Adam McKay finally made a movie funny enough to be nominated by the Golden Globes. Actually, that’s not true at all. After years of making what are some of Hollywood’s most uproarious films — Anchorman, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights — McKay has finally directed a prestige pic that has elements of humor… a better qualifier for the Globe’s occasionally confounding Comedy & Musical category.
The Big Short, which opens in limited release on Dec. 11, is based on Michael Lewis’ book about the group of financial misfits who identified flaws in the U.S. housing market and then bet billions on its collapse. An amazing cast that includes Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt was honored with a Screen Actors Guild Awards nomination for best ensemble on Wednesday, and Thursday brought nods for Bale and Carell (in the lead actor category), as well as McKay and Charles Randolph for best screenplay and the film itself for best picture.
McKay spoke to EW about the good news.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations. Where are you this morning?
ADAM McKAY: Hunting in the Adirondacks… No, I’m in New York City doing press for the movie.
This movie sort of came out of nowhere, at least from the public’s point of view. Does it feel that way to you, or are you still too in the midst of it to tell?
It’s amazing. I was just telling someone, when you do a comedy, you do two days of junket, a premiere, then you fly to London, two days of junket, premiere, and then you’re done. But this is like ongoing. Fortunately, I sincerely love the topic and I’m not bored with talking about it. Whereas with the comedies, they just ask you how much you improvised and, “Did you crack up on set?” You just hear that question a thousand times. This is a much meatier subject and I’ve had some great Q&As and great discussions, so that helps a lot.
So… did you crack up on set?
[Laughs] I think I actually did a couple of times.
Every film is a gamble, but this one seems like a bigger one than normal. At least initially, the path to adapting Michael Lewis’ book wasn’t exactly clear. You solved it, but what was the discussion that you had to convince people that, yes, this is an important subject that people need to hear, but also, this will be entertaining?
That was the initial choice right from square one: there’s two ways you can do this. You can either completely focus on characters and have good guys and bad guys and do a kind of more traditional road. But that wasn’t really what I loved about the book. I loved how Lewis fused the information with the characters, and I just felt like that’s what was special about it. We knew it was a trickier road to do what we did, and we knew that it was breaking some primary rules of filming. But you let the story tell you what you have to do, and in this case, it just felt like that had to be the way.
You ended up with these interludes where Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain explain some complex financial terminology. What was the reaction when you pitched that to the people who had to greenlight this movie?
That’s how I got the job. I pitched that to [Brad Pitt’s production company] Plan B, and god bless ’em, right from the jump, they were like, “That is a great idea.” The way I pitched it was that this movie is about a group of people that saw something that none of the rest of us saw, that our entire culture did not see. So the idea always was like, “Well, what were we paying attention to?” and the idea was, like, this pop culture noise that’s always around us. So the idea behind it was, what happens if that pop culture tells you real information you need to hear. That’s where that idea of having Selena Gomez explaining synthetic CDOs came out of. Plan B was down with that immediately, and then Paramount was like, Okkkkaay. And then they read the script and were like, “Oh, seems to work.” So there wasn’t much resistance to it.
You make a movie, and someone like Christian Bale agrees to star, you do backflips. You get a Steve Carell or a Ryan Gosling, and you do backflips. You ended up with four of the biggest actors in Hollywood all saying yes, to say nothing of the amazing supporting cast. Was it almost too much?
I actually went the other way: I was pissed that I didn’t get Daniel Day-Lewis.
The Best Picture nod is great, but the Best Screenplay nomination is almost more impressive because that category puts you up against films like Room, Spotlight, Jobs, and The Hateful Eight.
Everyone in that category is amazing, but clearly I’m a better writer than Aaron Sorkin… [Laughs] People have had a hard time putting their finger on what genre this movie is. I’ve heard people call it a tramedy, like tragedy-comedy. A docu-tramady. So it’s a hard film to categorize. Clearly, there’s enough funny stuff in it that it could easily slip into the comedy category, but that was really gratifying to see it show up on the screenplay list as well.
We’re in the presidential silly season, and there’s a lot of noise coming out of the campaigns and the debates — but very little about the issues your film addresses. Are you banging your head against the wall?
It’s craven. It’s really disgusting ’cause they’re all taking millions of dollars from the banks, and that silence is not by accident. We’re hoping in some small, small way, we can push the conversation a little bit. But the Republicans are saying they want to get rid of the little bit of regulations we got out of this collapse. Bernie Sanders says stuff, and then Hillary Clinton sort of chases him and says, “Oh yeah, I believe in that too.” So you’re right, there really hasn’t been a serious discussion. And that’s the entire reason we made the movie: this thing is not over with. It’s still going on. The ripples are still going on around the world, and why the heck are we not still having a national conversation about it. That would be the dream of dreams: if we just saw the conversation even move up like 5-10 percent because of a movie being out there.
I think what we need at the next debate is Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez up on the stage with the candidates, so they can explain the complicated issues to Joe Six-pack at home.
I think if anyone would do that, it would be Donald Trump. He would have a woman dancing in a cage who would explain his policy decisions. That is a definite possibility.
Should I look at The Big Short as a turning point for you as a filmmaker? Or can I still hold out hope for Anchorman 3?
I’ve always been looking to do different kinds of movies. Earlier this year, I got to write Ant-Man. I’m dying to do a big, clever, strange action film, and I have a couple of darker ideas I’ve been kicking around. But at the same time, there’s nothing more enjoyable then doing a comedy, so there’s no way I won’t go back to doing comedies at some point. But it’s certainly nice to have these options.
I’m sure friends and family called or texted you this morning after the announcement. Did anyone stand out?
The weirdest one was Henry Kissinger. Just, “Big congrats, my friend.” No.
See the full list of Golden Globe nominations here. The Golden Globes air Jan. 10 on NBC.