Adam McKay interview: The Big Short, Four Lions & more

Oscar-nominee Adam McKay chats to us about The Big Short, Four Lions, Cabin In The Woods, Ant-Man, screenwriting and more…

I met Adam McKay at some posh hotel, where he’d just done some filmed interviews. As such, when he got to me, he told me he was going to recline on the couch “aggressively”. Which he did. So as the Oscar-nominated director and co-writer of The Big Short made himself comfy, with his film having pocketed a bunch of Oscar nominations, and finally heading into UK cinemas.

I thus began….

You’ve talked to us in the past about there being a purchase point where you commit to a film. That with Anchorman, it was Will Ferrell seeing footage of a sexist 70s real-life anchorman. With The Other Guys, it was a dinner with Mark Wahlberg when you realised he could do comedy.

Yeah, the two of them had an odd chemistry together.

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What was the pinch point here then?

This was really simple, it was the book [by Michael Lewis]. I picked up the book at 9 o’clock one night and just couldn’t put it down. I was so shocked that it was a page turner, and I never considered there could be a page turner about CEOs and finance. I said to my wife that it’s such a remarkable book, and I hadn’t read anything like that. That information, yet that entertainingly presented. A strange hybrid.

Have you read Flash Boys of his?

Yes, I have. I really loved that as well. He’s really good at that. He understands how to paint a picture of an idea that we’ve maybe all ignored, and show how it’s changed all of our lives. And there’s a drama to that. It’s a type of story you don’t hear as much any more. I think our popular culture has become a little more surface-orientated. But Michael Lewis understands that it’s properly entertaining. It was the book, 100% the book.

Can I talk about screenwriting, then? I had no idea what I was getting here. I try as a rule to avoid trailers for films, and I hadn’t read the book so went in cold.

It struck me that the opening 20 minutes of your movie is a masterclass in economy of screenwriting. It reminded me in a strange way of Inside Out. You get across a world and information in a condensed way that, in this instance, it’s not even that it’s complicated, it’s just people have ignored it.

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Yes, yes.

It’s stuff that’s been there, but people were reading about the Kardashians instead.

Right.

That opening in particular, then. Can you take us through the process of getting that right? How hard did you have to work it?

You’re very perceptive! That was the trickiest part of the entire movie.

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It wouldn’t work without it.

That first 15 minutes, we worked over and over and over and over again. We had to have it right. We had people saying from the outside ‘can’t you just cut it’? No! We can’t cut it! It’s the seed of the entire movie!

There were a lot of little choices that went into it. Initially when I had Lou Raneri in the 1970s guy come in, I had a classic 70s song playing. Then it felt cheap, it felt like I was doing Anchorman. I thought that isn’t right. So my composer said what if I write you an original piece? So it’s score but doesn’t feel kitschy? We did that, and that helped.

Then we said maybe we need to show Ryan Gosling on camera, maybe just to remind you he’s in this movie. But I don’t want to show him too much. So we did a couple of little blips of Gosling in there, and that helped. That gave us energy. It was just a long process of choices like that. You know what, this scene is too long! Oh, wait a minute, you cut this scene too short! You have to do this, and we just kept distilling it and looking for the essential information.

And here’s an odd one you would never think of. A big transition to Christian Bale, playing Michael Burry. And really trying to get the timing right of that, and the sound of his drumsticks. To get a break from the opening. I sat with my editor, and was saying put an extra five frames on that! Put an extra seven frames on that!

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Can we go nerdy on that, then? When you talk about the different between five and seven frames, what do you see that we don’t? That’s around a quarter of a second.

My belief is that whenever you’re making a movie, let’s just call every movie two hours long, just generically. It’s not a lot of time, it’s two hours! Every single hundredth of a second is gold. Every choice you make within those two hours should have thought behind it. And I really look at the different between him playing those drumsticks in the black when you hear the sound, and you going to him on the profile.

I remember asking my editor, do you have a profile of him doing the drumsticks? Well don’t go to him straight away. Go to him with the drumsticks again, so we put that in. It started to work better. Then I said over the blackness, you’ve got about ten frames of just hearing it. Just chuck an extra five on there! That’s actually a lot – a fifth of a second. It’s a lot.

You do it 20 times in a movie, and it all adds up?

Exactly.

