Interview: 'The Big Short' Director Adam McKay Explores Comedy And Pain

At the AFI premiere of Adam McKay's newest film, The Big Short, the director joked that his past films – Anchorman: The Legend of Ron BurgundyStep Brothers, and more — were all his failed attempts at drama. The writer-director has explored sexism in the workplace, the 21st century manchild, and unrelenting ignorance throughout his body of work, to hilarious effect, but rarely a subject matter this serious.

With The Big Short, McKay has made his first drama, but even he resists putting that label on his film. Based on Michael Lewis' book, adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph, the film is a potent mix of laughs and misery, depicting the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short stars Steve CarellChristian BaleBrad Pitt, and more actors we all know.

We discussed the tricky tone of the film, why you can't kill dogs in cinema, and more with Mr. McKay. Here's our Adam McKay interview:

Your sense of humor is definitely in The Big Short. Even though there's quite a bit of drama in the film, did this feel wildly different from directing your past work?

I guess. I just love movies. I'll watch everything. In fact, probably the movies that I watch the least are comedies. I devour documentaries. I love dramas. I love Prisoners from a couple of years ago. It was like, my God.

Have you seen Sicario?

I have it cued up in the loading area. I am so excited to see it. I'm going to base a night where my wife are having Indian food [and watch it], and I can't wait. He might be my favorite director working now, actually. What is his name again?

Denis Villeneuve. 

He's f***ing good, that guy. I want to meet him, man. I'm just blown away. He writes too, right? He is a writer/director?

I think he mostly just directs.

Does he? That's even more impressive. It's one thing to write your style and direct it, but that's always why I think Martin Scorsese is so amazing. He didn't write a lot of those movies, but yet they are Scorsese films. I couldn't do that. That's amazing.

Do you always have to write your material?

I always have to, yeah. David O. Russell and I have talked about this, and he's the same way too. We are just like, "No, of course you have to write it." So I just love, love movies. For me it wasn't that hard. I've done a lot of rewrites on movies that are outside of my genre. I loved this experience. It was freeing not to be a genre. That was what was so much fun, is that even though there is funny stuff, and I think it has some of the energy that I normally direct with.

I just loved that I could do a scene and it didn't have to end with a laugh. I loved that I didn't have to have a happy ending. I loved that I could just do a scene strictly because it looked beautiful. I can do the characters leaving that casino in slow-motion. I didn't have to cut for time because you're driving energy for laughs, and I have to hit certain story points of a genre.

Believe me, Will [Ferrell] and I f*** with genre as much as anyone. We are always fighting the comedy genre, but it's there. In this movie, I just felt like there was no genre. I felt like it could be funny. I felt like it could be tragic, informative, whatever it needed to be. So in that sense, I actually found it easier. Easy is not the right word. I'd say it was freeing.

Do you ever feel confined by comedy? Have there been instances where you want to end a scene on a sad note, but because of the genre, you couldn't?

Absolutely. All the time, Ferrell and I talk about it and it drives us crazy with the comedies. We had the best ending on Step Brothers, and no one would let us do it.

What was it?

I will definitely tell you. I can't remember how we got there, but it was like the two brothers, after they do the thing at the Catalina Wine Mixer, they know how to be men. Because you know through the whole thing they were trying to figure out how to be adults without being creeps like everyone around them, and it just ends with the two of them in Army uniforms in a truck rumbling down the road, looking at each other going, "This was a good idea, right?" Then, you see them in the truck and you pull out and they go past a sign that says "Fallujah 3 miles."

The studio immediately said, "We will not allow you to shoot that." Even [Judd] Apatow wasn't into it. Ferrell and I were like, "How is that not your favorite movie of all times?" Apatow's like, "Because they are going to f***ing die. That's why, you prick." We just f***ing loved it, and they literally wouldn't allow us to do it.

Adam McKay interview

Has that ever happened before?

Many times. One of my favorites was in Zoolander. This is going back years. I think I wrote this second look that he does. I can't even remember what it was, but I actually ended up writing the ending. Who knows? I convinced Ben Stiller that he should be working on his second look, Magnum, throughout the whole movie. My pitch was he's always working on this second look, and then when he finally does it, it's identical to Blue Steel. At the end, there should be a train coming at him and there should be a buildup of music and he should unveil Magnum and the train should just hit him. He should die [Laughs], and the movie should end. Why did you think that a look would stop the train? "But, it's such a great look." That was going to be the end of the movie. I convinced Stiller. Stiller is like, "God that's f***ing funny." [Producer] Scott Rudin went, "You're not f***ing killing the character. Hopefully we make three of these." I got in trouble for it. That was a good one.

So don't kill your character at the end of comedy is the lesson here.

