Announced by Paramount late into the season, The Big Short, which Charles Randolph and director Adam McKay adapted from a book by Michael Lewis, debuted in November at AFI Fest where it took home the Movie of the Year Award. It’s since nabbed four Golden Globe noms, including for screenplay, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and numerous critics’ group accolades. The film is hard to pin down—it’s a heavy financial drama about the 2008 financial collapse that is, unexpectedly, balanced out by a great deal of oddball humor, courtesy of McKay (Step Brothers, Anchorman). The film’s unusual and intriguing style is perhaps what attracted some big stars to the project, including Steve Carell, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale. Here, Randolph speaks about his attraction to Lewis’s book, learning finance lingo, and more.
What made you want to adapt Michael Lewis’s book for the screen?
The book had this interesting dynamic where Michael addresses the corruption and incompetence in the system, not from the perspective of the victims or the perpetrators, but these guys who see it coming and then figure out a way to game the system for themselves. That means our system is as corrupt and incompetent as we thought. They’re not too happy about it and that dynamic I’ve never seen before. You have these people you think are heroes, but then you realize there are no heroes because in a corrupt system there can’t be. I loved that dynamic. That was the first thing. The second thing is that Lewis explained this phenomenon that I had never understood, and he did it so beautifully. I thought, “We can make the public understand that, too.” Something about that really intrigued me, the idea of being able to do this big, massive comedic lecture. We always described the film as, “How much fun can you have on your way to getting really pissed off?” That was the dynamic that was interesting. And then the characters themselves were rich. You know Michael’s got a great gift for letting people be themselves, and taking people at their word, and just letting them take the story wherever it’s going to go. He doesn’t make judgments on people. He lets them hang themselves or lead wherever they’re going to lead it. It’s kind of a remarkable gift that he has.
You’ve written some projects that have been adapted with star-studded casts, but nothing quite like this. The cast features some of the biggest stars in the business, while also featuring a huge assortment of promising new talent. How did you feel as you were seeing this incredible package of talent coming together?
I think the phrase would be, “Holy shit.” (Laughs.) It was just phenomenal, and it’s a testimony to Adam. You’re rarely going to find anyone like him. Only Adam could’ve made this movie, right? It has so much of his voice in it—and I say this as the guy who got rewritten, and happily. He did such a beautiful job—his generosity of spirit and his fierce intelligence come together and you get it. Every choice he made seems just spot on, and you’re right, it’s some of the minor characters that are really well done. Adam has this great taste in actors and found people who are real and could perform. It was such a delight because this is a movie where the third-act turn is, “Oh no, it’s not a collateralized debt obligation, it’s a synthetic collateralized debt obligation.” For him to be able to get these guys to come in and invest fully and wholly in this was just fantastic.
What was the process of adapting the book like, and how long did that take?
It took a long time because we had to figure out a way to educate the audience while dramatically portraying these ideas. The Florida section was not in the book and I sort of had to write it from scratch, so I started with the stuff that I knew would have to come from me—stuff about the mortgage and real-estate brokers, renters and homeowners. This film is for the people who are not in finance, so once I had those eight pages done, I knew this was a great, fun tone to bring to the other material. And then I started in on the stuff from the book. I did a lot of research. I knew of the top 20 mortgage guys in Manhattan. I probably knew, personally, two or three of them just by accident, socially, and they hooked me up with a lot of people.
I wasn’t like Michael, who was doing it almost right after it happened, so these guys felt a bit more distant. But it was fascinating how almost everyone I talked to had no idea what they were trading. You trade information, right? If you’re at a bank, you’re basically using the knowledge you have of where the market is going to go, by virtue of other products you are creating or selling. So they’re trading information, but it could’ve been bean futures—no one had any real understanding of the underlying product. The minute that happened, the minute I realized Michael Lewis knows a hundred times more than the people who make millions and millions of dollars trading this stuff, I felt a lot more confident in what we were going to do with the film, because then it was like, “Okay, we’re in a good place here because we can throw a lot of stuff at people.” What I was hoping for was that tone where there was so much coming at you, and you can’t quite absorb it all, but you still get the fundamental gist. There’s a certain kind of pleasure in that. I’m rambling here a little bit, but Disney has this thing in their parks where, when they organize a spectacle, like a fireworks show, they make sure that they exhaust the park goers’ capacity to absorb it. You’re immersed in the pleasure of too much stimuli, and that’s kind of where we’re starting, because the film connects with a nice metaphor for the people who were actually in the business. They didn’t understand their product and they didn’t understand what was happening to the market. We wanted to put the viewer in that emotional position of, “What, what, what?”
