A few weeks back, the media was abuzz with rumors that a certain Hollywood A-lister might be set to make a cameo appearance in the upcoming film adaptation of Michael Lewis’ financial bestseller, The Big Short. The role would see the actor/mogul play himself, and the scene would see him trading stocks in front of the cameras.
While The Big Short may be generating a buzz in Hollywood, it’s actually one of the weaker films to come out of the 2010s. And the fact that it’s one of the few movies of the past decade that isn’t pure fluff makes it even more intriguing.
Set in the world of high-stakes stock trading in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, The Big Short covers a lot of ground. From the perspective of an ex-hedge fund manager (Steve Carell) who decides to make a living playing the stock market, the film follows a series of intertwined stories that cover topics such as subprime mortgages, the US housing market, and the financial services industry. In the end, it’s a tale of greed, corruption, and, most importantly, unintended consequences.
While it may not live up to the hype surrounding it, The Big Short is a rare breed among Wall Street movies: It actually manages to walk the line between entertainment and education, and doesn’t feel like marketing fluff. In fact, the only movie that comes close is probably Margin Call, one of the very first Hollywood movies to dive into the world of high-frequency trading and its consequences. Ultimately, we might say that The Big Short is Wall Street’s answer to The Social Network.
The Making of The Big Short
The making of The Big Short is something to behold. In it, we follow the ups and downs of the film’s production, from conception to the final cut. Thanks to a new documentary-style approach from co-writer/director Adam McKay, we are given unique insight not only into the making of the film, but also into the world of high-stakes Wall Street speculation that was transformed by the financial crisis of 2007-2008.
McKay brings a seasoned eye for detail to the process, as well as a flair for the dramatic that makes every moment feel important and nothing but the best for the project. This is immediately apparent as we watch the director and co-writer grapple with the various challenges that arise throughout the production process.
The biggest issue that the crew faces, aside from a seemingly impossible schedule, is the paucity of real-life hedge fund managers who are willing to play themselves in a film. While they might seem like a dime a dozen, the truth is that finding the right person for the job is quite difficult. And what’s more, participants in high-stakes betting and speculation do not necessarily have experience in acting. This makes it even more challenging for McKay and his team to find the right person to bring these characters to life on the big screen. As someone who has traded for his entire adult life, and whose specialty is explaining the industry to those who have not engaged with it, McKay is in the fortunate position of being able to provide some insight into the difficulties that arise in trying to find a believable hedge fund manager for the role.
The First Few Days
The first few days of casting are certainly the most arduous. For a while, the production team tries out various combinations of actors and actresses, looking for that perfect match between the character they are trying to portray and the actor/actress who can bring it to life. Once they find that combination, they start to see some remarkable acting talent emerge. This is a tricky process, considering that the participants don’t necessarily have the experience needed to pull off these kinds of roles. That is, until now.
For one of the main roles, they eventually settle on seasoned Hollywood veteran Robert Pattinson, who has previously starred in Twilight and Good Will Hunting. For those who have not witnessed his acting talent firsthand, his IMDb page is probably the best introduction possible. With some serious training under his belt, and a background in both acting and directing, Pattinson is the perfect choice to bring Wall Street to life on the big screen.
Having been through his own share of travails in his 20s (hence the nickname “Sailor”), Pattinson seems an unlikely candidate to play the heavy, the role of ruthless hedge fund manager Michael Burry. But McKay and his team see something special in him, and decide to give him a shot, not only for the role of Burry, but for the other two main characters as well.
McKay calls Pattinson’s acting process “a combination of preparation, insight, and instinct.” As the director explains it, “With experience, you know what you need to bring to the role. There are certain things that you know that you must do, and there are other things that you might consider doing. Experience allows you to separate the two. So, in preparing for the role, you know exactly what you need to do. And, as an actor, once you know what you need to do, you can start to explore the reasons for doing it.”
Pattinson, who has been acting for almost 20 years, agrees. “There are so many layers to it,” the actor says of playing a role. “You have to find the right level of aggression, you have to find the right amount of shyness, and you have to find the right amount of self-assurance. All of these elements have to come together. You are trying to be a machine on a miniature scale.”
The Challenges Of The Short Film Genre
While The Big Short is a step up in terms of production values and acting talent, it’s still a fairly small-scale affair when compared to something like The Wolf of Wall Street, a.k.a. “the real Wolf of Wall Street.” The two-and-a-half hour epic, which also stars Margot Robbie, is surely the gold standard when it comes to depicting high-stakes stock speculation in film. And, as you might imagine, it’s not an easy film to follow.
Based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Jordan Belfort, the film adaptation follows the story of how Belfort (Belfort), a young man with little more than an underdeveloped sense of morality and an overabundance of confidence, rises from street hustler to become Wall Street’s kingpin, a role for which he is best known. As the Wolf of Wall Street, he seduces and manipulates his way to success, using his charm and wits to get ahead and stay ahead.
While both films are set in the world of high finance, there the similarities end. Where Belfort’s narrative is largely told from the point of view of a cocky, street-smart hustler who is extremely generous with the women in his life, the Wolf of Wall Street is an altogether more epic affair, the story of a life lived entirely in front of the camera. It’s as much a character study as it is a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed and excess, with plenty of hyperbole, bravado, and showmanship thrown in for good measure. And it is, in many ways, the anti-The Big Short, in that it celebrates rather than condemns Wall Street and its inhabitants. Indeed, Wolf of Wall Street is Jordan Belfort’s mea culpa, a film that he could have never made back in the day of his original book.
Who Is Jordan Belfort?
A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled over the years explaining exactly who Jordan Belfort is and what he did. If you somehow managed to avoid a massive dose of tabloid journalism in your life, here’s a summary: He was born in Queens, New York in 1969. His father, an accomplished jazz guitarist, died when he was 12 years old, leaving his mother, a homemaker, to raise him and his younger sister, Jessica. From an early age, he was drawn to the world of finance and investments, eventually dropping out of Manhattan College at the age of 20 and setting up shop on Wall Street, where he would later found the firm of Belfort & Associates, which advised wealthy clients on how to navigate the stock market. Over the years, he would go on to write a number of bestselling books about his experiences in the financial world, as well as establish himself as one of the most recognizable faces in the industry.