Adam McKay heart attack

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.

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