Not surprisingly, his book detailing the story of what created the catastrophes of 2007-8—which he called The Big Short—is still one of the best. Tony did a huge review of it in a June 1, 2011 post. Fortunately, a movie has been made of The Big Short that has won the approval of Lewis himself. Considering how many great books have been turned into truly wretched movies that infuriated the authors, this is no small accomplishment. If this movie turns into the definitive description of the Wall Street corruption / stupidity that spawned the economic disaster that still negatively impacts billions of people to this day, then it may become one of the more important movies of all time.
Even Michael Lewis Was Surprised Hollywood Bet on The Big ShortOne thing the author didn’t worry about when he wrote his 2010 best-seller was how to interest filmmakers. Who would—or could—make a movie about credit-default swaps? As Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Christian Bale bring the book’s complex narrative to life, Lewis expresses his astonishment.
In early 2008, I started working on what became my book The Big Short. I’d written one book about Wall Street, Liar’s Poker, and pretty much assumed I’d never write another, as I further assumed that nothing would ever happen on Wall Street that was as interesting to me as what had happened to me—or, if it did, I’d be the last person anyone on Wall Street would want to tell about it. What caught my attention in late 2007 were the weird, amorphous, and ever growing trading losses in the subprime-mortgage bond market suffered by the big Wall Street banks. Citigroup’s losses went from $6 billion to $40 billion to more than $65 billion. Merrill Lynch announced a $4.5 billion hit, then revised it to $19 billion and then finally to more than $50 billion. Morgan Stanley announced that it had lost more than $9 billion on what appeared to be a bet by a single trader. The big Wall Street banks had become the dumb money. Their employees, the putative best and brightest, and surely the most self-interested people on the planet, were committing mass suicide. How had that happened?
Someone had to be on the other side of the big Wall Street firms’ stupid bets. I set out to find as many of these people as I could. There turned out to be about 15 of them, who had gone all in on the bet against subprime-mortgage bonds. The group included some seriously interesting and peculiar people—the sort of oddballs and misfits who would have a hard time getting a job at a big Wall Street bank. Several had come to the subprime-mortgage bond market cold, with little knowledge of bonds or mortgages and none at all of credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. Yet they’d found a way to see what the expert insiders had missed: that the big Wall Street banks had become so bizarrely organized that it was hard to say where their stupidity ended and their corruption began. This handful of peculiar people had bet directly against the biggest banks on Wall Street, filled with the putatively smartest people, and made billions: how had THAT happened?
To my surprise these peculiar people proved willing to tell me their stories. But when I set out to retell them I ran into a couple of problems. One was the sheer complexity of modern finance: how to explain credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations to my mother? I’m actually not sure that my mother ever read The Big Short—she prefers mysteries—but she has always been my standard: if my mother can’t understand what I’m saying, there’s no point in saying it. The second, related problem was how to get my mother to want to understand credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. It’s never enough to explain complicated things to a reader; the reader needs first to want to know about them. If the thing is seriously complicated, the reader must very badly want to know about it. My job, as I saw it, was to make the reader badly want to know about credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations. The marvelous characters who had foreseen the collapse of the financial system became the solution to both my problems. My reader (so I hoped) would feel it was worth trying to understand credit-default swaps because these enthralling characters were also trying to understand them.
Even then, I wasn’t so sure. One measure of my uncertainty can be found on page 77 of the book, in a footnote. “Dear Reader,” it begins, “If you have followed the story this far, you deserve … a gold star,” and then goes on to apologize for the demands the story had placed on her. It was an apology to my mother.
One problem I distinctly did NOT worry about when I wrote The Big Short was how to write it so that it would become a movie. Who’d make a movie about credit-default swaps? Who for that matter would make a movie of any book of mine? By 2008, when I started gathering string for The Big Short, I had come to think of the movie business as a place that spent huge sums of money with incredible enthusiasm to ensure the movies of books were never made. That year I had the fifth of what had become an annual conversation with Billy Beane, about the Insane Finances of the Movie Business. Billy was the general manager of the Oakland A’s and the main character of another book I’d written, Moneyball. After Moneyball was published, in 2003, some movie people called him to ask if they might buy his “life rights” so they might make a movie of the book. Billy took the movie people at their word: he thought they actually intended to make a movie about his life. The idea disturbed him. The book had already brought him more attention and hassle than he wanted in one lifetime. He would have paid the movie people to prevent the book from becoming a movie. He called me to say as much.
“You’re seeing this entirely the wrong way,” I said, or something like it. “These movie people will send you free money, year after year, so they have time to figure out that they never, ever want to make a movie of your life.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because that’s what they always do. They send you money until they figure out you’re not a movie, only a book.”
That had been my experience for 20 years. The movie people would call to say how excited they were about some book or magazine article I’d written. They’d send me money, frosted with enthusiasm and rumors. (We’re talking to Mike Nichols to direct it! … Marlon Brando wants to play John Gutfreund! … Tom Cruise wants to play you!) And then, one day about two years later, all of it would simply stop—the enthusiasm, the rumors, and eventually the money. It felt like being inside a stock-market bubble, with my story as the object of speculation. I took no offense. I’d done no extra work. They’d paid me for nothing. In every case I felt I had tricked them into buying something they couldn’t use, by writing a “true story.”
The movie people long for “true stories.” The reason for this is not that they long for the truth. Actually, I don’t know the reason for this: it may be as simple as that it is a lot easier to excite other movie people, without demanding they read anything, if you can claim that the story is true. But not all true stories are equally easy to turn into movies. The sort of true stories I write tend to contain long passages about such abstruse subjects as mortgage bonds or baseball statistics. I assumed the movie people, after they had sent me a check, came to their senses and realized how much harder it was to make a movie about mortgage bonds or baseball statistics than to make another Spider-Man.
“Just say yes and take the money before they change their minds,” I told Billy Beane, back in 2003.
By 2008 he was convinced of the genius of my approach to the movie business. The Moneyball movie was clearly never going to happen, and yet every year or so he’d still receive a check, to renew the option. Each time he’d call me, laughing, and saying (roughly), “This is so great! It’s like free money!”
Then something changed. As I was finishing up The Big Short, a writer-director named John Lee Hancock began filming my book The Blind Side. The movie studio that had bought the rights to film it (with the usual unbridled enthusiasm) had secretly decided that it really only wanted to make it if Julia Roberts wanted to be in it, without, apparently, first checking with Julia Roberts. Julia Roberts did not want to be in it. John Lee Hancock had trundled his funny and sad script for The Blind Side all over Los Angeles and been turned down by every studio. The movie executives all said the same thing: the story wasn’t commercial enough. The Blind Side got made into a movie only because Fred Smith, the billionaire founder of Federal Express, knew personally the Tuohy family, the book’s main characters, and thought the whole story was just great, so why shouldn’t it make for a great movie? (It remains a mystery to me why movie people don’t think more like Fred Smith.) The production company Smith bankrolled made The Blind Side for $29 million. (His daughter Molly was the film’s executive producer.) The movie took in $255 million in domestic ticket sales and a lot more in foreign sales and TV rights and DVD sales.
Then, the following year, as I was handing the manuscript of The Big Short to my publisher, Billy Beane called and said, “You bastard, Brad Pitt is on his way to my house. The babysitter showed up wearing a dress, and my wife is putting on makeup.”
I now think of the movie industry not just as a place that pays writers not to make movies of their books. It’s also a place where movies of books happen, but only in response to a specific kind of accident. The accident is when the book collides with one of about 100 people on the planet who either are willing to pay for a movie to be made or have the ability to persuade other people to pay for it. Fred Smith decides he is willing to pay for The Blind Side and, because he has the money, The Blind Side gets made. Brad Pitt decides that he’s going to make Moneyball and, because he can persuade others to pay for it, Moneyball gets made. The writer-director Adam McKay reads The Big Short and tells his agent that he’d really like to make it into a movie, and his agent (this part is just movie-business rumor) tells his (reluctant) movie studio that the director might reconsider his lack of interest in making another Anchorman movie for them if they first let him make The Big Short. And because Adam McKay’s five previous movies have taken in a total of $725 million, while costing just $313.5 million, The Big Short gets made.
My role in making the movies of my books—the role of the author—has been essentially that of a spectator. I think it is fair to say that the people who make movies from books would just as soon that the books’ authors be dead. I don’t take this personally. When it comes time to turn his book into a movie the author has little of value to add and has the power to become a serious nuisance. At a public screening of the first (silent) movie made from The Great Gatsby the Fitzgeralds walked out. During the making of Patriot Games, Tom Clancy declared war on Paramount. There’s a long list of authors who have bitched and moaned about what the movie people have done to their precious works of art. In my view authors who sell the movie rights to their books should just cash the check and shut up. So what if you don’t care for the movie? The people who bought your book didn’t set out to offend you. Sometimes they simply don’t know how to make a good movie; sometimes the movie doesn’t turn out as everyone had hoped; and sometimes the movie is better than your book. If you don’t want your book to be changed in any way, don’t sell the rights to change it.
Oddly, the movie people are slow to make explicit this view, even to themselves. In my experience, no matter how badly an author behaves, they try to keep in mind what they liked and admired about his work and bend over backward to make the author feel as if he has been included in the process of turning his book into a movie. They do this not because they actually care what the author thinks. Deep down they know that an author, if listened to, might cause huge financial losses and destroy countless filmmaking careers. They merely want the author to feel as if he’s been included—in part because it’s a nuisance to have him complaining about the movie in public, but also because they don’t want to seem rude. Movie people are compulsively polite. They might waste your time, and other people’s money, but in any social interaction they almost dare you to be the first person to behave rudely.
Having said all that, the movies that have been made from my books have, in my view, been pretty great. It’s no use trying to shift gears here and claim credit for this. There’s no obvious correlation between the quality of a movie and the quality of the book it springs from: good movies have been made from bad books, just as bad movies have been made from good books. Each of the three times I have sat in the darkened room and watched for the first time a movie of my book I have felt simple delighted surprise. With each movie the surprise has been greater. The Blind Side wasn’t that hard to imagine as a movie—at the heart of the book was a bizarre and moving family drama. Moneyball was hard to imagine as a movie, but at least it was about baseball and thus organically linked to popular culture. Wall Street, even in the aftermath of a financial crisis that has cost so many so much, is not. The behavior of our money people is still treated as a subject for specialists. This is a huge cultural mistake. High finance touches—ruins—the lives of ordinary people in a way that, say, baseball does not, unless you are a Cubs fan. And yet, ordinary people, even those who have been most violated, are never left with a clear sense of how they’ve been touched or by whom. Wall Street, like a clever pervert, is often suspected but seldom understood and never convicted.
It is my hope that Adam McKay’s The Big Short might actually help change this situation. The very material I would have thought would frighten away a movie director McKay embraces. He lucidly explains credit-default swaps and collateralized debt obligations! He captures the essence of the behavior that led to the recent financial catastrophe, and of the main characters of my book—in ways that I suspect will haunt their real-life loved ones. The Big Short is just a movie, but it’s also an invitation, to a huge popular audience, to have a smart and interesting discussion about the place of money and finance in all our lives.
I don’t want to ruin the movie for anyone. But I do want to try to explain, briefly—to myself as much as anyone—how a movie writer and director who has made only five movies, all goofball comedies, has succeeded where others have failed in bridging the gap between Wall Street and popular culture. I can think of three reasons Adam McKay was, oddly, just the man for this job. In ascending order of importance.
(1) He shares an important quality with his Wall Street characters. McKay began his career as a stand-up comedian. He studied improv in Chicago with actor Del Close, whom he still considers the most important teacher he ever had. The improv instinct, to take what you get and to build on it, bears more than a passing resemblance to the behavior of the main characters in The Big Short. They came to a mushrooming financial disaster without any presuppositions. They knew nothing of subprime mortgages, or C.D.O.’s, or the other diabolical contraptions that led to the catastrophe. They weren’t looking for a crisis in housing, or a collapse of the system; they were just looking to respond, cleverly, to what the system proposed. Yes … And. One way to view The Big Short is as an extremely clever improvisational sketch. There is a reason for that: that is how the real people on whom it is based experienced the financial crisis.
(2) An almost pathological lack of the fear of failure and ridicule. In his previous life as head writer at Saturday Night Live, McKay says, he used to think up 20 skits on the assumption that 18 wouldn’t work—but that 2 would. He says he did the same sort of thing as a stand-up comedian, writing dozens of jokes for every one he performed. He never worried too much about his less than great ideas, because he knew he’d be defined only by the great ones, and he never became too attached to any one idea, because he knew he could always find others. He was generous with his own mind, in the way that newly rich people are often openhanded with money, as they know they can always get more. This character trait is essential to The Big Short. There are many effective storytelling tricks in the movie that a filmmaker would never try if he worried about people wondering if he knew what he was doing. McKay’s original script opened with Morgan Freeman filming a commercial for a big Wall Street bank and going on about trust and security, then stopping, turning to the audience, and saying, “Actually, that’s all fucking bullshit.” That was one of a bunch of ideas McKay abandoned—though he kept the idea of the actors’ occasionally addressing the audience directly. Breaking the fourth wall, theater people call this. It’s not entirely respectable, but McKay has taken a hammer and shattered the fourth wall. I don’t think a more rigid or fearful creative person could have had anything like the success McKay has had in getting across the essence of Wall Street.
(3) A total absence of intellectual insecurity. McKay claims to have been a pompous kid, by which he means, I think, he once quoted Céline. Whatever pomposity he had in him has been ground out of him. Finance, as it has grown more complex, almost demands pretention from anyone who tries to explain it. It takes a fierce creative will to come to grips with financial jargon and still resist the temptation to join The Club of People Who Understand Financial Jargon. Whatever else he isn’t, McKay is clearly not clubbable. He’s worked hard to understand Wall Street. But rather than use that understanding as evidence of his own intellectual sophistication he has insisted, almost ruthlessly, on making his understanding comprehensible to others.
“Treat your audience like poets and geniuses and that’s what they’ll become,” Del Close once said to McKay, who obviously took it to heart. He isn’t all that concerned that you think he’s smart, but he’s obviously very concerned that you leave his movie feeling smart. That simple impulse has enabled him to make a movie so important that even the author can’t complain about it. more