Unlike Moneyball, The Blind Side, and several of Michael Lewis’ other best-selling books, The Big Short—his account of the men who made money on the financial crisis by betting against the American economy—did not obviously have the attributes of a Hollywood movie. It wasn’t easy to root for the protagonists, a ragtag group of Wall Street bigmouths and one quirky California financial genius; they only won because millions of people lost their jobs and their homes. And the details of their far-seeing economic wizardry were, to put it mildly, difficult to follow.
The solution, it turned out, was to cast a group of movie stars, including Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt; hire Adam McKay, the director of several Will Ferrell romps, to bring a style all his own; and make a bitter, surprisingly political comedy featuring celebrities (including Margot Robbie in a bathtub) explaining esoteric financial dealings to the audience.
I met Lewis in Berkeley, California, where he lives with his wife and family. During a meal at one of his favorite local restaurants, he was visibly excited about the film, which he has been actively promoting. We discussed the process of having his work adapted to the screen, the phony bigotry of Donald Trump, and why celebrities aren’t as good-looking as you’d think. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Isaac Chotiner: So how did The Big Short become a movie?
Michael Lewis: All the books, for a long time, have been sold quickly to the movies. I sold this book to Brad Pitt. I had met him and really liked him and thought that if he could get Moneyball made, maybe he could get this made, too. Basically I thought it was free money. But a script was delivered by Charles Randolph and then Adam McKay decided he wanted to do it. And that’s it! I didn’t have anything to do with anyone.
Did you know who Adam McKay was?
I certainly knew the movies. I am not sure if I knew the name.
When you checked his IMDB page, did you think, Hmmm I don’t know about this?
I think Talladega Nights is a work of genius, and I thought he’d figure it out.
You really thought that?
I really thought it.
I was skeptical.
I think very highly of goofball comedies. There was an intelligence. I had no sense of what he was up to. I wasn’t that worried about it.
Did the script originally have all the third-wall-breaking stuff with celebrities? Or were those directorial touches?
I didn’t see the first script, but McKay’s script … had it in there, although some of it was in different forms. He had Beyoncé. He had Scarlett Johansson under a waterfall rather than Margot Robbie in a bathtub.
Was that filmed when you were on set?
I never went to the set. It’s all about incentives: You want them to feel like they own it. McKay sent me his script, we had lunch, and that was it. I didn’t hear more until October when he had a very rough cut. I went down to Orange County, to a place called the Block, where a lot of movies get screen-tested. Steve Carell and Adam and I went to watch it. There were still cards saying that some things were incomplete, and it was 20 minutes longer than it is now. I told him I thought it was too long and that some of the stuff at the end was too slow, but he knew it all already. And that was it. Next time I saw it, it was finished.
A lot of writers, especially novelists, feel proprietorial about their stuff, but—
I don’t care about that.
Really. I am already stealing people’s stuff. It’s their lives so it’s not mine to begin with. And moreover, there is no way you can take a book and make it into a great movie if you are totally respectful of the book. You have to break it and redo it. I would be bad at taking something I care about and think is great—I wouldn’t publish it if I didn’t think it was great—and bust it up. I would be wedded to my own stuff. And my presence would be a heavy hand on the process.
Did you feel this same way about all your books when they were being made into movies?
No, and I had no influence on any of the movies. In the cases of The Blind Side and Moneyball, I took my wife and kids to the set for half a day. But I do get involved in selling the movies, so I get to really know the actors and director after they are made.
It seems like with this movie you have been particularly active.
Yes. You can get close to people after the movie.
So I suppose you’ll refuse to say anything bad about the actors.
I’ll tell you things about them. They would surprise me. There was such an intensity about Christian Bale’s performances that I assumed in person he would be intense, and he is very easy and social. I was surprised when I saw him and Steve Carell on screen. I was surprised by how much nuance they brought—the mannerisms of the real people. Because I knew [the actors] hadn’t spent very much time with them.
So how did they do it?
That was my question. Carell won’t talk about it. He really won’t talk about it.
Yeah, that guy always seemed like an asshole.
