The Creative Habits Of Adam McKay, Director Of “The Big Short” And “Anchorman”

As The Big Short generates award buzz, director Adam McKay discusses how he works and the critical factor in choosing ideas.

The Creative Habits Of Adam McKay, Director Of “The Big Short” And “Anchorman”
Christian Bale and Director Adam McKay on the set of The Big Short [Photos: Jaap Buitendijk, courtesy of Paramount Pictures]

In the past, Adam McKay had to bake his political statements into the thematic background of his movies. There’s a sharp sendup of George W. Bush’s American exceptionalism lurking in the high comedy of Talladega Nights, for instance, and beneath the buddy cop parody veneer, The Other Guys is a scathing critique of the close relationship between Wall Street and federal government regulators. With The Big Short, however, McKay finally has the creative freedom to go the other way, keeping the comedy relatively low key, and bringing the message to the foreground.

Adam McKayPhoto: Miller Mobley

The Big Short is the second project in the past year that has found McKay flexing his range beyond the kind of comedies he’s made with Will Ferrell–the kind that dominated the early 2000s and are destined to be screened in colleges for as long as there are colleges. The other film, Ant-Man, marked his successful screenwriting entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a script he co-wrote with that film’s star, Paul Rudd. (Peyton Reed directed.) Although comedy has been in McKay’s blood ever since his stint as head writer on SNL and even before then when he cut his teeth as an original member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, he has begun following his restless creative muse wherever it takes him. In this latest case, it took him to a place where the concept of “Synthetic Collateralized Debt Obligations” had to be explained in a palatable, entertaining way. No easy feat.

As we enter award season and speculate, Wall Street-style, on whether the star-packed Big Short will bring home any statues, Co.Create talked with McKay about his work habits and how he avoids going bust, creatively.

Where And When I Work

“I started writing the first couple movies in hotel rooms mostly,” McKay says, “because people will leave you alone. So Will [Ferrell] and I wrote Anchorman and Talladega Nights in a hotel, the old Wyndham Bel Age on San Vicente and Sunset. But I got a new house a couple years ago, and I actually have an office, and I love it. So I usually start in the office at around 10:30. The first half of the day is usually the prep, it’s always the outlining, figuring out what I’m gonna do, and then after lunch I see if I can get a good four to five hours of writing. That’s a solid day. Sometimes you end up doing more, sometimes you end up doing less, but that’s the structure.”

The Power of Deadlines

“I don’t think I could write without deadlines,” McKay says. “I’ll even make the studio give me a deadline sometimes. They’ll say, ‘Just let us know when you’re done,’ and I’ll say, ‘I should probably have it done by February 10th, right?’ And they’ll say ‘Sure,’ and I’ll say ‘Okay, that’s the deadline.’ It’s kind of arbitrary, but it helps.”

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, 2004Photo: courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures

On Not Forcing Inspiration, But Fixing What’s Preventing It

“Usually if I’m feeling uninspired, I know it’s a structural issue. My storytelling is off,” McKay says. “Once you get that storytelling clicking, you should be able to surf it. Doesn’t mean that everything you write is gonna be gold, but you should have momentum, so if I’m really stuck I’ll go back to my outline and look at it and see if everything makes sense, and ‘Why can’t I make this jump into this next scene? Why does this scene feel painful?’ So I kind of go back to the structure of it, the support beam, if I get stuck.”

The Deciding Factor On an Idea

“We have a production company, so there’s a lot of projects where it may be my idea, and I have to decide if I’m gonna produce but I don’t direct,” McKay says. “My simple test is, it takes about a year and a half–sometimes a little less, [The Big Short] was less–but generally, it takes a year and a half to make a movie, so I always seriously ask myself ‘Can I have this be my life for the next year and a half? Am I interested enough, am I excited enough, is there enough meat here that I want to do a year and a half? And the other question is: ‘Do I have to direct it?’ Could there be someone else who could direct it and do just as good a job? In the case of Ant-Man, Paul Rudd and I rewrote it and they got Peyton Reed to direct it, and he directed everything we wrote as good as or better than how we wrote it. And I thought, ‘How nice is this?’ When that happens, that’s the greatest treat there is.”