Coming Up Big

The Big Short’s Charles Randolph and Adam McKay talk about their “chocolate and peanut butter” partnership and how comedy writers are changing the way movies are made.

©2016 Paramount Pictures
Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Steve Carell, Jeffry Griffin, and Ryan Gosling in The Big Short.
January 8, 2016 Written by Todd Aaron Jensen
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph

There's this really fun moment right now in movies where some of the comedy guys are bringing this vitality and this connection to the real world that some of the old school-film school-geek model of filmmakers maybe don’t have so much.

—Charles Randolph

Oscar and Felix, Bert and Ernie, Thelma and Louise, Laurel and Hardy, Han and Chewie, Abbott and Costello. The entertainment industry – and the world of confections – is chock full of odd couple pairings.

Occasionally, these marriages challenge, inspire, and elevate both parties. (It takes two to fly the Millennium Falcon, after all).

Such is the “chocolate and peanut butter” union of writer-producer-director Adam McKay, whose broad, slapstick comedies, many with longtime pal Will (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers) Ferrell, have grossed nearly $1.3-billion worldwide and reserved for him a special spot in many film critics’ basement dungeons, and Charles Randolph, a former university professor of philosophy and cultural studies who shifted his attentions to screenwriting nearly two decades ago, penning films like The Interpreter and Love & Other Drugs.

On the surface, McKay and Randolph are as alike as calculus and fruit punch. The former is a fleet-footed, quick-witted Philly native who dropped out of Penn State one semester shy of his B.A., moved to Chicago to do stand-up comedy (often pelted by bottle caps chucked by drunken audience members), then co-founded the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade. (You might have already heard about his work on Saturday Night Live, where he wrote or co-wrote some of the show’s greatest sketches, not to mention the run of box office hits he’s made with buddy Ferrell). Randolph, on the other hand, is an erudite, book-smart Nashville baby who marched earnestly into the world of academia with a penchant for philosophy and pop culture, who might still be pricing corduroy blazers and biographies of Emmanuel Kant at the campus bookstore were it not for a serendipitous collision with the Farrelly Brothers on the USC campus in the early 1990s. Which gentleman is chocolate and which is peanut butter is anyone’s guess, even to them.

On The Big Short, Randolph and McKay present themselves as artists capable of enormous surprise. For Randolph, The Big Short – based on journalist and bestselling author Michael Lewis’ 2010 tome about the 2008 financial collapse – manifests his ongoing interest in tackling difficult subjects with exuberance, zest, and a populist sensibility, uniting his scholarly inclinations with bulletproof reportage and a comedic anarchy new to his output. For McKay, in contemporary filmmaking virtually peerless at churning cauldrons of slapstick, scatology, social commentary, and rib-tickling double entendre, The Big Short is, he’ll confess without hesitation, the kind of movie he’s always wanted to make (though he’s lightning-quick to point out that he’s proud of every film he’s made), an opportunity to finally work “at the top of his intelligence,” an old saw from Del Close, the improvisational comedy guru with whom McKay once studied in the Windy City. The resulting journey for both artists was full of surprises, epiphanies, and blisteringly hard work that, they both confide, only rarely felt like any effort at all.

Centuries ago, Sir Philip Sidney said that the purpose of art is to instruct and delight. Adam, you’ve been delighting film audiences for decades, but with The Big Short, you’ve come around to instructing them as well.

Adam McKay: Well, this is a true story about a horrible, horrible part of our country’s recent history, so it kind of inherently has to be instructive – but that doesn’t mean it has to choke audiences or put them to sleep. We started with Michael Lewis’ book, which already has a real cinematic quality to it (which is one of the things that makes Lewis so great), and then Charles did the first adaptation, which was also amazing, and then I was brought on and that began what was a very odd collaboration between Charles and me. We had a number of chocolate-and-peanut-butter moments, working together. The end result has a lot of energy and these really amazing characters. I hope the “instruct” part doesn’t feel too instructive to audiences; we worked really hard to serve the information to audiences as the main characters were receiving it themselves. And to me, one of the funny things about these characters is that they are in the middle of doing horrible things, but they kind of don’t know it at the time. Some of them at least.

Charles, you were the first hire to write the film. Tell me about that.

Charles Randolph: I bought Michael’s book when it first came out, and I loved it. I’ve loved all of his books, and what I loved in The Big Short, as always in his books, is Lewis' ability to explain this incredibly complicated world and have these extraordinary characters somehow always say, "Dammit, we can do this ourselves," whatever “this” might be. That was really exciting to me – as a reader first, but as a writer. So the early drafts were working very loyally with the basic framework Lewis had laid out in the book. Everybody was happy with it, except nobody really could figure out how to justify making it. So then Adam came in and he brought with him this utterly fantastic authorial voice. The interstitial sequences in the film, the breaking of the fourth wall, these are sweet spots in Adam McKay’s creative register, and it really gave the script tremendous energy.

Adam McKay: The wall, basically, that Charles' draft had hit was, through no fault of his own, it was really a wonderful draft, and there are so many great things Charles wrote, but the studio wasn’t sure about the characters: “Are these guys heroes? Are they villains? Is it going to be hard watching these guys making money from this scam?” I, personally, was never bothered by that ambiguity, and I don’t think Charles was either. We like that ambiguity. It’s the thing writers are always fighting to keep in their scripts. But the draft I did, basically, I sort of scraped off the “movie” skin of it and turned the thing into more of a conversation with the audience. It softened things just a little bit, and the studio wasn’t quite as concerned after that. It also helped when we got Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling!

Charles Randolph: That’s probably true! What Adam added is an authorial voice to the characters, a voice that we could trust. He added this level of consciousness and conscience to the film, and we identify with that consciousness as much as we do the characters themselves. That just feels secure for audiences, even when the characters behave badly. That kind of authority in a writer’s voice, it invites audiences to come along to whatever places we want to take them, and they trust they will not be tricked or treated, emotionally or story-wise. It comes from his background in stand-up comedy and improvisation, in his ability to feel where an audience is at any given moment. In some weird way, that energy really became the driving voice of the film, the driving center of the narrative, and it really solved the problems that we were having getting the script made. What Adam did made all the difference in the world.

Adam McKay: I don’t know. I think it was a lot more subtle than all that. The scenes you wrote, they still held. The characters? They were so richly drawn. I just threw a little ginger in the recipe, you know.

Charles Randolph: I don’t know if ginger is the best analogy.

Adam McKay: Now you’re going to argue with me? I actually don’t cook at all, so I’m not even sure what I just said. Whatever ingredient might soften a recipe? I tried to add that. It wouldn’t be soy sauce, would it? What would it be?

Charles Randolph: Let’s stick with chocolate and peanut butter.

Adam McKay: Yeah, okay. I put my chocolate in his peanut butter, or maybe the other way around, and that’s when you could kind of feel the script just click into place. It was a pretty subtle difference, but suddenly the studio woke up a little bit. They went, "Whoa! Wait a minute! This thing just got a lot more fun and engaging and now I'm not worried about these guys profiting from the losses of our country’s middle-class, because I realize they're in a much more complicated situation than just to profit or not to profit.” At that point, the project started getting some real traction.

Like the books of Elmore Leonard, Michael Lewis’ work often appears to be deceptively simple to adapt for film and television – vivid characters, clear objectives, crackerjack dialogue, big stakes. That’s not exactly the case though, is it?

Adam McKay: One of the things I love about Michael’s work, in all of his work, is that he takes his subjects, the people he interviews and writes about, at their word. There’s a real generosity to Michael’s work. What I mean is: while he’s often critical of the world these people live in, which is always a kind of unusual or very specialized world, but he doesn’t feel the need to judge them right off the bat. When his book first came out, he caught some flack for not being as hard as he might have been on some of these guys. But as a filmmaker, I really love that about Michael’s work, and in some ways, it makes the writing part of this job a little bit easier. We all think of ourselves in terms of our desires, the things we want, what we’re willing to do to get them. That’s a huge part of what you need as a screenwriter – those kinds of characters. Michael writes really rich characters, very human characters, a lot of bold and unusual colors – you know, things you don’t typically get in books about finance.

But from a craft perspective, what was the process of adapting The Big Short like?

Adam McKay: Fortunately, Michael was very supportive all the way through. He actually said to us early on, “I birthed the baby, now you guys take her to college.” And then he really kind of stepped away. But still, thank God he was happy with the movie, right?

Charles Randolph: From that craft perspective – how did we adapt this incredible book? – we had an emotional center in the Baum character [played by Steve Carell]. We had a guy who has the thing that characters never have, which is so delicious: he realizes that he's the very disease he purports to cure. Once you have that dynamic, you’ve got something really stable and really potent, and you can hang all of your story’s emotionality from that place. So starting with a character like that, we had a good start.

Adam McKay: I really just took the adaptation simply as this: you put the book in a saucepan and you let it simmer until what you're left with is the really, really good stuff. You do lose some very nice things – the differences in mediums is huge – but hopefully you arrive at something that is just as delicious. But Charles and I agreed early on that it was very clear from reading the book that the backbone – the sort of spinal fluid of this whole thing – were these main characters. They’re the audience’s lifeline as we go on this harrowing journey that destroyed so many lives. So long as we could bring the audience close to these characters and wanting stick to these vulnerable, strange, odd outsiders, we knew we’d be set. The flesh and humanity came first. Which it always should, right?

Adam, you have a storied background in improv and stand-up, and the film’s cast is populated by some brilliant improvisers. When you take the script into production, how much of the page holds, or does it become an improv free-for-all?

Adam McKay: I wouldn't quite say that anarchy reigned. Sometimes improv can start looking like a street riot, and what we needed was some subtle flavoring.

Are you hungry this morning? You’ve talked about sauces and chocolate and ginger and food preparation?

Adam McKay: I’m actually not hungry! I don’t know what’s going on with me today. I’m going to an eye exam in a little bit…

Thank goodness it’s not a proctologist! So talk about taking the script into production and how things shift when you put The Big Short on its feet with such a tremendous cast.

Adam McKay: Well, we wanted the movie to feel very rackety, very alive. Though they are brilliant movies, we didn't want that kind of austere Wall Street look and vibe, that sort of detached omniscience in brilliant movies like Margin Call or Wolf of Wall Street. Those are brilliant, brilliant movies, but they didn’t have the right feel for the story we were telling. We felt like The Big Short was the opposite side of those stories, actually. So when you bring guys on like Ryan Gosling and Hamish Linklater and Brad Pitt and Rafe Spall and Steve Carell, my gosh, guys that can really improvise, you really want to let them off the leash and these guys all jumped right in. But compared to the comedies I’ve done, there was hardly any improvisation.

You studied with Del Close at Second City, Adam. What are some of the rules of improv that you applied to The Big Short?

Adam McKay: There’s a whole history of Chicago improv and how it relates to story theater and a people’s theater kind of vibe. It’s more about subtle funny, rather than big laughter stuff. It’s amazing to see. There’s always a bit of breaking the fourth wall, a bit of spinning out and suddenly someone’s doing a monologue. It’s about surprise, really, which is something every artist aspires to, I hope. What that school of comedy really does is bring all of the truest feelings and motivations very honestly to the surface so it arrives with real warmth and trust for the audience.

Charles Randolph: Absolutely. Also, Adam is able to collaborate effectively on so many different levels, which is extremely rare. I don’t just mean that he can collaborate well with co-writers or movie stars or whatever, but we reached out to a lot of the guys Michael Lewis wrote about in his book. We wanted to know a little bit more, and Adam was like some kind of journalist when we’d talk to these guys in person. He’d be taking notes, getting it all down, not just what they were saying, but how they behaved or how they spoke or some tiny little eccentricity, the things we all have, but most of us don’t even know about.

For example?

Charles Randolph: Like with the Jared Vennett character [played by Gosling], when we talked with him, Vennett was so concerned with how he would be portrayed in the movie. Adam took all of these notes from the conversations we had with Vennett, and it all came down to this lovely, sort of distrustful quality he had about his own representation in the film. We used that, and it’s pretty beautiful.

Not a lot of screenplays based on true stories do that kind of legwork. To what do you attribute choosing that path on this project?

