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‘Vice’: The Big Dick-Cheney Energy of Adam McKay

How ‘The Big Short’ writer-director tackled the story of the vice-president he considers the architect of our current political moment

(L to R) Actor Sam Rockwell, director Adam McKay, actor Christian Bale, and cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set of VICE, an Annapurna release. Credit : Matt Kennedy / Annapurna Pictures 2018 © Annapurna Pictures, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

'Vice' director Adam McKay, center, talks truth to (fake) power with Sam Rockwell and Christian Bale.

Matt Kennedy/Annapurna Pictures

It was a fever, a bookshelf, and possibly divine intervention, that made Adam McKay realize he didn’t know Dick.

In the late winter of 2016, the writer-director had just finished the awards-circuit death march for The Big Short, his look at the housing crisis. Then, a week after the Oscars, the 50-year-old filmmaker found himself laid up with what he characterizes as “the worst flu you could possibly imagine.” He’s recalling this while slumped down on a couch in the green room of the Robin Williams Center on West 54th Street, in midtown Manhattan; you can hear the dialogue, and occasional laughter, bleeding in from a Screen Actors Guild screening happening below us.

“I mean, was sick for close to a month,” he says, trying to adjust his six-foot-five frame so he can get comfortable. (McKay’s been having back issues lately.) He finally gives up, slouches back down and settles for adjusting the scarf around his neck. “I mean, I made comedies! You do a junket or two, maybe you go to England … but this? It was nonstop for months, just constant. You know how your body will hold a sickness? Suddenly, everything just hit me all at once.”

Delirious, the director behind Anchorman and Step Brothers turned to his bookshelf for salvation. “And I looked over and went, ‘Oh, a Dick Cheney book.’ It could have been any book. But for some reason, that was the one thing that caught my eye.” He doesn’t remember which biography it was — probably “Angler,” by Barton Gellman — but the more McKay read, the more he realized the former vice president may have been an even bigger influence on modern politics than he’d realized. Once he recovered, he started going down a research rabbit hole, reading as many articles directly (and indirectly) about Cheney and perusing his interviews for a slip of the tongue. “Which I couldn’t find,” he notes. “I kept thinking there would be some point where he made a mistake, said more than what he meant to say. He never did — there’s no crack in his game. It made him even more interesting.

“On SNL, we joked that he was Darth Vader,” he adds. “But I always felt like we maybe weren’t quite grasping how much he was gaming the system in Washington. I was always the one going, “Guys, I think it may be even worse than we thought.'”

That deathly ill reading choice became the starting point for Vice, McKay’s gonzo, mad-as-hell movie about the man who allegedly called all of the shots in Dubya’s White House. (It opens on Christmas Day.) Starting with Cheney’s drunken, hell-raising days in Wyoming and ending with the behind-the-scenes Beltway power broker literally having his heart removed, it’s a heavily researched, highly irreverent and often scathing look at the former VP. Tackling a subject that was known for being extremely evasive and tight-lipped, McKay knew that he couldn’t do a standard A-to-B biopic. He figured he’d have to swerve left when folks expected him to go right. And that was before he made one of the most WTF casting decisions of the past decade.

“I mean, why wouldn’t you think of Christian Bale as Dick Cheney?” McKay asks, laughing. “Yeah, I admit, it is a pretty big leap. But I didn’t want someone doing an impersonation, and having worked with him” — Bale played The Big Short‘s hedge-fund manager Michael Burry — “I’d watched how he took apart and put a character’s psyche together.” Despite the fact that McKay had commissioned “a friend who’s a writer and a journalist” to interview over a dozen sources about Dick and his family, he recognized that the political operative was a tough nut to crack. (Ask him who he interviewed, and McKay suddenly gets as tight-lipped as his subject. “Let’s just say it was some personal friends, some people from Wyoming, some people from the administration, some people who don’t like them, there’s some people that love them … it was a nice mix of points of view.”)

“The point is, Cheney is a mystery,” the director continues. “So I knew I was gonna need a Christian Bale deep-dive here.”

Even The Dark Knight actor found himself mystified by the choice to cast him as D.C.’s prince of darkness; after reading the script, he recalled texting McKay, “Do you not realize how bloody difficult this is going to be?” But he signed on, and the two set about conquering the main obstacle: his appearance. “The biggest hurdle was the makeup. Christian was like, ‘If the makeup sucks, the whole thing falls apart.’ We brought in makeup artist Greg Cannom [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button], and they spent four months working on prosthetics. I thought the makeup looked amazing, but Bale’s like, ‘It can be better.’ He also put on weight [45 pounds], so by that last round of changes . . . I just remember when he walked onto the set, we were like, ‘Holy moly!’ ”

By that point, McKay had also cast Amy Adams as Dick’s equally Machiavellian wife, Lynne Cheney; Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld; and Sam Rockwell as the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush. (“Rockwell had the hardest job,” the director admits, “because Will Ferrell’s version is so definitive. But it’s good — freakishly good — what he does in the movie.”) Then, during preproduction, the 2016 election happened. McKay asked himself: Do we still make this movie? “And we felt like, ‘Oh, this is even more relevant now,'” he says. I want to know how the hell we got here, and I have a feeling Bush and Cheney were a big part of that. I’ve said that Cheney was like the safecracker, the guy who had the keypad to open the gate — and now the gate’s open, and you have deer and hyenas running around the White House.”

Indeed, McKay feels that Vice‘s more outrageous Anchorman-like moments — a fake-credits roll in the middle of the film, the Cheneys engaging in pillow talk while speaking in Shakespearean verse, a maitre d’ describing a menu of legal loopholes and Gitmo torture options — are completely in tune with our current moment. “It’s just horror and absurdity in the Trump era,” McKay notes. “And I just feel like this timeline sort of got swept under the rug. But people need to be reminded that there’s a history, there’s an arc. I don’t know if this movie is going to change anything. But it was definitely cathartic to make it.”

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