What was it like collaborating with Adam McKay on the screenplay?
He came in after I had gone, so we didn’t have too much to do together, and for what little we did, he was just charming and funny. He had a really specific voice he wanted to bring to it, which really was great. You had all these fantastic interstitials, and the breaking of fourth wall. His comedic chops really proved to be fantastic for this particular material. I would normally say, with 95% of film, the specificity of the voice isn’t that important—it’s more the story itself, the characters—but in this case, it really made a massive difference. He made the film sing. Adam’s ability to collaborate with anyone and everyone is what made the project what it is, which is this big rollercoaster of a mammoth thing that takes such an interesting, weird, unusual journey.
Did you find it difficult to wrap your head around all the complicated financial concepts and jargon involved in the story?
I knew a little bit about finance (before this project), but not a lot. I’m coming to it after there had been a lot of clash about what had happened and a lot of people trying to figure out and explain it, and Michael’s book isn’t the only one. There were some other great books—Fault Line, Too Big to Fail—that had explained what had happened, so I benefitted greatly from that. Jargon is always about creating outsiders and insiders. “Jargon” comes from medieval guilds. They would use jargon for relatively simple tasks so that only guild members knew how to refer to things and could access the profession. From the very beginning, jargon has been about keeping people out, and in some situations, you want people out: We don’t want people pretending they’re doctors if they’re not doctors. But in other things, jargon is used to keep you out because they don’t really want you looking at it too closely, and what emerged in finance is clear. A lot of this jargon was bullshit, was just ways of talking about concepts that either made the person sound like they knew what they were talking about when they didn’t, or made the product seem more real than it was. Once I owned the language of the world and understood its fundamental concept, then I could sit down and think about, “OK, how do we illustrate a mortgage bond?” And when Adam came along and added these interstitials, he used metaphors from other fields—other worlds—to really explain this stuff.
There have been a few films made in recent years regarding the same subject matter—Margin Call comes to mind. Did any of these films come into play in your initial discussions of what this film was going to be?
No, because they were very different, and you often want to avoid (other films) when you’re writing other things in the world. They can get in your way, and we always knew we were going to do a comedy that embraced the specificity of the world in a different way. We wanted to have a strong educational component, and Adam’s ability to riff on an idea and find new avenues of expressing it really helped.
Did you feel any responsibility toward the victims of this very real, and recent, tragedy when writing the film?
That’s one of the reasons I started with the Florida section—we could tell the story of the victims. Absolutely, I mean, it’ll keep you up at night. Are you being true to the experience of people? A lot of that work Michael had done already because he’d gone in and had chosen people whose emotional response to winning was already problematic. One of the things he says in the book is that they won, but they didn’t win, because none of us win in this situation. They were forced to realize the meaninglessness of their victory. Money’s just not that important in life. It’s easy to say when you have it, but to take these people through this journey of discovering that for themselves felt like that was going to be a lesson that everyone can identify with.
What are you writing next?
I’m doing a western set in the 1880s with Michael Mann right now, which is really fun. It doesn’t have a title yet. And it’s delightful to work with Michael, who is a genius. I’m a huge fan, and he has a very lovely, specific way of working, which is very focused. We forget that Michael’s a writer, originally. And then I’m going to do a movie with Pablo Larrain, the great Chilean filmmaker. Things are good. I can’t complain.
For a behind-the-scenes look at the making of The Big Short, click the link below: