Last time Adam McKay crashed the Oscar party with The Big Short, his inventive dissection of the meltdown of the global economy in 2008 got a Best Picture nomination and McKay’s first Oscar for script. He’s back with the latecomer Vice, cleverly mixing humor and inventive narrative techniques to show how Dick Cheney hitched himself to George W. Bush and wielded unprecedented power for a veep, from quarterbacking the 9/11 crisis while Air Force One circled the skies, to masterminding the fight against terrorism with hardnosed moves. McKay tackles the architect of a Republication revolution that is on full display in the Trump White House. His film recently led the Golden Globe nominations, hauling six nods, including Best Director. The ordeal included McKay risking death by irony — his Cheney-like chain smoking and stress eating led him to a minor heart attack, and the echocardiogram of the blockage being cleared are actually on display in the film.
The film begins with a crawl where you basically say that Cheney hid things and that you did your best to capture his story. On a film like this, one that is so barbed toward its subject, did you even attempt to seek out cooperation?
It’s tricky, because if you go to them, they then have a claim that they’re involved in the movie. They weren’t going to support this. You read his autobiography, and see that he keeps everything on lockdown. He doesn’t say anything. Lynne Cheney says a little more than him, but there was no way they were going to go for us talking about the thing between their daughters.
That’s where Lynne Cheney ran for a senate seat in Wyoming and disavowed gay marriage, a slap to her openly lesbian sister Mary…
There was no way they were going to go for that, or so much else in the movie—especially later in the movie. The second you let them in the door they can say, “We’re consultants on the film. We’re producers.” It’s a very tricky thing. We really did try and be as truthful as humanly possible. And balanced. Like the scene where Mary comes out of the closet and Dick says, “It doesn’t matter. We’ll love you no matter what,” and she tears up and her mother says, “It’s going to be so hard for you.” That’s word for word what they said, by several accounts. But then there are just some moments where you’re never going to know what was really said.
Their private conversations?
Yeah. When Lynne chewed him out after that second DUI, early in the movie. I’ve heard him say that she used some choice words, and I was, like, “All right, I know what that means,” so it’s probably a pretty good estimation. We’ll never know what he and Rumsfeld said to each other when Rumsfeld got the axe, but it was something like that tone. I’m guessing Rumsfeld was not happy. But most everything else, we were thorough. A bunch of things we didn’t put in the movie because maybe there’s a little too much speculation. We tried to actually hew more conservative in that sense.
Let me think of a good one. Well, there’s one story that I heard, which was that for the first Iraq war Dick Cheney was pushing to use nuclear arms, and there were people who said no, no. I could see him digging into it. Did you ever see Errol Morris’s show Wormwood? It’s really good. Nothing’s verified, which is why we didn’t put it in the movie, but we heard Cheney was working with the CIA to cover up a bunch of assassinations. There were six or seven things like that, where we didn’t have 100 percent [proof], so we didn’t get into them. The one that probably pained me the most—I kind of wish I’d put it in—was how he killed action on global warming, and that’s pretty well documented. He kind of went around the president, who actually, to his credit, wanted to do cap and trade, but Cheney very distinctly activated the Senate Republicans and was like, “You don’t want this to happen.” He fired them up to kill it, and then eventually Christine Todd Whitman resigned. That actually could end up being the biggest, most damaging thing that he did. We don’t know yet. We’ll see, sadly, in the next 10 or 20 years.
When you make a movie like this, and there are so many private conversations you couldn’t be privy to and where you have to use artistic license, what do you, as filmmaker, owe your subjects? You started out making comedies, but this is your interpretation of really important history.
We owe them our absolute best effort to [accurately reflect] what happened in that scene. They’re never going to tell us. They’re incredibly secretive. He’s got hundreds of thousands of documents, and millions of e-mails that they won’t turn over. If they’re going to be this secretive, we’re going to do the best we can to get it out there. Like, in the scene with Rumsfeld, where he gets fired by Cheney and he says, “Do you think they’ll prosecute us?” and Cheney refuses to answer? That, to me, is as edgy as one of those moments got. Probably Rumsfeld would say something like that, he might hint at something, but how would he frame it? So every line like that, for those scenes that we don’t have the documentation, you just try and be as real as you can, based on their character, based on everything they’ve done, based on everything that happened after the scene. Just try and be as real as you can. That was the trick. I never wanted anything to be my fantasy of what might have happened. It was, “What did these guys probably do?” The key to that, as odd as it sounds, is that you can’t really judge them. You really have to just track their story. And even when it’s Cheney being cool about Mary coming out of the closet, moments where he behaved well, it’s like, “Well, he did this.” You have to treat him like a real guy who obviously was going through a transformation, so by the end you almost don’t recognize the guy you met at the beginning. It’s a great question—what do you owe them? You owe them your best effort, your absolute best effort. That’s what you owe them.
A spirit of honesty?
Yeah. We’re never going to get those scenes. They’re never going to tell us, so let’s do our best. Let’s be fairly restrained. Let’s not have anything crazy happen. Like, the scene where he tells Rumsfeld he’s fired feels like the right proportion. We certainly don’t know exactly what was said, but that’s a great example. Another is Lynne Cheney’s mom’s funeral in the ’70s. She never swam but she drowned. She had a volatile marriage. There were suspicions that her husband was responsible, and Cheney steps in when the grandfather hugs his daughters at the funeral and gives him a stern warning. I don’t know what exactly Cheney said, but the essence was, “Stay away from my family.”
I know that Lynne doesn’t get mentioned a lot in that period, and that [her mother’s] death was very suspicious. Lynne herself says it. So the idea is, symbolically, that’s where Dick Cheney becomes the father. There’s a little artistic leap in a moment like that, but through all the research we did, and all the help we had, there’s really only a couple scenes in the movie that have real blind spots. We did a pretty good job of knowing what was being said, and who was saying it. At the end, we have a special thank you to all the journalists who wrote books and articles. We had a lot of information there.
Why did Cheney’s story burn in your gut so much? Is it because there’s connective tissue to today?
There are a couple of different levels to that answer. That guy did a great job keeping us out, you know? He never really showed his cards, and pretty much what everyone associates with him is, “Oh yeah, [he’s] Darth Vader—he shot a guy in the face on a hunting trip.” There’s so much more than that. He’s a guy who never sought the spotlight, in a very smart way. He knew where real power resided—and it wasn’t in the spotlight. He knew how to wield real power, for power’s sake. It was also such a transformative era. Look how much America changed. The big question floating in the air right now is, how the f*ck did we get where we’re at right now? What happened? Not to say that Cheney is the complete answer to all of it. You could certainly do a movie about the Koch brothers or Newt Gingrich. There are a lot of factors in this feeling of confusion, and we’ve lost the trail that got us here. Reading about Cheney’s life led to the initial attraction of this story: who the hell is this guy that changed American history? That was the entrance. Once I was into it, I started seeing how his life really tracked with the changes in America, and that’s when I knew we had a movie here.
How different was the Cheney you imagined at that point from the one Christian Bale depicted—which was not at all flattering?
Well, by the end it’s not very flattering. Everyone will tell you, he’s legitimately a funny guy. Crazy about his family. Does all the cooking, the shopping. Meticulous eye for detail, which you see in his fly-fishing. Crazy about his wife. Really values the idea of being a [public] servant in his position in government. And at a time where people weren’t very open-minded about gay and lesbian issues, he was really cool about his daughter when she came out of the closet. There were a lot of things that were good about him. And what really changed for me, was this crazy rise to power. You had a guy who got two DUI’s, who was drinking like a beast. And 11 or 12 years later, he’s chief of staff in the White House. It’s one of the craziest rises to power ever.
No crazier than George W. Bush, a former alcoholic underachiever.
I would say, though, that that’s not real power. Cheney’s rise is real power. W, his whole career was [being] a figurehead who was chucked in there. What surprised me by the end was how tragic [Cheney] was to me, how he gave it all away. He had it, and he gave it away. I now look at Dick Cheney when I see him interviewed and he’s kind of like a tragic figure—an empty, empty guy. I don’t think that’s who he was in the beginning, and, certainly, by the end some people would call him a war criminal. Some people would say he’s a villain, he’s awful, whatever. I just see an emptiness, and that really surprised me—that I was able to find some level of… I hate to call it compassion, but feeling that.
What did he gain for giving away those things? His giant house? Halliburton stock rising 500 percent?
For him, it’s the juice: “You can’t say no to me, you can’t question me. I’m in charge.” The movie I really looked at when I was writing was the old Alex Cox movie, Sid and Nancy.
How do the Sex Pistols’ Sid Vicious and his partner Nancy Spungen relate to the Cheneys?
It’s who you hook up with. Lynne [Cheney] wanted power. You hook up with her, you’re going to be trafficking in power. I think both of them became power addicts, and I think Dick became the ultimate master of power. That’s what took him down at the end—it took us down and him down. He would never say that, but that’s my read, so I always looked at [the story] as [being like] Sid and Nancy, believe it or not. Only it wasn’t heroin, it was power, and it started as an understandable love of power. It started as, “I want to make my wife proud.” It started the way it starts for all of us when you get that first good job, call a family member or a friend and go, “You’ll never guess where I’m at right now.” We’ve all had that moment. It’s very understandable, and then something about that mutated. For him and all of us.
You give him some credit for everything, from helping the onset of the Fox Network to the creation of ISIS and cutting taxes for the wealthiest.
Another tricky thing about the movie is you’re watching this ascendance of the Republican revolution. Regardless of how you feel about it, it was remarkably brilliant the way they pulled it off. They redefined America’s new government, and, for a time there, Cheney got his hands right on the captain’s wheel.
Why did he manipulate the invasion of Iraq? For oil? A foothold in the Middle East?
There’s no single answer, but certain things lined up. First, if the president goes to war, the president can assume the unitary executive powers and be very powerful, so that’s a big one. Second, Cheney ran Halliburton, and had all his energy buddies, so he’s a believer in oil. Third is the neocon theory. As you said about having a foothold in the Middle East, it was this idea—that we’ll have a country that’s like our country—that they’d been kicking around at weird cocktail parties for years. They didn’t know about the Sunni and the Shia or understand any of the dynamics there. I do know that when he was head of Halliburton, the company did complain about how inefficiently Saddam was working those oil wells in Iraq. They were at 60, 65 percent efficiency, and in the oil world they were like, “This idiot isn’t getting it. That’s really good oil there, and he’s not using it to his max.” And it was nationalized! They hate nationalized oil. No two words will set an oil guy off more than “nationalized oil”.
What were the biggest challenges in making Vice?
Two challenges jump to mind. One was just the scope, because I wanted it to be big. I wanted it to cover this kind of arc of American history with the character. You can go too far with that, and we had to cut a lot because it was too much. We were almost at two and a half hours at one point. It was too information-laden. There’s a lot of information in the movie, but there was a tipping point we were constantly having to contend with. Also, you’re talking about a subject who, for a lot of people, seems like a pretty boring guy—like, purposely boring. Christian and these great actors like Amy [Adams] and Sam [Rockwell], all helped us out there. The other thing is, there’s debate: is it a comedy, a drama, or a tragedy? That was a debate for me, because by the end it feels like a tragedy, but clearly there’s funny stuff, so the question was, well, what feeling do you want to leave the audience with at the end? I didn’t want to just whack the audience over the head, I didn’t want people to leave entirely depressed. I wanted some life and some buoyancy along with the understanding and the information. It was a very tricky thing, calibrating all that—the tone and scope.
Through Sam Rockwell’s eerily spot-on performance, you convey George W. Bush as someone who was uninterested in running the country, and Cheney seemed to pick up on that when he agreed to be his vice president. W’s father had a long, distinguished government career, and there was a lot to live up to, but everything was done around W, to the point where after 9/11 Cheney suggested he stay in the air, and the veep barked orders about shooting jets with possible terrorists out of the air—the kind of orders you get from the POTUS. Why did he cede power like that?
That was crazy. They kept him in the air, and we’ll never know exactly what was going on with that. How much was W freaking out when he was up in that plane? Purely my speculation, but I’ve heard that they put him on medication, which part of me actually can understand, going through something like that. There’s just no record of W being a serious guy. He’s always been the guy you plug in to a job just to use his family name. He had a 10-year hole in his resume. 10 years! You apply for a job and they’ll ask you about a year gap. He lived in a single condominium in Houston, and just partied. He was not a curious guy. Stories about him are very similar to Trump, in the sense that you couldn’t give him documents that were too long. He had to read stuff that was short. I think it’s brilliant that they figured out that you use the president as kind of a figurehead, a kind of distraction while you do the real work behind the scenes. Because, if you think about it: Reagan, W. Bush, Trump…
You show the Koch Brothers and Cheney as wielding the real power.
Yeah. You read Jane Mayer’s book Dark Money and you’re like, “Oh yeah.” And then the country gets so softened up that Russia was able to come in and throw a body blow as well.
What causes this?
We’ve seen some of the greatest marketing, advertising, propaganda that’s ever come down the pipe, and they were really good at it. They did this genius thing where they started to sell the idea of, “Hey, we’re all individualistic cowboys. Isn’t that awesome? If you take help from the government and your community, that’s a handout and you’re weak.” That was the flip. They somehow turned community and government into a weakness, and I feel like the second they got that down, it was game over. I grew up in the ’70s. My mom went to college on Pell grants. I went to a good public school. My final student loan tally when I left Temple —I didn’t graduate—was $3,800. I didn’t have any money, but I had to pay the student loans. Poverty rates were half what they are now. Income inequality was a third of what it is now. I could talk about this for seven hours, on how they pulled this off.
Christian Bale really transformed himself to replicate Cheney, down to the breathy way he spoke. What thing did he do to capture Cheney that surprised you most?
The entry point to this movie is, who is this guy? Christian, and Amy, and Sam, they became like detectives to find their characters. Christian put together many little things, but the moment that gave me chills—and I remember saying, “ You’re not playing him as much as summoning him”—came when his makeup finally got good, he was in the suit, and he was starting to do the voice. He’s got that kind of tight jaw that Cheney has, he’s talking like him. He said, “I’ve been working on the walk.” And when he did the walk down the hallway, the hairs on my arm stood up. I was like, “Holy sh*t, Dick Cheney’s in the room.” That feeling never stopped. He was just this different presence, truly incredible to behold—every gesture, every move. He’d watched every single piece of tape and audio he could get his hands on, gone through maybe five months of makeup, and he’d used that time to find the character. I got to see some of his process, and it becomes part of his life. His wife Sibi, who’s a funny, cool lady, once rolled her eyes and said, “Oh, we’re all familiar with Dick Cheney.” I think he became part of their lives while Christian was playing him.
He takes the character home with him?
Without a doubt. These meticulous details. I’ve never seen anything like it, and Christian doesn’t like to talk about it. Between Sam, Amy and Steve [Carell], these guys aren’t messing around. They’re like straight-up killers.
I once interviewed Daniel Day-Lewis, who put himself through a similar ordeal to find his characters, then couldn’t watch the results. He only took roles he could not talk himself out of doing. Is Christian like that?
He’d have to answer that. Maybe it’s different than Daniel Day-Lewis or the same, but Christian loves the challenge [of committing to a character]. I saw it in The Big Short. Michael Burry, his character in that, was a guy with a degree of autism, or Asperger’s or whatever you call it. He has a bit of a wall in front of him, and then Dick Cheney is a guy who has a very well constructed wall in front of him. What I said to him is, “These are the characters where you’ve really got to pull it off, because they’re not showing you anything.” He liked getting inside them. There was nothing about Burry that lends himself to being played in a movie, and it’s the same with Dick Cheney. It’s like, everything they’ve done is done so that no one could play them in a movie, and I think Christian liked that. He loved the script and the ambition, and that the story was framed as a mystery. His process is so rigorous and meticulous, and he liked it when I challenged him to get to the core, to figure out this guy and what was going on inside. We knew we were never going to get it 100 percent, but we went for it and he likes that kind of stuff.
Was he your first choice?
I was thinking of Christian while I was writing it. If someone were to tell me, “Christian Bale’s playing Dick Cheney,” then that’s a movie I’d want to see, because he will do something interesting with it. Once Bale committed, the other one was Sam. When I was writing it, I had to have Rockwell for W. And Amy? Once Bale committed, I needed someone who’s just got that Midwestern ass-kicking strength. Amy is a flat-out great actress, just fearless and it didn’t hurt that she and Christian have this magical thing between them.
Did you get that feeling from American Hustle and The Fighter?
I knew it was there, but, once we got into it, I didn’t realize how much it was really there. Boy, did it help with these characters. She is the fulcrum that the whole movie rests on.
The world has become so polarized now. We see actors go promote a film and get into Trump-bashing, and we wonder if his base will bother to go. Here you have an expensive movie about a conservative icon, but he’s not going to embrace how he’s depicted, and you need a wide audience to embrace it. You’re a liberal, intelligent guy who speaks your mind. How do you see this conundrum?
Well, remember, when Dick Cheney left office, I believe his approval rating was 13 percent. One of the lowest approval ratings ever recorded. So he was not a popular guy when he left office. Now, as often happens, things change. We hear people say, “I kinda miss Bush now.” We’ve experienced that when we would screen it for… I don’t want to call them “moderate” Republicans, but let’s just call them non-Trump zealots. Those kinds of Republicans actually didn’t mind the movie. We got good responses, and I remember one focus group where a guy was like, “Oh yeah, I’m a Republican. That’s what happened.” Did any of the fringe 15 percent on the far, far right go see The Big Short? I’m not sure.
This is more on the nose though. You’re vilifying one of theirs.
You’re going to hear a lot of people say, “Liberal filmmaker!” But what about just being judged for your actions? I think some people on the right are going to be surprised by the movie, in the sense that it’s not just some rabid hit job. We humanize the guy. We really go in to kind of share who he is, and we show good moments with bad moments, and we actually give him the last word in the whole movie.
That is a powerful, defiant moment.
When we filmed that, it was a last-second thing.
We wrote it. But Bale was like, “Y’know, I know he never looks at the camera, and I know you did that intentionally. Should we do it just to have it?” So I wrote something up. We met a couple of hours before we were going to shoot it and we go, “What about this, this and this?” He reads through it and says, “Leave me alone with it for a little while.” As soon as he turns to the camera, we were like, “Oh sh*t.” Our editor, Hank Corwin, did the first cut and put it at the end. Some friends came to screenings and said, “You can’t give him the last word! What are you doing? You did all this work and you’re giving him the last word?”
It is effective, though.
I think so. If you’re going to still be swayed by his answer at that point, then it doesn’t matter anyway. I thought it was scary when he did it. Other people have been like, “Well, he was a little convincing,” and Christian really felt like he was sincerely saying how he felt, so everyone has a different reaction to it. I always think it’s a good thing when that happens.
When Jason Clarke starred in Chappaquiddick, he told Deadline that Fox News was eager to have him on to talk about the Democrat icon lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy’s plunge off that bridge with the drowned Mary Jo Kopechne. CNN and liberal shows like Bill Maher weren’t interested. Vice is the reverse. Is the Fox Network welcoming you with open arms?
I was on Fox for The Big Short. Now, granted, things have changed quite a bit since then. I don’t think I would go on Fox.
I don’t know. I shouldn’t say that because there are a lot of different shows on there, y’know? There’s a guy like Shep Smith, who’s actually a decent guy. But that’s interesting, they wouldn’t cover Chappaquiddick. I don’t remember who it was, but I talked [to a journalist] about how I thought Bill Clinton’s eight years were a little overrated, and that a lot of bad things came out of that. And some people got mad at me from the left. But he deregulated banking and mass media. He did NAFTA. Mandatory sentencing. There was lot of bad stuff on his watch, so I was taking some shots from the left. It’s a bummer, though, that CNN and those other places wouldn’t cover [Chappaquiddick].
It was a good film.
Well, it was despicable moment for Kennedy and he should have gone to jail. I don’t care who you are. I don’t care if it’s Gandhi. Someone drives his car, wrecks it, gets up and runs away and a girl dies? You’ve got to do some time.
When you make a movie about a man who is known for his heart problems—and then you have a heart attack of your own. Talk about leaving yourself open for posthumous ironic ridicule.
When I was making the movie, I was fairly conscious of the fact that I’d put on some weight and I was smoking a lot. I was thinking, “This isn’t good,” and my doctor had told me, “You’ve got to stop doing this.” I kept saying to myself, “Please don’t let me have a heart attack while I’m doing a movie about Dick Cheney.”
Sure enough, January rolls around, we finish the movie and I call my trainer. I’m like, “We’ve got to get on it, man. I got heavy.” On our third workout, I get tingly hands and my stomach starts going queasy. Now, I always thought that when you get a heart attack, it’s like chest pain, and the arm. But then I remembered a moment from the shoot. Christian Bale, when we shot one of the heart attack scenes, asked me, “How do you want me to do it?” I said, “What do you mean? It’s a heart attack. Your arm hurts, right?” He said, “No, no. One of the more common ways is that you get really queasy and your stomach hurts.” I was, like, “Really? I’ve never heard that before.” So right in that moment I went, “Oh sh*t.” I ran upstairs and downed a bunch of baby aspirin, and then I called my wife, who immediately called 911. I got to the hospital really fast, and the doctor said, “Because you did that, no damage was done—your heart is still really strong.”
You dodged a bullet.
Yeah—because I remembered what Christian Bale told me. The doctors said, “You’ve got to quit smoking. That’s what’s doing this to you. You need to lose weight, but the smoking’s making it four times worse.” I called Christian a week later and told him, “Either you or Dick Cheney just saved my life.”
How did he respond?
For 10 minutes he asked me over and over, “Are you all right? Are you all right?” I said, “I’m OK because I went in quickly enough.” And then he just started laughing.
Do you put on weight each time you make a movie like this?
No. On The Big Short, I actually lost weight. I’m 6’ 5”, and by the end ofThe Big Short, I was 240lb, which isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. On this one, I got up to 270lb. It was bad. I don’t know why. It was a very challenging, complicated movie.
And you put the picture of your heart with the blocked artery into a scene in Vice.
My doctor sat me down and says, “You’re a very lucky young man, and this can be a fleeting memory. Do you want to see your heart attack?” It was a black and white image of the blocked artery, like a film of the heart attack. You could see the blockage, and then you could see this wire come in and clean it out. Then you saw the blood flow… I said, “Can I have a copy of that?” It’s my cameo in the movie, my actual heart attack. When Cheney is getting all the unfiltered intelligence, and they’re like, “Sir, this isn’t verified.” He’s like, “No, give it all to me,” and his paranoia is going through the roof. There’s a shot that almost looks like an octopus. That’s my heart attack.
Why did you do that?
Because it fitted perfectly. It was a moment where Cheney is becoming paranoid, feeling all his mortality and fear, and we were going to put a shot of a heart in there anyway. At first my editor was like, “That’s a little morbid. I’m not sure I want to do that.” I said, “It’s a personal movie. I put everything into it.”
Including your heart….
Yeah. I said, “What do you think of the shot?” He said, “It’s amazing. It works great.” I mean, it’s really creepy, and you see it in that sequence. We’re pushing in on him, and things are getting crazier. He’s hearing scarier and scarier stuff. You kind of see this squid-like thing, and then hyenas through night-vision. This film was pretty crazy and heavy. My wife and daughters were like, “We’ve never seen you go this hard at a movie.” A lot of work, research, production challenges. And what the actors did on this one, I’ve never experienced anything like it. And the final culmination was, there’s my heart in the movie.
Did you stop smoking?
Oh yeah. I’m done with the smoking, and I’ve taken about 15, 20lb off so far, and I’m continuing to lose weight. I’ve still got to lose another 15. Nothing will get you to quit smoking faster than staring at the ceiling of an ambulance, man. That did it.
This happened several times to Cheney before he had his heart transplant.
We did so much research. Apparently during the ’70s, when he was in the Ford White House, he was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and eating a dozen donuts. That was his day. My excess peaked when I was at SNL. I remember having a couple of crazy nights where I smoked two packs. Two packs is a lot of cigarettes, man. I mean, it’s hard to smoke two packs. The idea of smoking three packs of cigarettes and a dozen donuts? It’s no surprise he had a heart attack, and then he had two more. We even cut one out—there’s even one that’s not in the movie because he had so many.
You left a heart attack on the cutting room floor?
We did. There were so many, I think the audience got the idea that he had heart issues, so yeah. It was crazy, man.