The film’s narrator, slick talented bond-trader Jared Vennett [Ryan Gosling], realizes Burry’s shocking predictions are correct, and partners with FrontPoint to short the credit defaults market... And it did come tumbling down…
“It's funny because it's true. And it's tragic and frightening for the same reason…” –Brad Wheeler, Globe & Mail
Best Picture Oscar®-nominated THE BIG SHORT is still amazing audiences! In case you missed it, THE BIG SHORT has just been released in Blueray, DVD formats, and on demand streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime!
Based on the best-selling book by Michael Lewis, the film details the true story of four outliers who risked everything to take on the big banks during the greatest financial fraud in US history. A combo of an Instagram-style economics lesson, loathsome skullduggery & larceny, and screwball entertainment, THE BIG SHORT is a montage of moments chronicling the housing-bubble bust that led to the massive economic downturn of 2008…
Hilarious and heartbreaking, THE BIG SHORT reveals and revels! Director Adam McKay and Production Designer Clayton Hartley, two of the great gentlemen of the film world who prove talent and consideration can go together, asked Set Decorator Linda Sutton SDSA*, to join them in the making of this brilliantly scathing tragicomedy.
*[See SET DECOR archives for articles about Sutton's work on the films CRASH, APPALOOSA, and 3 DAYS]
In order to truly tell the story—to paint this mosaic—there were a massive number of scenes and sets. Sutton reveals, “I had 7 weeks prep. We shot for 7 weeks and dressed 165 sets.”
The scenes take place all over the country, particularly in New York, California, Las Vegas, Colorado and Florida, yet most of it was filmed in Louisiana, far away from major studios and prop houses!
“It's definitely a challenge working out of town,” says Sutton, “especially when you have such a fast-paced shooting schedule and only a few weeks to do the research plus try to locate the resources in New Orleans.”
“All in all it was a great experience and I enjoyed every minute of it, but I did bring dressing in from Los Angeles prop houses, such as RC Vintage, History for Hire, Woody's Electrical Props, LCW, Omega Cinema Props, Practical Props, Faux Library, Lennie Marvin’s Prop Heaven, Green Set, Warner Bros. Property, Universal Property and Advanced Liquidators.”
“I also used a great many retail vendors in New Orleans, as well as prop houses such as Nola Props and All A Dat. Lead Joe Bergman was from Los Angeles, but my two Buyers, Set Dressing Coordinator and set dressing crew were all from New Orleans, so I did have local contacts and sources.”
There are wide and deep shots of the sudden failure & emptying of the huge investment firm Lehman Brothers. The gigantic trading floor was created on location…Wall Street in NOLA!
“I started working on this early on because of the magnitude of the set,” Sutton recalls. “I worked with Cort Furniture to create the Herman Miller cubicles – 260 of them! I also ordered computer rails with arms that had to be attached to the cubicles, and subsequently had 260 computers attached to these arms! We had the ticker board installed, built the towers, and then attached the flat screen TVs to the towers.”
Considering the number of scenes shot in the short time span, Director McKay works fast. Sutton laughs, “We spent 2 weeks dressing this set and the film crew shot it in 2 hours with multiple camera setups. I opened the set and then had to go to the office to take care of something. When I came back, they had already completed shooting!”
And then there’s the other side of doing large, involved sets, as Sutton explains. “For the Salomon Brothers set, we wanted to drive the 1979 era with the correct computers, the Teletype machine, the phones, etc. Most of the dressing for this set was brought in from Los Angeles. It was difficult finding the period elements I needed in multiple numbers in New Orleans, so I either brought them in from L.A. or bought items on eBay.”
“There were 36 period desks that had to be decked out in appropriate equipment and dressing, but I think we only saw 5 or 6 desks in the film! Often we have to dress large locations for films and put in multitudes of detail layering that ends up never being seen in the movie…”
McKay says, “One of the biggest challenges throughout the whole movie had to do with making sure our location and settings had a life to them in the way they were shot and designed.”
Sutton points out, “Clayton created boards with research photos and inspirational visuals for each set. We would have group meetings to discuss each set in depth, and I would bring in photos and samples as we created each environment. It was a team effort, a deeply committed and enjoyable process. We just had to move very fast and keep moving, something not inherent to the South!
“We put a lot of attention towards giving each set it's own identity. Because there were so many offices and conference rooms, we had to make each one different yet believable.”
That was especially evident in the key office sets, those of our protagonists:
· Dr. Michael Burry/Scion Capital [Christian Bale]
· Mark Baum/FrontPoint Capital** [Steve Carrell]
· Charlie Geller & Jamie Shipley/Brownfield Capital** [John Magaro, Finn Wittrock] ** These are pseudonyms for the actual people & firms
As Sutton notes, “There was a great deal of research done for each of the sets, which were based on actual people, but some of the names of the participants and their companies were changed for the film.”
