By Kelly Leonard – Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation
I was contacted by a representative at Paramount Pictures a couple of weeks ago. Adam McKay was coming to town and they wondered if Second City would host an event to help promote his new film The Big Short. That was an easy yes. I worked with Adam in the early 90’s in Chicago. Not only was Adam incredibly talented, he was an absolute joy to be around. So last Friday, I interviewed Adam in front of packed room of students who, in most cases, want exactly the kind of career Adam McKay has had.
We talked about Adam’s start in Chicago; his years as head writer at Saturday Night Live; and transferring all the skills he learned into becoming a phenomenally successful film director. Adam’s films, which include Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, have collectively grossed over 700 million dollars. In short, Adam credits his success to his roots in Chicago-based improvisation.
Improvisational practices such as putting the ensemble ahead of the individual, saying “yes, and” rather than “no, but” to new ideas, and creating a freedom to fail environment so as to foster our most creative selves are all methodologies that Adam employs when he’s running his own film set. Unfortunately, those practices are an anomaly rather than the norm in the industry.
“On our first movie, Will Ferrell and I would do these bits where I would just start screaming nonsense at him and he’d scream back. We noticed that no one was laughing and a crew member told me that kind of behavior was actually considered ‘normal’ on most sets. None of them realized we were joking,” Adam explained.
“Chicago was unlike any place I’d ever been,” Adam remembered, “Not just the improv scene, which was remarkable, but the music scene, a vibrant theatre community and lit scene as well. And everyone collaborated well with each other.”
The Big Short represents a major evolution in Adam McKay’s work as an artist. The film has already been nominated for a number of Golden Globes and the reviews have been excellent. The visual style is frantic, pummeling the viewer with images that give us both a cue of the cultural landscape that existed during the time period that the movie covers while acknowledging a point of emphasis in the film: that Americans distracted themselves with all sorts of mindless stimuli while the economy was collapsing around them.
I asked Adam about the technical aspects of film making. “I had an amazing Director of Photography, an amazing Editor and a fantastic crew. I let them do their job,” he noted.
Leading by following. It’s a concept that is core to improvisation. The idea is that you get the most creative work out of individuals when you allow them to both lead and to follow. Learning when to do one or the other is developed when you put that idea into practice. In particular, Adam never studied film in school and didn’t have the kind of technical experience that would allow him to make major decisions when it comes to that part of making movies.
Adam recalled an early experience while directing: “I remember on my very first set, I would yell “hold the roll!” when I wanted the camera to keep filming while I talked to the actors really quickly to get them to try something new. A week into shooting, one of the crew had to inform me that “hold the roll” actually meant they should stop filming. I was misusing the term.”
In improvisation, you learn to use accidents. Clearly, Adam McKay is directing and leading like an improviser.