Adam McKay’s new financial-apocalypse comedy The Big Short — the subject of this week’s Vulture cover story — was produced by Brad Pitt, who also took a small role in the film to help ensure the production got properly funded. Here, Pitt talks about his sideline as a genuine prestige-movie mogul (with his company Plan B), what it means to team up with author Michael Lewis again, and his personal outrage in 2008.
Lately it seems like there are a lot of actors with production companies adapting books — you, Leonardo DiCaprio, Reese Witherspoon. Do things get competitive? For instance, your company, Plan B, recently outbid your pal George Clooney on Law of the Jungle.
In all fairness, he outbid me on Argo. But, yeah, it can get competitive. We do naturally have a lot of the same tastes and interests. With The Big Short, I think maybe we got the upper hand at auction because Michael Lewis and I got tight on Moneyball.
Plan B also has a really good track record of getting movies actually made. What’s your secret?
I was weaned on the films of the ’70s, and a lot of the films we make are inspired by those. But the plain truth of it all is that these kinds of movies are hard to make. The studios don’t want to make them because it doesn’t fit the business model anymore. It’s complicated material, it’s a gamble. They need some guarantee with marquee. So often I jump in and take a part first because I love the project, and I gotta get in to make sure it gets made. Then, when Steve Carell and Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling all jump in, I think it is a testament to the subject matter, and the story, and to Adam McKay’s script. Michael Lewis was able to find the story, to make it interesting — he has such a knack for taking complicated, even mundane material, and making it understandable and even thrilling. And Adam was the one to take it to the next step, to corral this kind of subject matter and translate it into a film. Adam was brilliant, and our team was brilliant at getting the budget down.
Were you a fan of McKay’s before?
Aww, yeah. Any excuse to see Will Ferrell, I go back to that well.
He became sort of personally obsessed with the financial crisis. Were you the same way?
We were down in New Orleans, trying to build affordable homes, and the fact that this thing went out of control, and people were talked into taking these mortgage plans they couldn't afford — I was very upset. A lot of people got duped. And then the others, who thought they were investing well ... it led to a global crisis. And what is more amazing is you talk to the guys in the business now, and they say nothing has really changed.
Speaking of those guys: It feels like a lot of films about the financial crisis so far have been from the point of view of people inside the system: Wall Street 2, for instance, and Margin Call, and Too Big to Fail. Did you ever think of doing something from the point of view of the people on the losing side?
So many people got hurt during the housing crisis, during the mortgage debacle, it was so complicated — and what I appreciate about Michael’s writing and his book, to tell it from the other side was an interesting take on it. It can be very dry material. You can be exhausted just by the pain of it all. It was really important, beyond all the great documentaries on it, to tell it in a palatable way, so people could know how they got hurt, hopefully to avoid something like this again.
Given that people were hurt, did you ever have qualms about making a movie about the subject that has so many humorous aspects to it?
I think again, it’s about making it palatable. When I traveled to the ends of the earth, where people are really, really struggling, I am always amazed by their sense of humor.
One of the criticisms of the book was that it sort of heroicized these guys who basically profited from the collapse. Did you feel like they acted heroically?
Heroic ... I am not sure how to talk about it in those terms. I talked to a few of the guys who understood it before anyone else. I think they were whip-smart. And they tried to raise a flag, but no one was listening. You meet these guys, and none of them are bragging or walking around like they hit the jackpot. They were sober.
Your character, Ben Hockett, gives a speech toward the end of the movie, when the younger guys he works with start getting psyched about how much money they are going to make on their trade. It kind of made me think of your part in 12 Years a Slave, where you are also kind of a Voice of Reason that pipes in at the turning point.
Originally I was going to do something bigger, but so many other people signed on that I didn’t need to. But that sobering message, “What you are betting against is the American economy, and don’t celebrate that” — that’s Adam’s writing. Adam, in this arena, he is so damn sharp. Even if you win, you can’t win without experiencing the burden of all the people that lost.
Hockett also has kind of a doomsday-prepper bent to him. Do you have any of those tendencies?
The real guy has a home you can’t access by car in case of armageddon. I love that. I love this idea of people who are prepared for — that are health-conscious, that understand that water supply, that what’s in the water is in what we eat. And I can relate to someone paying attention to packaging and food being safe and trying to protect his family. To a degree. But I am, like most people, probably far too lazy.
He also does things like make sure he’s on a secure line, even for mundane phone calls. What about you? Has the Sony hack changed how you do business?
Not really. We all need to think we’re watched and listened to at all times. More than a lot of other people, I’ve had some training in that.
So what’s your biggest fear about the future of the world? What keeps you up at night?
My belief, in simplest terms, is our domestic policy should be the way we treat our children. We want them to have health care. And our foreign policy should be similar, in simplest terms, because they’re so interconnected. My kids' safety.
And reading, I guess. That probably keeps you up at night. What other book-related material do you have in the pipeline?
We just optioned a gorgeous book called He Wanted the Moon, which is about a woman whose father fell off the map when she was in her teens, he was a doctor, suffering from Alzheimer's, and he wrote a long sort of diary as he [was] succumbing to it, and she finds it. It’s a gorgeous story, and especially about mental illness. Then there’s War Machine — we took Michael Hastings' book, The Operators, pumped up the absurdity, and kind of pushed it into satire. I’m very high on that one. We are doing a satire about the war in Afghanistan, if that is even possible. In general, I would like to make more films in this arena. Heavier subject matters.