“Can we get a shot of the napkin?” Adam McKay asked his director of photography, pointing toward the table where an uncharacteristically angry-looking Steve Carell was seated, doodling fiercely. The cocktail napkin in question bore the name of Okada, the glitzy Japanese restaurant in the Wynn Las Vegas where New York hedge-fund manager Steve Eisman first encountered Wing Chau, a smug manager of collateralized debt obligations (investment vehicles composed mostly of home loans), in January 2007. It was Chau’s ignorance of the toxicity of these products that cemented Eisman’s belief that the housing market was doomed and ultimately persuaded Eisman to double down on his bet on its collapse, a bet that was later immortalized in financial journalist Michael Lewis’s best-selling book The Big Short.
Nearly ten years later, the scene between two once-obscure money managers was being reenacted, this time on film. For budget reasons, and because Okada had closed not long after the market crash, the scene was being shot at another casino, Harrah’s, in New Orleans. Set designers hadn’t gone so far as to re-create the restaurant’s 90-foot waterfall, but they’d done their best to conjure the atmosphere, with a toqued chef at a sizzling hibachi and authentic details like the cocktail napkins. Though that wasn’t why McKay wanted the shot. “He’s drawing out the CDOs,” the director explained, as the camera zoomed in on Carell sketching the financial product in a way that looked vaguely like Italian spumoni. “Any chance I have to illustrate this stuff, I take advantage of it.”
McKay, who resembles a taller, shamblier version of Waldo, as in Where’s, was seated in a red leather banquette behind the monitor, holding a megaphone that he would occasionally lift to offer direction in his laid-back California drawl. Even though it was a sweltering day in New Orleans, he was wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, as the casino was roughly the temperature of a meat locker, the better to keep gamblers awake. This was just as well for the actors, to whom the language of high finance wasn’t coming easily.
“Syth — synthetic CDOs,” Carell barked at Byron Mann, the actor playing Wing Chau, who was coolly spooning miso soup into his mouth as though he hadn’t done it 30 times in the past three hours. “Let me ask you this — oh, God, start again.”
“Let me ask you this,” he managed. “Aren’t you at all concerned about the rising default rates for these products?”
Mann put down his spoon and smirked. “I assume no risk for these products,” he said.
There was a pause while the actors seemed to be figuring out what faces to make at each other. McKay lifted his megaphone. “You assume no risk!” he boomed. “That’s crazy! I think you can fuck with that more.”
Like the collection of derivatives Carell had finished sketching, The Big Short: The Movieis a very weird product — for starters, it’s a comedy about deadly serious things and a leftish movie lionizing hedge-funders. Nor is it a solid investment, not in these distractible, budget-minded, please-everyone times. As a package, it is composed of bets upon bets upon bets. There’s the bet that McKay, the director and writer best known for movies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, and Steve Carell, also known as The Guy From The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Office, can convincingly pull off a movie set in the world of high finance and that the other A-list actors playing the other “outsiders and weirdos” who saw the crash coming — Ryan Gosling as a version of Greg Lippmann, the slick Deutsche Bank trader whose body language swears he is lying, especially when he’s telling the truth; Brad Pitt as Ben Hockett, an eccentric ex-banker who grows his own food; and Christian Bale as Michael Burry, a California doctor who, despite having only one functioning eye, saw the crisis before anyone else — will turn in performances worthy of the kind of attention that will (a) have made it worth lowering their fee and (b) cause the studios to pat themselves on the back for taking a chance on a worthy, artistic project instead of throwing up their hands and casting robots in everything.
Then there are the chancier bets: for instance, that this holiday season, Americans will put down their smartphones and tune in to a Hollywood version of Occupy Wall Street, a movie about an event that happened nearly a decade ago, one that they’d probably like to forget. And then there’s the riskiest tranche of all: the bet that those who do see it will come away with not just an understanding of what a CDO looks like but a fuller awareness of the cornucopia of shitty human behavior that led to the Biggest Financial Collapse Since the Great Depression and that it will cause them to reflect on those traumatic events, which have arguably never been properly processed despite their corrosive effects on our politics and culture and psychology. And that ultimately this experience will lead to some kind of reckoning that causes us to face uncomfortable truths about responsibility and financial capitalism and our entire way of life.
Oh, and that they’ll be entertained in the process.
Even Adam McKay, who structured this particular product with exactly those outcomes in mind, has a hard time telling anyone to put their money on that. “I’m hoping that would be the effect,” he says. “Like even if it just kicked the conversation a little bit, like if you just started hearing about it more because the movie comes out, and if it ends up doing well, that people in some of the debates would have to talk about it, that would be a huge victory. And if people were to actually get angry about it again, I would do backflips. But I don’t know if we can really hope for that.”
Back at Harrah’s, Carell shot out of his chair and spun toward the door of the casino. “Short everything that guy has touched,” he shouted to his character’s colleagues, who had been watching his interaction from a nearby table. Where was he going? “To find moral redemption,” he announced, stalking past the cameras and onto the main floor, where nary a slack-faced Southerner looked up from a slot machine.
In September 2008, Danny Moses, Porter Collins, and Vincent Daniel, staffers at Steve Eisman’s fund at FrontPoint Partners, sat on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and regarded the civilized world for what they felt sure would be the last time. Overnight, towering investment banks Bear Stearns and, later, Lehman Brothers had been declared virtually insolvent, having gambled away many, many times their own worth, and the entire global financial system seemed poised to follow suit. On television, political types were trying to bluff their way through the news shows, but only Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs CEO turned Treasury secretary, seemed like he really understood how bad things actually were. Pale and sweating bullets, he looked like he had just thrown up or was about to, and the three guys from FrontPoint could tell he was envisioning the same outcomes they were: no money coming out of the ATMs, rioting, looting, the end of capitalism. “Complete societal collapse,” Daniel said recently, sitting in the office of their new hedge fund, Seawolf Capital.
Later, the guys would try to backtrack on the grimness of their recollection, because they know the apocalypticism sounds kind of nutty. They know it would be hard for most people to fathom. Even at the time, the sheer scope of the fuck-up (or the crime, though it has never been officially defined as such) was something only a small percentage of the population was able to see, like those 3-D paintings at the mall. Not because they were unable to see it and understand, though that remains a problem, but because they didn’t want to look. The numbers were so big and so intimidating and the process of how they’d gotten that way so complicated; the fact that no responsible adult had stood up and said, “Wait, hold on,” at any part of the process was just so frightening that, well, you couldn’t blame the average American mind for pretty much rejecting it.
But the look of horror in the eyes of the people who did peer into what they invariably called “the abyss” and saw the havoc that this fuck-up (or crime or mass delusion or whatever you want to call it) could wreak on the global financial system was enough that the government stepped in and, as we all know, offered a $700 billion bailout of the big banks that sent the machines at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing whirring and staved off a return to the stone age, at least for the time being.
Obviously, this was not a perfect solution, not least because, as many people pointed out, the banks were the chief fucker-uppers. Americans who lost homes and jobs and 401(k) plans and retirement savings and bar-mitzvah money hardly found it comforting that they might have otherwise ended up scavenging and rioting in the streets. Where, they asked, was their bailout? And they pointed their fingers at the government, and the government pointed its finger at the banks, and the banks pointed their fingers at the little people who had taken big loans (which pretty much everyone thought was a dick move, since these people had lost said homes). And the little people who took the too-big loans pointed at their crooked mortgage brokers who pointed at the banks and, in time, the whole thing morphed into an Ouroboros of blame that swallowed any civilized dialogue on the subject, seemingly forever.
But the world didn’t end. And there was a certain sector of the population for whom life remained pretty much exactly the same, who were able to watch it all play out like, well, a movie.
Adam McKay was one of those people. In 2008, California, where he lived, seemed like it was about to go broke, too, but he was relatively safe. The writer-director is not as famous as some of his friends in the mob of funny people who started out as weirdos and misfits in the Chicago improv scene of the ’90s and have come to dominate Hollywood, but in those circles, he is regarded as a kind of majordomo. Even among his close associates — like Will Ferrell and Stephen Colbert and Tina Fey — McKay is “consistently the funniest person in the room,” according to Steve Carell, a talent that, when combined with his rare non-neurotic, pleasant personality, has made him very successful. At last count, his movies have made $725 million worldwide.