[Laughs] He’s shy. With his talent, he’s like a squirrel with a nut. He keeps his talent hidden. Christian Bale doesn’t want to talk about it, but he will. Oh, this blew me away. I told him that I spent a year with Michael Burry—clearly unusual, glass eye, Asperger’s, sitting alone in an office in San Jose, hated by the people he made a fortune for—and I couldn’t have generated the impression [Bale] did. He said, “I spent a day with Burry.” I said, “OK a day, that’s not a ton.” Bale went into Burry’s office one day at 9 a.m., sat with him until 6 p.m., and didn’t get up for food or to go to the bathroom. Nine straight hours. That was it. At the end of it, he asked for Burry’s T-shirt and shorts, which he wears in the movie.
So I kept bugging him about how he did it. He was giving me these general answers, and I bothered him so much that he finally said, “It’s the way he breathes.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “He breathes during odd times when he is talking, and a lot of the mannerisms flow from the breath. I started with the breath. If I didn’t have this going, nothing else worked.” This is why he’s Christian Bale. I was thinking: I should be doing this going forward when I am writing about characters. I wish I had known this stuff when I was writing the book.
Does this make you think journalism and acting have something in common?
Yeah, journalism is the observation of character. But the actors look at it differently, even then the writers who think of themselves as being able to write characters. If he was here, he might not be listening to me like you are and instead watching your mannerisms.
My introduction is now going to be all about how you are eating your bread.
Right, so if I’m watching you, I’m thinking, Kinda guarded, kinda closed, hands in your jacket, you are withholding. I would not normally be looking for that. Anyway, when I went in I thought of them as celebrities, but now I think of them as craftsmen. They bust their ass. And a lot of it is not glamorous. It’s serious in a good way.
A lot of these guys were probably nerdy arts majors. We think of them as superficial movie stars.
They are actually not that good-looking. They are professionally good-looking. They are nice-enough looking.
Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling aren’t good-looking?
They become famously good-looking because they are on the screen 20 feet high and groomed, and they get themselves into unbelievable physical condition. But if they weren’t Christian Bale and Ryan Gosling, you wouldn’t pick them out of a crowd. Or Steve Carell.
I noticed you kinda tossed Carell in there.
No, no, no, they are good-enough-looking. There are many, many, many, many more beautiful people walking around. They persuade you.
I suppose Ryan Gosling has —
I said to Gosling—it was actually on the red carpet, and all of these women were going crazy—“I’m sorry, but I don’t really see it.” And he said, “I don’t see it either.” He’s good-looking enough! A nice-looking young man. But they are transformed.
At the end of the movie, it says that Burry is now shorting water stocks.
That’s true. He wasn’t shorting them; he was investing in water. He was buying almond farms, because that was a way of investing in water. He thought water would be the next key resource.
So is water the next crisis?
I don’t know, but it’s not implausible. The water thing perplexes me because we have this ocean out there, and you would think someone in Silicon Valley could figure out a way to drink it cheaply. You’d think the drought would have provoked more innovation.
One of the gimmicks in the movie is that characters turn to the audience conspiratorially to tell them whether events did or didn’t actually happen the way they’re being portrayed on screen. One critique of your books is that you sacrifice truth for storytelling—
I think that critique is bullshit. It’s interesting to me how often people throw out that charge without realizing how much time I spend trying to get it right. It’s true that the stories I choose are often chosen for their dramatic interest. I choose characters because they interest me. Selection of material is one thing, but the material is the material.
And the material here, somewhat interestingly, gets you to root for an economic crash because the sympathetic protagonists have bet on one and you don’t want them to go broke.
Right, because crashing the economy will crash the bad guys. I liked, and I think Adam McKay did too, getting the reader to root for something he or she doesn’t want to root for.
How do you see these guys? Heroes?
I see them as interesting. They have heroic dimensions, especially Michael Burry. They stood apart from their class and did something brave. The easiest thing is to go along with what everyone else is doing. But in the end the purpose is getting rich, and there is a limit to how heroic that can be. When I started the book, I sat down and looked at everyone who was making this bet and I tried to find not the weirdest one, but the one whose story could teach the reader the facts and other dimensions of the crisis.
