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In 2006, the housing market in the United States was booming. Some homeowners had flipped houses they bought just the previous year for over $100,000 in profit. Then home values started to level off, and very soon thereafter, decrease dramatically. And then, many homeowners became unable to pay their mortgages, and banks foreclosed. Two years later, in 2008, though President Obama approved a bailout of the banks, the economy has still not quite recovered.

The reasons for all of this is admittedly extremely complicated, especially for a single article like this one to adequately explain. In fact, after the story infolded, it took an entire book, Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, to make sense of it. Lewis has a lot of experience in these complex issues. He is also the author of such best-selling books as The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, which was also adapted into a film, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (another film adaptation), and Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt about the unfair advantages of high-frequency trading.

Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt

The movie version of The Big Short crams all the complexities of the mortgage and economic crisis into two hours, and enlisted some of our favorite movie stars to guide us through it, including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt (who also produced the film). Christian Bale plays Michael Burry, the first investor to realize that the majority of mortgages were doomed to foreclose in 2007. They were originated at adjustable rates, that would kick in with bills too high for the homeowners to pay.

“I did meet with Mike Burry,” Bale said. “I just think the guy’s wonderful. He’s such a charming man and so phenomenally interesting. We talked for hours and hours, and he was incredibly generous with his time and his thoughts to me. I really wish that I can see the movie with him one day.”

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett

Ryan Gosling plays Jared Vennett, the Wall Street banker who discovered Burry’s plan and convinced another investment firm to bet against the housing market. Vennett also narrates the film and turns to speak to the audience on occasion.

“I got a chance to meet the guy my character’s based on,” Gosling said. “The situation was a little bit different in my case, because the character I play in the film has a role in the film, but he’s the narrator and sort of tour guide through this world. At times I felt like a talk show host, to sort of break the fourth wall and introduce a new guest or a new segment. We really had to take some liberties with that character, obviously.”

Steve Carell as Mark BaumSteve Carell plays Mark Baum, the investor who bets on Burry’s theory, somewhat in the hopes of seeing the corrupt financial industry collapse. Racked with guilt over a death in the family, Baum becomes a sort of crusader against bad investments, and institutions taking advantage of their customers.

“I met the person this was based on,” Carell said. “We had breakfast and I went over to his apartment, met his family and he came to set a few times as well. So yeah, I got to pick his brain and find out about how he factored into this world. I saw him as a human being. I identified with the fact that he felt very much alone, and he was approaching this seemingly against insurmountable odds, and saw himself as this knight. It’s complicated obviously because it’s morally and ethically ambiguous, because he was certainly going to benefit from it all. There were tragedies, there were things about his personal life that I think informed how he navigated this world as well. But I like the fact that all of these people, they’re humans.”

The three men portrayed by Bale, Gosling and Carell manipulated the financial numbers to their advantage, and the film does its best to explain those numbers to the audience. But ultimately, it’s not important whether or not you understand the math of it all.

Christian Bale as Michael Burry“I’m terrible with numbers,” Bale said. “It went in one ear, it stayed there throughout filming, and as soon as we were done filming, it went out the other ear again. But, what I found is that in watching the film, it’s entertaining first and foremost, so you get it. It’s not a big, complex math class in which people like myself, go into PTSD mode when we start hearing figures like that.”

He adds, “It’s not like that. It slips in very nicely and easily and even if you don’t remember exactly what the names were, that’s the whole point. These industries try to make you feel dumb and it works. You understood the point and that’s the essence of it, getting down to what does it really mean for people on the street every day? So I was really surprised, and kind of proud of myself that I did get it all. And how much fun it actually was in getting that as well, fun in understanding that, and yet tragic in understanding the consequences.”

To the bankers, those numbers are just numbers, but the film also illustrates how each of those numbers represents people with a home and family to support. “There is an enormous conflict I think, going on within all of these characters,” Carell said. “It was challenging, and the language of course was challenging. Like Christian said, you learn as much as you can, you try to get a grasp of it, and then you hit the press junket and you realize you actually have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Brad Pitt

The Big Short comes to movie screens from an unlikely source, Adam McKay, who co-wrote the script and directed the film. In case you don’t recognize the name, McKay is most famous for directing Will Ferrell comedies including Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights. McKay also brings some humor to material, for example, hiring Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain to explain some terminology, and also by letting his stars be funny.

“We’ve known each other since the late ‘80s and he’s the same guy,” Carell said of his Anchorman director. “He’s always been very passionate and really smart, incredibly funny. He’s  the funniest person in the room and he knows it! He’s so shy about that and very self-deprecating, but every time I’ve worked with him, he’s always the person with the most unique, the funniest idea, the idea that you wish that you’d had, and the one that when he gives it to you, you hope you don’t screw up in the presentation. He’s sort of a dream director to work for and with as an actor, because he allows you this enormous freedom to fail and to explore. You feel protected by him.”

Gosling was a big fan of McKay’s too. You might not think the star of The Notebook, Drive and The Place Beyond the Pines watches Will Ferrell movies, but Gosling claims he would have done an Adam McKay film even if it wasn’t The Big Short.

Ryan and Steve

“I love Adam’s movies and in some ways they’re not even movies,” Gosling said. They’re like friends of mine or something. Like, I’ll check in with Step Brothers to see how it’s doing. I love them and so to be able to work with him at all is exciting. And then to get this script and to see that it’s sort of a departure for him, and be able to be a part of that as well, just made it more exciting. This film is very inclusive and there’s no grandstanding. I think in the hands of a lot of other filmmakers, it could’ve been very, very different, but Adam has a way of maintaining a sense of humor about something that’s obviously very upsetting. It’s very unique and it just was a very exciting thing to be a part of.”

Carell has done drama before in films like Foxcatcher and Little Miss Sunshine. Still, as he’s best known for The 40-Year-Old Virgin, The Office and Anchorman, so he was still intimidated to be working alongside Gosling and Bale.

“I was frankly surprised to be offered this part and I was very excited,” Carell explains. “I was talking to Adam before I started, and Christian was shooting his stuff. We were talking about characters, just checking in. And I said, ‘How’s it going?’ He said, ‘Oh my God, Christian is unbelievable. It’s incredible. It’s transcendent.’ Great, so now I’ve got to follow that. It was intimidating because this entire cast is just full of great actors. I think every part really stands on its own. I think there are really wonderful, complex, nuanced performances all across the board. So it was exciting for me, just to be a part of that ensemble.”

Bale took a little bit of pride in getting the film off to a such a good start, and milked it for all it was worth. “I did ask the hair and makeup department, actually, and I don’t know if they did it or not, but I said, ‘Can you just drop it every now and then, when Ryan and Steve are working, just how much their favorite week of shooting was the first week?’” Bale said.

His co-stars conceded that Christian Bale set the bar very high. “It was tough to follow the first Christian week,” Gosling said. “The first thing I said to Adam was, ‘How’s it going?’ He said, ‘Oh, Christian learned how to double kick the drums.’ With a catastrophic knee industry.”

His work on The Big Short may have given Bale a taste for working solo. “I didn’t work with anybody,” Bale said. “I really love just working by myself. It’s amazing how much you can get done when there’s nobody else. We shot for nine days, I think it was. We banged out the pages so quick and we’d just play around with it so much. When you’re by yourself, you don’t have continuity to worry about at all, so each and every take, I just did whatever the bloody hell I want.”

The Big Short opens in limited release December 11, and everywhere on Christmas Day. / Issue 176 - September 5603
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