Please enjoy the follow transcription of Adam McKay from his time on Stay Tuned with Preet:
Preet Bharara: Adam McKay thank you so much for being on the show.
Adam McKay: It is my pleasure Preet thanks for having me on.
Preet Bharara: So congratulations on the Academy Award nomination for your movie, Vice. Is that exciting?
Adam McKay: Oh definitely yeah. I mean this was a challenging and very divisive film obviously so to get that kind of recognition is nice, and most of all helps to get people out to the theaters, which is what we want.
Preet Bharara: So you know that’s all well and good that you have this Oscar nomination. I would rather spend our hour talking about Ron Burgundy, can we do that?
Adam McKay: By the way I would have no problem with that and I’m not kidding.
Preet Bharara: I was joking, I was joking but you know what, that was one of the great movies Anchor Man.
Adam McKay: As fun as it is too, it sadly was a little ahead of the curve on the fall of news. Certain kinds of news.
Preet Bharara: I guess so.
Adam McKay: The panda story I mean how many times through the years now have we seen the panda story? I think at one-point Fox was doing it instead of a big story, they were doing do pandas have more sex than other zoo animals that Fox was running during one of those days when it was proof the President was part of a criminal conspiracy and that was the story they were going with.
Preet Bharara: Are you gonna leave us hanging? Do pandas have more sex?
Adam McKay: You have to watch the piece, it’s beautifully done.
Preet Bharara: Okay. So okay let’s get back to the movie in theaters right now, Vice. So the central character is Dick Cheney. I was fortunate enough to be invited to see your preview I loved the movie, people should go see it, I think it’s great and we’ll talk more about it in a second on how you made it. But I remember you saying in the Q and A at the screening that you spent a lot of time reading about Dick Cheney. How much research did you do? How much time did you put into learning about the former Vice President?
Adam McKay: You know it was kind of part of the whole process of writing the script. I mean there were a good three or four months that were just me reading all the great books. You know, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Barton Gellman, Angler and Corn and Isikoff, Hubris. I mean on and on, Ron Suskind wrote three books about the Bush years and then you get into the autobiographies by all the players. There’s another six or seven.
Adam McKay: Then you go back and read all the pieces about the imperial Presidency of Nixon, you read about the Ford era. And then there’s another 50, 60 great articles out there. So it was a lot and then to top it all off we hired our own journalist who went around the country and interviewed a bunch of people off the record as you know that’s when people will really talk to you, so we got a lot of good information out of that.
Preet Bharara: Why did you feel it necessary to do so much research?
Adam McKay: You know there’s a lot of different reasons we made the movie but one thing too, that’s just frustrating about our world nowadays is that everything’s seen through that red or blue lens, partisan lens and we wanted to make sure what we showed in the movie was accurate to what the man did, to what he and his wife did, to what the country did, to what the Republican party did.
Adam McKay: You know I think a lot of this stuff for people like yourself, for people, you know, who follow politics day in, day out probably know a decent amount of this stuff. But I just wanted to make sure everything was spot on because at the end of the day I wanted it to be an accurate record. I wanted it to be as accurate a character depiction as we could possibly do. And also wanted to understand where he was coming from more. So accuracy was very important.
Preet Bharara: What surprises were in store for you when you finally delved down into the life and times of Dick Cheney?
Adam McKay: The biggest surprise was that Dick Cheney was such a normal kid. There’s really no big kind of, shocking revelation from his childhood. Both is parents were FDR Democrats. He played baseball, he played football, he was a B student, kind of a smart aleck and really his whole first act is about Lynne Vincent who would become Lynne Cheney.
Adam McKay: That’s his story is that he met her and she was the most beautiful in Wyoming, straight A student, baton twirling champion and he just fell for her in a giant way and it was her. She was the one who was pointed out of the state.
Adam McKay: She had the ambition and because he fell for her, he started going down that path and by the end he ended up becoming the master of power, the real genius of how to manipulate the system and understanding the bureaucracy of government. But that really surprised me. The first act is not Dick Cheney’s. It’s really Lynne Cheney’s.
Preet Bharara: How did he get her to fall for him?