Don't kill your character at the end of a comedy, although God it's fun to play around with that idea. I'm sure we've done that other times, too. Oh, here's another really good one. After Baxter got punted off the bridge [in Anchorman], Baxter never came back. Later, there was a Doberman Pinscher and Ron was like, "Baxter!" and Fred Willard was like, "Let him have it." We shot that and screened it, and the audience f***ing hated it because we killed the dog. The marketing lady came up to me and couldn't figure out why our scores were low because the movie had gotten all these huge laughs. It was like, "You idiots, you killed the dog." We were like, "Oh, all right." Goddamn, that original ending was funny with the Doberman. People track dogs. Do you remember Independence Day?

I do.

I saw that in a packed theater in New York City. That thing was such an event. I felt like I was an ape or something. I was in this group of people, they were like, "Ahhhh!" when the dog leapt away from the flames. I think every comedy we've done we've f***ed around with some ending, and then people yell at us and say you can't do that. One of these days we have to do it.

Obviously a lot of people had their lives ruined in 2008, so this is a delicate subject. Were there any great jokes you had to take out because they'd undermine the drama?

No, I don't think so. It was all just a matter just if it worked or not. It's funny we started talking about Step Brothers and Anchorman, such a different tone. But with this there is just this tone of, when is it energetic? When is it exciting? When can it be a little funny? When is it tragic? It's not really a comedy or a drama, in my opinion. That became the game of just when is it appropriate to do what.

What I loved about it was just constantly driving a stick shift. You were just changing tones all the time, which is what I found exciting about it. For me, it was just a blast. It was challenging, but I don't think we ever... You know, there was one case.

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

In the end, when Jim [Ryan Gosling] stops the movie and says, "But Mark [Steve Carell] was wrong. They prosecuted all the bankers..." and they did this, this, and this, someone said we should do a version where it's bigger, where he says, "All the banks apologized to the American people." Then he said, "I'm just f***ing with you." It got a huge laugh. We were like, I don't think we want that. I've never done that in the history of me making movies. I took out a giant laugh, and I went with the drier version that is in there. I don't know if we want to be that silly at that point.

[END SPOILERS]

McKay

When I saw the film this woman sat down next to me and just said, "I had to smoke a little bit before this because I lost so much money." 

Wow.

Then at the end I asked what she thought, and she loved it and found it very entertaining, despite how painful she found that experience. 

That's a great story. I had a relative come to the premiere, who lost their home. They loved it. I think they like they kind of get to know what the f*** happened. You go through this pain and suffering and you kind of have a vague sense of what happened, but... And it certainly ends by giving the full jab. So you don't feel like any punches were pulled by the end.

When you were asking me about [taking out jokes for the drama] I realized we did do that a couple of times. The end, the where are they nows, there just kept being this discussion about the tone of the ending because obviously it's so somber. I'm like, "I can write jokes for weeks and weeks. I mean, that's not a hard thing to do." I actually did put a version for Pitt's [paranoid] character where it was something to the effect that he gave his family gas masks for Christmas, and it got a big laugh. We were like, "Ah, it's too jokey." We took it out.

Then, there was another one, too, where it says what an ISDA is. Trying to be time trader with an ISDA is like, and I had originally written, "trying to be a porn star without a dick." That's going to get laugh, but no. No, no, it's not right. So went with more "trying to win the Indy 500 with llama," which is just silly but not as crass jokey. There was a line for us.

I could go through the whole movie and just add big jokes whenever I wanted to. We were kind of sensitive to that, and trying to find moments. I've never consciously written a moment that I know isn't a laugh, but it's a smile. I actually hate that when that's in movies, but in this movie a couple of times I did that.

Sometimes it was pulling back laughs. Sometimes it was just timing and shading. Editor Hank Corwin has this great move that I've never seen. I've seen it in movies, but I've never seen an editor do it in front of me, where he cuts off dialogue for the added punch. F***ing love it. So we were using stuff like that to create raggedness where sometimes the movie would get a little smooth. I'd be like, "I don't like that it's running this smooth. Maybe just kind of f*** with stuff just to make sure it's always a little off because these guys are off, and it's an off perspective." I don't think I've done such fine tuning with that kind of stuff before, which was really fun.

For The Big Short, you cut Michael Burry's (Christian Bale) wife and kid out of the film in post-production, and said the movie really worked when you did that. Has that ever happened on past films?

The biggest one was on Anchorman. When we wrote the script it was off the success of Austin Powers. All of the comedies were sort of imitating Austin Powers. Like, you have to a jeopardy plot. You have to have a supervillain. You have to have like a villain in the movie. We were like, "Why? It's about this inner sexism in the workplace." "You have to. You have to." So we were like, "All right. F*** it." So we wrote this whole SLA, sort of Patty Hearst storyline.

We had great actors. We had Maya Rudolph. We had Amy Poehler. We had Chuck D. It was really awesome, actually. We did it as well as you can do it. It just didn't work, and we took it out and the movie just went, "Boom!" It became a completely different movie once it was out. That's the most dramatic one, really. It took a movie that was kind of working and turned it into a movie that was killing.

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The Big Short opens in limited release on December 11th.