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‘The Big Short’ Co-Writer Charles Randolph on Why He Left Academia, Adam McKay’s Contributions, and More

Written by on January 19, 2016 

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Like the similarly enraging and true story of SpotlightThe Big Short boasts a recognizable cast of top stars. Steve Carell stars as the prideful hedge fund manager aiming to take down Wall Street; Ryan Gosling is the hot tip guy just trying to make a buck even at the expense of his own employer; Christian Bale is the genius analyst and manager of investments that spots that the housing market is built upon bad loans packaged into bundles of bonds traded without a second thought. No one is investigating and everyone is looking the other way. The film, based on Michael Lewis‘s bestseller of the same name, details why the economy imploded in 2009 and what led up to the situation and what has happened since.

There’s a a great deal of information to digest and the film, written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, manages to parse out the essentials in an engaging way. Whether that is breaking the fourth wall with fun cameos or through the main characters, it can feel somewhat jarring at first, but once you get a handle on the idea that the film should be seen as an entertaining documentary with a narrative woven in, it suddenly clicks. McKay blends in a sly sense of humor with the raw truth. Our main characters aren’t so much heroes as they are the people that you might blame alongside the rest of Wall Street. So it was with great pleasure that I recently spoke with Randolph about his journey adapting Lewis’s novel, becoming a screenwriter after being a professor overseas, whether he and McKay will work together from the outset in the future, and his views on various issues raised by the film.Check out our full talk below.

The Film Stage: So, first off, I was reading a bit about your backstory and I know a lot of screenwriters seem to have somewhat decent jobs before they decide to shift gears and break in. You were actually a professor?

Charles Randolph: Yeah, that’s correct.

Were you writing before you left your position?

Well, I taught in Europe. I taught in Vienna, Austria. I would start to focus on various cultural forms every year and cultural studies. One year I became interested in documentaries and I made a couple of education documentaries for schools — for Procter and Gamble, actually. They were films that clarified their biology. Basically sex education but from a biological perspective. I did a museum show once.

So I did various things like that. Then I started studying feature films and I did some lectures in LA at USC on the status of various American genres. And I also did interviews with writers in those various genres and I got to know the Sperry Brothers and one of their producers asked me to write something for them, which they ultimately never got around to. [Laughs]. So it was one of those things where I was already interested in the art so it wasn’t an inorganic transition. And I wasn’t happy with where academia in my field was headed. Additionally, the pleasure from sitting down and creating something is just so phenomenal.

So you were over in Europe when you realized you wanted to make a switch. Did you pursue anything over there? Obviously Hollywood is one of the biggest producers of cinema across the world and has huge influence, but there is a healthy industry in Europe and specifically places like Britain.

Yeah, it’s easier to write films and fictional things in your own language although the first thing I think I wrote was in German. But the other thing is that you know your culture. You feel your culture. You can do that a lot easier than you can about other cultures. And you don’t want to make a lot of movies about the expat experience although Whit Stillman who lived in Spain for many years, he did that. Barcelona is very much an expression of that experience. So you can get away with a couple of things like that but really, if you’re going to build a career, I kind of wanted to do it from home and do it in my own culture. And frankly it is just much easier to make a living in Hollywood because there is so much development going on and even without having things made you can make an income.

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You want to be close so you can do punchups and rewrites and have meetings.

Yeah, I’ve never done a lot of rewrites but you want to be close so you can have meetings with a producer who has a project and then you can get guild minimum to write that project. Otherwise you can get caught up in the bureaucracy of the European cities where you have to write a treatment and submit it to the film foundation and get approval and so on.

So you wrote the section of the film where the mortgage brokers take a trip to Florida to further investigate this lead they have. What it does really well is that it opens their eyes and in turn the audience’s eyes to what was going on. So you didn’t find that part of the story in the book, is that correct?

Yeah. What’s remarkable about the book is that we only used about six or seven pages that weren’t directly inspired by the book, and that was basically the Florida section. It was 2010 when I was writing this so there were a lot of articles about the role of mortgage brokers, real estate brokers, the relationship of renters to the crisis in terms of being in homes they had no idea were about to be taken because it wasn’t their fault and they were continuing to pay their rent. So they’ve got that beat. In fact, it was the first thing I wrote. The reason I bring that up in the press sometimes is because that really defined the tone of the film. I was able to take that tone from the Florida stuff and apply it to the rest of Michael [Lewis]’s book.

What I think it does expertly is that it sets the scene as to even the audience’s culpability in some sense. What were people doing taking out these loans that they shouldn’t have been able to ever qualify for? Didn’t something seem off?

Yeah, you’re exactly right. The movie is about finance players, but we also wanted to share that there was a lot more than just those guys here that need to be looked at. It’s the breadth of our society that we have to address.

You were the first writer and Adam McKay came in to rewrite your initial screenplay, and you have both been very amicable towards each other. I believe the quoted phrase was “peanut butter and chocolate” in terms of how you complimented each other artistically. So what was it about this process that made you want to reach out to him beyond just him doing a good job with the material?

Because he has such a spectacularly unique voice and he took the underlying script and put his touch to it that solved some problems. Largely the issue of how you communicate the nature of these financial products in the course of the story. His manic, farcical joy in telling you things in the film strikes me as the perfect solution to the material. So it wasn’t just the quality of what he added that was good. Additionally, it was that he was very generous to my underlying work.

He left whole sections alone and turns of phrase that he liked he would use later and find places to work in. The stuff that I always loved, he kept. And some of the bottom stuff that I wasn’t quite sure about, well that was some of the stuff he changed. So I knew we shared a sensibility and I knew what he was doing was really making it better. He was meeting me halfway. It wasn’t just him changing scenes to fit his sensibility only. Sometimes you can feel a director fishing for a credit in how they rewrite. There were no lateral moves. So I was just delighted with what he had done. I felt he was generous, engaging, and interesting while still being very respectful of what I did. It’s easier then when you’re met with generosity to give generosity back.

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You two do seem to have sensibilities that compliment each other, but it’s been very clear in the press that you two didn’t have much contact outside of a few emails while in production. So I’m curious, did you get to know each other on the campaign trail and will you work together again on a project from the outset?

Oh, it’s more than a possibility. It’s even greater than a probability. We will definitely do something else. I don’t know what it will be yet. We’re still talking about things and playing with ideas, but yeah, without question. Real friendships emerge in this process. It’s crazy. And as antagonistic as a writer/director relationship can sometimes be, it also can generate real friendships and real collaboration. So we developed a friendship based on the time we spent together because you do a lot of press. But we’re definitely going to find something.

Adam is a real force of good in the world. He’s got great instincts. He’s a really strong producer as well as being a great director. He’s been a delight to work with and there’s not that many people like that. And we have complimentary comedic sensibilities. It’s funny that you mentioned it. My sensibility seems to be more satirical and understated, and his is more farcical and overstated. So when we meet in the middle we do get things that are pretty special, I think.

That’s great because it seems like a lot of things in this industry should work out and they end up not doing what you expect. I’m sure a lot of that has to do with the speed with which things tend to move once the wheels are in motion.

Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And a lot of it is ego. I mean the truth is that everyone always exaggerates their input, anyways. You can’t help it. So you have to learn to distrust your own internal voice saying, “All that’s mine.” Everyone feels that way. If the third person on the costume team brings you some comment or article, they feel ownership of that or the content of that article, right? They contributed to the process. So what you have to do in the process of credit arbitration is realize that you probably did less than you think. It’s a collective medium and a lot of people brought their A game. Adam smartly understands that and is first to praise other people. And there are moments that are undeniable. Hank Corwin’s contributions to this film as an editor is just phenomenal. You can’t underestimate how much he made this work by his own very unique sensibility.

So, I have to wrap with you but real quick I just want to thank you for making this film. It feels like a documentary with big stars that isn’t so much focused on narrative as it is on informing the audience and entertaining them along the way. In that way, where so many films feel the same, you really made something unique here.

Yeah, you’re so right and I can’t tell you how encouraging it is to hear comments like that because that’s what you strive for. “How can we break the mold a bit as we tell these stories?” With a complicated subject matter like this with such dense, abstract information, the terror on both of our parts is that no one is ever going to watch it and then no one is going to get it. So to hear that it is not only understandable but also engaging and entertaining, whether it makes them laugh or get mad or whatever it is, that’s what we’re going for. So thank you for that compliment. You hit exactly where we wanted to land.

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The Big Short is now in wide release.


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