In Praise Of ‘The Big Short’ And Its Open-Source Approach To Non-Fiction

The Big Short
is the third of Michael Lewis’ bestselling books — after The Blind Side and Moneyball —  to become a film, and I’ll admit, I never expected that the first director to do him justice would be the guy from Stepbrothers. Awards season tends to be painfully predictable, but Adam McKay has served up that rare pleasant surprise. In order to do that, he had to depart significantly from conventional movie wisdom, and his producer and distributor (Plan B productions and Paramount) had to give him the freedom to do so. That they gave McKay the project in the first place suggests that they weren’t looking for the same old prestige picture. They didn’t get one, and the movie, maybe even the world, is better for it.

Whether The Big Short represents a subtle evolution in the types of non-fiction movies Hollywood makes or a great leap forward, the exciting thing about it is that it’s open source (in the sense that it’s open with its sources, not that it works on any platform). All biopics and based-on-a-true-story movies are a blend of fact and fiction. What’s different about The Big Short is that it’s consistently transparent about which is which.

Surely part of the reason that Adam McKay, his co-writer Charles Randolph, and the rest of The Big Short crew came up with an interesting solution is that they had a unique problem. Normally, trying to turn a Michael Lewis book into a feature film is your basic square peg/round hole situation. The narrative feature film, at least, the ones we’re used to seeing (and the ones that execs are used to greenlighting) is inherently geared toward fiction. The beauty of Lewis’ books is that they aren’t fiction. They aren’t even semi-fictionalized, in that they aren’t “non-fiction novels” in the Truman Capote mold, where the writer applies traditional fiction storytelling to a “true” story. (I use quotations here because if you read In Cold Blood, it’s hard to go more than a few sentences without running into something Capote invented wholesale, whether it be the thoughts of a character he never interviewed, or the feeling of the breeze in a time and place he didn’t experience.)

If you’re into that, fine, but it’s not what Lewis does. That level of artifice is missing, which makes his books feel simultaneously modern and timeless. They’re meticulously researched and cleverly structured, and they don’t use manufactured melodrama or creative liberty to try to spice up the story (or even florid prose – compare Lewis to, say, Erik Larson). The entertainment value comes strictly from lucid storytelling, choice of subject, researching the necessary backstory, and structuring it all in a way that makes it a page-turner. And he’s brilliant at it. I always burn through a new Michael Lewis title in a week or less, even if I previously couldn’t have given two sh*ts about baseball, or sabermetrics, or the offensive tackle position, or high-frequency trading, or whatever. His skill is taking something that’s interesting to him and translating it, in as straightforward a way as possible, to you. Who wouldn’t want that same quality in a movie?

The trouble is, his books end up being probably 70 percent exposition and 30 percent narrative, in a way that works on the page but doesn’t translate so easily to the scene-driven format of narrative film. Here’s Lewis talking about selling Moneyball, from the L.A. Times:

When the popular author sold his 2003 baseball analytics bestseller “Moneyball” to Columbia Pictures, the book’s primary subject, Oakland Athletics executive Billy Beane, balked at selling his own rights.

“I said, ‘Billy, don’t worry. It’ll just be an annuity. People will be [spending] years writing a screenplay, but nothing will ever happen,'” Lewis remembers. “And, for years, that looked to be the case.”

The solution to adapting Michael Lewis books in the past has been to just sort of smoosh it into the traditional prestige-movie format, no matter how sloppy the fit. To take his cleverly structured non-fiction, restructure it, cut out most of the exposition, and fill it full of wholly-invented character drama. To turn Michael Lewis into Truman Capote, essentially.

From strictly a money standpoint, it’d be hard to argue that this method hasn’t been successful. The Blind Side earned $309 million worldwide, Moneyball brought in another $110 million, and both received numerous Oscar nominations. But for any fan of Lewis’ sober, unadorned prose, watching Sandra Bullock say “Nope, he’s changin’ mahne” or Brad Pitt cry about his daughter singing him a song in a guitar store is guaranteed to make you want to puke.

Just like fiction can do things non-fiction can’t, the reverse is true. You can’t separate the entertainment value of Lewis’ stories from the fact that they happen in the same world that you, the viewer, live in. A wild coincidence in non-fiction is amazing; the same thing in fiction is just sh*tty writing. In the same way, if you start blending the amazing coincidences, foreshadowings, and character vignettes in Lewis’ meticulously researched non-fiction with scenes you just made up, and we can’t tell which is which, they tend to lose a lot of their luster. They go from something amazing to something suspicious. The tendency to not “jump out of the story” actually takes you out of the story.

Of course, the way Lewis writes, you have to invent scenes to turn his books into a movie. It’s just that in the past, those invented scenes have kind of sucked. It’s hard to hear “You’re changin’ that boy’s life/Nope, he’s changin’ mine” without thinking of “I don’t want. Your lahfe,” from Varsity Blues. And I doubt anyone would’ve made a comparison between Mox and Leigh Anne Tuoy in the book, or in real life.

In The Big Short, Adam Mckay and Charles Randolph had an even bigger challenge. It wasn’t just baseball or the offensive line they were trying to explain, but credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations – things that are, by their very nature, designed to be too confusing for the layman to understand, and too dull for the layman to ever want to find out. They solved this problem in two ways: the first, metaphors, metaphors, metaphors. Ryan Gosling playing Jenga marked with “A” and “B” to explain the tranches in a mortgage-backed security, for instance. The second is a sort of fourth-wall-breaking direct address, where Gosling (who narrates the entire movie) just says “Now here’s Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain credit default swaps,” and the next bit is Margot Robbie in a bathtub explaining credit default swaps.

Does it feel a little cutesy? Sure. But at least it’s an attempt at a different approach to this kind of non-fiction. One that’s more transparent. It’s not trying to hide the seams, where documented events end and creative liberties begin. McKay and Randolph’s simple, but rather elegant solution to the problem of an author who just talks to you, was to write a movie that just talks to you. Why not? A few times during the story, Gosling’s voiceover will take a brief pause in the action, to say “Now, you’re not going to believe that it really happened this way, but it did,” or “Okay, so this isn’t exactly what happened, what actually happened went like this…” and just tell you which parts are invented.

The old conventional wisdom was that jumping outside the text like this would make the action somehow anti-climactic. The reality is the opposite. With someone telling you “Now this part actually happened,” you end up leaning in, rather than letting it all wash over you in one long ambiguous wave.

That’s not the only way to go open-source (Selma and American Splendor had their own open-source elements as well), but the point is, a lot of times, all we need is an occasional signpost to power down our internal bullsh*t detectors. Thirty years ago, maybe audiences would’ve watched Argo and taken that entire scene at the end, where the Iranians, packed into a jeep with their rifles at the ready, are literally chasing the diplomats’ plane down the runway, at face value. These days, everyone’s a little more savvy, a little more cynical, a little more used to being constantly lied to, so that the scene reads as a blatant embellishment, if not an outright invention. And in that way, what was supposed to be the most thrilling moment of the film ended up being the least.

If you want to see what the traditional, monolithic approach to non-fiction looks like, where the film demands blind trust in the filmmaker, look no further than Steve Jobs. Walking out of the theater, I overheard at least three different variations of “That was really well done, but I wonder what really happened?”

Every review seems to agree that Steve Jobs was some variation of “well done,” or “high quality.” Fassbender is “incandescent” according to Yahoo Tech. Steve Wozniak said:

“This movie was just top-notch professional,” Wozniak said. “The script, the words they said, how well the actors played it, and the cinematography — following them along through the halls. I wasn’t familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s work because I don’t watch television, so this was the first time I saw it. Unbelievable to me.”

“If Steve Jobs were making movies as his product, this is the quality he would’ve had, absolutely,” he added. [EW]

This while admitting that the movie version was “not how Jobs acted in any way.”

The question I’m sure plenty of people are asking at this point is, “if it’s a good story, who cares if it’s true?”

Well, if you read between the lines of the most common praise for Steve Jobs, it sounds a lot like what people are really saying is that it’s a sparkly version of something that they’ve seen before. “Really high quality” is a compliment usually applied to a blender, not a story, a film, a piece of art or entertainment. People didn’t go in expecting to see a story about Steve Jobs, they went in expecting the usual Aaron Sorkin movie mixed with the usual biopic. That’s why, once the awards horserace handicappers filtered out (Jobs had the highest per-screen average of any film this year in limited release before being pulled due to lackluster sales in wide release) the general public’s enthusiasm for it was, shall we say, muted.

Part of that surely has to due with the disconnect between the awards movie promotion machine and the general public, but I would argue that part of it had to do with the structure of the movie. Now, I know Jobs was supposed to be a “portrait,” an “impressionist painting” and “not a photograph,” and whatever other metaphors Aaron Sorkin used in interviews. The point is that, in so liberally mixing fact and fiction, and more importantly, not differentiating between the two, he can’t fully utilize either. We can never fully enjoy Sorkin’s inventions and dialogue unbound from a set outline, and we can never fully appreciate the events he’s depicting without a big grain of salt.

For instance, at one point in Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs has a flashback to the time he met his biological father, and the film is a little ambiguous on this point, but the guy seems to be the manager of one of Jobs’ favorite restaurants. He’d met the guy years before, not knowing it was his father. In a film where virtually every scene could’ve been subtitled “Daddy Issues,” this just seemed like too ridiculous a coincidence. I rolled my eyes and chalked it up as yet another too-slick Sorkin invention.

The sad part is, when I started doing a little cursory Steve Jobs research for this piece, I discovered that the part about Steve Jobs unwittingly meeting his father in a restaurant was actually true. What a fascinating moment. But in the context of the movie, where Steve Jobs’ daughter finds the MacPaint drawing that he’d saved for all these years right as she was about to give up hope on him, the restaurant moment rated barely a dismissive wank.

Which isn’t to say that Sorkin is the ultimate representative of the old approach; one of the best parts of The Social Network was at the end, where it reframes the entire story as one guy’s memory of events, rather than an objective rendering. It wasn’t open source, but it was a clever, simple way to excuse its own slickness.

Point is, I have no idea whether The Big Short will end up being more successful than Steve Jobs, or successful at all (signs are still promising). But I hope it will, because it’s a great example of what can happen when filmmakers ask what a movie adaptation can be, rather than what it has been. Could filmmakers eventually use this open-source format to make a movie that’s twice as full of sh*t as The Blind Side? Sure. And then filmmakers will have to get creative and find new ways to adapt. It’s just exciting to watch a format evolve. If it doesn’t, awards season might as well be a contest to see who made the best blender.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.