How 'The Big Short' director turned the financial collapse into a big, celebrity-stacked comedy

The big shortParamount Pictures‘The Big Short.’

Adam McKay is best known for directing some of Will Ferrell’s biggest movies — “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy,” “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” “Step Brothers.” But with the release of “The Big Short” this weekend, McKay has stepped away from Ferrell’s large shadow.

But he needed his comedy talents to tell the story of one of the largest financial collapses in history.

Based on the Michael Lewis best-selling book of the same name, “The Big Short” looks at the housing bubble during the 2000s. It stars Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, and Brad Pitt as a handful of the few people in the financial world who saw it coming.

But to connect with moviegoing audiences while tackling such a complex subject, McKay decided to add a little sugar to his medicine. Not to mention brief flashes of pop culture, including an interlude featuring celebrities Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez explaining financial terminology (which will no doubt rankle Wall Street).

“I feel if you do this movie like, say, ‘The Insider‘ — which I think is a great movie — you wouldn’t be doing this story justice,” McKay told Business Insider, referring to the more somber Russell Crowe film about a tobacco-industry whistleblower. “I wouldn’t want to see that movie.”

But McKay admits he didn’t write the script intending on getting laughs. It came from the material in Lewis’ book that is so outlandish you can only help but laugh, which McKay did while reading it in one sitting in 2010.

Highlights include Michael Burry (Bale) only listening to heavy metal music and Mark Baum (Carrel) who is so attached to his phone that he takes a call in the middle of asking a question at a major public conference in Las Vegas.

Shooting the film with a handheld, documentary-like atmosphere, and allowing his actors to improvise, McKay shaped a film that would turn out to be very different from how Hollywood had previously looked at the financial collapse (“The Company Men,” “Too Big to Fail”). Could audiences still get the underlying message?

“I thought the film was really starting to fit well in rough assembly, which never happens,” McKay said. “So we got 300 people and did a screening, for us, not for the studio. This was at a running time of two hours and twenty minutes. It was long, but sitting there, I could feel the energy. The audience understood what we were talking about.”

McKay’s enthusiasm and proof that “real people” appreciated the movie caused Paramount Pictures to set its release date smack in the middle of awards consideration.

The film has become a frontrunner of the season, having recently received Golden Globes nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy for both Carell and Bale and Best Screenplay for McKay and his co-writer Charles Randoph.

But McKay does admit there is one line in the movie that he purposely wrote for a laugh.

“I almost cut it out of the movie,” McKay said, “but it’s where the Vinny (Jeremy Strong) character says, ‘It looks like someone hit a pinata of white guys who suck at golf.’ I knew that line would get a laugh.”

“The Big Short” opens in limited release Friday and everywhere December 23.

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