Dr. Michael Burry/Scion Capital…
Burry, described as “a San Jose-based neurologist-turned-money-manager, with a glass eye and a penchant for showing up to work barefoot,” allowed full usage.
McKay proffers, “Michael Burry is the guy who really started this. He’s the one who saw it before anyone else. He’s this amazing value investor, who does meticulous research. He follows the logic. He doesn’t respond to what is popular. He doesn’t respond to the guy in the $7000 suit who’s charismatic. He purely looks at the numbers…and he found this flaw in the housing market: the mortgage-back securities, the derivatives…”
Actor Christian Bale met with Burry, “Mike does not interact with other people very much, but he’s one of the most brilliant, heartfelt and sincere men I have ever come across…”
“And Michael Burry was the only one who sent us photos of his office,” says Sutton, thus allowing a close depiction. “Michael loved heavy metal and the only photos he had in his office were of his wife and son. Everything in his office served a purpose or had a personal meaning for him.”
Mark Baum/FrontPoint Capital…
At the story’s moral center is the rage-filled hedge-fund manager Mark Baum who runs Morgan Stanley subsidiary FrontPoint. Actor Steve Carrell says, “Mark has a very strong moral compass, yet at the same time he’s immersed in the world of Wall Street, so in that way I think he’s tortured... Shorting the housing market starts out as a kind of ‘screw-you’ to the banks — he’s going to prove these guys wrong. But in the end, what does that victory mean in terms of human collateral? Who is really hurt? Mark is conflicted because he makes a ton of money from the banks that are screwing over ordinary middle-class people. That’s a tough thing for him to resolve.”
Carrell describes the film, “It’s not dry, it’s not a documentary, it’s alive. It’s a huge story—there are so many elements and components. It seems like a huge piece of history that seems to have drifted away in the public conscious. It’s an important piece of recent history and it’s outrageous.”
Jeremy Strong, who plays one of Baum’s key team members, says, “It’s got this kinetic energy, sharp characters with strong objectives.”
Which, adding in their deeply-rooted sense of skepticism, would be an exact description of Baum’s team as well…
All glass and steel high-rise angles, “Baum’s and his FrontPoint team’s office was inspired by the fact that we knew they all sat together where they could converse with each other,” says Sutton. This was a street-smart group with enough moxie, skills and insight to see through the haze.
Charlie Geller & Jamie Shipley/Brownfield Capital…
McKay notes, “There’s FrontPoint the blue-collar, middleclass, Burry who’s kind of the brilliant far-off mind and then you have the two young guys with a really smart, brilliant investment strategy but they’re totally outsiders, coming from a different state, moving to NY.”
The young indie upstarts, college buddies from Colorado whose “garage band” fund was started with their own money, want to play in the big leagues. In keeping with the name of their fledgling hedge fund company, the set is in muted earth tones, the their furnishings are all wood…and cardboard boxes! It was also almost colorless, as if they had yet to define themselves. “We knew we wanted to create a younger, more casual look to their surroundings,” Sutton smiles, “thus, the foosball machine and other age-appropriate accouterments…
Actor John Magaro adds, “[They’re] young bucks who function as Everyman characters in the film. They don’t really know what they’re getting into so they figure things out as they go. I imagine a lot of people in the audience will also be learning as they watch the movie.”
The young investors enlist ex-banker, now environmental-doomsayer Ben Rickert [Brad Pitt] to help them secure an ISDA master agreement, which will allow them to bypass brokers and deal directly with the big banks. We get to see Rickert’s mountain retreat before he leads them through the maze of financial institutions and Las Vegas odds.
Breaking the wall…
Because THE BIG SHORT takes place within an industry riddled with obtuse terminology, McKay knew he needed an entertaining way to clarify some core concepts for the audience. “Bankers do everything they can to make these transactions seem really complicated, so we came up with the idea of having celebrities pop up on the screen throughout the movie and explain things directly to the audience.” Fun sets and scenes ensued.
Serving double duty as the film’s narrator, and the catalyst for the FrontPoint group’s awareness, slick Deutsche Bank dealmaker Jared Vennett [Ryan Gosling] at times addresses the audience directly.
Gosling sparked to the challenges of using his character’s surface charm to bring clarity to a widely misunderstood story. “The inspiration that made me want to be part of this film came from the way it treats the audience as smart people,” he says. “So much Wall Street terminology is designed to take advantage of consumers. The way Adam tells this story helps you understand what really happened.”