Charles Randolph: I'm a big believer that there's this really fun moment right now in movies where some of the comedy guys are bringing this vitality and this connection to the real world that some of the old school-film school-geek model of filmmakers maybe don’t have so much. It’s fantastic to have that newer sensibility applied to material like The Big Short. There’s energy and enthusiasm and a collaborative spirit that doesn’t really happen when it’s just one writer in a room with his laptop. It doesn’t arise out of one person’s head, usually. In some ways, the old model of screenwriting might be akin to being a novelist, and maybe this newer model is about remaining always open to discovery – all the way through the process. To me, that’s really freaking exciting!

Charles has done adaptations in the past. Adam, besides Ant-Man earlier this year, taken from the Marvel Comics, The Big Short is your first go at translating someone else’s work for the big screen. Is there a difference, writing your own original piece and leaping into someone else’s story?

Adam McKay: Maybe there is. For me, the greatest thing about adapting someone else’s work is something that’s going to make me sound stupid or lazy or obvious: there’s an ending! Someone already figured out how to end this damned thing! The ending is everything in a movie, and when you’re writing purely from your own imagination, you agonize for months and months over how you’re going to end your script. So much hinges on a good ending.

Charles Randolph: The Big Short definitely has an ending. We think

Adam McKay: It does have an ending. Unfortunately, it’s a horrible, horrible ending that affected an awful lot of people in this country, in the world, people we know and love. We had relatives lose their houses over the events portrayed in Michael’s book. Family and friends who lost everything. So that’s a terrible ending, but… It’s an ending! That’s helpful for me as a writer.

Adam, some of your films have been trotted out as examples of the ruin of Western Civilization.

Adam McKay: That’s true. Roger Ebert said so. And I have that review framed on a film, I really do!

Though The Big Short is full of very funny bits, it plays much “straighter” than your other films. That said, anyone who follows you on Twitter or Facebook knows that Michael Lewis’ concerns, at least as expressed in his books, are very much your concerns too. Embedded in the broad comedy of The Other Guys or Anchorman 2 is an almost patriotic concern over things like the blatant misdeeds of some big corporations or the 24-hour news cycle.

Adam McKay: I see what you’re saying, and I’ll have to go back to that Chicago school of improvisation. It’s true, the things The Big Short is about, they are concerns of mine. They should be concerns we all have. Del Close used to tell us, “Aim for art. If you miss, you hit comedy. But if you aim for comedy and you miss, you don’t have much.” Even with the most ridiculous comedies we’ve done, we’ve always aimed for a little something extra going on in there, a little social commentary.

Charles Randolph: I see that in Adam’s work, but I don’t know if the people with the loudest voices in any room do.

Adam McKay: I almost can’t help it. I’m here today, living in this fascinating, terrifying, wondrous time. How can I only write scripts about a guy who wants to break up with this girl, but really all he needs to do is grow up a little bit so he can really love and be loved? The whole boy meets girl thing. How can I do that in 2015? By the way, God bless anyone who can pull off that script. It’s a really hard script to write. But for me, this world is running on insanity, so how can those of us making films keep doing the same old-fashioned stories? With The Big Short, I feel like it’s one of the more satisfying creative experiences I’ve ever had. The material, the collaborators, the subject matter, the sheer amount of labor that went into it, it required me to really step up my game – which I always really love.

Charles, we’ve talked about Adam’s comedy background. You come from an academic background, having taught philosophy at the college level not too many years ago. That’s a different backstory than most Starbucks screenwriters have. How did you segue from being a professor to being an award-winning screenwriter?

Charles Randolph: Yeah, I was in my mid-30s before I ever wrote a script, and then, I guess, I’ve just gotten very lucky. I really love very specific, very complicated worlds in storytelling, and if they have a little bit of an institutional/establishment aspect to them, I love those stories even more. That’s why I was hired for this job to begin with – they all knew that I would totally geek out on The Big Short’s world. But you write a script and the people who hired you really love what you did, but it’s still an uncertain town. You never really know what’s going to work or when or how or why. When Adam came on board, it was such an utterly lovely surprise in that he and I share a sense of humor in many ways, and we share a passion for this subject matter, and we have a similar perspective on the events of this story. Even with all of that, though, you never know what’s going to happen to your work – whether you’re writing or rewriting or being rewritten or even if your script goes into production exactly the way you wrote it, you still don’t know what that movie’s going to look like. On The Big Short, it all went right.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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