To the people who know him well, McKay is also something else, a capacious intellectual with edgy ideas about politics and culture and a strong anti-corporate streak that occasionally makes its way, Trojan horse–like, into his jokes. Back in Chicago, where he was a co-founder of the Upright Citizens Brigade, then a ragtag bunch inspired by experimental theater whose shows were accompanied by thrashy punk music, one of McKay’s stock characters was Noam Chomsky As a Second-Grade Substitute Teacher (“You know, teaching the kids about Thanksgiving and the massacre of the Native Americans,” he tells me), and he thrived on uncomfortable-making pranks, like when he faked his own suicide in front of an audience. Or when he pulled Carell onstage at a show and had him pretend to be an audience member whom he humiliated mercilessly until the crowd revolted. “There is something inside of him that I really admire,” says Carell. “It’s this unrelenting commitment to a bit and to kind of revel in the awkwardness and the horror. It’s weirdly satisfying.”
It wasn’t that McKay was trying to alienate the audience. “The idea is just to wake them up,” says his wife, Shira Piven, also a director. “To surprise them in a visceral way.”
He especially liked when he could make the government, or corporations, the butt of the jokes. “Adam was definitely the most political member of the group,” says Matt Besser, one of his UCB co-founders. “He would set up petitions, he was always combining his comedy with a cause.” Like when Pepsi was in the news for laying off workers, and he came up with the idea for them to get onstage at a company-sponsored event by pretending to be employees, which they did, and managed to trash-talk company policy for quite a while until the police showed up.
McKay brought this same spirit to Saturday Night Live, where he served as head writer for three years before leaving to start a production company with Will Ferrell, who had become kind of his muse. “I loved that Adam had this kind of revolutionary spirit,” Ferrell tells me. “And I think he liked that I was just kind of unthinkingly there.”
Starting with Anchorman in 2004, McKay and Ferrell produced a string of hugely popular bromantic comedies by and about men-children, usually starring Ferrell, usually heavy on the dick jokes. Still, the comedy always hung a bit to the left. “We always had a kind of secret theory,” McKay tells me. “Each of them had a kind of point. Anchorman was clearly, like, what the fuck happened to the television media, what a joke it’s become. Talladega Nights was about this weird stubborn pride that was showing up in America, kind of the corporate takeover of southern pride. Stepbrothers was about how consumerism turns grown-ups into little kids.”
This is not explicitly obvious when you see the movie, which stars Ferrell and John C. Reilly as two 40-something freeloaders who become “brothers” after their parents marry and contains a scene in which Ferrell rubs his naked testicles on Reilly’s drum kit. But that was the idea.
When Stepbrothers came out in July 2008, it grossed $128.1 million at the box office. McKay’s business manager had been smart enough to pull his money out of the market before it crashed a few months later. Still, as McKay watched the crisis unfold, he was disturbed. The notion of Too Big to Fail confirmed what he already believed. “He has always been obsessed with government corruption, with the fact that our country is virtually run by corporations,” says Piven. “They have crazy power and we’re all kind of like, Lalalala.”
Thanks to that obsession, McKay followed the story longer than most, although as far as entertainment value, the financial crisis pretty much sucked. After the initial rush of action, the story got depressing and interminable, with confusing dialogue and C-span production values and no attractive players whatsoever. (Peopletried to make bailout czar Neel Kashkari one of its Sexiest Men Alive, but it was a reach.) And between the cartoon villainy of the bankers and the grandstanding of politicians — who to McKay were hypocrites, anyway, since it was their concessions to the industry that laid the groundwork for the crash — there was no one to root for.
It helped that McKay could at least see the humor. “It’s absurd to see people in $7,000 suits with $800 haircuts and degrees saying, ‘We know what’s going on’ when they have no clue,” he tells me one afternoon in Los Angeles. “That’s immediately funny. And these banks put so much into portraying themselves as rock solid and authorities, and the whole game is you gotta project stability and cautious foresight, and just to find out that they were selling products that were filled with garbage and ended up selling them to each other, and bringing each other all down, and then going to the taxpayers after preaching free markets and asking for a handout, and then taking the handout, and going back and acting like they are still kings of the world — it’s ridiculous.”
At the time, he was working on The Other Guys, starring Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg as two hapless New York City cops trying to make a name for themselves in their department. He gave the script a Main Street–versus–Wall Street bent: In the end, the pair triumphantly uncover not anything warranting explosions but a Ponzi scheme, in which a corrupt Wall Street firm is attempting to cover its losses by getting a $32 billion investment from the city’s police-pension fund. “I wanted it to be an allegory for the collapse, but as a comedy,” he explains. For research, he spent time talking to economists; he even had a phone call with Paul Krugman. And one night, around 9:30, he picked up The Big Short.
According to his wife, McKay has a habit of starting heavy conversations right before they go to sleep, behavior she has discouraged. This time, he was waiting for her in the morning. “I tried to tell her what it was about, and she was like, ‘That sounds so boring,’ ” says McKay. “I think it’s no accident that most people get bored when they hear about it,” he says. “I think it’s, like, designed to be boring. I think they don’t want anyone participating in the conversation, they want you to use this jargon, they want you to basically go away, they want you to feel stupid, and the second you crack it, it’s just endlessly fascinating.”
When The Other Guys came out, no one really picked up on the pension-plan plotline; it’s hard to make a serious point about corporate fraud in a movie in which Will Ferrell plays a gold-toothed pimp called Gator and Mark Wahlberg expertly performs a ballet sequence. “Some critic was like, ‘Why do they have these in the credits?’ ” McKay recalls of the graphics he commissioned of fun facts like how a Ponzi scheme operates and the bonuses paid to employees of AIG’s notorious financial-products division. “I was like, ‘That’s what the whole movie is about.’ Then I realized the comedy is so front and center you can’t blame the crowd.”
McKay moved on to The Campaign, which was superficially about Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis being hilarious but really concerned corporate control of politicians, and to Anchorman 2, in which Ron Burgundy resurfaces in the world of the 24-hour news cycle, one of McKay’s bêtes noires. But he was still interested in the financial crisis and how it had played out. By then, the populist outrage had moved on, channeled by the tea party “into anti-immigrant and racist fervor, which always seems to happen when the economy tanks,” as McKay puts it, and even the brief flame of Occupy had gone out.
“He was perplexed by the fact that nothing had happened,” says Ferrell. “That the landscape was basically the same. And people were either too busy to care or we have to check our smartphones. Or see if we’re being followed on Instagram. That we can’t stop for a second and go, ‘Hold on.’ ”
“Overall, I think people hoped 2008 was a onetime occurrence and the ‘professionals’ fixed it,” McKay tells me. “Yet we had no comprehensive dialogue as a nation to see what that ‘fix’ was.”
It was becoming obvious to McKay, and others around him, that, after years of keeping his themes in the background, he was ready to do something more “front and center,” as he puts it. When his agent asked what he wanted to do next, he didn’t hesitate. “I would do The Big Short,” he said. “How has that not been made into a movie?”
As it turned out, The Big Short hadn’t been made into a movie because of the same issues with watchability the financial crisis had in real life. Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, had optioned the rights, and while the story of four guys’ discovery of the housing-market bubble, and the method they could use to make hundreds of millions off it, seemed like a good idea at the time, it had stalled. “It screams ‘movie’ — at first,” says Dede Gardner, the co-president of Plan B, “then you’re like, ‘Wait, how?’ ”
The issue wasn’t the language of credit-default swaps and CDOs — after all, screenwriters bullshit their way around deep space all the time. It was the lack of traditional heroes. Michael Lewis had wisely chosen as his protagonists a group of short-sellers who appeared to have souls as well as brains, but the giddy get-rich-quick plotline, which most likely reminded Pitt of his Ocean’s Eleven heyday, loses some of its magic when you realize the party on the losing side is not a predatory corporate casino but the U.S. economy. In a book, there’s room to ruminate on the moral ambiguity. In a 130-minute drama, they might as well have made a winning bet on the fate of United 93.
McKay liked that the protagonists were flawed. “The studio was like, ‘Shouldn’t they be more likable?’ ” he says. “It’s like, ‘No, heroes are dirty. Martin Luther King had affairs. Gandhi was a bit of a horndog. We’re all dicks. Let them be dicks.’
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a clean hero,” he goes on. “Especially now. I think the days of the Pentagon Papers, that’s over. In the early ’80s, trillions of dollars went into the market from the Middle East and China. It glossed over politics, it glossed over sports, it glossed over media, it glossed over everything. That’s the days we’re in right now. Clear Abbie Hoffman kind of voices don’t really exist anymore. Instead, it’s whistle-blowers, it’s insiders. Like Snowden. He was inside that world, he participated in that world, and Manning participated in that world, and they’re complicated. These are the kind of heroes you get when you are part of a society that is awash in money. Like, you are going to be a part of it.”
Paramount, with which Plan B had a partnership, agreed to pay McKay “about a fifth” of his fee to take a crack at the script (he may have also dangled the possibility of an Anchorman 3).
They liked what he turned in: It was smart, and funny, and tragic in places, and the get-rich plotline remained enjoyable, which was important, because even though Hollywood empathizes with poor people, it doesn’t love featuring them in movies, and even though Americans largely distrust rich people, they still would prefer to watch them onscreen. “His way of making the film went to what to me was a very specific issue,” says Brad Pitt. “It can be very dry material. You can be exhausted just by the pain of it all. So it’s about making it palatable.”
Pitt agreed to put his golden skin in the game by taking on the role of Ben Hockett, the oddball mentor to Cornwall Capital traders Charlie Ledley and Jamie Mai. “The studio needed some guarantee with marquee,” Pitt says, because, of course, Americans require their heroes to be beautiful as well as rich. “So I jumped in, because I love the project and I gotta get in to make sure it gets made.”
After Christian Bale said yes to the role of Michael Burry, “Paramount was like, I guess we’re making this,” says McKay, who still sounds kind of giddy about it. “I was just so excited. This is stuff that I think about and care about a lot. I guess I’m getting older, because I’m becoming a cranky older guy who’s like, ‘You know, the news didn’t used to be this way! People used to vote! What’s up with our culture?’ This story deals with all of that. It’s about the consensus, the herd, the pack, the outsider, who are the people we assume are in charge? It’s got everything I love in one … seaweed wrap, basically.”
“Can I have a Matt Lauer, no strawberry?” Standing at the bar at Harrah’s, Ryan Gosling played the part. His hair was gelled into stiff curls and swept high, so that, at the root, every follicle was visible. His skin was Bloomberg-terminal pale, his suit boxy. He looked like a real Wall Street guy, if there were a real Wall Street guy who had the potential to look like Ryan Gosling.
“Never do this again,” Steve Carell had told Gosling when he saw him in his banker drag. “Do it for this, but never again.”
Despite his diminished hotness, Gosling was still handsome enough to charm the crew, who giggled at the drink orders he tried out each take. “Can I get a Tony Robbins on His Day Off?” he asked on another occasion. “An Andre the Giant With a Tractor Pull?”
McKay watched from his spot behind the monitor, a half-smile on his face. “I let them riff a little,” he says. But funny wasn’t his top priority, he told me. “Most of it isn’t funny at all.”
Still, McKay “can’t help but have a sense of humor,” as Gosling pointed out, and the final cut ended up containing more jokes than were originally planned. Fortunately, McKay’s bro-comedy background dovetails nicely with the way people in the industry communicate. “I have a swollen epididymis,” Rafe Spall, who plays Danny Moses, tells his colleagues early on in the movie, as an illustrated graphic of his enlarged testicle zigzags onto the screen.
These were the things that helped convince Paramount and Plan B that McKay could make the movie work. The script he turned in was packed with extras intended to distract members of the audience from the medicinal qualities of what they were ingesting. There was a narrator, loosely based on Greg Lippmann, whose character breaks the so-called fourth wall to explain the action to the audience, an idea that harked back to McKay’s Noam Chomsky days (since the average Midwesterner didn’t know who Chomsky was, he’d freeze the action and another actor would pop up to explain), and Gosling, with his suave memeability, was perfect for the part. (Hey, girl, let me tell you the history of the mortgage-backed security.) Along the same lines, McKay had recruited celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie to explain complex financial concepts in “Interludes” sprinkled throughout the film. And in postproduction, he and his editor, Hank Corwin, added a whole other layer of “stuff,” as he put it: montages of photos and music videos to give the events a feeling of being rooted in the real world. “Once I step back and look at it,” he told me, “the most important thing to me is our popular, white-noise culture is telling you this is boring, other people are dealing with it, and by the end, I want you to feel contradicted, ‘This is not boring.’ ”
McKay’s phone buzzes. “It’s Lippmann,” he says, passing it to his assistant, Robyn Wholey. “He’s kind of freaking out.”
