Oscar Buzz: Paramount Pictures' 'The Big Short'
Issue: December 1, 2015

Oscar Buzz: Paramount Pictures' 'The Big Short'

Paramount Pictures’ The Big Short recently opened in theaters and features a number of strong performances that very well may attract Oscar consideration. Directed by Adam McKay and produced by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, The Big Short is based on the true story and best-selling book by Michael Lewis. It tells the story of four Wall Street outsiders who saw what the big banks, media and government refused to: the global collapse of the economy. 

Christian Bale plays analyst Dr. Michael Burry. Steve Carell portrays hedge fund manager Mark Baum, and Ryan Gosling plays banker Jared Vennett. Brad Pitt also appears, portraying banker-turned-environmentalist Ben Rickert. Collectively, they are betting against history, big banks and the global economy in what could result in an epic windfall.

Post caught up with director Adam McKay (pictured, right) shortly before the film’s release. Here, he talks about bringing the film’s storylines together, its invisible visual effects, and how Louisiana was able to double for so many of the needed locations. 

What kind of film were you looking to make?

“The whole thinking behind it was that there have been a lot of Wall Street movies about finance, and in general, they present the world of finance as austere, cold and impressive. We wanted to do the exact opposite. I came into it wanting to do this neo-documentary, verite style. I had Barry Ackroyd in mind right from the beginning. I am such a fan of United 93… No one brings a scene more to life than Barry. I wanted to go inside these scenes and never rely on impressive buildings. The whole movie is driven by characters and these guys are not part of the monolithic Wall Street structure. These are the guys outside of it. They are sloppy. They don’t dress that well. Gosling’s character is part of the system, but the rest aren’t. When this happened in 2004 to 2006, their haircuts look three to four years out of date. Their clothes aren’t that sharp. Their offices are nice but messy and weird. So it was counter to these cold, austere, impressive Wall Street movies, and with a documentary style.”

Tell us about the shoot?

“We shot in New Orleans as our base, but then we also travelled up to New York. We did five days in New York and three days in Vegas as well. New Orleans turned out to be kind of perfect. Obviously, we didn’t have a giant budget. We got a little bit of a tax break, but they also had a really good casino. And on the gulf coast, they had a housing development with palm trees, which was perfect for Florida. And then they have a downtown with some high-rises for out-the-window [shots], so you could sell a little bit of New York there. And we were able to do a little Northern California for Dr. Burry, Christian Bale’s character…By the end of it, I was pretty damn happy. It didn’t feel like I compromised at all.”

There are lots of office shots with big windows and skyscraper backgrounds. What was real and what was shot on a stage?

“We shot one day on a stage — Carell in the back of the cab, yelling because the price of the bonds hadn’t moved.”

You shot Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas?

“We went with a skeleton crew, with Barry Ackroyd, and got shots to fill it out — shot their pool. I have a really good production designer — Clayton Hartley — so the pool scene was actually shot in New Orleans. Clayton did a great job of matching it.”

There are a number of sidebars with celebrities who explain the complexities of Wall Street.

“Selena Gomez, she was in that casino, and that was in Harrah’s in the middle of New Orleans. The [Margot Robbie bathtub scene] we shot back in Malibu. It looks fake. It looks so good but that is completely practical and real.”

What format did you shoot on?

“I wanted film. I was pretty firm about that. All my movies have been on film, except Anchorman 2, and I didn’t love the digital [experience]. I didn’t have the best time with it. The cameras are getting better, and the new Alexas are amazing, but I still think film looks better. God bless our line producer Louise Rosner. She’s a believer in film as well, and she showed how it doesn’t cost more money to use film. I wanted to do 2.35:1 film, and fortunately Barry Ackroyd preferred film as well, so he was very excited.”

How were you viewing dailies? Can you talk about the workflow?

“We did the Pix system because we were moving so fast and it was a by-the-seat-of-your-pants production. We didn’t really have time to go to a dailies facility after work. We used Pix, but occasionally Barry would go to a facility in New Orleans once a week to see some of the stuff projected, to make sure it was OK. One of the advantages of having a DP as great as Barry Ackroyd was that his eye is even more critical than mine.”

Were you happy with the Pix system?

“Visually, it’s 88 percent. It’s the equivalent of squinting your eyes. That’s how it looks visually. It’s not a definitive look of the movie. It gets you close, but ultimately, anytime there was a question, Barry would go in and look at it projected.”

What are you viewing on-set?