And each time you’re doing that, you’re sending a message. I believe audiences can feel it when a filmmaker is doing that, being that specific.

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One of my favourite movies in the last five or ten years is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I just felt that every frame of that movie was curated, thought about, designed. I’ve never seen a movie tell more of a story just through production design and framing in my life. I’ve seen that movie like 12 times, because I’d love to talk to the director about the thought, because I’m sure it’s there.

My editor sometimes laughs at me when I do the three, four frame thing. And he said to me at the end, I don’t think I’ve ever done a movie that’s this tight! Every fucking moment, we’re going to attack. We’re not going to waste time, we don’t want energy lacking. There has to be information, some character, something visual, something always has to be alive. That was our goal. We knew we were doing an unusual movie in the form and the shape of it. So it was even more important that the movie have life to it.

Given then that it’s popular entertainment and culture that’s managed to paper over what was at the core of the financial meltdown, did you feel it would take a piece of popular entertainment and culture to fight back?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

Did you see Inside Job?

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Yeah, was a brilliant movie.

It was a documentary that did a really good job explaining just what had happened, but nobody saw it. Nobody really sought it out.

I actually didn’t think they did a great job of spelling out the actual doomsday machine, that was my one knock on that movie. I love it though. I thought the best thing about that movie was showing how the banks are capturing academia.

Yes!

I thought that was terrifying. I really enjoyed the movie.

I felt in the same way you treat a virus by putting the dead virus in, I think you have to do that with this. The only way to take apart this massive circus of an entertainment machine that the United States has created – 3000 TV channels, 500 movies – is you have to make something really fucking entertaining, that’s going to take you back to where you need to be.

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Also, I’m just a believer that learning stuff is really exciting. Truly learning stuff, not learning stuff by rote. Not having a teacher drilling something in. But really being turned on to a new awareness fills me with energy.

Your movie comes out at a point where the people who should have learned the lessons from it almost don’t seem to realise it’s about them. I’ve seen responses from people talking about how they liked the film, and I’m looking at them wondering if they realise it’s actually about them.

[Laughs]

You come from a country that’s giving Donald Trump to the world, too. Thanks for that. Do you find the subjects of your film are the ones who are least getting the message?

There’s almost a micro-economy of bank apologists. There’s a lot of writers out there, there’s a lot of magazines like Forbes, to some degree the Wall Street Journal. Certainly the New York Post. A lot of the Murdoch-owned papers and media outlets in the US love to apologise for the banks. They all rose up immediately. A whole rash of seven or eight op-eds that came out.

The strange thing was though that I saw some people on the extreme right wing who really loved the movie. But then they would say they love it because it’s the government’s fault. I’d go, well, the banks bought the government, so is it really government by that point? But when you have a bank owning the government, I don’t call it government any more. Everyone puts their own filter over it.

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What I have seen that’s really exciting is people who just didn’t have an opinion either way, and walking out shellshocked.

That’s interesting. Even if they hate your guts for doing it?

Yeah.

I read what looked like the work of a 24-year old kid on Twitter, who wrote ‘just saw The Big Short, I’m not sure how to feel’

That’s a great response, though.

I love that. I was like, he doesn’t know how to feel! He’s feeling something he’s never felt before, and doesn’t know what it is!

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Especially when Twitter seems to make it compulsory to have an opinion.

Here’s another funny thing. You’ll see people who go, ‘I saw The Big Short! I fucking hated it! I didn’t understand any of it’. And I was like, how are you so bold about not getting it? That’s a consumer culture thing, the customer is always right. If I didn’t understand it, it must be a problem with the movie. That cracks me up!

I’ve read lots of interviews with you from the movie press, where it feels like they’re zooming through talking to you about this interesting, important film, to get to an Ant-Man question.

[Laughs. A lot]

Does that frustrate you to any degree?

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[Still laughing] Here’s the thing: I love Ant-Man! It doesn’t frustrate me, that’s the way it’s built.

The thing about movies is they play in theatres. So if someone wants to talk about Ant-Man, I had a blast rewriting it. There’s a little point in there about privatizing the military. But it comes down to people watching films. That’s what it’s about.

You just said you don’t watch trailers. I think that’s awesome. I would love it if people dodged marketing and didn’t sit through trailers. Go see films with a naked eye. I love it when I go and see a movie and I don’t know what it’s about.

