Before Bernie Sanders ever talked about the movie The Big Short on the campaign trail, the democratic socialist’s campaign staff was actively reaching out to the film’s director, seeking a Hollywood ally and surrogate.
“I had donated to [Bernie’s] campaign, and had talked about doing a fundraiser...when he announced,” Adam McKay, who directed and co-wrote The Big Short (and Anchorman, and The Other Guys, and Talladega Nights), told The Daily Beast during his swing through Washington, D.C., this week.
“As the movie came out, the campaign contacted me a couple times and my response was I think I should just step away at this point. I’d rather have [my] movie play clean than have an active Bernie Sanders campaigner at the helm because I think it’s really important that the movie play across partisan lines. I think this movie can do more good [that way].”
McKay—a high-profile and outspoken Hollywood liberal on economic issues, human rights, and climate change—has also received calls recently from Team Hillary. But when Hillary Clinton supporters in Los Angeles asked him to come to her side in the Democratic primary, the filmmaker opted to continue Feeling The Bern instead.
“I loved that [Bernie] doesn’t take money from big banks, oil companies, or billionaires,” he said. “I was so sick of our politicians getting paid by these huge, moneyed interests.” (However, he still hates the allegedly “self-funding” Donald Trump, who he calls a “big fat hack.”)
McKay’s critically lauded (and now Oscar-nominated) ensemble comedy—based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book and starring Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling—takes viewers through the housing bubble and the makings of the Great Recession with clenched-fist outrage and scathing humor. The movie and McKay have won fans not only on the 2016 campaign trail and in Congress, but also among conservative commentators and Fox News hosts.
Greta Van Susteren thought the film was brilliant and told McKay that she had “a million reasons” for why she adored it. Bill O’Reilly plugged The Big Short on Twitter, and had McKay on his Fox show. (McKay’s website Funny or Die has mocked O’Reilly before, of course.)
“This isn’t a right-left movie,” McKay insisted. “There was this line where Brad Pitt says, after they find out that the SEC isn’t really doing anything, just under his breath, ‘Hey, they wanted small government. They got it.’”
McKay and his editor ultimately left that line on the cutting room floor, simply because they did not want it to be construed as partisan or against small-government conservatism.
The director is taking this bipartisan approach all the way to the Senate. This week, he met with Sen. Elizabeth Warren at her office on Capitol Hill. Warren, a big fan of the movie (naturally), took the time to touch base with the 47-year-old director, who had previously done work supporting Warren’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “The Big Short should add energy to the push for real accountability in our broken financial system,” the senator said, endorsing the movie.
“[I told her] if there’s ever a big push for legislation in the future that tangibly helps working people, maybe we can help out,” McKay said. “It was a pleasure to meet her.”
Next month, McKay is heading back to DC to attend a special screening of The Big Short at the Senate that’s scheduled for February 10. He said that two Republican senators, including Johnny Isakson, are co-hosting the event.
“Even though we’re meeting with Elizabeth Warren, we found that this movie plays quite well on the right,” he said. “Even James Woods [loved it] and he’s very right-wing.”
Beyond writing media and political satire (which includes his days as head of the Saturday Night Live writers’ room) McKay has been a bit of a player in progressive politics for years. Funny or Die, a comedy website he co-founded with frequent collaborator Will Ferrell, is trying to position itself in 2016 to become part of the big-money political lobbying game. Previously, the website helped save Obamacare.
Like, actually. It did.
Leading up to the unveiling of HealthCare.gov, Funny or Die produced a number of pro-Obamacare segments starring movie and TV stars. After the disastrous launch, the comedy site posted a “Between Two Ferns” episode, in which Zach Galifianakis “interviewed” President Obama. The segment included a link to the Obamacare website, quickly making Funny or Die that day’s biggest source of referrals to the Affordable Care Act page—right at a time when Obama’s signature law needed to be rescued the most.
“I told our producers who put that [episode] together, ‘The people who get health coverage from this, you’re literally going to save lives,’” McKay recalled.
The Obama White House has been grateful to McKay and Funny or Die ever since, and the administration still maintains close and friendly contact with the website staff.
McKay has also dabbled in international human-rights activism—and managed to bring hope and support to a young American jailed abroad.
In December 2013, Shezanne “Shez” Cassim, an American citizen and amateur comedian, was jailed in a maximum-security prison in the United Arab Emirates, where he had been detained since April of that year. His crime was posting his comedy video to YouTube that the government said threatened the Arab country's national security. (It didn’t.) Cassim began to lose all hope, until his sister got him a message that, he told me, changed everything:
When Funny or Die staff heard that a young Minnesotan (who happened to be a Funny or Die mega-fan) was rotting in jail for doing precisely what they do professionally, they felt they had to show solidarity. McKay and Ferrell rounded up celebrity friends and fellow comedians to launch a “#FreeShez” campaign to raise money for his legal defense.
"It's one thing to have a bad sense of humor, it's another thing to lock people up because of it," McKay said, in a #FreeShez video.
"[That] was the turning point," Cassim, who was released in January 2014 after nine months behind bars, said. "It's when I finally felt hopeful. To have these superstar celebrities supporting me, I felt safe."
It’s stories like this one that McKay calls “so satisfying” and “the greatest thing in the world”—the fact that, however occasionally, there are moments when silly comedy and sillier comedians actually do make some measure of difference in the world.
“There was this article I read about a guy who was the sole survivor of a shooting,” McKay recounted. “I saw in the article that he had said he watched Anchorman every single day, and that it kept his spirits up. So, Ferrell and I sent him a basket of our favorite comedies with a note saying, ‘Keep laughing.’”
McKay and Ferrell later read in a local paper that the man had been excited to receive their care package. “It was an amazing story to see someone using one of our movies to lift their spirits through such a dark tragedy,” he said.
And as McKay mulls his next big project, it remains undecided whether or not his follow-up will be as political or topical as his most recent outing.
One possibility? His biopic on Lee Atwater (which for years has been relegated to "the back burner"), the notorious, party-boy Republican strategist (and bluesman) who worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and served as RNC chairman.
McKay says he hopes to pitch the movie, or miniseries, to HBO.
“Everything [Atwater] touched sort of changed the landscape of how leaders are elected in our country,” he said five years ago. “And at the same time, there's nothing preachy about our story. Lee Atwater is a great way to dig into how things have changed in a funny, disturbing way that's not remotely preachy.”
For now, it’s onto the Oscars.