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Turning the Housing Bubble into Movie Magic in “The Big Short”

When the Academy Award for Best Picture is called this Sunday night, the biggest prize may well go to The Big Short. Based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction book about the collapse of the housing and credit bubble in 2008, the film (also nominated for Actor in a Supporting Role, Directing and Adapted Screenplay) has been lauded for deftly explaining the financial crisis in an entertaining two hours. One expert who helped interpret tricky concepts and jargon for the film is financial journalist (co-host of the Planet Money and Surprisingly Awesome podcasts) Adam Davidson, who served as a consultant.

On this week’s podcast, Davidson talks with ProPublica senior reporter Jesse Eisinger about how his work as a reporter uniquely positioned him for his role on The Big Short, the toughest actor on set, and his take on the film’s good guys and bad guys.

Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures

Highlights from their conversation:

  • Davidson initially mistook the kind of film that director Adam McKay (who also directed comedies Anchorman, Stepbrothers and Talladega Nights) was setting out to make.
    Davidson: My brother [Eben Davidson, a senior vice president at Paramount Pictures] said, “He is now directing The Big Short, and he's looking for someone who knows about finance and the financial crisis – would you talk to him?" I was like, "Well yeah, I'll talk to him." And I assumed it would be kind of a goofy, Ron Burgundy-like take on Wall Street. But within two minutes of talking to McKay, it was this amazing conversation. He always says, "I can't believe our finance guy was actually funny." But I also couldn't believe how serious and smart and informed the comedy writer/director was.

  • In addition to providing fact-checking and technical guidance on the script, Davidson also helped to craft the film’s bait-and-switch narrative.
    Davidson: In the beginning, the first third or so, it really is a caper film. It's like Ocean's Eleven – … a bunch of quirky misfits who figured out how to steal money from the bank vault, basically. And you're kind of rooting for them, and it's fun. Then it takes this tonal shift, and it's suddenly, "Oh, them winning is all of us losing."

  • But not all of the players in The Big Short are bad guys – the story has its heroes, too.
    Davidson: I think Jamie [Shipley] and Charlie [Geller]…fulfill every criteria of a hero. They truly tried to stop it. They went to the SEC, they went to the press, they really tried to alert the authorities and were laughed out of many offices. And once they did make a lot of money, they spent it on trying to reform the system. They funded the Tobin Project, and others’ projects. So I'm very comfortable saying Jamie and Charlie are heroes.

  • Economists who reviewed the film early on all agreed on one thing.
    Davidson: We showed the movie to two groups of economists early, early on. There was a moment when the movie was locked, when it was done, and I was the only person with a finance background who had seen it, and I was like, "I think it's pretty good, but I really want to know." And so we got some screenings – and this was fairly mainstream…these are like Lord Mervyn King, who ran the central bank of England; Mark Gertler, who was Ben Bernanke's [collaborator.] There were a couple farther left, like Anat Admati. But the unanimous view was that the greatest failing in this crisis is no one went to jail.

  • Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, listen to Eisinger’s Inside Job episode of This American Life (with ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Planet Money’s Alex Blumberg) and his The Wall Street Money Machine series.

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