The Big Short: A Remarkable Winner

The Big Short

The Big Short won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s tremendously cool, and a well-earned honor for screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph. This film almost deserves a special Oscar for the studio executives who green-lit the production. Imagine the pitch:

“Okay, we’ve got a 300-page ultra-detailed nonfiction book that explains number for number what caused the Great Recession brought on by the real estate mortgage crisis that temporarily wiped out about half the value of equity in American homes and half the value of global stock trading in practically every segment of the market.

“Wait, wait, now it gets good! The protagoniststhe guys who winare quirky, real-life speculators who make an outrageous fortune betting against the economy of their own nation, and when they are proven right and the market collapses, they make an unconscionable amount of money when 99.5% of the population gets financially wiped out!

“Wait, waitand they’re heroes because they saw it coming and no one would listen to them when they tried to tell a few important people that the collapse was inevitable, but since none of the important people would listen to them, after the crash they all go on to be celebrities who receive honorary degrees and big consulting fees from anyone who can get them to answer their phones.

“No, no, waitand because this movie is an absolute downer and cannot possibly be construed as commercial in any mainstream way, let’s double down on the budget and get the biggest movie stars we can to play the quirky few who saw it coming and their equally surreal foils, I mean, really, really, really big names like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez. And I’m not saying get one of them or a few of themGET ALL OF THEM! Hell, if we’re going out in style, let’s go crazy nuts wild freaky insanethis can be a way bigger disaster than Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, The Lone Ranger, or John Carter. If it fails it’ll be a legendary bomb!”

And you know what? The darn thing worked. It worked on every level. Gutsy, imaginative, informative, authentic, honest, funny, creepy, haunting, accusatory, indictinga perfect motion picture for our time for the movie lovers who maybe have had enough Marvel superheroes for a while yet can’t quite push themselves to go to the theater and read translated subtitles.

The Big Short is a mainstream movie of immense intelligence, integrity, and craftsmanship. It’s the kind of movie like All The President’s Men and Silkwood that we just don’t see anymore. How about that? They put something thought-provoking with movie stars on the screen and we paid the price of admission! Maybe we were desperate for good dialogue, maybe we were desperate for an explanation of what happened, or maybe there still is a market for smart flicks that educate while they entertain without being preachy, polemic, or polarizing.

Credit the immense genius of Michael Lewis, forever one of my literary heroes, who wrote the brilliant book upon which the screenplay is based. Lewis has been knocking out spectacular investigative nonfiction in the style of narrative fiction since his debut almost three decades ago with Liar’s Poker. I don’t think Lewis is capable of writing a bad book. He’s that good! Maybe the studio execs rolled the dice because of the monster success of Lewis’s Moneyball and The Blind Side, two more incredibly unlikely adaptations for the screen that brought big ideas into the hearts and minds of popcorn lovers everywhere. We like to say all great drama begins on the page. Lewis proves it empirically, one platform removed, again and again and again.

Lewis teaches, Lewis engages, Lewis forces us to think while never threatening us, embarrassing us, or chastising us. He sees real-life people as characters whose stories are on par with fiction because of the layering in their motivations. We see arcs in the lives of people we come to know for their strengths, weaknesses, curiosities, and aspirations. We grow as they grow. We fail as they fail. We are redeemed as they are redeemed. That is great storytelling in any form of media. In The Big Short, we celebrate the art of illuminationseeing what we all should have seen but only a few of us actually did. Now in hindsight we see it together, and with any luck we bond together to prevent the evil from returning.

The very act of successfully adapting this literary work to a visual medium is worthy of celebrationbut wait, there’s more! We are also fond of saying “the eyes are the window to the soul.” When you watch The Big Short on the big screen for two or so hours, you see an unending array of eyes but almost no souls of any kind. That is very, very hard to do. We watch our speculators conniving in complex equations that will expose our undoing, and yet no matter how many times the camera grabs a close-up, all we see are lust, greed, ego, and hubris. How are actors capable of pulling off that detachment in shot after abstract shot, initially unedited, created out-of-order, and only theoretically connected by singular motivation to be correct? They are human, but beyond the bounds of humanity, except in knowing they haven’t done anything badthey’ve simply take the spoils of opportunism, milking something bad. That’s unique to film, seeing the eyes over and over again but not penetrating what isn’t there, until the ultimate redemption, when reality unlocks public pain in one full swing of the broadsword. Gasp.

Are we strong enough and knowledgable enough to take action from a cautionary tale? Lewis thinks we are. I think so too. I’m guessing a lot of moviegoers would agree, transformed as they were from the dark to the light, from confusion to enlightenment when the house lights came up and the real world welcomed their demand for reform.

Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo, studio executives. Encore! Please, encore!

_____

This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Paramount Pictures.

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About This Book of Mine

Pre-Order on AmazonI have mentioned now and again that I have been working on a novel for a few years.  It’s time to share a few more details.

