When you’ve got two of the world’s best actors in your movie, you need to know how to push your advantage — and Adam McKay certainly does. For his follow-up to Oscar-winner “The Big Short,” the writer-director struggled to wrangle his profile of Republican operative Dick Cheney and his Machiavellian wife Lynne into fighting shape. After testing the movie with preview audiences, he threw out an early teen romance to focus on the Shakespearean couple at the drama’s center played by Christian Bale, who gained 45 pounds and submitted to layers of delicate prosthetics, and Amy Adams, whose changes included some weight gain but were more subtle overall.
While “Vice” competed as a comedy for six Golden Globes last Sunday — Bale marked the film’s solo win, thanking “Satan, for giving me inspiration for how to play this role” — the people behind it were dead serious about getting the story right. (The Cheneys may not agree.) And while the Annapurna movie is neither as mainstream commercial nor as hilarious as “The Big Short,” its two stars will next grab attention on the awards circuit via the January 27 SAG Awards, where they are both expected to win.
Annapurna lavishly supported a wide holiday break for “Vice,” which was just so-so at the box office but is a soft lob for riled-up Academy liberals. Actors are likely to nominate Bale and Adams, and it’s also in the hunt for BAFTA, DGA, PGA, and WGA awards. A Best Picture nomination will likely follow.
Much like this year’s Oscar-winner Gary Oldman and “Darkest Hour,” Bale’s performance is a marriage between a great character actor channeling a real person and the makeup and prosthetics team that enabled him to change his appearance. Three-time Oscar nominee and shapeshifter Bale (he won for “The Fighter”) admitted at a Q&A that he knew that the role would be a stretch.
“It’s a crazy idea, isn’t it?,” he said. “It seems like a typo to say Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, but it was an almost an impossible challenge, just within the galaxy of possible but about to leave that galaxy. That was exciting.”
He made a deal with McKay that he would work with makeup masters Greg Cannon and Chris Gallagher to get the makeup right. (At the Globes, he said he wouldn’t be accepting that award without them.) The director sat on tenterhooks for five months. “I knew casting was everything for this movie,” McKay said. “We needed Christian, Amy, Carell, and Rockwell. I had to hold on for dear life and send out this insane script and see what happens. Fortunately, these guys are brave as hell. We had to go through the makeup process. We all agreed if the makeup was wrong, the whole movie is wrong.”
Adams marveled at Bale’s patience as he submitted to hours in the makeup chair every day, listening to music on his headphones. He trained himself to nap upright, and stayed in character on set. “The worst for me was two to three weeks, for half an hour or less,” she said. “I don’t know how he did it. I would have been a ding dong.”
Oldman challenged Bale on why he needed to gain the weight. (Oldman chose not to.) Bale picked a mid-range weight he could work with through the decades. “He didn’t go to a full 70-80 pounds,” said McKay. “He found he could feel the extra weight, then augment it with the amazing suits they have now.”
Adams was robbed of an Oscar bid for “Arrival” and, after five nominations and no wins, is overdue. (She’s a movie star who makes what she does look so easy that she’s taken for granted, much like Tom Hanks.) She also ages over the decades from fiercely ambitious young college wife to mother and Washington professional. Lynne Cheney reminded Adams “of the best parts of my grandmother. She was an outspoken, pioneering woman who picked herself up by her bootstraps and could make it happen. She had a rough upbringing, there was so much to dig into … the relationship between Dick and Lynne was very moving in a Shakespearean way.”
Like “The Big Short,” McKay crammed “Vice” with reams of data, video snippets, graphics and surprising detours, including a bedroom scene in which his leads speak to each other in Shakespearean iambic pentameter as they discuss whether Halliburton CEO Cheney should return to politics as George W. Bush’s running mate.
“This is an incredible moment,” said McKay, who made up the Shakespeare. “If Cheney says ‘no’ to being VP, history changes. There are no rules. It’s freeing to dive into movies from this different direction.”
Neither Bale nor Adams had played Shakespeare before, and no one knew if the scene would make it into the final movie. “It’s good I still wanted to impress Christian. That kept me going,” said Adams, who had to monitor her breathing; her fake teeth kept developing spittle. “I trusted Adam would be judicious: he’d put it in if it worked, take it out if it didn’t.”
McKay waited until the edit was almost over before he stuck it in. “It had to be the cherry on top,” he said. “Every time I tried to get it in before that, it would not work. In the end, when the whole movie was done: ‘Let’s look at the Shakespeare,’ and ping! It just fit. Filmmaking is crazy that way. We put it in, it plays, we include the scene in the movie.”
Inspired by Robert Caro’s “The Powerbroker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York” and Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” the movie also falls into the genre of a sprawling family saga like George Stevens’ “Giant.” And from the start, “Vice” was conceived as the portrait of a marriage. Clearly, the inciting incident in Dick Cheney’s life was meeting Lynne, said McKay: “He would have been a [telephone] lineman in Casper, got married and had a bunch of kids. But he met this rascal and that changed everything.”
