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How Adam McKay Became a Serious Oscar Contender After $7 Billion in Comedies

What’s the person who made ”Anchorman“ and ”Talladega Nights“ doing in the Oscar race for ”The Big Short“? Fitting right in

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.

Adam McKay, the writer-director of “The Big Short,” suddenly finds himself the quiet candidate to watch in the Oscar race. A December release that showed up with little fanfare, his adaptation of the Michael Lewis book won at the ACE Eddie Awards and the Critics’ Choice Awards—and crucially, it took the top prize from the Producers Guild, one of the most reliable of all Oscar predictors.

In his film, the director whose comedies have grossed more than $7 billion takes on the global financial crisis, but laces it with a keen sense of the absurd, underlined with real consequences. TheWrap editor in chief Sharon Waxman talked to McKay about his pivot to a complicated, multi-character drama.

You’re best known for movies like “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights.” Why are you taking this turn away from comedy into something more serious?
Even though our comedies are absurdist comedies, there’s always a little bit of a point-of-view buried in there, whether we’re critiquing the news and how it’s become ratings driven [in “Anchorman”], or in the case of “Talladega Nights,” looking at that red-state pride when Bush was at, like, 92 percent approval rating.

I’ve written a lot for the Huffington Post, and when I was at “Saturday Night Live” I used to write a lot of the political cold opens. These are things I’ve been really interested in.

The financial crisis seems like a hard topic to make into an entertaining movie–lots of guys in suits on telephones. It just doesn’t seem like you’d read a book like that and immediately be, “Oh yes, I see the opening.”
That was exactly why I liked it. I think the best subjects are subjects that seem mundane or bland. Who cares about a local news station in San Diego? Who cares about two guys living with their parents? The seemingly boring subject that’s actually loaded with meaning, that’s the best stuff.

You’re absolutely right: when you read the book, you think it’s going to be dry. What Michael Lewis really shows you is that these ideas aren’t as complicated as we think and are actually the language of power. There was something really exciting for me in reading that and realizing, “Oh my God, these are the conversations that are happening at the Fed, these are the conversations at the White House, these are the conversations at Geneva, and none of us have a clue.” Right away, that got me energized.

It also helped that the characters were incredible. I had those characters, and I had the will and excitement to crack that fake boring language, which was actually really exciting.

At this stage of your career, have you decided that you want to leave behind the broader comedies?
To some degree. I don’t know if I’ll ever make a broad, absurdist comedy the way I’ve made them in the past, but I do love comedy and I love laughing. I just think the conversation has just changed in our country.

When we were making those movies, I felt really good about what we were doing for that time. I felt like we were in a period of upheaval, there was a lot of potential change that was happening that was very scary. I just remember all the conversations that people were having were like, “Oh, my God, Citizens United, do you know what this could mean?” “Oh, my God, we invaded Iraq, do you know what this could mean?”

Now the results of that have landed. I just feel like the way we talk about these things has changed, so the idea of putting the themes front and center just feels appropriate.

Adam McKay directing The Big Short

Paramount Pictures

You feel more responsibility to talk about the things directly instead of cloaking them in laughter or goofiness?
Yeah. I loved when those points of view were cloaked in laughs, because those movies played in Mississippi and Missouri. After I made “Talladega Nights,” Michael Moore called me after the opening weekend and said, “You’ve just made the most subversive movie in America, and nobody knows it.”

It felt right for that time; I just don’t know if we’re in that time anymore. Something has shifted, and there’s a new way that we have to discuss this stuff.

What are some other serious topics you’d like to take on?
I think, without exaggeration, the biggest story in the history of mankind is climate change. I think it’s literally an extinction-level event. I’ve read all the science. I’m certainly a dubious guy who doesn’t just take things at face value. I’ve talked to scientists, and I just can’t see how it’s not 100 percent correct. You’re starting to see the change come, and it seems that every estimate gets worse and worse. It’s the biggest story we’ll ever confront.

So I’m kind of kicking that around. Is there a way to make a movie that’s really alive? There’s been a few, there was that movie “Take Shelter” with Michael Shannon, with the tornadoes and the hurricane. That was a pretty brilliant movie.

Actually, the movie that gets better with every year is “The Day After Tomorrow,” which they’re now saying a lot of the scientific predictions are accurate.

Going back to “The Big Short,” your characters are essentially bad guys. We like them because they’re fighting the system, but they’re lining their own pockets by gaming a system that’s about to be crushed under its own corruption and hypocrisy. It’s got to be a challenge to make those guys likeable.
I felt like there was one key thing that made it OK: They didn’t know that’s where it was going. They really believed in the market. They believed when there’s a bad investment, you do a counter-investment and that’s how the market balances itself out.

Halfway through, of course, they realize the entire system was rigged. When you talk to the guys now, it was like someone told a 4-year-old that there’s no Santa Claus. It just shocked them. A couple of them have a thousand-yard stare to this day, and a couple of them quit the business because of it.

I’m really proud of the fact that we end the movie with Steve Carell making $200 million and we all feel crappy about it, and so does he. That’s hard to do in America. In a movie, if someone makes $200 million they play “I Feel Good” by James Brown and everybody dances off.

You’ve worked a lot over your career with a certain group of people, but this is certainly a different group. Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale. How did you approach working with these actors?
What you learn pretty quickly is the reason these guys are big stars is because they’re really, really good actors. And the rules of good acting apply to improv and collaboration. These are guys who know how to connect with the other actor, they know how to listen and find the truth in a scene. That made it a lot easier.

I talked to each of them individually and said, “Here’s what I like to do: I sometimes will say lines off camera. If that bugs you, let me know and I won’t do it.”

You fed them lines?
Yeah, I’ll say, “Try this.” I just wanted to make sure that everyone’s cool with that, and fortunately they were. I just always try to make it clear that this is the way I work, because there’s nothing more jarring than to get into a scene, get deep into character and then some big guy with glasses is behind the camera going “Try this!”

Once they all knew that, they were completely cool. In fact, they all loved that method of working.

Finn Wittrock, Steve Carell, Jeremy Strong, Christian Bale, and Adam McKay

You do that on your other films?
I do it on the comedies a lot. On this, I did it more as a spice. We would do the as-written scene a couple of times, and I would say, “Now forget the script, pretend it doesn’t exist.” And that’s when you would get those nuggets of gold.

Like where Brad Pitt at one point says to Finn Wittrock and John Magaro, “All right, guys, I gotta go get a colonic.” Finn Wittrock breaks in the scene and my brilliant editor, Hank Corwin, leaves it in the movie. Or you’ll have actors talk over each other and it’s a mistake, but it’s perfect. That’s the way life is.

That improv, even though I was doing maybe only 20 percent as much as I would in the comedies, still became a nice kind of spice as opposed to the main ingredient.

With comedy, your mind is like a machine gun all day long. You’re just thinking, “Jokes, jokes, how can I push it?” It’s mentally very exhausting, even though it’s fun. This was much calmer. We were looking for little special moments. I really enjoyed it, and at the end of the day, I wasn’t exhausted.

Click here to read more from the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap Oscar Magazine.

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Illustration by Arnold Schwartzman for TheWrap