EXCLUSIVE: Many directors can believe they put their hearts into their movies, but on Vice, Adam McKay came closer than most any of them. Similar to Dick Cheney — whose trouble with heart attacks before he finally got a heart transplant are well known — McKay suffered a heart attack during the making of the film. And he found a way to give his close call a sly shout out by putting footage of it into the searing drama he wrote and directed about the former vice president. The Annapurna film arrives perfectly timed to further complicate a crowded awards season conversation, factoring in McKay’s work as writer and director, and for Christian Bale’s immersive performance as Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney and Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell for spot on depictions of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.
McKay believes he might well owe his life to Cheney — or at least Bale’s extensive study of the former veep’s numerous heart attacks — because when McKay had a mild one right after principal photography finished, due to the stress of making the film, he knew just what to do because of what Bale told him.
“While I was making the movie, I was fairly conscious of the fact I put on some weight and I was smoking a lot,” McKay said. “My doctor had told me, you got to stop doing this, and I kept saying, please don’t let me have a heart attack while I’m doing a movie about Dick Cheney.”
The moment happened in January and McKay believes he owes a debt to Bale that he didn’t risk death by irony.
”Sure enough, we finish the movie and I call my trainer,” McKay said. “I say, we got to get on it, man. I’m too heavy. Our third workout, I get tingly hands and my stomach starts going queasy. I always thought when you get a heart attack, it’s pain in the chest or the arm. But then I remembered. When we shot one of the heart attack scenes, Christian Bale asked me, ‘how do you want me to do it,’ and I go, ‘what do you mean? It’s a heart attack. Your arm hurts, right?’ He says, ‘no, no. One of the more common ways is that you get really queasy and your stomach hurts.’ I said, ‘really? I’d never heard that before. And right in that moment [when McKay doubled over] I went, ‘oh s*it, and I ran upstairs and downed a bunch of baby aspirin, and I called my wife who immediately called 911. Got to the hospital really fast, and the doctor said, because you did that, no damage was done, your heart is still really strong. That’s because I remembered Christian Bale telling me that. The doctor said, you 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.”
The small blockage in the lower part of McKay’s heart was cleared by a stent, he said. Days later he called Bale, who in Vice reenacts several of Cheney’s heart attacks before the veep got his heart transplant. So many heart attacks, in fact, that one was left on the cutting room floor.
“I called Christian a week later and said, either you or Dick Cheney just saved my life,” McKay said. “After asking again and again for 10 minutes if I was really alright, we just started laughing.”
After that, McKay got the idea to create something of an inside joke in the film by putting the image of his blocked heart into a metaphorical sequence when the pressures of manipulating President George W. Bush and congress to approve the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq spiked the level of stress and paranoia in the steely veep.
“My doctor sat me down and said, ‘do you want to see your heart attack?’ He puts up this thing, this black and white picture that shows the blocked artery. You’ve probably seen the film before, on movies and TV, and you see the blockage and then you see the wire that cleans it out. Then you see the blood flow. While we were talking about it, I said, ‘can I have a copy of that?’
“I put it in the movie,” McKay said. “So my cameo in the movie is my actual heart attack. There is a scene 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, it almost looks like an octopus, people don’t quite know what it is. That’s my heart attack! It actually was perfect because it was supposed to be Cheney becoming paranoid, and it was supposed to be all of Cheney’s feelings of mortality and fear. We were going to put a shot in there of a heart, anyway. In fact, I think we had one in there, and I was like, oh my god. I actually had a heart attack. This is actually what he experienced, like this is crazy, and it also looks really creepy and kind of scary, like the black and white of it. At first my editor was like, ‘this is a little morbid. I’m not sure I want to do that.’ I said, ‘it’s a personal movie and I put everything into it.’
“We tried it and I said, ‘what do you think of the shot? He said, ‘it’s amazing.’ I said, let’s just do it and we won’t tell anyone. Well, I’m telling you, but we never told anybody and it works great. It’s really creepy when 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 that’s the footage, and then it goes to hyenas seen through night vision.”
McKay is not flip about the seriousness of what nearly happened to him. The quick thinking, the aspirin and the fast trip to the hospital allowed him to walk away with no damage to his ticker. But he has quit smoking, finally, and has already taken off weight.
“This was a heavy one, this movie,” McKay said. “My wife and daughters were like, I’ve never seen you go this hard at a movie. A lot of work, a lot of research, a lot of production challenge. A lot, like the actors, what they did on this one, I’ve never experienced anything like it, and the final culmination of it all was, literally my heart is in the movie. Part of the reason I was all right with doing it is because I’m okay. And because of the story of either Christian Bale or Dick Cheney maybe saving my life…
“The film before, The Big Short, I actually lost weight. I’m 6’5”, and I think by the end of The Big Short, I was 240, which isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good,” McKay said. “This one, I got up to like 270. It was bad. I don’t know why I put on weight. It’s a very challenging, complicated movie. My cardiologist, Dr. Henry, sat me down and said, ‘you’re a very lucky, young man, and this can just be a fleeting memory. I’m done with the smoking, and taken about 15, 20 pounds off so far, but I’m continuing to lose weight. I still got to lose another 15. Yeah. Nothing will get you to quit smoking faster than staring at the ceiling of an ambulance, man.”
McKay said it wasn’t a mystery, what caused his attack and how his film’s subject, Cheney, placed so much pressure on his own heart by handling his stress through vices like cigarettes and food.
“We did so much research for the film, and apparently, during the 70s, when he was in the Ford white house, Cheney was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day and eating a dozen donuts,” McKay said. “That was his day. My smoking peaked when I was at SNL. I remember having a couple 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 like two more. We even cut one out. There’s even one that’s not in the movie because he had so many. We left a heart attack on the cutting room floor. There was so many of them, I think the audience got the idea that he had heart issues.”
Here is a peek at the results of all that hard work on a film that releases Christmas Day: