Bedtime Stories and Ridiculous Deadlines: How Adam McKay Makes Blockbusters

As Will Ferrell’s longtime collaborator and a co-founder of Funny or Die, McKay has directed Ferrell’s one-person show, You’re Welcome, America as well as The Landlord short. In a previous life, McKay was a pioneering member of the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy club and served as Saturday Night Live’s head writer.

McKay takes a more serious tone as the screenplay writer and director of The Big Short, the film adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the 2008 financial crisis. While the subject matter might seem like a stretch for someone so strongly associated with “bro” humor, it is a fitting turn for McKay. Underneath the perception of a guy chasing cheap laughs lies a craftsman who agonizes over the finer points of storytelling, even distilling his film ideas into fairytale allegories to make sure they have the needed cornerstones of the narrative in place. (The jokes come later.) He has studied the masters, including a heavyweight Japanese and a Swedish director famous for their movies in the mid twentieth century.

McKay’s focus on proper fundamentals reaffirms that once you have the key anchors in place for a project, you can take it in any direction, whether that is a new format or a tale ripe with satire.

We caught up with McKay who discussed how he adapted the The Big Short into a film, his idea-vetting process and why a ticking clock is ideal for putting ideas into action.

When you’re coming up with story ideas, how do you determine that they’ll warrant a film?

Sometimes as an exercise, I will tell the story of the movie to my youngest daughter, as a bedtime story. I will change some details to make it a fairytale allegory. For The Big Short, it might be that there was this old dirty box that three friends found behind a rich man’s castle and it turned out that every day they would lift up the box and there would be one piece of gold in it. In the end, the friends discover that the pieces of gold are coming from the families who live in the houses around the castle. What do you do when you find that out?

Are you looking for a certain reaction from your daughter, or trying to see if you can distill a long, complicated story into something simple and concise?

I do it to see where the holes are, where the momentum is and to see if pieces don’t flow in a story. I think of it as zooming in on a map on a computer. I’m zooming into the story in its most raw form and making sure the weight-bearing beams, the six or seven storytelling points, are there. Because sometimes you can jump into an outline and later realize that you’re missing an entire piece of the story. If I can tell it as a five-minute story to a child, I at least have my basic building blocks....more