Did you ever see the Greek film Dogtooth? It’s a dark movie! I had no idea what it was about. A friend of mine just told me you have to see this, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I trust this friend, so I told my wife we’re going to watch this. We were fucking knocked off our feet.

I walked in to see The Gift last year, for instance, knowing nothing about it. If anything, it had been sold as a horror film.

It’s more a comedy isn’t it?

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It’s a very dark thriller, if anything. Have you seen it?

No!

Then I can’t tell you anything about it. Just watch it!

Okay, okay! How about Cabin In The Woods? You remember that!

I do!

It confused American audiences so much. They thought it was a slasher movie. They didn’t get what it was doing. I talked to so many people: have you seen Cabin In The Woods, one of the best movies of the year? They were like, what do you mean, it’s a slasher movie? Oh no it’s not!

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But often, it takes time for people to digest and work out what they feel about a film. It’s why comedy is a great Trojan horse sometimes. As my colleague puts it, rage is more effectively channeled through comedy than pretty much anything.

That’s true, yeah.

Wolf Of Wall Street, for instance. And the debate that came out of that: are we laughing with him, or are we laughing at him? That comes back down to not quite knowing how to feel.

That’s interesting. I don’t know how to answer that either. I think it was probably both.

I have to congratulate you on the Oscar nominations, that must have been a thrill.

Yeah, it was a kick.

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If you win one, can you slip a random word into your speech? ‘Pineapple’, or something like that?

Got it, got it. [Grins]

I was reading, though, that you went to the Hollywood Film Awards, and they gave you a prize for The Big Short, for Best Breakthrough Director [McKay has directed five hit comedies to date]. I spat my coffee out when I read that. Is there not a bit of you when you read that, where you laugh, or roll your eyes?

Steve Carell did the funniest introduction. He basically said what you were about to say. This newcomer! Out of nowhere! But it was still nice. It was flattering, it means they like the movie. So that’s good. But all my friends were ribbing me about that.

It is comedy snobbery again, though?

Yeah.

You look at what you did with The Other Guys. The end credits did more than the Wall Street sequel did. The Wall Street sequel to me missed the goal.

It did for me too. Same here, same here!

People cite the last five minutes of The Other Guys, but it’s not just there! You’re making really important points all the way through it!

[Laughs] You’re one of the few people that saw that. We designed the whole movie to be about that.

You open this movie with arguably the most terrifying characters in the movies now. If you’re looking for antagonists, go for men in grey suits, looking reasonable, happy and trustworthy. But they’re the most terrifying of all!

[Laughs] That’s a great way to look at that.

When you come to write Ant-Man 2, just stick them in as the villains!

They were a funny bunch of extras. We were down in New Orleans, and I was like, where did you get this crop of extras?! There were all like weird and slightly off, but they were perfect. It’s the great thing when you don’t shoot in Los Angeles: you get these amazing looking extras that are so real!

I do want to come back to the comedy point. Network, Wolf Of Wall Street, Catch 22, Dr Strangelove

Election, I’d throw that in.

Great shout. That’s an amazing film.

I think Election is about everything in America. I think it’s a tiny story that represents everything going on in America. It’s one of my all-time favourite movies.

Did you say MASH too?

No, but I should have done. About how comedy kicks the door down on such serious subject matter.

We were talking about Four Lions. An amazing film. One of the all time great comedies.

Do you ever read Chris Morris’ catalyst for why he made it?

No, no.

He said that he read a story in a paper of a terrorist loading a boat up with explosives, off to cause destruction. Then, when he set sail, the boat sank, and Morris said he let out an involuntary laugh. That was his pinch point.

Wow. A lot of those terrorists are weird hillbillies. They’re idiots. They’re people in some of the poorest areas too. There’s a horrifying documentary on the attack on Mumbai, and one of the guys lived. They’re interviewing him, and it’s clear the guy is from the middle of nowhere, and it’s hit him what he’s done. And I thought that’s what Four Lions really nailed. At the same time, he was able to shift tones. That movie really is a masterpiece.

Time is up! One quick one! Do you have a favourite Jason Statham movie?

[Laughs] I’ll give you a boring answer: it’s Lock, Stock!

Adam McKay, thank you very much.

The Big Short is in UK cinemas now.