By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Adam McKay On THE BIG SHORT

After months flying below the radar of industry watchers, The Big Short arrived in theaters late into awards season to shake things up. A bravura, full-throttle adaptation of Michael Lewis’ non-fiction bestseller about the Wall Street crash of 2008, the movie is directed and co-written (with Charles Randolph) by Adam McKay, who is best known for collaboration with Will Farrell on hits like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and The Other Guys. McKay’s step up here is sizable¾in ambition, although surprisingly not in terms of budget, as the reported $28- to $29 million it took to make The Big Short is only a couple million north of the budget for Anchorman.

But McKay got his money’s worth, and it’s all there on the screen, starting with a kick-ass ensemble headed by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt as brilliant investors (some very eccentric) who see (a) that America’s housing market boom has been built on shaky mortgages and bad loans, and (b) how they can profit from the disaster waiting to happen. What could have been an indecipherable parade of financial terms like credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations becomes instead a heady brew of rapid-fire dialogue, dynamic camera work, and sly cameos by celebrities playing themselves (Margot Robbie, Selena Gomez, and Anthony Bourdain) as they directly address the camera to explain the obsfucation of high finance. Considering the widespread devastation caused by the 2008 market collapse (from which, it hardly needs saying, we are still recovering) this is gallows humor, but of a very fine order. Equally fine is the drama, which succeeds largely because the flawed characters at its center are nothing if not recognizably human.

An ingenious stroke was to hire Barry Ackroyd as his shooter. Ackroyd was nominated for an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and a BAFTA Award for his work on Captain Phillips; his next project with Greengrass will be the latest installment of the Jason Bourne franchise. Throughout a dozen films with social realist director Ken Loach, Ackroyd honed a verité style that adds layers of immediacy and authenticity to already true-to-life material. In The Big Short his images offer effective counterweight to McKay’s biting assessment of the absurdities of Wall Street.

It was a homecoming of sorts for McKay when he stopped in Chicago to appear at the film’s local premiere. He got his start here as a founder of the improv sketch group Upright Citizens Brigade. He’s married to Shira Piven, a film director in her own right (Welcome to Me), who’s a member of the Piven theatrical family, practically a dynasty in these parts. I caught up with the charming, owlishly bespectacled McKay while he was literally stretching his long legs across a coffee table during press day at the Ritz-Carlton.

How did you decide on Barry Ackroyd as your cinematographer? His career has shown such vitality and range, from his long association with Ken Loach to an amazing war film like The Hurt Locker. He’s phenomenal.

I couldn’t agree with you more. He’s one of the greatest in the history of cinematography, ever. I didn’t want the film to have that kind of marble-clad, austere look that a lot of movies about Wall Street have had, and knew that he would capture the energy, the life of our characters and settings.

What was your working method with him? How did you communicate?

Working with him was one of my happiest experiences in film. Barry operates the A camera, and like John Cassavetes, he favors long lenses. He likes to stand back from the action, and watch the scene unfold, like it’s an event. He doesn’t want to be anywhere near the actors. Which is good: that way, the actors don’t know where exactly they’ll be in the shot, so they’re forced to remain in the moment of the scene. And he had a very capable assistant on the B camera. Between the three of us, we developed our own language. Watching each day’s footage I learned Barry’s style, and also how to tweak it, when I wanted. I told him, if you see something happening that you like, you have to go for it; you’ve got a green light from me. But there are also moments where the movie is a little more formalistic, like where we had to frame specifically to break the fourth wall, or for other reasons.

I’m curious about how certain shots came about. For instance, one of my favorite funny moments is in a scene at the Las Vegas forum where Mark Baum (Steve Carell) is challenging the speaker. It’s a wide shot from near the back of the room. Carell is outside frame, until his character gets so outraged at the half-wit at the podium that his left arm shoots out into the frame to make an emphatic zero sign, and all his indignation and fury just radiate off of each digit. Whose decision was that? Yours, I’m betting.

