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Adam McKay gets dramatic for 'The Big Short'

Adam McKay, director of the new film

Adam McKay, director of the new film "The Big Short." Photo Credit: Getty Images/Astrid Stawiarz

Despite being best known for directing comedies like "Anchorman," Adam McKay felt compelled to chronicle the financial collapse of 2008 after reading Michael Lewis' nonfiction book of the same name.

"I was so excited by it," McKay says. "I read the book and just couldn't put it down."

The film follows four guys -- played by Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt -- who foresaw the collapse of the economy and figured out a way to profit from it.

Actor Finn Wittrock, who plays investor Jamie Shipley, puts McKay's new dramatic side into perspective.

"Adam is finding this new part of this voice that's very exciting to be a part of. ... I could tell it was going to be an exciting movie whether or not it worked, and it does work. It also maintains his sense of humor."

amNewYork spoke to McKay about the film, out Friday.

Why do you think this is such an untapped story in film?

That's a real good question. I think one of the hard things is how do you translate financial [information] to film? I think that's daunting in some ways. People thought that you would have to do it in a documentary, and it would just be very pedantic. That's just my guess.

You're primarily known for comedy. Did making a movie on such a serious topic like this feel daunting?

I knew there was an engine of excitement at the center of this movie. I just wanted to make sure that I was able to understand exactly what happened. I thought it was a good sign when I got it. I got to the point where I could explain this to my 10-year-old daughter, and then I knew I was in good shape.

Especially when you have actresses like Margot Robbie and Selena Gomez breaking it down into laymen's terms.

Exactly. That was a sort of breakthrough for the movie. The idea that we could take this pop culture that we're inundated with every single day and to some degree, what we were paying attention to, instead of the banking crisis. Having that element of our culture explain parts of the movie was a pretty exciting breakthrough.

Wouldn't it be great if pop culture figures promote important issues through their brand on social media?

Benedict Cumberbatch was doing a thing for a while where the paparazzi would take his picture, he would hold up a written statement that said, "Shouldn't we be looking at the situation with the refugees in Syria right now?" And I loved when he did that. It was so funny and on point.

Is there a different rhythm when you write something like this? As opposed to writing a comedy with Will Ferrell?

Without a doubt. The big thing I noticed with this is that I was completely freed of a hard genre. Comedy is comedy, and getting laughs, and there's certain rules you have to hit. With this, every single scene could be whatever it needed to be. I just never had that freedom before.

Your film was dropped smack dab in the middle of Oscar season. Was the marketing of your movie ever in your mind? Did you anticipate this buzz happening?

You know, I really didn't. We got into the editing room and we were expecting to come out next March or maybe April. What happened was unusual, where my brilliant editor showed me his editor's cut, and I thought, "Holy crap some of this is already working." He and I did a first cut and it was working quite well. I said I wanted to invite the studio in and everybody thought I was crazy. Given the up and down state of the economy, and given the presidential election, I thought the movie should come out during this time.

There's a theory out there that a film could help or hurt a presidential election.

It's a curious theory. Certainly popular culture -- there's sketches that have been done on "Saturday Night Live," and "The Daily Show," and then you mix film with that, and occasionally music, with Eminem writing a track against George W. Bush at a point where his approval ratings really started to plummet. I think everything operates in harmony with itself. I don't think it's any accident that after George W. Bush left office, the next big hit comedy was called "The Hangover." Talk about the right time for that story.


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