Most of the members of the cast made a point of meeting their real-life counterparts. Gosling had had dinner with Greg Lippmann in Manhattan and had been trying to work one of the lines he’d said to him (“I have fashion friends”) into his scene ever since. Christian Bale had flown to Berkeley and spent a long day with Michael Burry; he came back with not only an eerily accurate depiction of his mannerisms but the man’s actual cargo shorts and T-shirt, which he is wearing in the movie. “I love playing a real character,” Bale tells me happily. “Because you have evidence, so when you present something to a director, and they say, ‘What are you doing?,’ you can go, ‘Look, this is what the guy’s like,’ and they can’t argue with you.”
“The real people have been the biggest challenge,” says McKay, who had the duller job of fielding individual complaints: Why do I have to be talking about my balls? Does he have to refer to me as a dick? McKay had made some concessions: He’d changed Lippmann’s name — the character is now called Jared Vennett (“I pronounce it Ven-AY,” said Gosling) — and the last names of three attention-shy traders from Cornwall Capital. The biggest change was Steve Eisman’s character: In the book, Lewis reveals that Eisman lost a young child, which gives his character a necessary pathos, but Eisman didn’t want it in the film, so McKay replaced it with something else, and the character became “Mark Baum.” This didn’t prevent Eisman from coming to the set and advising Steve Carell on how to be a better him. “It’s, you know … interesting to have the person you are playing show up the first or second day you are shooting,” said Carell, who was roaming around the set in an uncannily Eismanesque hairpiece between takes. “It’s a little daunting to have the person staring at you. And offering notes.”
“They all asked me not to ask how much money they made,” says McKay. “I was like, I can’t. That’s part of what’s tough about this story is that some of you made a ton of money. They were like, ‘But do you have to show the amount?’ ”
Still, he has a soft spot for them. “They’re bankers, that’s how they found out about this. What do you do if you are a banker and you find out the whole world is corrupt? You try to tell people, which most of them did, and then you short it. And you agonize over it. So I think they did exactly what a hero would do, but they were bankers. If you were a dolphin, if you had no arms and no legs and fins and you were chucked in the ocean, what would you do differently? You would do what dolphins do and swim around and squirt water and meet other dolphins. And there’s probably some whole other layer of what they do that we don’t know about and probably dolphins can be greedy and gossipy. We would never know.” He pauses, aware he was off track. Anyway. “When I met with them, I really knew we have the movie because a bunch of them have like thousand-yard stares; a bunch of them are still, you know, really fucked up,” he says. “These guys really believed in the free market, and what they saw was that it was bullshit, and they were freaked out.”
Steve Eisman, Danny Moses, Vincent Daniel, and Porter Collins wouldn’t use the words fucked up, but they were certainly shaken. “When you realized you were right, and you were looking into the abyss, it was really scary,” says Moses. The guys from Cornwall Capital have taken up reform like a crusade: A few years ago, they tried unsuccessfully to sue the ratings agencies for slapping high ratings on bonds they knew were junk.
“I felt I was watching a plane crash,” Michael Burry tells me. “I actually had that dream again and again. I knew what was happening, but there was nothing I, or anyone else, could do to stop it. The last day of 2007, I couldn’t come home. I was in the office till late at night. I couldn’t calm down. I wrote my wife an email and just said, ‘I can’t come home, it’s just too upsetting what’s happening,’ and I didn’t want to come home to my kids like this … I am shocked that executives at some of the worst lenders were not punished for what they did. But this is the nature of these things. The ones running the machine did not get punished after the dot-com bubble either — all those VCs and dot-com executives still live in their mansions lining the 280 corridor on the San Francisco Peninsula. The little guy will pay for it — the small investor, the borrower. Which is why the little guy needs to be warned to be more diligent and to be more suspicious of society’s sanctioned suits offering free money. It will always be seductive, but that’s the devil that wants your soul.” All of them pointed to the current bitter, mistrustful political atmosphere as a direct result of Americans’ loss of faith in systems.
Even Greg Lippmann, who in 2006 infamously handed out T-shirts to his clients emblazoned with i’m short your house, had allegedly developed a new sensitivity. “He was like, ‘Yeah, it’s bullshit,’ ” says McKay.
Lippmann did not make himself available for comment, but according to a spokesman, he’s recovered. “He’s running a $3 billion hedge fund, so I’d say he’s doing all right,” he informs me over speakerphone. “Hasn’t had a down year!”
In the beginning, banking wasn’t a job you went into to make large sums of money,” Ryan Gosling says in the film, sitting at a desk on a sepia-toned ’70s trading floor in a flashback to the invention of the first mortgage bond, looking out at the audience. “It was a fucking snooze.”
One of the sound people in the editing bay at Paramount Studios hit a pause button. “We changed some sync,” she said. “His face wasn’t really saying ‘fucking snooze.’ ”
“Great,” said McKay, accepting a Gatorade brought in by an assistant. He was a little hungover: The night before, they’d shown a near-final cut of the movie to a test audience, and afterward they’d gone out to celebrate. “One person said, ‘That’s the crappiest I have ever felt while laughing a lot,’ ” he said proudly.
In the beginning, banking was a fucking snooze. But according to the audience, the movie was not. They laughed in all the right places, and got quiet in the third act, when it all goes to shit. “Yeah, the ending,” said McKay, nodding. “Initially people were like, ‘Too grim?’ But what else do you do?”
Michael Lewis, who was in the audience, cited a quote of William Dean Howells’s, “that all the American public wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” This is sort of the opposite: “a comedy with an unhappy ending,” he said.
Now, in the final edit, McKay watched it all play out again: the FrontPoint guys on the steps of the cathedral, Hank Paulson sweating on TV, slow-motion of homeless people under a bridge, and, as a little bit of relief, a scene in which the Ryan Gosling character plays out what should have happened instead of what actually did. (“A lot of people went to jail … Just kidding!”) At the end, title cards with a “Where are they now?” quality lead up to an old-school, discomfiting McKay wallop: Michael Burry, the last title card informs the audience, is currently focusing all of his trading on one thing: water. “That was really creepy, because that’s what he was doing when I was finishing the book,” said Lewis. “And I thought, Water? Of course, now I know what he’s talking about.”
This was an important point for McKay, in that it brought the movie into the present and gave it a wider meaning. “I don’t think this movie is just about banking,” he said. “I think it’s all connected. It’s about oil companies, and for-profit education, and how a system goes wrong, how does a system operate, what happens to people who see it, and who are our heroes, really? How are we judging them?”
It’s also a personal interest: Lately, before McKay and his wife go to bed, he’s been talking about climate change, in particular the paper from Stanford he read last summer about the sixth mass extinction. He’s thinking he might do a movie about it next. “It would be serious,” he said. “But with some cool stuff.” Then again, he’s also interested in an immigration narrative. “Do you think there’s a way to do a movie about immigration that’s a comedy, and yet people who were anti-immigration would go see it and be able to watch it and to some degree enjoy it?” he asked me. “Like, can that happen? You could certainly do it by hiding the message or having it just be part of what you were creating, but could you do it up front?”
As he’s mulling it over, the sound editor approaches. “The Caesars line,” she says. “Stephanie said she didn’t really hear it last night, and I just wanted to make sure, did you feel like you heard it?”
McKay cocks his head. “I’m not sure,” he says. “Can we listen to it real quick?”
They cue up the scene, in which a guy from one of the funds confronts an SEC employee in Vegas who’s flirting across the pool with a guy she knows from Goldman Sachs. “Come over here!” the character shouts. “What are you doing at Caesars?”
“I can hear it,” McKay says of the conspicuous name-dropping. “Can you hear it?”
I can, but I’m confused. Caesars is part of a multibillion-dollar corporation owned by some of the biggest names on Wall Street, notably TPG and Apollo Global Management, the leveraged-buyout firm headed by a former bigwig at Drexel Burnham Lambert that over the past several years has loaded up Caesars with so much leverage it fell into bankruptcy. These days, it’s a banquet for hedge funds, which are making money off it using, guess what, credit-default swaps.
Do you need to mention Caesars, I ask?
“Yeaaaaah, we might have said we would,” says McKay, sounding slightly sheepish about his own corporate capitulation. It’s a little surprising, given everything he’s talked about. Then again, like he said, these days, there’s no such thing as a clean hero.
*This article appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.