Adam McKay: He was crazy about her from the second he moved there. He moved to Wyoming when he was 11 years old from Nebraska and right away saw her and her aunt too I guess looked like a movie star. So the two of them were walking across the street and he was like, “Oh my God.” She didn’t pay him any mind and it was right before homecoming, she was Miss Mustang and Lynne’s boyfriend dumped her.
Adam McKay: He was the quarterback on the football team and a friend of Dick’s. So Lynne’s best friend Joan had been dating Dick for about three years and Lynne new Dick had a crush on her, so she just went over to Dick and said, “Dick, would you like to take me to the dance?” And that was it. Dick dumped his girlfriend, left her in tears, went with Lynne and history was written.
Preet Bharara: He was on his path to White House jobs and the Vice Presidency.
Adam McKay: We talked to Joan actually. We actually got in touch with her and the old girlfriend and yeah. That’s how they-
Preet Bharara: Well a lot of people say that whoever Lynne married would have made it to the White House.
Adam McKay: Yeah they say who ever she would have married would have been President or Vice President and they say that to this day.
Amy Adams: Can you feel it Dick? Half the room wants to be us. The other half fears us. I know George is next in line but after that who knows.
Christian Bale: I respect the hell out of Regan but no one has shown the world the true power of the American Presidency.
Adam McKay: She’s such a force of nature. Well, I mean, you know, she worked at the think tanks, she’s written what, like 12 books, she’s very charismatic. I’ve seen tapes of her on talk shows and feels like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with and I can’t imagine a woman like that back in the late 50s.
Adam McKay: Part of this story too was she worked for a guy who ran an oil company and he wanted to give her a scholarship to Yale but no women were allowed into Yale at that time. So she said, “Well why don’t you give it to my boyfriend Dick.” And that’s how he got a scholarship to Yale.
Preet Bharara: She transferred the offer to her husband.
Adam McKay: Yeah it was back in the days when certain rich guys would just have a couple scholarships they could dole out as they saw fit. And he was like “Aw gosh Lynne you’re so smart I wish I could give it to you, but there’s no women at Yale.” “Well what about my boyfriend?” And that was it and then of course he flunked out about a year and a half, two years later.
Preet Bharara: When did he get his act together based on your research and reading?
Adam McKay: So he flunked out of Yale, came back to Casper, Wyoming and got a job hanging power lines, an apprentice lineman. He was hitting it pretty hard, I mean that’s a hard drinking kind of life and meanwhile Lynne was graduating from Colorado College, straight A student and then it started to get really bad, then Dick Cheney started to get DUI’s and really hanging with a rough crowd and that’s kind of the precipitating scene of the whole movie is when she sits him down and basically says “You choose me or you choose this.” And when she put it that way he white knuckled it, he chose her, he stopped drinking on that job-
Preet Bharara: Cold turkey, just right there, right on the spot?
Adam McKay: Cold, old school, you know 1950s, 1960s, cold turkey, exactly. A lot like George W. Bush did.
Preet Bharara: Right. So let me ask you, you did a lot of research and you wanted to get it exactly right, what kind of pushback have you gotten from the Cheney family and/or Cheney supporters who may not love the portrayal in the film?
Adam McKay: There’s no response from the Cheney family. They know it’s accurate. The only thing we get is, and you see this all the time in our modern press, there’s certain outlets that kind of insinuate that it’s not accurate. I read the piece and I’m like, “Well you didn’t say what was inaccurate.”
Adam McKay: Or there have been a few that say it’s not accurate and then they show their research and their research is incorrect. So there’s this kind of assumption because it’s a Hollywood movie that it’s not accurate but I’m still waiting for someone to point out something in the movie that’s not accurate. I have yet to see it.
Preet Bharara: Well I guess my reaction is, having seen it and enjoyed it that some people might not like the portrayal because they think he’s painted a little bit as a villain. Which I didn’t fully see. He had certain things that he did, he moved us towards a particular war, and he had certain attributes. Do you think of him as a villain in the political history of the country?
Adam McKay: We weren’t trying to portray it one way or the other. I mean I’ve actually heard some people on the left complain that the movie is too kind to him. Wilkerson, Collin Powell’s old right hand guy was complaining it wasn’t harsh enough.