First of all the title: This Is Rage.  You will discover why I called it that if you read the sample excerpt on my teaser site and other fine channels we will be utilizing in the coming months, like Amazon or Barnes and Noble, where you can currently place your pre-order that will be shipped when the book is officially released on October 8, 2013.  Shameless, I know, but I am officially in the pull marketing business effective immediately.

There are two protagonists in the story, who are also both antagonists, at least to each other.  They are each hero and villain in the broader context of economic turmoil, which they aspire to improve, but not surprisingly mess up on high-octane, mostly by accident.  Kimo Balthazer is a disgraced radio talk show host, who seeks redemption in the obtuse netherworld of internet webcasting.  Daniel Steyer is a venture capitalist at the top of his game, looking to go out huge with the deal of a lifetime, but market forces have other plans.  That’s not the order in which you will meet them, and you’ll find out why.  At the outset they don’t know each other exists.  They don’t even know each other’s world exists.  But they soon do.  And they don’t like each other.  At all.

I am going to do the right thing and not toss out any spoilers, but I can say that you will spend some time in Silicon Valley, some time in Los Angeles, and some time in Washington D.C.  You will be introduced to the world of Investors, Bankers, and Operators, the three points of an ever-forming triangle that comes with its own hierarchy, rule set, chaos, and politics.  You will also meet a curious politician with a tangential agenda, a conflicted movie studio boss, the co-founders of one of the most successful tech-start-ups ever, and a pair of would-be entrepreneurs turned criminals whose interpretation of thinking different is not quite what their families had in mind.  You will be invited into board meetings and venture partner meetings.  You will hear the voice of Kimo in your head.  You will see what happens when ego and presumption run amok, and the notion of control spirals into hyper normalcy, where random boo-boos add up big time, and the consequences are strangely real and familiar.

My key influence for this book is Tom Wolfe, whose first novel Bonfire of the Vanities blew my mind in ways that still shake me to the core.  I didn’t know what a bond trader was the first two years I was in college.  Then I saw a bunch of guys my age lining up in blue suits to be interviewed to become one.  They went to Wall Street and became extraordinarily wealthy selling paper promises to their clients.  Then came the broad implosion of junk debt.  Michael Lewis, whom I also tremendously admire, made his debut as an author writing about this phenomenon.  I saw the impact on my friends, I saw the impact on New York, and I felt the impact on our economy.  What I admire to this day about Wolfe’s work was how he wove storytelling through the observational narrative, migrating the educational lesson to character development, and burying the polemic in a moral tale for the ages.  I was studying theater at the time, without notion of how I might fit into the business world, or even if I could make a living given what I valued.

A quarter century later we seem to have forgotten the fall of the junk bond kings.  The miracle of Silicon Valley has replaced the lustre of Wall Street and the allure of Hollywood.  I have played my whole career in this fantastic environment of innovation, the arranged marriage of technology and media brokered by the matchmaker financiers, and the output had been invigorating.  We have created jobs, opportunities, and a good deal of wealth — but not for everyone.  In the same way that Wolfe and his New Journalism looked beyond the restaurants and clubs and luxury high-rise suites, I have seen the scary trailing the good.  Where there is big money there are big personalities, and where there is a win-lose battle fought daily, often those who lose are the secondary foils who play by the rules without insight into the eccentric ecosystem.

That is the story I wanted to tell.  That’s why I wrote a business novel instead of a non-fiction set of adages.  This was something I needed to do, part of the continuum of my journey.  I started my career in storytelling, then helped bring storytelling into computer games, then found my way into profit and loss, and now I come full circle.  I needed a way to bring these elements together, to find a synthesis of my passions, which include the theatrical, the financial, the philosophical, the hope of justice, and a touch of dark humor (hopefully more than a touch!).

In the coming months I will tell you more about the publishing journey, but I cannot conclude this project announcement without a sincere thank you to my brilliant editor, Lou Aronica, under whose independent imprint The Story Plant my book is being published.  Lou is a Mensch in every sense of the word (Google it if that’s unfamiliar to you).  He has been a steadfast believer in This is Rage since we met each other last year on Twitter.  It’s not just the notes that he gives me, it’s the way he communicates his viewpoint that makes me want to rewrite a fourth time when he is only asking for the third.  I think Lou, a bestselling author himself, is at the forefront of New Publishing in the same way Wolfe wanted New Journalism to embrace the opportunities of Creative Destruction as a positive force for change.  Wherever this journey takes us, I am delighted to be paddling alongside a friend on this whitewater river of 21st century digital publishing — with a paperback to boot.

So that’s the introductory story of my novel.  It’s my first, I hope not my last, and I welcome you to come along and share the journey with us.  It’s for you, and it’s about you.  I hope to entertain, and maybe share an idea or two as the whitewater rises.

This is Rage.