Director's Chair: Adam McKay — <I>Vice</I>
Issue: December 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Adam McKay — Vice

Writer/director/producer Adam McKay became one of the most successful comedy directors in Hollywood thanks to such hits as theAnchorman franchise, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights, The Other Guys, and Marvel’s Ant-Man, which he wrote. 

So, he might have seemed like the last person in town equipped to make The Big Short, a seriously dense drama about the devastating 2008 financial crisis that starred Oscar-winners Brad Pitt and Christian Bale, and Oscar-nominees Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. But he proved all doubters wrong when the film turned out to be a huge critical and box office hit, winning McKay an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and earning him Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Director nominations as well as Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA Best Film nominations.

Now McKay (pictured, left) is getting more awards buzz for his latest film Vice, another unlikely project that is part drama, part comedy, and which takes a highly unconventional look at the rise and fall of former VP Dick Cheney.

Spanning a half-century, the film details Cheney’s complex journey from rural Wyoming electrical worker to de facto President of the United States, and is a darkly comic and often unsettling inside look at the use and misuse of institutional power. Fully inhabiting the role of the highly secretive title character who changed the world in ways few leaders have over the past 50 years is Bale, who heads an all-star cast that includes Carell as the affable, yet steely Donald Rumsfeld, Oscar nominee Amy Adams as Cheney’s tough, ambitious wife and Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as President George W. Bush.  

Behind the camera, McKay assembled a team that included famed editor Hank Corwin, his go-to editor whose high-profile credits include The Big Short, The Tree of Life, Natural Born Killers, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Horse Whisperer and Nixon, and DP Greig Fraser, who was Oscar nominated for his work on Lion.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, McKay talks about making the film (which earned six Golden Globes nominations, including Best Director) and his love of post.

What do you look for in a project and what was the appeal of making a film about Dick Cheney? What piqued your interest?

“I like a challenge and I’ve always been very interested in politics. I’ve written stuff for Michael Moore’s TV show, The Awful Truth, and for the Huffington Post, so I was really drawn to this and the idea of a guy who wielded such immense power, but who did it in such a quiet, creepy way behind closed doors. And he was such a detailed bureaucrat, and yet we’ve never had a full accounting of what he did and what that administration did. And then his career has such a dramatic arc, from his humble beginnings to the very height of Washington power. But it’s not the sexiest of stories. He’s not Teddy Roosevelt riding a horse, he’s not a colorful character. But I just like stories like that, that I think are really important. I know some people think, this is just politics, it’s really boring, who cares? But for me, cracking these sorts of stories is really enjoyable.”

How did you get a handle on Dick Cheney, who seems so enigmatic even today?

“It’s true, he is, and the whole way into making this felt like a mystery. Who is this guy? And I think most people only really know a couple of things about him – that he shot a guy in the face in a hunting accident, and that he’s cold and quiet and sort of like Darth Vader. That’s about it. (Laughs) So it was a deep dive into trying to find out who this guy really is and what made him tick.”

It’s definitely not a straightforward biopic. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“I didn’t want to do a linear, by-the-numbers look at his life and career, and it’s a drama, but there’s a lot of humor in it too, and it felt like the right approach.”

Fair to say, although it’s partly a comedy, your outrage seems to simmer just below the surface?

“Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s very serious, some of it’s appalling, some of it’s very dark. I was surprised by how sad it made me feel by the end. It actually plays like a tragedy, both for him and the country, I think.”

Casting the right actor as Cheney is obviously crucial, but Christian Bale doesn’t immediately spring to mind, yet he perfectly channels him. What did he bring to the role?

“He was so good as Michael Burry in The Big Short, and relished the whole idea of not showing his emotions in that role, and I felt that if anyone could do the deep spelunking necessary to understanding Cheney, it’d be Christian. And I didn’t really care that he looked nothing like Cheney, but then, after all the prosthetics and make up and weight gain and the walk and the voice and so forth, lo and behold, he did. It was an amazing transformation.”

Lynne Chaney turns out to be the power behind the throne. What did Amy Adams bring to the role?

“She was crucial. You quickly see that Lynne was the one with ambition, who picked Cheney, and he was this pretty affable, low key guy, sort of mediocre, while she was both sweet and tough as nails. And Amy’s like Lynne in that regard, this great mixture. So it was really the Dick and Lynne story to me, and Christian and Amy were both like detectives themselves, and they did so much research as well, reading all the books, watching all the interviews and footage out there, and talking to people, and luckily there are a lot of amazing journalists who’d done a lot of research and could provide a lot of background and information about them. But even by the end of all this, Cheney still seemed like a pretty enigmatic guy.” 

Where did you post, and what were the main challenges?

“We did all the post on the Sony lot and cut it all there. We shot on 35mm, but we had to deal with a lot of formats — 16mm, Super 8 — and we even used real TV cameras for the period. And then it’s not just a one period film — it covers five decades, different countries, hundreds of locations, so there was a lot of stuff to deal with in post. And then our composer, Nick Britell, came on almost immediately and started doing some demo tracks right away which is unusual, and he also wrote some of the music right away.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love post. It’s really the most enjoyable part of the whole process for me, as I love writing, and post is writing. There’s nothing better than all the discoveries — and accidents — you find in post. They transform the film. My only rule for post is, you’ve got to have windows, otherwise I just go out of my mind.” 

The film was edited by Hank Corwin. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked, especially considering the sheer volume of visual information he had to process.

“It was a huge amount of material to deal with, and so dense, so you just grind it out every day, and I love working with Hank because he’s got a very unusual take on things and how to really tell the story in the most interesting possible way. The big challenge was getting all the rhythms right, the pacing, and we found that even just adding or cutting three or four frames in a scene could really throw it all off. It was really delicate work, and we had a lot of montages and the timing had to be perfect, so we spent a lot of time refining and refining scenes. I really like to do test screenings and get feedback during post, so we’d do some screenings in the little theaters in the Thalberg building, for just seven or eight people, including some friends and filmmakers. Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell came by, and they really helped give us a sense of where we were, and what was working and what wasn’t. We pretty much followed the screenplay, although you always change stuff and shift things around, and there was far more about their teen years originally in the cut. But it just didn’t work. And we also did some test audiences in malls, and that’s where you really take it on the chin. It turned out that they didn’t like all the teen year stuff and watching another actor playing the young Cheney, even though it looked so great. And we didn’t want to cut it, but finally we did, and then the whole movie suddenly worked. A lot of times, the movie tells you what it wants to be, and you can’t force it to go in a different direction.” 

Like all period pieces, this uses some VFX. Talk about them.

“We needed a lot, and we had a great VFX super, Raymond Gieringer, who really cared so much about the film and every detail. We used several VFX teams — from Cinesite, MRX Montreal, Lola, Gloss, Fuse and some others — and they all went above and beyond. We had a ton of clean up, and about 60 or 70 make up fixes, and then bigger stuff like shots of D.C. and really weird stuff like the sequence with the prehistoric fish swimming around. That was one of my favorite shots, and it was really hard to do it. It took about eight attempts to get it right.”

Where did you do the final sound mix?

“Up at Skywalker Ranch, with mixer Chris Scarabosio and a really great team, and it was a hard movie to mix, what with all the music transitions and tons of dialogue. It took a long time to get that seamless flow I wanted.”

Where did you do the DI?

“At Fotokem, with colorist David Cole, and again, it was quite tricky as we had so many different formats and archival and news footage to blend together, and David was crucial in making all that work.”