Adam McKay: You know, to me the Cheney’s story mirrors America’s story. It’s a guy who found ambition, wanted to make his wife proud, wanted to make his family proud and then that ambition and then that desire to make good turned into something darker, and that is kind of what happened to America.
Adam McKay: So I don’t believe anyone’s just born evil, I don’t think it’s the way it works. So I really was looking at what happened to this guy. How did he end up in the place that he ended up by the end? Which, without question, as a leader who did a lot of destruction.
Adam McKay: So that was the way I looked at it and in that lens it played more like a tragedy to me. A tragedy for the world, for the country, for him, for his family and it was more about a sense that we had lost something essential by that time.
Preet Bharara: Do you think that Dick Cheney is evil?
Adam McKay: I just don’t know what the word evil means. I mean, can people become twisted? Can people’s minds become bent through circumstance, through addiction, through pain, through trauma?
Adam McKay: Yes, and would you call that position they would reach, would some call it evil, sure. Did Dick Cheney get to a place like that by the end where through power, through paranoia that he did some awful stuff? Yes. But I don’t use the word evil. I don’t use good and evil, I don’t think they’re very helpful.
Preet Bharara: Well the reason I ask is, so the amazing performance by Christian Bale who, when I first saw the news report that this movie was coming out and Christian Bale would be playing Dick Cheney at first I thought that’s nuts and then I thought, well of course.
Preet Bharara: ‘Cause Christian Bale can play anyone but I believe at the Golden Globes where he won best actor, and I don’t know how much of this was tongue in cheek and how much of it was serious, he thanked in his speech Satan which was a reference to Dick Cheney. Is that a way of calling him evil? Is that fair?
Adam McKay: Well Satan, in fairness, not necessarily in connection to Cheney, Satan helped us in other regards to this movie. He helped us get financing, no. He was kidding.
Preet Bharara: Should we go back to the pandas?
Adam McKay: He was totally tongue in cheek. I think he was saying that to make me laugh and I think he was poking fun at once again that just extremes in our country.
Preet Bharara: Well there’s this whole thing that Dick Cheney was portrayed as Darth Vader and Christian Bale refers to him as Satan, is there a part of, based on your knowledge, is there a part of that image that Dick Cheney and people around him sort of embrace in reciprocal tongue in cheek manner?
Adam McKay: Oh absolutely. He’s very public. Well, as public as Dick Cheney can be, but he has said he gets a kick out of it. I think one year some of his grandkids dressed up as Darth Vader, it’s a very open joke in the family.
Preet Bharara: Yeah so he owns it.
Adam McKay: He completely owns it. You know I actually think that the part of the movie that probably rattled some people more than anything else depicting the Regan revolution and depicting how America changed. I’ve heard some people say “Oh you’re just going after the Republicans.” I’m like, “No, not really.” But there was a giant historical change in this country that we don’t talk about in proper terms.
Preet Bharara: Let’s talk about it, what was the change?
Adam McKay: I mean the change was the Republican revolution. The Regan revolution of the late 70s, early 80s and we are still living in that revolution. Some would call it the counter revolution to FDR’s New Deal but it was very skillfully and purposely done. I mean millions and millions of dollars came into Washington DC, they built the right wing think tanks, the talking points were lining up.
Adam McKay: You had your perfect lead actor as the President, Ronald Regan and he gets in and the American Enterprise Institute give him a list of policies they want and by the end of his eight years he’s done 76% of them and the whole country starts to change and swing to the right to the point where now, you know, we have Democrats that would have been Republicans back in the 70s and 60s because the country swung so far to the right.
Adam McKay: And I just feel like we don’t talk about that enough. That we are living in the Republican revolution. You know when Bill Clinton got into office we were like, “Hey it’s a Democrat.” And instantly behaved like a Republican and everything is so far to the right.
Preet Bharara: How did Bill Clinton instantly start behaving like a Republican?
Adam McKay: He dismantled welfare, signed the deregulation of the banks, a lot of his laws that he passed concerning crimes and justice were pretty hard to the right. Did a lot of things that would have been considered very Republican, in fact would have been considered very right wing during any other time.
Preet Bharara: So how do you consider Obama’s time as compared to?
Adam McKay: Obama I would say as well. I would say Obama was like a moderate and I think Obama did a lot of good stuff, don’t get me wrong. I definitely voted for him both times but you know, I think he used unitary executive theory. I think there’s somethings he did I didn’t agree with.
Adam McKay: I wish he had prosecuted the bankers, I definitely thought there was enough evidence, I think he let them off the hook and it’s a very Republican thing to do, to let big money off the hook, especially when they’ve contributed to your campaign. So I didn’t love that.
Adam McKay: I didn’t love that there wasn’t a more serious investigation into the Iraq war and torturing but I also get each President kind of forgives the one before, but I think that’s gotta stop at some point. So I would say Obama was more moderate but I would put Bill Clinton to the right of the spectrum with his Presidency and I think a lot of those decisions have proven not to be wise decisions and have not aged well at all.
Preet Bharara: So I’m just intrigued by this point that you made that we don’t talk enough about the Republican revolution but we’ve had these iterations of Democratic and Republican Presidents since, so here we are in 2016, no I’m sorry, here we are in 2019. I long for a prior time apparently.
Adam McKay: That one’s by the way not a great time that you picked. Still a bad year.
Preet Bharara: Well, up to November something.
Adam McKay: Yeah there you go.
Preet Bharara: So where do you think we are now in terms of that arch and the consequences of what you refer to as the Republican revolution? Is it receding a little bit? Are we still in a structure where the things that Regan did in your view remain? And what’s the possibility for change going forward?
Adam McKay: And by the way to make it clear, not just that Regan did. That was just the beginning of it. There’s been many other, Newt Gingrich, and W. Bush and Cheney and Ryan and now of course Mitch McConnell would definitely be one of the big faces of it. In fact, if anything I think it’s the full bloom of the Republican revolution is what we’re living in now.
Adam McKay: It was always a coalition that was built from old money families like Richard Mellon Scaife and the Coors and the Koch and on and on. And the reaction to the Rowe vs. Wade, so the Evangelicals and of course the reaction of civil rights, so white working southerners who are pissed about civil rights. That was always the coalition it was built upon and then obviously massive corporations came in off the Powell memo and then lobbying kind of flourished.
Adam McKay: So I mean, you know, let’s be honest, that’s basically who has been running our country for the past 30 or 40 years. Walk around congress, I think we all know people write checks and they get their votes and I would say Trump and this kind of insane circus like atmosphere we’re in right now is the full bloom of it. I hope it is. Could it get worse? Yes, it could. I could end up saying this-
Preet Bharara: It could always get worse. I’ve interviewed Harry Reed, former Senate Majority Leader who said he really, really had a problem with George W. Bush. Didn’t get along great with him, thought he did a lot of damage to the country. Said that he was the worst President ever and I can’t remember if these were his words but he said then Trump came along and made George W. Bush look like Churchill.
Adam McKay: Yeah. That bothers me when people say that. I think it minimizes between 600,000 and a million deaths in Iraq. I get that some people think that the symbolic position of President is very important and they like the fact that W. Bush and Cheney pretended better and I think that’s really what that’s about.
Preet Bharara: What does that mean? You said that and I thought that was a fascinating thing that you say. That they pretended better. Pretended to be what better?
Adam McKay: They kept up the appearances somewhat of being a normal White House. You could see the cracks clearly but they at least made and effort to walk out with a stiff back and shake people’s hands and to say things that were vetted by advisors and the state departments and they’re at least if you squinted your eyes during the W. Bush, Cheney years it kind of looked like a normal functioning White House.
Adam McKay: There’s no way to squint your eyes on the Trump White House. Just all form is out the window. They’ve basically dismantled portions of the federal government, the state department included. They don’t say things in a normal way, they don’t behave in a normal way, they openly and flagrantly lie and dare people to call it out, so it’s very upsetting to see what Trump’s doing but I think anyone that talks about missing Bush and Cheney, man. That makes me queasy to be honest. There’s a lot-
Preet Bharara: Are people putting form over substance do you think? You don’t think there’s a substantive difference even though it may be the case that the current President hasn’t done some of the things that you don’t like that the Bush White House did that a lot of the reason people are up in arms is because they see future risk based on the behavior of the President.
