Adam McKay on What Makes 'Vice' the Perfect Christmas Movie (Exclusive)

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Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

That Vice, Adam McKay’s satirical biopic about the life and crimes of Dick Cheney, would have a primo release date smack dab in the middle of awards season makes sense. McKay's last, The Big Short, won him an adapted screenplay Oscar, and this one has already collected Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. That Vice arrives in theaters on Christmas Day is...an interesting choice.

"I think every child, when you run down those stairs on Christmas morning, you want to see a bureaucratic, shadowy vice president sitting under your Christmas tree," McKay deadpanned. "It's what we're all secretly hoping for. I think we also know the last thing anyone wants to be seeing around Christmas is that Mary Poppins movie. So, we felt like, as a public service, we needed to get a movie out for the Christmas season to give people an option [to] really celebrate the true meaning of Christmas, which is Dick Cheney."

On the phone with ET, McKay discussed his reaction to seeing Christian Bale's as Dick Cheney for the first time, directing method actors and why he didn't cast his Anchorman and Step Brothers star, Will Ferrell, as George W. Bush.

ET: A lot of these mornings lately must feel something like Christmas, waking up to Globe nominations and Christian and Amy Adam's SAG nominations.

Adam McKay: It's pretty cool. Yeah, it's pretty great. Obviously, everyone worked incredibly hard on this movie and, man, oh, man, those actors worked hard, too. So, I love seeing them acknowledged. It's very exciting.

You've been through the awards season gauntlet before with The Big Short. Does that make it easier the second time?

Yeeeah. It's just kind of tough with [publicist] Paula Woods, who's the master of orchestrating these award seasons -- I worked with her on The Big Short -- and I was telling her, really what I got smarter about this time is any chance I have to sleep, I sleep. Also, always leave the party early. Those are the two aphorisms that I'm carrying into this award season, and it seems to be working pretty well.

With your past two films, you've gravitated away from the heightened comedies you'd been known for to films based on real people. What keeps drawing you to these based-on-a-true-story stories?

Clearly, there was change going on in the world, that the world was starting to get pretty bumpy and pretty odd. I'll just speak for myself personally, I personally felt like it was very difficult to understand what was going on in the world with the financial crisis and the whole political climate in the United States. So, on a personal level, I just started looking for a sense of what the real causes are behind all of these change and, in doing so, happened to collide with a great book, The Big Short, which I felt was one of the best ones I read explaining all that craziness, and I thought, "Well, wait a minute. We could actually do a movie that's really entertaining and really moves and has life to it but, at the same time, be giving a foundation for these crazy changes."

Off that experience, I just really loved it. It was just very satisfying and, at the same time, I still got to do funny stuff in the movie, got to work with great actors, blah, blah, blah. And when I stumbled upon this story -- which was another one that was like, "Wait a minute, that dusty, shadowy, bureaucrat of a vice president actually may have changed history about as much as anyone ever" -- all of a sudden, I realized there was exciting stories to be told by that seemingly boring subject. I think we're told a lot in our modern culture, like, "Don't care about these subjects. They're boring. They're politics. They're economics. Yawn." And the truth is, it's where most of the really good stuff is.

Christian has said he didn't originally see himself as Dick, mainly for the physical reasons. But you did. What made you confident, before the weight gain and any makeup or prosthetics, that Christian was your guy?

I never expected him to look exactly like Dick Cheney. I wanted to be more impressionistic. I wanted to make it the essence, the vibe. Now, what I didn't count on is Christian Bale and Greg Cannom, our makeup artist, and their determination, because they so far exceeded my expectations. I knew he was going to look good. I knew he was going to get the vibe, but by that last makeup session, after he had done all his weight gain and learned all the physical affects of Cheney and really gone into the character, I mean, the hair stood up on my arms. It's like nothing I've ever seen before. I think we all thought it was kind of a little bit of a crazy idea, but I didn't feel like we had to 100 percent get there. But that SOB went and did it anyway.

Christian is the type of actor who stays in character between takes, right?

He does it halfway, and so does Amy, so does Sam. I think a lot of those really top-tier actors do this, where they're kind of half in character, but you don't have to call Christian "Dick Cheney." You don't have to call Amy "Lynne Cheney." They're speaking in the voice, they're carrying themselves physically that way, but they can still speak to you as themselves. You can still joke around with them, so, it's kind of a halfway thing they do.

So, he wasn't during a full Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.

No. Sometimes there'd be a really heavy scene coming up and I would just make a point to kind of stay clear of Amy and Christian or Sam, or whatever. Sometimes you just want to give them a little bit of room, but most of the time, [they're] pretty laid back. He's doing the voice. He's doing the physicality -- so's Amy, so's Sam, so's Carell -- but still able to speak of themselves using their real names.

You directed Amy in Talladega Nights more than 10 years ago. What was it like to be back on set directing her again?

Sometimes things are really obvious. Like, I remember when I saw Aaron Rodgers play football at Cal. I had no idea who he was and I just pointed at the TV and I go, "That guy's the best quarterback I've ever seen." There are certain things that jump out at you immediately and that was Amy Adams back in the day. Will Ferrell and I were like, "She is going to be a massive star. She can do anything. She's funny. She's a great actress. She's collaborative." It was very funny. We really didn't have a big role for her in [Talladega Nights], but we made this role that ended up becoming very pivotal for her.

It was great to get to go back to working with her. I've been trying to find ways to work with her through the years, and boy, did this one line up perfectly. We hit it off like we had just seen each other a month ago. It was immediately comfortable again. She just works so hard, but she's such a pleasure to work with and it's just really cool to see the amazing career she's had.

You mentioned Will Ferrell, did he give you any hell for not casting him as George W. Bush?

[Laughs.] No, Will understood. And the legacy of Will's impression is solidified. He certainly had an incredibly fun run with that impression in the Broadway show and SNL and all this stuff, so he got it. He knew that if we were going to cast him, it would lead the movie in a slightly different direction, and he was nothing but supportive of this project.

Were there any real-life players you had intended to include or wanted to include that had to be cut for whatever reason?

I think you're the first person who's asked that. There was a whole little storyline we had about Nelson Rockefeller, the VP for Ford, because he was a moderate Republican -- you used to call 'em Rockefeller Republicans -- and Cheney and Rumsfeld hated him. They just ran bureaucratic game on that guy, got him to resign, and I think he died, like, two years later. So, there was a little monologue from Nelson Rockefeller saying, "Hey, there used to be Republicans like me who believed in the environment and education and pro-labor and pro-business, and there's not too many of us left." And then he would talk about how he died.

So, it was this great little monologue we had. It just was too long in that section. It broke my heart to cut it. Bill Pullman did it, and he did it beautifully. It was so good and [I] just couldn't quite get that one to work. If you're going compare the movie to a novel, if that was in the movie, it became a 600-page novel, and I realized, I got this audience for about a 360-page novel so some of this stuff has to come out.

That's what the Blu-ray special features are for.

You are darn right, my friend, and there will be some good ones on that.

The film was announced around the time of the 2016 election. What does it mean to you that it's coming out now, in this political climate and in this administration?

We constantly had this eerie feeling when we were making it. We just couldn't believe how much the history we were dealing with was lining up with what was happening in current day. I mean, when I saw Dick Durbin grilling Brett Kavanaugh about unitary executive theory, I couldn't believe it. I was like, You gotta be kidding me. That just happened over and over again. When [John] Bolton was appointed [to National Security Advisor], I was going to cut that little chunk out of the movie about Bolton and death tax. All of a sudden with that giant Republican tax bill, they basically finally got rid of the death tax. All of these little things were in the movie, and the craziest was Ronald Reagan saying, "Make America great again." The whole thing, how it lined up and you realize we've kind of been repeating the same cycle over and over again for about 40 years, it was kind of eerie.

Have you heard if the Cheneys have any interest or plans to see this?

I called his person. You know, they've got, like, a body man and I said, "Hey, I'd love to fly into Wyoming and he and I could go." So, we're going to go to Outback Steakhouse for dinner and we're going to go see the movie together and--" No, I have no idea. [Laughs.]

I was thinking, Whoa. Good luck!

I love that it's an Outback Steakhouse that we're going to, for some reason. That's something that Cheney and I agreed on. No, I have no idea. I think, generally, he's a thick-skinned guy. I think he could watch it and 99 percent of it, he would have no problem with. I think Liz [Cheney] would be very unhappy, because she's now climbing the power ladder of Congress, so the last thing she wants is this. But I think Dick, from what I've heard, he's pretty thick-skinned.

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