'Vice' Director Adam McKay On His Meticulously Made Biopic And How He Thinks Dick Cheney Would React To The Film [Interview]

Too many biopics fall prey to hero worship. In trying to celebrate someone's life, many biographical films end up lacking humanity, nuance, and, more often than not, hard truths. It plagues bio films, especially the agreeable kind that score all the Oscars. But in the case of Adam McKay's Vice, he didn't make the average biopic. He's certainly not looking up to Dick Cheney, the former Vice President, but looking down on him with a big 'ol unforgiving microscope.

The drama is an epic that moves at a remarkable speed, covering a large ensemble and chunks of information without ever feeling like CliffsNotes. Similar to The Big Short, McKay pulls off a remarkable juggling act with some serious topics and major tonal shifts. Vice is a gracefully dense piece of work.

Below, read what the Academy Award-winner had to say about researching George W. Bush Jr's vice president, Christian Bale's comedic chops, deleted scenes, and what he thinks Cheney would make of his damning portrait.

Where did this start? What drove you to want to make a movie about Dick Cheney? 

I think the first plunge came in with just pulling a book off the shelf and just going, "Ah, I know the guy shot someone in the face, but what did he really do?" Being astounded by the influence he had, but even more importantly how clever he was in how he did it and bureaucratic master that took over Washington D.C. I mean, at that time, we were clearly the world's most powerful country. And I just kept wondering, "Who is this guy? What do we really know about him?"

And so, that was when I got hooked, when I had the sense of mystery that was just exciting of this shadowy guy, this guy who has no real signature speeches. There's no quote that he has that we all think of. So that got me going on it. I just kept reading and researching, and the deeper I would dig, the more interesting it would get.

Oh, my God, this guy was like a Zelig. He was there for this giant change in history, the Reagan revolution, and eventually got his hands on a captain's wheel. And then of course, his wife, Lynne Cheney, what a massive force she is, and their love story. When I realized that the root of the movie is a love story, I started thinking, "Hey, we may have something here."

Yeah, most wives in biopics are written as thin supporting roles, but she's just as fascinating as Dick Cheney. How much freedom did you feel with writing their relationship? For example, how about the scene they're in the bedroom together? 

We just did mammoth, mammoth amounts of research, and hired our own journalist who would interview people off the record. We were able to get a pretty good flavor of character, of the way they interacted, their life. But you're always guessing to some level. I just think any time it's those personal scenes, where there's only two of them in the room, we almost admit it in the movie, like, with the what was Dick Cheney thinking after he met with George W. Bush? Like, we really don't know.

So, we just tried to be honest with the audience in those moments. But then the scene where he fires Rumsfeld, or tells Rumsfeld that he's fired, at that point, you just base it on all the character work. You're like, "What would these guys say here?" And you try not to do anything too outrageous, like have Rumsfeld weep, or Cheney yell at him. You keep it just tight and in character. We know this happened. It probably went something like this. And then there's just a lot of scenes in the movie that are pretty well documented, where there are lot of people there, and a lot of sources.

The movie is filled with exact quotes like when Donald Rumsfeld says that Iraq has all the good targets, and that's an actual quote, or when Cheney says to his daughter, "Look, it doesn't matter, Mary. We'll love you no matter what." That's actually what he said. And so, there's a lot of that as well. And yeah, you just try and be honest with the audience. I think that's mostly what it is, is just hold your hands up and go, "Look, this part we don't entirely know." In fact, I even played around with the idea of at certain points showing footage not found for certain scenes. Maybe I'll do that someday. There's some fun to be had with that.

[Spoiler Alert]

One unexpected choice you make that's fantastic is when the credits roll in the middle of the movie. How'd that come about?

Yeah, well, that was just one of the most joyful I think I've got. I think there's one other movie I got to do something like that with was The Other Guys, where I had two of the biggest action stars on the planet, Sam Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, to jump off that building. Every night I would get giddy to just watch the audience react to it, and this reminds me of that, where you can see people looking at their watches, like, "Did this really be the end?" [Laughs]

And also, like, what are they thinking? Are they thinking like, "Wow, he just did a movie about Cheney's early years." [Laughs] I loved it, and you know what was great was it came right out of storytelling, because when I was researching that section, I was like, "Holy crap, it should have ended here." He had the great job, his wife is writing books, his family was happy. This should've been the end of the story. And just in that moment, I thought, "Wait a minute, it's gonna end the movie."

[Spoiler Over]

Another pivotal moment that I've been thinking about is when he gets his DUI at the beginning of the movie. If he didn't get that DUI, and Lynne didn't give him that talk to pull himself together, how different would his life and the world have turned out?

Well, that's interesting. I mean, the only thing is he was boozing it so hard, because he got two DUIs, and he would've gotten more. So I guess the question would be, what if he was a lineman, but he didn't party? Which is what he ended up doing after he got chewed out by Lynne. He stopped going out with the other lineman and drinking, and that's how he got his feet on the ground.

So I guess the question would be, what if just stayed as a lineman and Lynne didn't cut him loose? That would've been really, I guess, the history could've changed. In fact, I think we played with that idea. I have no doubt Lynne would've gone and met another guy, a professor, or student. She would've married him. That guy would've ended up being governor of a state, or she ... I mean, there was nothing stopping Lynne Cheney. And people in Casper, to this day, still say, whoever she would've married would've President, or Vice President.

I just felt that talk sent him down his path, at least in the movie. On another note, with his work with you and David O. Russell, I don't think Christian Bale gets enough credit as a comedic actor. What do you think of his comedic sensibilities? 

Oh, he's hilarious, yeah. He's definitely a great comedic actor, and Amy, and the two of them. Actually, and Rockwell, and Carell. I mean, I didn't realize till actually right this moment, but they're all incredibly grounded, talented, serious actors, who are also all funny as shit. And they can swing it either way any time. I think that's why they were so perfect for this movie, because it's a movie that does do that, goes from drama, to dark tragedy, to absurdity sometimes on a dime, and those guys could just ride that bucking bronco.

They were able to handle it. But yeah, Bale's really funny and really playful too, like on set, joking a lot. So was Amy. It's funny because it's such a obviously mammoth movie with five, six decades of American history, it's transformation. But it was a pretty light set. It was not only a great D.P., Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), who's just intrepid and works pretty fast, and is brilliant, and it was a really good vibe. I always joke, "No one should really be freaking out when they're a movie unless it's Apocalypse Now. Then you're allowed to freak out." And we definitely had a nice rhythm on the set, so it gave them room to improvise. It gave them room to try things and do different looks for scenes, I think, that they really appreciated, and certainly helped the movie.

Vice trailer

Like The Big Short, the tone of the movie can drastically change at the drop of a dime. How difficult was it finding that tone in the editing room?

It was a level of meticulous timing that I don't think I've ever experienced before, where the change, or the transition, if it came five frames too early, it could throw it off. If it came 10 frames too late, it could throw it off. And so, it was this crazy meticulous kind of editing, where I go, "Hank, it feels like we're just a little quarter breath long here." And pretty soon, Hank was like, "You're right. This movie's just ... it's demanding." So yeah, all those tone shifts and sometimes you're throwing in a montage, and then you're sticking in your scene, and then suddenly in the scene, you're turning and there's a fact being delivered. So all that stuff was just like, you have to keep polishing it and polishing it, polishing it throughout the entire process. You go back to it over and over and over again.

What scenes did you cut? 

Well, the big one we had was, we had them as teenagers, Dick and Lynne, we had different actors playing them, and it was beautiful. I mean, it looked like Greig Fraser shot the crap out of this. It looked like Splendor in the Grass, Giant. We loved it, and the way they met, and their love story in that small town. I just thought, "Oh, this is perfect. This is like Americana in what it's gonna become." And it just didn't work. The audiences were like, "We want Christian Bale. Okay, we get it. They're in love. Come on, move it along. Get him to Washington D.C." And we refused to give up. We were just like ...

We cut so many versions of it, and finally one day I go, "Heck, I think we gotta just try it without it." And the second it wasn't in there, the movie just went whoosh, and you could feel the wind blowing through the movie. And it was like, "Here we go." So that was a big one. We tried a musical number as well, which was Carell explaining the power structure of D.C. and that one didn't tonally work either. It was just too much in that sectio of the movie. Beautifully done.

Which musician made the song?

It's Brittany Howard from the Alabama Shakes. And Nic Britell wrote an original piece of music, kind of collaborated with her. And it's this kind of ... Oh, what would you call it? Like, R & B kind of just big power song. And it was amazing. It just didn't work where it was at, and that was another one we tried, and tried, and tried, and finally cut loose. It was really those two things. Those were the two that we refused to let go of. And there was a couple of other little things that got cut, but those were the two swings. And yeah, at the end of the day, always listen to the movie.

Your blu-rays are usually packed with features and deleted scenes. Will the musical sequence be on the blu-ray? 

Oh, they'll be on there. Yeah, we actually cut the young love [scene]. I cut it as a short film. It's its own black and white short film, and the musical number's on there, and then there's one other little scene too that takes place later in the movie that's on there. But yeah, it'll definitely be there.

When you were writing the script, because he is so cold and distant, how close did you or did you want the audience to feel to Dick Cheney? 

We were trying to get in as much as we possibly could. We were trying to draw out his feelings and motivations. When Rumsfeld tells him about Cambodia, and you could see that look in his face as he's feeling the power of it. When his father-in-law tells him, "Oh, big shot Dick in D.C." You can see he's starting to wear it. He's starting to become the father. I mean, with these scenes, we're trying to get it. It's just ... it's very difficult.

I jokingly refer to it as Radiotelescope, where it's like, "Now, wait, this star over here is reacting to some kind of gravitational pull. We don't know what it is, but I think there's a black hole that's actually over here." So you're always putting it together, and the Cheney's don't like to talk about any of their personal life. I mean, Cheney himself doesn't talk about anything.

The one who really gave us some insight was Lynne. She has biography she wrote, and that had some stuff in it that was very helpful, where you started to get a little sense of the family dynamic and the way she interacted with Dick, and the way the daughters ... And that was probably one of the more helpful books actually.

Most directors of biopics seem to care what their subject thinks of the movie, but how much do you care or consider what Dick Cheney will think of the movie? 

I've always said the whole time we were making it, I said, "He has no problem with this movie all the way through 98% of it." I go, "The only part he's not gonna like is the end with the fissure between the daughters and the kind of showing what America's become. He's not gonna like that." But I think everything before that, from what I've heard about him and from people I know that have met him and talked with him, he doesn't back off his legacy.

I think he'll watch it and be like, "Yeah, we thought Iraq ... We thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. We took him out. He's a dictator, he's a bad guy. I stand by that. And the use of the enhanced interrogation, yeah, I didn't believe that was torture." And so, I don't think he's too rankled by anything up till the last couple ... Now, this is just my theory. It's very possible he starts it, and within two minutes he punches me in the face. But I think Lynne will hate it. I think Liz will hate it. She's climbing the tower ladder right now in Congress. She doesn't want to deal with any of this. I guess the one I'd be most curious about [what] Mary [thinks], which I don't think I'll ever find out, but I would be very curious.

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Vice is now in theaters.