Adam McKay: Oh 100%, 100%, and I’m in total agreement with that and it’s very upsetting to me and when I see kids put in cages, that’s pretty evil stuff. And when you see the future risk of shutting down our borders, of hostility toward journalists, this is scary stuff. These are motions and this is rhetoric that points towards a pretty dark version of fascism could.
Adam McKay: The only thing I don’t like is to go back and say “It kind of makes you miss Bush.” Like we can all say Trump is scary and dangerous but we don’t need to go back and then somehow say Bush and Cheney are better. Like it’s just a weird instinct and kind of dark and I think dismissive and I think in a way it kind of shows how we haven’t really processed the eight years of W. Bush and Cheney.
Adam McKay: We don’t yet fully understand what happened during those eight years and just how bad it was. People like to make things in new comparisons, there’s no real comparison. It’s one continuous story that we’re in the middle of. Once again, I would call the Regan revolution or the Republican revolution.
Preet Bharara: Can we talk for another minute or two about Dick Cheney’s personality and how it affected his leadership style because it’s actually fascinating to me and I wonder what you think about this? You know, Dick Cheney is someone, and he’s portrayed in the movie this way, I think largely as well.
Preet Bharara: He uniquely among politicians did not care whether people liked him or not, or maybe that’s a myth. He didn’t care about popularity. We’ve talked already about how he embraced and owns this persona of being Darth Vader, Satan et cetera and I guess my question is, is that in some way to be applauded? Is that refreshing in some way because most politicians can be accused of pandering and looking to increase their popularity in not doing unpopular things that they think are right.
Preet Bharara: Now it may be that you think that what Dick Cheney thought was right was misguided. Is there some value in having more people who at least are like Cheney in the sense that they care less about what people think about them and about looking good and about popularity than about getting their agenda accomplished?
Adam McKay: That’s a really interesting question because there are flip sides to everything, right? I was talking with a friend of mine about the Unitary Executive Theory and this strong interpretation of it that gives the President tremendous powers. I was talking about how dangerous it was.
Adam McKay: Talking about how Cheney really pushed for it, about how your seeing even to some degree Obama used it a little bit and your seeing it with Trump too in a bigger, much more potentially frightening way. At the same time, global warming is clearly becoming a bigger and bigger threat. It could be the end of us, literally.
Adam McKay: You know in fact, statistically according to the data, it’s going to be the end of us. So my friend says, “Well what about Unitary Executive to help with global warming?” And I go, “Huh, that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of that.” So all of a sudden there’s a version of Unitary Executive that could save mankind and it’s the same I think with what you’re talking about.
Adam McKay: You’re talking about a Dick Cheney who’s not caught up in public opinion polls, who’s not caught up in cheap applause breaks and hollow inspirational speak as opposed to real choices and real policy and the way he used it was to some degree dismantle our democracy and to build his own power and influence. I mean I think what we’re hoping for is someone who can have that same approach to that but use it in a constructive way. Some with the courage.
Preet Bharara: It’s about the agenda right? So would you welcome, would you embrace politicians who have an agenda that’s more in line with yours, who, like Dick Cheney don’t really give a damn about looking good on television and having adoring crowds chanting their name.
Adam McKay: Well here’s the irony of it. The second you start doing that people love you, and the perfect example of that is Bernie Sanders. I mean the guy’s hair is going left, it’s going right, he speaks in that odd cadence.
Preet Bharara: The Bernie people write, that’s Adam McKay. He lives in Hollywood somewhere. Don’t Tweet at me.
Adam McKay: I mean the guy was competitive. He’s a Democratic socialist from Vermont but he doesn’t chase polls. I mean ask anyone who works with him. I don’t even think he likes to do polling. I mean that works for better or for worse. What’s the famous FDR line when he says, the robber barrens are all coming after him and he says, “They hate me.” And he says, “Well I welcome their hatred.”
Adam McKay: And there’s this huge applause line like oh man, this guy’s going right at it. And I think you’re seeing that a little bit with AOC right now. I mean she’s just taking the attacks and she’s dancing her way through them, and she knows where they’re coming from it’s a corrupt system.
Preet Bharara: She’s a bit more, even her conservative advisories I think would admit she’s a little bit more charming than Dick Cheney. I’ve not seen a Dick Cheney dance video although I would pay a lot of money to see that. That’s probably one of the scenes you’d cut from the film.
Adam McKay: I actually found it and I destroyed it for the betterment of humanity, so no, no one will ever see that.
Preet Bharara: Maybe that’s a way he could rehabilitate himself if he turns out to be a great dancer. George W. Bush, the best thing to happen to George W. Bush in part, and I can tell what your view is gonna be that there was a passage of time, Trump got elected and Bush learned how to paint.
Adam McKay: And then he danced on Ellen, remember?
Preet Bharara: Right. How could I forget. Here’s the other thing about Dick Cheney that’s deeply interesting to me. I worked in the Senate for a while, I met a lot of politicians. There’s the very rare politician that didn’t have a higher ambition and it’s the rare Vice President that doesn’t seek to replace the President.
Preet Bharara: And I’ve always wondered if this was just a myth or if it’s true, and I tend to think it’s true, that Dick Cheney really did not have that longing to ascend to President. And that was the thing that allowed George W. Bush to feel comfortable giving his vice President as much power as he did because he was never ultimately a threat to him in the same way that other Presidents might view vice Presidents.
Adam McKay: I think that’s accurate. The thing we found about Dick Cheney was he’s in some ways a fantastic co-dependent and we say early in the movie that he’ll be a servant to power and he’s a great servant to his wife Lynne and he’s a great servant to his mentor, Don Rumsfeld, and on and on to Ford and W. Bush.
Adam McKay: And in the sense that the way that Dick Cheney gains power is by helping the person he serves bring their power to high fruition or his interpretation of their power. So I think your correct, I think Dick Cheney knew he couldn’t be President, he knew he wasn’t a good enough campaigner, that’s not his strength. He’s a back room guy. I also wonder just too if he didn’t find the business of campaigning unpleasant by the end of his time in Wyoming he was essentially-
Preet Bharara: But he had to do it. Vice President may be a job that’s equivalent to a bucket of spit as someone once said, but you still have to go out and do the rallies and do the campaigning. It’s not like you get by on that.
Adam McKay: Yeah, yeah and they got him out there. I mean he knew his character; his character was the low key professional. The grown up who was gonna take care of the military. I mean that’s what he was cast as.
Preet Bharara: But then there’s this other quality that as we’re discussing it, that’s not so common among people generally even among successful people. Tremendous self-awareness. We’ve all seen people who are members of congress and/or business people and/or senators who really have no business, I hate to say it, no business thinking that they can become President.
Preet Bharara: Although the myth is anyone can run for President because they lack either a moral compass or campaigning skill. But they all think that they can do a thing when many of them cannot. I’m not trying to come up with a whole laundry list of things necessarily that we could applaud in Dick Cheney but I do think it’s a rare quality to have self-awareness and to have an understanding of what your limitations are when certainly people are dangling in front of you all these possibilities.
Preet Bharara: It wasn’t like everyone around Dick Cheney, I don’t think, it wasn’t like everyone around Dick Cheney was saying, “Man you could never be President. You’re not good enough to be President, you’re good enough to be vice President. Your good enough to be a cabin secretary. You’re good enough to be the most powerful Vice President in history but you’re not good enough to be President.” Lots of people I’m sure were telling him, “You could be President and you should be President.” And he resisted that because of his own understanding of himself, correct?
Adam McKay: Yeah. Yeah. I mean the one thing I say about Cheney and it always takes people aback is he’s brilliant. He has an eye for detail and an understanding of the intricate levers and gears and wheels of government. And he has a patience that you rarely see in anyone. I mean, you know, if you go back through history as far as power in the shadows, who do you think? Like Tallyrand with Napoleon?
Adam McKay: I mean it’s a pretty short list of people who could do this and how many people would have looked at the Vice Presidency and seen that opportunity? Known that, wait a minute the founding father’s kind of underwrote the Vice President. It’s not really clearly defined. And its defined by the discretion of the President and Cheney sniffed that out and really felt that. I just think that there’s so many other people that never would have thought in those terms.
Sam Rockwell: I want you to be my VP. You’re the solution to my problem.
Christian Bale: I’m CEO of a large company. I have been secretary of defense. I have been the chief of staff. The Vice Presidency is mostly a symbolic job.
Sam Rockwell: Right, right. I can see how that wouldn’t be enticing to you.
Christian Bale: However, the vice Presidency is also defined by the President. If we were to come to a different understanding.
Sam Rockwell: Uh-huh (affirmative). Go on. I’m listening.
Adam McKay: I think that when he was gonna run for President, you know how it works, you run President once, you usually poll horribly, people barely know who you are and then the second time you come out, now they kind of know who you are and then you’ve got a chance. So Cheney looked at that first time where he was gonna run, where he was polling very low and he made a couple decisions.
Adam McKay: He made a decision, I’m not great at campaigning, and he made a big decision that he loves his daughter. And if you step into that fray someone could go after his daughter and he didn’t want any part of that. Yeah, he knows himself, he knew who he was, he knew what he wanted, he knew what he was good at and then most of all he just had this incredible patience. I mean he could just wait out his opportunities better than anyone I’ve seen in recent history.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, I guess I’m trying to separate out this conversation is sort of illuminating the difference between bad agenda and bad ideas. Whether is the Unitary Executive Theory that you don’t like and others don’t like or something else versus personal qualities.
Preet Bharara: And the personal qualities we’ve discussed and this I think may be upsetting to some people listening to this because they find him to be odious and I wonder how much of that is based on his advocacy for certain policies and his leading us into war.
Preet Bharara: Whereas on the other hand, I think the movie makes very clear he loves his family very much. He’s very good to his wife, he cares about his daughter, he’s self-aware. He’s not himself necessarily looking for the limelight and I just wonder how you separate those things out having spent more time in the psyche of Dick Cheney than most people on earth.
Adam McKay: That is for sure. Well, that’s what it is. I mean you have to look at the skills of the man. You have to look at who the guy is. I mean here’s something people don’t know about Dick Cheney, he does all the shopping for the family and he does all the cooking and apparently quite a good cook, and we talked to some friends of the family.
Adam McKay: He’s as dedicated to his family as anyone you’re ever gonna meet, which is why I felt the tragedy of the ending when finally, the family was kind of ripped apart through power. No, there’s a lot of good qualities there, there’s a lot of great, great skills as a politician, as a bureaucratic operator, but I think you can look at all characters throughout history that way.
Adam McKay: You can look at the skill and the intelligence and then you look at what aims they were put towards and they were odious in this case. So I think you can say you don’t like Dick Cheney, you find him repulsive, but man did he know what he was doing and he did it very skillfully. I think that’s a fair statement.
Preet Bharara: It’s also odd because on the one hand he has been described as the most powerful Vice President in history up to that time and the jokes about how he was really the President and he was really the boss and the superior over George W. Bush who people made fun of I think. Not altogether with merit I think which is another controversial thing to say ’cause I think he was a smart guy.
Preet Bharara: And then on the other hand, he was a true subordinate and I think you’ve said this in interviews, that he allowed George Bush to be the President with no challenge to him and was in deep service to the President. It’s an odd situation and maybe this is an awkward way of saying it that he was simultaneously subordinate and superior in that role as vice President, is that fair?
Adam McKay: I actually think that’s a perfect way of saying it. I think that describes the essence of Cheney and that’s exactly it. When Christian Bale and I talked about how he’s kind of the ultimate co-dependent that’s what you’re really talking about. Through being subordinate, through being of ultimate service, he actually is able to bring out in the person the things that give him his own power and it’s a very complicated process he’s going through because he’s not a guy who’s bullying or pushing or yelling.
Adam McKay: I have a feeling it would feel really good to have Dicky Cheney on your right side whispering into your ear. He probably is very calming, he’s very knowledgeable, I could see how he would be seductive. I mean let’s face it, with Ford after Ford lost said his biggest regret was listening to Cheney and Rumsfeld with ditching Rockefeller and attacking hard to the right, but Ford wanted to get re-elected and he had that calming professional next to him and he listened to him.
Adam McKay: That contradiction we found really fascinating and you even see it in his physicality and so much of the movie too, the answers about Dick Cheney’s character are in Bale’s physicality. If you actually look at physically how he’s playing him there’s a lot of answers there, and that sort of slumped, almost kind of like always carrying those papers in his hand like he’s trudging off to his next meeting to be told what to do is kind of the way he carries himself but of course we know that’s not the case. It’s like a Columbo move, you know.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, a Columbo move in the sense that Columbo was hiding shrewdness in coming across as sort of clunky whereas Cheney coming across the way he did was cultivating a perception of power right? People thought that guy had a lot of power and maybe he did, largely he did but he spent a lot of time cultivating, not hurt by the fact that he shot his friend in the face and then his friend apologized to him.
