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‘Vice’ Director Adam McKay on His Cheney ‘Character Portrait’

‘We tried not to do things with a wink or have Cheney twirling his mustache. He’s a guy who believed in what he was doing, and we wanted to show it,’ says Adam McKay, left, on the ‘Vice’ set with actor Christian Bale, who plays Dick Cheney.
‘We tried not to do things with a wink or have Cheney twirling his mustache. He’s a guy who believed in what he was doing, and we wanted to show it,’ says Adam McKay, left, on the ‘Vice’ set with actor Christian Bale, who plays Dick Cheney. Photo: Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

In the hit comedies “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights,” writer and director Adam McKay played up the sillier parts of American pop culture. He turned to weightier subject matter with 2015’s “The Big Short,” a comic drama about the financial crisis.

“The world took a more severe turn, and I felt like it was time to be a little more obvious,” he says of that shift, which earned him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

“Vice,” opening Christmas Day, continues in that vein. The movie balances political and domestic drama with dark comedy in its depiction of how Dick Cheney gained and wielded power as U.S. vice president. It stars Christian Bale, who gained 45 pounds as part of his transformation into the lead role, along with Amy Adams as his wife, Lynne, who spurs his ambition, and Steve Carell as his mentor, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The movie scored six Golden Globes nominations on Thursday, the most of any film this year.

“Vice” doesn’t hide Mr. McKay’s politics. He is still the man who directed and co-wrote the Broadway play “You’re Welcome, America: A Final Night With George W. Bush, ” with his frequent star and producing partner, Will Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell’s impression of a bumbling president was honed while he was a performer and Mr. McKay a writer on “Saturday Night Live.”

But Mr. McKay says “Vice” is “first and foremost a character portrait,” which takes Mr. Cheney from his laid-back youth in Casper, Wyo., to his role in the war in Iraq. Like “The Big Short,” the new film plays with form, mixing realistic news images with conspicuous leaps into fantasy, including a pillow-talk scene between Dick and Lynne written in mock Shakespearean dialogue.

Mr. McKay, 50 years old, talked about his long fascination with the former vice president, and why the movie “Patton,” with George C. Scott as another larger-than-life American leader, was a touchstone for his latest movie. Here are edited excerpts.

Adam McKay was nominated for a Golden Globe this year for directing ‘Vice.’ He won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for 2015’s ‘The Big Short.’
Adam McKay was nominated for a Golden Globe this year for directing ‘Vice.’ He won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for 2015’s ‘The Big Short.’ Photo: Rob Latour/REX/Shutterstock

Why did you choose Dick Cheney as the subject of a film?

The first cold open I wrote for “SNL” after Bush got elected was, “Now a word from our president of United States,” and we went to Darrell Hammond as Dick Cheney. Ever since that moment I was like, “What’s going on with this guy? It’s deeper than we think.”

When you were making the film, did you try to talk to him or his family?

No, it’s a very tricky thing when you reach out to the real people. Once you do, they’re involved. And knowing how secretive they are and knowing that I wouldn’t be one of their first choices to make this movie, we thought it best not to. So we took it on ourselves: “We want to do this as honestly and as fairly as we can.”

Christian Bale, left, as Dick Cheney, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in ‘Vice.’
Christian Bale, left, as Dick Cheney, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush in ‘Vice.’ Photo: Annapurna Pictures

Politically themed films are often criticized for preaching to the converted. What does that do in terms of reaching a wide audience?

The movie I always looked at as the gold standard, that split that difference so beautifully, was “Patton,” because if you think Patton was a wing nut, he’s a wing nut in that movie. If you think Patton was a hero, he’s a hero in that movie. We tried not to do things with a wink or have Cheney twirling his mustache. He’s a guy who believed in what he was doing, and we wanted to show it.

At the end he talks directly to the camera and says he sincerely wanted to help the country. It’s a defense of himself.

Yeah, that’s why I did it. Christian and I collaborated on that last speech, and those are actually chunks of sentences from Cheney’s own words. In a way we gave him the last word. Occasionally there would be test-audience members very confused by that moment, like, “I don’t know what to think, he’s kind of right in the end.” Of course, I don’t think he’s right, but someone can.

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Did you ever say to Christian Bale, “You don’t have to gain 45 pounds, we’ll get you prosthetics and a fat suit?”

I definitely said that. He had a very good comeback, though, which is that he really wanted the power of that neck. He felt like the neck was the key, that bald, strong head.

Nothing against Sam Rockwell’s performance as George W. Bush, but did you consider having Will Ferrell play that role?

I joked with Will about it, but he understood that would jump you out of the movie. Sam had a really tricky job. George W. Bush is a funny character, you can’t get around it, so to dry him out to the degree that you’d lose those quirks and idiosyncrasies wouldn’t be accurate.

Who Is He?

  • Name: Adam McKay
  • What He Does: Filmmaker
  • How He Got There: He was a cast member of the improv groups Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City. Those led to a job as a writer for “Saturday Night Live,” where he also wrote and directed digital shorts. “ ‘SNL’ was heaven for me,” Mr. McKay says. “That’s where I cut my teeth as far as making films.”
  • His Big Break: Directing and co-writing his first movie, “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.” “The movie did a good solid box office,” he says, “but it was a year later that I started seeing people dressed up as Ron Burgundy for Halloween.”
  • His Obsession: “Global warming, which scares the crap out of me, and the NBA. I have the season pass. I watch games every single night. I’m in a fantasy league. I think the NBA is one of America’s greatest achievements because it’s the best sports league in the world.”

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