One of my favorite films of 2015 was The Big Short, based on the Michael Lewis book The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. So when half of the Academy Award-winning co-writing team visited Emerson for a screening and a Q&A, I simply had to be there.
A guest of Emerson's SPEC student screenwriting group, Charles Randolph was open, personable, and forthcoming about the writing process and working with co-writer/director Adam McKay.
I asked the first question, which was how much of the film is based on the actual people and how much is dramatized?
He replied, "It varies from character to character. There are some that are closer to the real people and others that are further away. All the actors met the real people and Adam is very collaborative, so we tried to incorporate the notes of the real people. In the character of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), you have an unreliable narrator who happens to be telling the truth. It’s a mix. The actors brought a lot to it. Christian Bale’s performance isn’t something you can really write. When it works well, writers can claim a certain amount of credit. But if you don’t start the journey in the right place, the actor will never make it there."
When he was asked what had drawn him to the project, he said, "Two things: Michael Lewis’s book is very good and I’m a huge fan. I marveled at his ability to explain the world and the concepts to us. Also, as a white male of a certain age, I didn’t fully appreciate how much our system is biased towards the wealthy. What was revelatory about 2008 is how many of us now realize that. It’s anger-making and part of it was that I was really pissed off about what happened. Michael Lewis took us through this world and he showed us the most interesting people in it."
Late in the film, when the collapse of Lehman Brothers is dramatized, the two characters Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) gain access to the Lehman Brothers building and find it in a state of complete disarray, complete with retreating employees carrying out boxes of belongings. One of them turns to the other and says, "I thought there would be grown ups here.” What was the significance of that?
Charles responded, "What does each character want? What drives them? Those two guys were outside. They didn’t get to go to New York. They weren't allowed a place at the table. And so they felt it was a function of their youth, a completion of their journey, to enter. They go inside thinking that they were going to find gravitas and dignity, which we expect from banks. Banks have historically a very precise social meaning for us - we trust banks to tell us what proper behavior is in terms of economic management. That’s why banks, if you’re not paying attention, can run up the fees so dramatically. You’re relying on your bank to tell you what you can do with your money. We trusted them to be the great arbiters of best practices in terms of economic management and the fact they were utterly playing us was really interesting. They thought the banks were the grown ups. They thought someone was minding the store. And nobody was. Everyone was pursuing their own self interest and was incapable of transcending that. When bankers can no longer transcend their immediate self interest, you are screwed."
And what of Charles's adaptation of the source material and his professional relationships with the actual people on whom the book was based? Charles said, "I don’t like to meet the real people on whom the story is based. If I have a personal relationship with them then they’re in my head and I worry about what I write about them - am I trying to make them happy?"
The film was also known for being self-referential and breaking the narrative in jarring yet effective moments in which characters would speak directly to the audience. Charles said, "That was Adam's idea. My sense of humor is satirical and smart-alecky. His moments are bigger and more directly farcical. It really works. What’s important is that the device or the trope serves a necessary function in the film and you cannot do it without them. It wouldn’t have gotten made without the ability to stop and tell you what’s going on. It gives you a breather and reminds you of what you’ve learned and reminds you what is true."
Speaking to the creative process at large, Charles explained, "The page does not get any less blank when there’s an Oscar on the mantle. The process of writing is still lonely and painful and implementing strategies of procrastination. The process hasn’t changed much. You get a little more efficient, a little less panicked, and a bit more about getting yourself into it. Doris Lessing said that all writers have two parts: the part that throws things down on the page and an editor on their shoulder, the watcher at the gate - a necessity to cut down on what you do. The biggest thing as you get better is that you learn when you can ignore the editorial consciousness and then come back and use it a bit later. My process has not changed a great deal. You get a little more open and you realize that the key is to get something down. You cannot write in your head. Get something down even if it’s utterly horrible. At least you have a place to start the next day. You become better at living in the mediocrity of the middle for as long as possible. The end result will be better."
How about what the actors themselves brought to the table? "So much about what’s great in this film is not in the script. Our actors all brought their A game. When directors bring such a collaborative, improv experience to the process, everyone wants to play. It ups everybody’s game. Everyone contributes. It only makes the director’s work better."
Charles studied philosophy and was a philosophy professor. Had this background affected his writing? "I got really good at bullshit. I’m naturally hostile to jargon. What are you hiding from me, why are you trying to keep me out?"
As for a final bit of trivia, Charles noted, "Many of the actors wore wigs. It was about giving them an off look, making them outsiders. Like they weren’t polished, not natural to their world."
Plenty to think about from a true professional. If you haven't already, go check out The Big Short! Better yet, go write!
Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.