“I am looking at a video feed. It’s more for composition and general sense. No way do I take it as definitive. You can look through the eye piece to give it a thorough look. I knew if Barry was happy then we were in good shape, so he allowed me to focus more on the acting and the storytelling and compositions, as opposed to having to worry about every flicker of light.”

How many cameras did you use?

“We were two cameras I think the entire time. The reason being, with that handheld, verite style, I wanted to make sure we had coverage options. Barry operates the A camera and is amazing at it. I’d use the B camera to get more traditional sizes.”

Hank Corwin cut the film. Can you talk about its editing style?

“I didn’t want there to be a classical structure that you settle into as far as the cut pattern goes. The whole idea is that it’s alive. You are surprised — moment to moment — it’s living. Hank Corwin was the perfect editor for it. He came to the project with years of impressive credits behind him and a lot of skill. I told him watch 24 Hour Party People and United 93 — those are two movies I am modeling this off of — not directly  — but I want the movie to be alive and like what [director Michael] Winterbottom did with 24 Hour Party People. I want to have that same sort of spirit.”

The film is dialogue driven and at times, the editing cuts mid-word?

“The first time [Hank Corwin] showed me, I was like, ‘What is that?' And he’s like, ‘It creates this jarring bolt of energy and this ragged-ness,’ and I fell in love with it. There are a bunch of different moves like that. And he does these little, internal jump cuts that you are almost not even aware [of] that are so cool. He’s not doing it as a show-off move, but they are these jolts of energy and storytelling moves that keep it powering. This story is driven by character and we had to make sure the energy was always up and always alive. And that’s the way it really is. Finance, banking, it’s the language of power.”

One of the most powerful scenes is with Steve Carell’s character in the Chinese restaurant. Do you have a favorite?

“I think you just named it. The one with Wing Chau (played by Byron Mann) in the restaurant in Vegas — I love that scene. I love everything about it. That scene does everything that we were trying to do with the movie. It’s very real and an extremely-technical conversation. You are combining this fantastic performance between Steve Carell and Byron Mann…And you have a shooting style that’s alive, and has a bit of a crackle to it, and sometimes it’s funny, and then boom we’re starting to get stylized. It’s kind of shifting gears a lot. There are a lot of different moods. I am also a believer that genres are fading away and you can shift genres. All those old genre frames don’t hold anymore.”

Can you talk about ILM’s invisible visual effects?

“The big visual effects shot is a time-lapse shot during the montage that shows the 30 years of banking growth. It shows New York being built up, and it’s intercut with the montage. You see these building sprouting up on the New York skyline, and ILM did the most amazing shot. It looked like we put a camera on a building for 25 years. It’s an incredible shot. By the end I thought it was so good that no one was going to know it’s fake! It turned out to be perfect.

“Then we did little fixes. We had to fill out some screens, when we did the Salomon Brothers' late ‘70s trading floor. We could only get so many computers that would work for that, so there were screens we had to fill out. There were scenes later with the Blackberrys during the Bear Stearns speech with Steve Carell’s character. We only had so many Blackberrys that were functioning, so we had to fill out some of those screens.”

There are many ways this story could have been told. Did the film turn out as you had imagined?

“Yes! Here’s how much so: The original draft of script that I wrote, I intercut more between the characters. And one of the notes I got was, ‘Shouldn’t you just start with Burry and let him play out his storyline, and then go to Carell?’ And I was like, ‘Sure we can do that,’ knowing that in the edit room I could do whatever I want. And then sure enough, we got in the edit room and said, ‘No, you have to go Burry, Carell, Burry, Carell.’ What really scared me was the celebrity explainers — the Anthony Bourdain thing — was it going to work, and if it didn’t, what the hell am I going to do? They worked — thank god. To totally stop the movie and cut to someone else? It was a scary choice.”

Are you thinking about Oscar nominations? Steve Carell and Christian Bale stand out.

“You make a film, and what happens, happens. But now that we’re through the end of the tunnel, certainly they talk about stuff like that. I think they should get consideration for the awards stuff. I think their performances are jaw-droppingly good. I also thing Barry Ackroyd and Hank Corwin should get consideration. I think it’s an editing tour de force, and a shooting tour de force. I think they both did master-level work. Ryan Gosling also had a very hard job in this movie. He’s got to be the connective tissue and speak outside the movie while being a character…The whole cast is amazing.”

What’s next?

“I get a little time off…Through the years I’ve learned that whenever I have a movie come out and talk about what I’m doing next, it never ends up being what I do.”