In the movie they are portrayed as caring about the economy crashing.
They wanted vindication. They wanted to stick it to the banks. But the goal was to make money. That is not ignoble if you are investing other people’s money. But heroism requires self-sacrifice. Except for Michael Burry, no one sacrifices anything. He’s the one I would make the hero case for.
What have you made of other recent Wall Street movies, like The Wolf of Wall Street?
I got the impression that there was a lot of vulgarity and outrageous behavior that Martin Scorsese would have shoved into any movie about anything and he just used Wall Street to do it. So sniffing cocaine off a hooker’s bottom—that wasn’t particular to Wall Street. It was particular to Martin Scorsese. He wanted to film that. Wall Street was a plausible [place] to put it. I thought it was a funny movie and the performances were great. But it’s phony to call it a Wall Street movie.
I was surprised by how political The Big Short was. You walk out angry. And anger seems to be the flavor of the moment in politics. Do you miss being on the campaign trail?
I was on the trail constantly in 1996. I basically didn’t leave it the entire election. Trump would have been so much fun.
How do you think the media has covered him?
I don’t feel like he’s been covered at all. He’s just there. He’s projecting what he wants to project, and then everyone gets angry. But the people getting angry are having the opposite of their intended effect. He’s indestructible by the media to his audience. But I think his audience is so small that it’s not dangerous.
But when someone is saying bigoted stuff, what are you supposed to do, not respond?
You have to respond. You have to establish what the social norms are, what decency is. But what’s weird about him is that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen somebody possibly fake bigotry. Fake bigotry, in this day and age? I am not sure he feels the bigotry in himself. He’s adopted it as a strategy. That makes it really weird. If I were trailing him, that’s what I’d like to explore: What are his feelings about Muslims? How did he come upon this approach? He has come into the political process without any of these views and developed them in response to the market. I think that’s hard for an actor. But maybe he’s starting to feel it.
If there was a faction that was served by enlightened opinions toward Muslims, he’d find that view. You learn a lot about what’s out there by him. It’s a frightening thing. And I think he is partially a consequence of the financial crisis and inequality and how the government works or doesn’t work.
Do you think the administration could have helped stall this type of populism by dealing differently with the financial crisis?
At the time, I sort of bought their argument that this wasn’t the time to break up the big banks. I wasn’t extreme. I think now, we’d all be better off if some policy had been introduced that led to the banks being dramatically reduced in size and political influence. If you bust these places up, you actually find competing interests that would compete and neutralize each other in the political arena. These monoliths bother me. I think it would have been hard to nationalize them, but I like the idea of capital requirements.
The movie takes a pretty strong stance on these issues.
I’ve only seen it five times so I’m not quite sure what it says. What did you see it saying?
That the banks should have been broken up, that people should have gone to jail, and that all of this is going to happen again.
In some form. Nothing ever happens in the same way. I think the problem is incentives. The banks suffered, but the individuals got rich. That’s bad. If I had been Tim Geithner, I would have spent my energy talking about how you change incentives, especially how people are paid in terms of short-term performance, and how the rating agencies are funded by the people whom they are rating. It seems crazy to me!
It seems like you basically agree with what the movie is saying politically, then.
On the jail thing, Adam McKay and I disagree a little. I actually couldn’t find anything that was illegal. That’s what shocked me. You shouldn’t do it—but Goldman creating securities to short, it wasn’t clear that was illegal. If you read the fine print, I think they did it legally. But it’s horrible!
When you talk to people in the administration, do you find their defense of their response persuasive?
I’m not sold. This was the problem I had with Geithner’s book, which I reviewed very positively. In many ways I thought he was very brave. But I think [the administration] got rolled by the financial sector.
Did Geithner and Ben Bernanke get rolled, or do they actually see eye to eye with the financial sector?
When you are incentivized to believe something, you will believe it. So maybe “getting rolled” is a bad expression, because they weren’t fooled. They couldn’t imagine a radically transformed financial sector. They think it’s basically OK.
The problem is that while nobody is explicitly corrupt, everyone who is at the table knows at some level that there is a big paycheck for them waiting.