought they were just expounding on stuff. I dug that. How cool is it that I walked out knowing that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, like, really hated each other? I had one night when I couldn't get to sleep, and I put on C-Span, and it was showing re-runs of this debate over water rights. I got so fascinated. These are just dudes in a room that are about to make a decision that changes were boats can go, where fishermen can go. Government is exciting. Economics is exciting!
Do you think that we're in a particularly stupid cultural moment? And if so, how do you think your movies—which are of course very smart but also very stupid—have both contributed to and subverted that atmosphere?
We always built the movies to be about other things. Especially Step Brothers, which is all about how consumerism turns grown ups into little kids. Talladega Nights was about Red State pride, and Anchorman is making fun of the media, and blah blah. There are people who get what we do, and who get the satire. Michael Moore told me after Talladega Nights that we'd made the most subversive movie of the year except that nobody noticed. But after Obama got re-elected, somebody told me to go on Twitter, and type in the N-word, and I did, and there were thousands of Tweets directing that word at Obama. I clicked on the people and they were like all high school kids, and a lot of them were also quoting our movies. They were quoting Anchorman. I hope that our stuff makes the world a slightly better place, even if people are also quoting it when they're saying horrible things. I hope that's the case. I'm not going to lie, though. One of the reasons we decided to do The Big Short was to do something that was overt. Those other movies were for another time. I want to make movies that are nakedly overt and find other ways to be clever and sly within them.
Speaking of stupidity, I thought that this was sort of an indirect Trump movie. I read an article about how Trump, this financial genius, really hasn't done much considering the level of his initial investments—he started out ahead and has sort of flat-lined his assets, financially.
Yeah, I saw it. If he just invested in the S&P 500 for all those years, he'd have the same amount of money. One of the finance guys we talked to also told me that while Trump says he's worth $10 billion, he's not. He said he knows that for a fact, and that [Trump] is just lying.
Do you think that Trump—or the symbolic figure of the economic titan—was in the minds of some of these guys who were willing to do whatever, to sell whatever, in order to get rich? I felt like the spirit of Donald Trump was behind a lot of the bad guys in this movie.
Do you play poker? I play a lot of poker. It reminds me of poker: You start playing, and you are thinking you're pretty good, and that you're in control. I'm winning money! I took this guy's money! It becomes this two-dimensional, abstract game, and it has no relation to the world whatsoever. It's purely us against each other. It's not your cards, especially if you're playing well. The characters in my movie, I think they all got into the game thinking that there was some justice to the market. Steve Carell's character, Mark Baum [based on the real-life money manager Steve Eisman] is somebody who wants to sniff out corruption and to bet against it. He thinks that is how this works. If somebody fucks up, you bet against them, and that's how the market balances itself out. That's the justice of cause and effect. When he sees how things have been captured and corrupted... I mean, the real guys, even today, they're still tangibly stunned by it. It's kind of amazing. They're outraged to this day.
The guys who shorted the mortgages are outraged, but they also made a lot of money off of it themselves...
They definitely have money, sure. One of them quit to take a nine-to-five.
Do you think that these things are exclusive? Can you be on the right side of this issue and also profit from it?
I don't think you can be a billionaire and be righteous. I don't think it's morally OK to be a billionaire, I really don't. You just saw Mark Zuckerburg give away all that money, and well done. Can you be worth $20 million? Forty million? I think that's OK. I'm OK with some people being rich. I don't want to give away all of incentivized capitalism. We need some of that.
You're going to google yourself after this interview runs and you're going to be branded a communist.
Yeah, exactly. I think we should go back to those tax rates from the 1960s and 70s. I think when they got rid of those rates it threw everything off. No human being should be worth $40 billion. It doesn't help anything. It doesn't help the economy. It doesn't help the country. It doesn't help the person. I think that the people that The Big Short is about can have some money and still do good. If you talk to Dr. Michael Burry [played in the film by Christian Bale], he's a guy who should be up in Congress twice a week, talking to people. He could be helping a lot.
Speaking of Michael Burry: is he as weird as Christian Bale plays him in the movie? Because that is a weird performance.
He's as weird as Bale's performance. If you met him, for the first five minutes, you'd think he's not as weird as Bale's performance. Then you hang out with him and you realize Bale nailed him. Burry is insanely brilliant. You realize how deep it goes with him. I could keep up with everyone and he lost me a couple of times.
Let's talk about something important. What is the most sublimely stupid thing in any of your movies? Is there a moment you're proud of because of how exquisitely dumb it is?
We did a bit in Step Brothers [that got cut out] where Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly get mad at Adam Scott's character, and Reilly's like "He's not going to come down here and do that in my house!" And Ferrell says, "Right! Not in my house!" And Reilly tells him he's saying it wrong and it's like four minutes of Ferrell not being able to say the tough-guy line, the "Not in my house" line. And it made me laugh so hard. I also love when the guys are trying to figure out what love is in Anchorman, which was like half-written and half-improvised. "I love lamp" was semi-improvised.
Anchorman really is a cult movie. I think it's a lot bigger now than it was even supposed to be in the first place.
The movie did well. It made money. It got OK reviews. But it was only about two years later when it went on cable that it started catching. It had a horrible release date, like the week after Spider-Man, and it's a pretty unusual comedy.
Well, it's kind of a surrealist film.
It's a surrealist film, yes. Bill Simmons wrote an article that helped crack the movie, I think. They're not playing Anchorman 2 on cable, and I know it has that sequel thing about it, but there's some funny shit in that movie.
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