You noticed that! Yes, I saw how Barry was framing the shot, and suggested that if he moved the camera a little, to throw Steve out of frame, it would be funnier.

You wrapped shooting when? You tested a lot over the summer, I read.

We finished shooting toward the end of May. And yes, I did test the film with audiences a lot, maybe five to six times, because our movie is a little bit of a conversation with viewers. We were looking for the right alchemy between a serious subject and the lighter moments where we try to explain what happened. Mostly we discovered that audiences were able to understand complex terms like CDOs, which was crucial.

It’s refreshing that there aren’t any heroes in your film. The three groups of maverick investors that you focus on are sympathetic only to the extent that if they hadn’t done what they did, they’d have been squashed by the impending economic meltdown that only they, apparently, foresaw. Well, maybe not so much Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who set too much into play. But with the others, it was more or less a case of “eat or be eaten,” because that’s what the market is, or at least how the market has been defined by our contemporary brand of capitalism.

The way the market is supposed to work is that for every investment there’s a counter-investment. Mark Baum was an investor who was intent on rooting out corruption because to do so was good for the market, in that corrupt companies could not ultimately succeed, and therefore were bad for business. And so he would “short,” or bet against, investments that, after much research on his part, he identified as bad or fraudulent. Michael Burry believed in value; he had this astonishing capacity to crunch data, and he believed that numbers didn’t lie. And Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) had this theory about how people underestimate the chances of bad things happening. As for these guys not being heroes? I think the one thing you can say they did was stare into the mouth of the beast.

I was interested to learn that you’ve been a social activist from your earliest days in show business. What are you involved in now?

There are a number of causes that I support: the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Sandy Hook Promise. Gun control is a big one for me. I’m also involved in fighting climate change. I donate money, and every now and then I’ll do a fundraiser. Or “Funny or Die” will post a video. I try to pursue activism, on some level, in everything I do. Definitely, over the years I’ve learned that you can do a lot through comedy, or the occasional op-ed in “The Huffington Post.” You just keep at it.

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“A shot is a story. A shot on its own should be a piece of a story. Which is why I talk a lot about watching films, even the films we’re working on, with the sound off. Just to analyze how the film works, because a film should work for an audience without any sound. The biggest problem I see is that someone may have a superficial understanding of what a shot is propositionally, but they don’t have an understanding of how all of these shots are part of a family that needs to connect, and so you’ll get something that’s like a sentence arranged poorly with six nouns in a row. That surprises me, because I think that’s something that can be learned. Some things can’t be, but that can. It’s a grammar. In a classroom I could walk somebody through the difference between a sequence in which the filmmaker has a deep understanding of how images connect, and someone who doesn’t. It’s not really an intellectual process. Some people are just born with it and are just sort of savants at that deep mathematical understanding of shot construction.  I’m better than I used to be, but there are some people I’m just never going to catch. Spielberg. His staging ability. I’m never going to catch him. But when you’re trying to figure out how to get better—I’m not competitive in the sense of looking around at other filmmakers and comparing myself to them. What I do have to think about in trying to navigate myself through a career is: what can I get better at, and what do I have that I can enhance that somebody else doesn’t have?”
~ Steven Soderbergh

“It’s not going to be huge. He and I had been corresponding for a while. When I finally met him, he said, ‘We should collaborate.’ When John Ashbery says that to you, you don’t say when, you just say yes. It has not been easy to conjure this out of nothing. Sean Price Williams and I spent time with him, and it will appear on FilmStruck before the year is out…. I have figured out how to streamline things. I still have dreams of making movies with bigger budgets, and they might be considered to have more of a voice in pop culture. I don’t want to let go of that. I also realize that you grow up a lot of your life with wishful thinking and waiting. I have figured out ways to avoid doing that. I am working on a bigger movie about Nikola Tesla, set in the past, so it is not an easy film to make. I am also working on an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise.’ That seems more likely to catch fire.”
Michael Almereyda Steps It Up