The list of Best Director nominees is, at first glance, kind of like a game of “One of these things is not like the other.” You’ve got your esteemed Mexican art film auteur who won the award last year, the legendary Australian — also a previous Oscar winner — making a career resurgence, the Irishman who made one of the year’s most powerful films, the Indie Darling known for his thoughtful, edgy, personal stories, and then you have … that guy who made Anchorman.
Adam McKay might not be the first guy you’d think of to direct a movie like The Big Short, but he’ll be the first to admit that. After all, he’d read Michael Lewis’ book and fallen in love with it, then dismissed the idea of doing anything about it once he’d heard the rights were taken.
But as these things go in Hollywood, the project came back around again, and he threw his hat in the ring. And even though he was just the fellow who made those Will Ferrell movies, producers Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt thought McKay could bring something fresh to material not easily translatable to the big screen.
Now, less than a year after the film went in front of the cameras, that dude who makes the silly comedies has not one, but two Oscar nominations, and is the odds on favorite to win one of them: Best Adapted Screenplay, alongside co-writer Charles Randolph.
That the movie doesn’t fit into his previous oeuvre — his five earlier films are Talladega Nights, The Other Guys, Step Brothers and the two Anchorman movies, all of which starred Ferrell — is only part of the story here. Neither does it fit with the way he has previously made movies. McKay is known for his improvisational style, in which he’ll often have people on set — the Key Grip, the Gaffer, a random visitor — shout out ideas for funny lines while shooting a scene. If it works, he keeps it. It’s a loose, friendly, slightly anarchic way to make a movie and is not something with which just anyone can get away.
To his credit, McKay knew that stuff wasn’t going to play this time around. There was too much story to tell, too many details, just too much, to do anything more than work with what he and Randolph had written. So, contrary to all his previous experience, he changed the way he operates.
“When I do the comedies, the improv is more of a main course,” he explains. “Clearly, we have a written script, clearly we shoot the written script, but there’s a lot of improv. In the case of this movie, it became more of a spice. I still used it, there were still takes where I told the actors to forget the script, and we got some great stuff out of that, but the amount was far less than in the comedies. At the end of the day on the comedies, I’m exhausted from thinking of all those alternative lines. With this, it’s much more nuanced, much quieter. I would joke at the end of the day that it felt very European. We were on time. We were relaxed. It was really nice, actually.”
A good filmmaker continues to learn as his career progresses, and McKay is very good. Now that he’s actually worked with a different process, he has a new appreciation for it and, in fact, expects it to change the way he operates moving forward.
“Oh, there’s no question,” he says. “One big discovery with this movie was, a big rule in comedy is that you don’t do super hand-held, because everyone thinks it’ll distract the audience, but in the case of this movie, there were still some good laughs. I was really interested to see how a heavier movie and shooting style would still allow for funnier moments. So even when I go back to shoot a comedy, I’ll treat it differently than I have in the past. This was a great learning experience.”
Which raises another interesting question: Now that he’s moved into the realm of “important” films, and has a whole new cache as an Oscar-nominated director, will he really be returning to the sillier fare that gave him so much success? Or has he turned a corner, now set to focus on weightier subjects that might earn him a return to the Awards Season Carousel on which he currently rides?
“I think no matter what, there’s always evolution going on, and there was no way I was going to spend the rest of my life doing comedies exactly like I did with Will,” he says. “Even with the run we had together, each one is kind of different and I got to experiment with different shooting styles and themes, even if the comedy was consistent. But yeah, I’ll definitely be trying new stuff. I’ll do some stuff with Will and some stuff without him, but I hope to do something even more dramatic.”
McKay is quick to say he doesn’t have any idea yet what, exactly, that will be, because he won’t dive into it until he is finished promoting The Big Short and, more to the point, once he’s off the wild ride that has him accepting Best Adapted Screenplay awards from one side of the Atlantic (the WGA prize) to the other (the BAFTA). Now, with those trophies under his belt, it’s safe to say he and Randolph are the frontrunners to win the Oscar, a prospect that McKay admits, “would be amazing.”
Also amazing? Being able to lord his newfound street cred over his movie star partner in crime, and with whom he runs Gary Sanchez Productions. Will Ferrell might be one of the biggest movie stars in the world, but he doesn’t have two — count ‘em, two! — Oscar nominations.
“It’s already come up eight or nine times. The first time, he said, ‘Wow, you’ve really become a jerk.’ The second time, I think he thought I was kidding, and now, he won’t even talk to me.” McKay recounts with a laugh. “No, the truth is, we’ve been on the road so much, I haven’t seen Will in a while, but it worked out really well for us. Between this movie and the movie we produced together, Daddy’s Home, which also did really well, it’s been a great winter.”
Don’t be surprised if, 10 days from now, it gets even better, with McKay on stage, giving an acceptance speech.