“She definitely had a very fixed specific view of herself and how to use her intelligence,” said Adams. For one thing, she was not going to let her husband be a loser. Adams learned from Lynne Cheney’s autobiography “the level of focus and ambition she had. She was very unapologetic about it … I never thought of her as a typical wife behind the man; she’s beside him, not in his shadow in any way. She was proud of being his wife, and still is, of the fighter that he became.”
McKay never thought of comedy actor Tyler Perry for the role of Secretary of State Colin Powell, but his agency WME suggested that he meet him. As soon as he did, he thought, “Oh my God, this guy has presence, he’s a mogul, runs a company, he’s a serious player, has a gravitas. That’s Colin Powell.”
Perry took the role seriously and played it straight. “He did all the work, texting me, talking constantly,” McKay said. Perry contacted Powell, who made him read his book. The important thing, Perry said at a Q&A, is that the movie is “highlighting a moment in history so we can pay attention to it so it doesn’t happen again.”
One thing’s for sure: McKay used every second of what Globe and BAFTA nominee Sam Rockwell gave him as George W. Bush. “One of the tricky things was the Will Ferrell impression hovering over the character,” said McKay. “George W was a little ridiculous, you can’t ignore that.”
The shoot was difficult because McKay’s hand-picked team couldn’t afford to shoot — with 170-180 speaking parts — in chronological sequence on 200 locations. That meant multiple period changes could occur on any given day. Only a few movies have attempted this scale and scope over more than 50 years, much like “Little Big Man” and “Forrest Gump.”
By the time they got to set, the actors had to know their characters cold and be able to snap into place for any given time frame. “It’s all preparation,” said Adams. “You have to be decisive about choices of character and understand where you are coming from,” she said. “My relationship with Christian felt organic, it never felt forced, I never felt like it was putting me off-balance or off-kilter. In no part of this did I feel lost.”
Adams dove in on her first day on set with the crucial confrontation with her hungover young husband after a drinking binge, saying “Cut the crap!” “I told Adam, ‘I’m going for it,'” said Adams. I made a decision with Lynne to not hold back.”
“It was a big powerhouse of a scene,” said McKay. “She rolls up cool as cucumber, rolls into the scenes.”
And how did Adams handle Lynne’s complicated feelings –and public statements–about her gay daughter? “I asked questions, I wanted to be very clear about that,” said Adams. “Her answers are that she supports her daughter, believes everybody deserves the pursuit of happiness. From their point of view, ‘don’t bring my daughter into your political agenda.’ Family was off limits. I’m a mom.”
The actors stayed in character and pushed back at McKay if they didn’t buy his take. “These guys kept me honest,” he said. “I thought these questions were relevant if the Cheneys were running a campaign based on bashing gay marriage and sexuality. I loved it that Amy and Christian didn’t move at all, spoke as the characters. That great tension helped us stay on track as a character study.”
Editing was the greatest challenge, as “Vice” was a different beast from “The Big Short.” “It’s a very different rhythm,” said McKay. “We talked with Hank Corwin about the drumbeat of ‘The Big Short,’ the irrational exuberance of the bubble economy, ignoring reality in a tighter time frame. Because this covers 5-6 decades, it’s a slower kick drum, it’s building toward Lynne and Dick riding this power and 9/11 hitting.”
McKay calls editor Corwin “the lighthouse,” because he doesn’t use a chair, preferring to stand through 10-12 hours of editing every day. They could never figure out how to make work an elaborate musical number featuring Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. As they had to let go of big chunks, “the movie tells you what it needs,” McKay said.
Apparently, it needed a shot of McKay’s heart from the operating table after his recent heart attack. After the movie wrapped in January, he had gained some weight and was working out with his trainer when he suddenly felt queasy. Luckily he recognized the signs of a heart attack because of Bale’s research, downed two baby aspirin and had his wife call 911.
“I was lucky,” he said. “The doctor said, ‘you have a stronger than usual heart, you got in here fast, no damage was done, just quit smoking.'” McKay felt fine within a week and returned to his normal routine. “It was a strange thing to go through. I didn’t have to call anyone.”
It was Corwin’s idea to put the footage of his heart into the movie. “‘This feels morbid,'” McKay said at the time. “But the footage was really good. If I hadn’t been in tiptop shape I never would have done that. I have no lingering health issues. It fits thematically into Cheney’s mortality and him being paranoid — ‘let’s not tell anyone.'”
When they conducted research previews, McKay was shocked. “A lot of Republicans said, ‘we’re fine with this, yeah that’s fair’.” The director thinks the film plays “fair and square,” without a political agenda — until the last ten minutes. “When we portray the tragedy of the daughter, some cards get shown,” he said. “Up to that point, everything is really what they did. I could picture Dick Cheney watching it and up to the end he’d say, ‘it’s accurate.'”