"Wanting to lay the idea of heroes and villains on this movie doesn't really work," said director Adam McKay, who joined star Steve Carell to discuss their Wall Street satire "The Big Short" at a preview screening packed with Oscar voters in New York on November 16. "I think it's more about a broken system, and I think what's sad about the movie is there are no real clear heroes."
But McKay doesn't think there are clear villains either. "We've talked about the idea that if I were Lloyd Blankfein, if I were CEO of one of these banks, you have to do what they've done. The way the corporate structure is set up, you have to pursue the interests of your shareholders. If you back off that, you could be found guilty of malfeasance, you'll be removed from your job."
As for the main characters in the film, who recognized the peril of the inflated housing market and bet against it, "These guys all thought that the market, with some regulation, would balance itself out … There's no heroes, there's no villains. It turned out there was no one. It was just a system run amok."
Carell plays Mark Baum, based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman who was profiled in Michael Lewis's book on which the film is based. Carell believes Eisman really "sees himself as a hero. I think he definitely felt that he was a solitary figure. He has a huge ego – at least the character I portrayed [him as] has a very big ego and is very comfortable in his own skin and believes what he's doing is right."
But even still he wasn't without moral conflict. "He's not altruistic," Carell explained. "He stands to make $200 million from this, so there's a conflict there, and that's really what's pulling him back and forth."
McKay and Carell are better known for their comedic work; McKay previously directed Carell in the "Anchorman" movies, but "this was different," according to Carell. "We talked about how much fun it was to actually delve into characterizations because there's not a lot of character development in 'Anchorman' … And [McKay is] so good at it. He's the dream director for me because he's passionate about it, he's incredibly intelligent, but his anger about the subject doesn't preclude him from being funny about it."
The film alternates between the tragedy and comedy of the financial industry and the fallout of the economic crisis, and McKay likes that melding of tones. "I always have hope that genres will get a little blurrier. The idea that something is a comedy or a horror – I think people can handle shifting between the two."
In addition to Carell, McKay assembled an "insane dream cast" of first-choice actors including Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Ryan Gosling and more. "Within two weeks we had gotten yeses from everyone," McKay remembers. "It was the most insane two weeks … Never will this ever happen again, but I will enjoy the one time it did."
Photo Credit: Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX