Adam McKay puts it this way: “For the past four and a half months, ‘this’ is my career, my full-time job.” The ‘this’ consists of promoting The Big Short on the awards circuit, a campaign that has encompassed hundreds of screenings (there’s one tomorrow for members of Congress), at least 40 Q&A sessions in Los Angeles and New York, meetings with economists at the Brookings Institution and even an encounter with Sen. Bernie Sanders that resulted in an “excellent film” blurb from the Democratic presidential candidate.
There was once a time when filmmakers were advised to let their films speak for themselves at Oscar time. The agoraphobic Stanley Kubrick didn’t hit the road in 1968 on behalf of 2001: A Space Odyssey (a creaky Oliver won the Oscar). Nor did Preston Sturges campaign on behalf of Sullivan’s Travels, which lost to a soapy Mrs. Miniver in 1942.
Yet this season McKay and Tom McCarthy have become designated ambassadors for their films, with McCarthy’s Spotlight screening for the Vatican Commission on Clerical Sex Abuse, and the filmmaker appearing before countless citizens groups. The two filmmakers, each in his own way, were not only promoting their movies but also the ideals of their movies.
They are a study in contrasts: McCarthy, like Spotlight, is straight-forward and earnest; The Big Short is at once polemical and hilarious, as is McKay. Both men are delighted by the success of their films, yet wary about the results –McCarthy about the scope of church reform and McKay about the machinations of Wall Street. Indeed, McKay is sufficiently suspicious of the “asset bubble” that he is stashing a substantial pool of gold coins in case of another fiscal emergency.
McKay’s emergence represents perhaps the bigger surprise of the awards season. Known for the frivolities of Talladega Nights and Anchorman, McKay is as passionate about politics as he is about comedy. He reveres the cycle of post-Watergate movies from filmmakers who were “suspicious of power’. Once the Oscar frenzy is over, he intends to put together a self-funded production entity to make films that are comedic, yet socially-aware. “I’m chomping at the bit to get back to work,” he admits. “I’d like to explore films about immigration, about climate change and about the random sociopaths running our institutions. I understand the value of comedy, and I don’t intend to become didactic, but there are intriguing subjects out there I would love to tackle.”
On The Big Short, McKay showed his mastery at what he calls “re-democratizing information.” In scripting his film, he halted the action to insert voice-over explanations of arcane financial instruments, including Wolf Of Wall Street star Margot Robbie in a hot tub. His central characters themselves (played by Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt) each embodied idiosyncrasies and eccentricities traced to the real characters involved in the 2008 financial crisis. Brad Pitt, both co-star and co-producer, occasionally wears a surgical mask, consumes vitamin mixes and never changes facial expression. It was Pitt’s Plan B, run by Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, that brought the book to McKay. After he read the screenplay, Pitt opted to appear in it, to the surprise of McKay and the co-producers. The star casting, to be sure, helped pull together the $38 budget (the movie was co-funded by Paramount and New Regency). The prospect of winning an Oscar could lift the film to a worldwide gross north of $120 million – a singular achievement for an exercise in political satire.
So was the four and a half month sojourn justified in McKay’s mind? “I loved it,” he admits. “While the numbing repetition of questions during the Q&A rituals sometimes left me crazed, how many times does a filmmaker have the chance to meet with economists, politicians and serious journalists who are willing to respond to a movie?”
But he adds: ‘that having been said, after the Oscars I need recovery time. I need to spend three or four weeks taking the kids to school and putting out the garbage. Then I want to get back to work. It’s time to be funny again.”
Love Long Acceptance Speeches? AARP Movie Awards Are For You: While admonitions about the length of acceptance speeches were raised this week at the Oscar nominees lunch, award winners at the annual AARP “Movies for Grownups” dinner were encouraged to speak as long as they wanted to. And they did. Diane Ladd clocked in at 12 minutes in accepting best supporting actress for Joy and her example was followed by other award winners who included Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, Lily Tomlin for Grandma and Ridley Scott for The Martian. The Best Picture award went to Spotlight.
The awards program included some unusual awards – Carl Weathers presented the Best Intergenerational Movie prize to Creed, whose director Ryan Coogler spoke for 14 minutes, which is almost five full rounds of a boxing match. The mood of the evening was cheerful, if loquacious. Sherry Lansing, a co-chair, remarked that the “movies-for-grownups” program encouraged the studios to pay more attention to the older audience. Michael Douglas, 71, accepting the Career Achievement Award, noted that “AARP does a great job caring for the elderly – as does my wife.” Catherine Zeta Jones, seated at a nearby table, smiled dutifully.