5 Questions With Malvern-Raised Director Adam McKay

The Temple-schooled director of Anchorman and Talledega Nights on taking on much-more-serious subject matter in The Big Short.

The economic meltdown of 2008 came from a number of factors, but the single most glaring one was the banks’ reliance on the subprime mortgage loan. Some years before the collapse, one group of canny investors bet big on the eventual housing market meltdown, a maneuver that ended up making them very, very rich. The Big Short, a fact-based drama based on the book by Michael Lewis, comes from Malvern-raised director Adam McKay, known primarily for his work with Will Farrell on comedies like Anchorman, and Talledega Nights. While the film is concerned with serious, mostly dry, material, the Temple alum infuses it with amusing asides, fourth-wall breakage, and other comic staples. Here, he talks about how he made high-finance approachable, the way DraftKings emulates Wall Street, and the one piece of advice he learned about playing the Market.

One of the chief pleasures in the film is the way it takes time explain the financial complexities of the housing bust. What did you do to make that easier to understand for viewers?

I was an English major at Temple, I didn’t have any background in this. I just stumbled on this Michael Lewis book and I couldn’t put it down. What I loved about it was it had this explosively entertaining side to it, it was a page-turner, and in such a respectful way, explained everything to me. I knew if I could understand it, than audiences could. We didn’t want people to feel dumb, or that they had to know everything, because you don’t: All the banks are doing is moving debt and capital around. That’s it. It’s money and debt, and they just rename it and move it around. As long as you get that, you understand all of banking.

This is a pretty serious drama in a lot of ways, but it utilizes a comic sensibility. How tricky was assembling that mixture of light and dark elements?

That was the key. That’s basically what we worked on in the editing room, the alchemy of the balance between the two. The thing that struck me about this book: This is the real language of power. These guys actually know what’s going on, so I wanted that energy and that ride to it, but at the same time, this is a tragedy, there’s no question about it. These guys think they’re beating these banks, but what they don’t realize until the very end is that they’ve beaten themselves. Everything’s been beaten. To this day, they made a lot of money, but they’re still furious, they’re still outraged that nothing’s changed. You get the sense their entire worldviews have changed from this experience.

Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in "The Big Short"

Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling in “The Big Short”

It is a peculiar feeling with this film: It’s a lot of fun, we’re pulling for these guys, but then, what we’re pulling for is for them to be right and the housing market to collapse. It twists you up a bit, doesn’t it?

I had the same thing reading the book: I was rooting for these guys, enjoying the aura of them being right, and then you realize that’s where it’s headed. I had a close family member lose their house. I had friends who lost jobs. I think it’s a comment on our state of affairs in banking, you’re desperate for someone to be right, to care about facts and numbers, as opposed to just the bottom line. That’s really why these guys are sort of like heroes. We love them because at least they’re doing their job. They’re analyzing data and making correct choices based on reality as opposed to everyone else, who’s created a fantasyland and is basically just stealing money.

It’s like a commercial, selling you an idea – an association – with something that doesn’t really exist in reality. Like DraftKings suggesting all you have to do is join up, make a bet, and score massive winnings.

DraftKings is monopolized by professionals. You see the winners and the top 20 will all be one guy, who put $20K down and bought all the possibilities, and he’s a guy in Vegas. The odds of a real person winning any of these big-money tournaments are almost non-existent. That’s a lot the way the stock market works: Unless you’re worth $10 billion, if your broker comes to you and says ‘Buy this stock,’ you are probably a small pawn in a larger trade, and you’re being dumped on.

Did you take away any particular wisdom from working with all these Market guys?

I asked a bunch of them the one piece of advice they would give me, and they said “Anytime your broker calls and tells you to do something, don’t do it, because they’re playing you.” There’s no way a great stock opportunity is going to go to you. That great stock opportunity is going to go to the billionaire. If you’re being offered it, it’s a dump from someone else, and it’s to cover some losses. Don’t ever do what they offer you to; you tell them what to do.

The Big Short is now playing at the PFS Roxy Theater.

Follow Piers Marchant @kafkaesque83 or on his blog, Sweet Smell of Success.

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