Adam McKay: Crazy. Douglas Fief described talking to Cheney, he said, “You start talking to Cheney and your voice in is on octave and as you’re talking to him it’s going up, it’s going up, because you’re getting more and more nervous. He’s giving you less and less and by the end of the conversation you’re up here. Okay, all right Mr. Vice President.” And Fief called him one of the most intimidating men he’s ever been around.
Adam McKay: You remember H.W. Bush too, there were some people debating exactly how much power did Dick Cheney have in the Bush White House and exactly how clueless was W. Bush and we could probably debate that forever and there’s a bunch of books written about it. But H.W. later said “I regret recommending Cheney as Pice President. I didn’t he was gonna run a shadow empire out of the White House on my son.”
Preet Bharara: Right. But Dick Cheney’s power did wane in the second term of George W. Bush.
Adam McKay: Oh yeah. It was the Syria issue right? Where they’re gonna bomb Syria and by then Bush had kind of gotten wise. He’d already let Rumsfeld go and there was talk that Syria was building, I think they were building a nuclear reactor. Cheney, surprise, surprise said, “We gotta go in and bomb them.” And for the first time Bush had finally figured it out and said, “How many people here agree with the Vice President?” And no one raised their hand and that was it. I think that’s when Gates had become secretary of defense, right? And it was game over at that point.
Preet Bharara: Do you think Bush ultimately found Cheney to be sort of disloyal?
Adam McKay: Yeah. Yeah, I think the not pardoning Scooter Libby says a lot. A ton. And I’ve heard from interviewing some people off the record that he was pretty pissed and he really got W. Bush in some ways really pushed around by Cheney and what Cheney was so great at doing was when I say pushed around I mean by how much information he shares, when he shares information. What he kept away from W. Bush, it was kind of incredible how much he kept W. Bush out of the loop and I think when W. Bush started to realize a lot of that he was pretty astounded.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, nobody likes that. Can you describe the genre that your movie is in? Is it a comedy?
Adam McKay: I’d call it a tragedy. ‘Cause tragedies tend to be pretty darn funny for the front half ’cause everyone thinks everything’s-
Preet Bharara: King Lear was a hoot.
Adam McKay: Well I mean King Lear’s pretty funny. The first quarter of King Lear is so convinced this line of succession is gonna work and so full of himself and of course ends in madness. But I call it a tragedy.
Preet Bharara: But there are comic elements in it right and you have a background in that and I wonder how important was that to achieve the effect that you wanted to achieve?
Adam McKay: It was a very conscious choice for myself and my editor. We were trying to reflect this upside down, orange plastic world that we live in right now, which seems to be without genre. Because there are days I laugh very hard and there are days where I tear up and there are days where I’m terrified and I’ve just never seen the world flip and flop so much like it is now between terror and comedy and absurdity.
Adam McKay: There are headlines I have to read three times because I can’t believe them. So we wanted that to be in our movie. We wanted audiences not to know exactly what part of the seat to sit on — Should it be the front part of the seat, the back, the side? — And we wanted them to feel off balance much like the world is now and the world was during the time. So we tried to make a genre-less movie but ultimately I would describe it as a tragic comedy I guess if I had to.
Preet Bharara: Well there’s good laughs in it.
Adam McKay: Yeah.
Preet Bharara: And good thinking in it. Can I tell you the thing I’m most impressed by in your background? Can you guess what it is?
Adam McKay: I’m curious, what?
Preet Bharara: The Upright Citizens Brigade. Improvisation I think, is the most incredible thing that people can do. I remember being in college and watching one of the college improv groups and sitting in the audience and thinking “I don’t know how they do that. They couldn’t have planned it in advance.”
Preet Bharara: ‘Cause premises are thrown at them and it’s an exercise and they weave together a story and hilarious funny jokes that are made even more funny because the audience knows that it’s the brain thinking in that moment. So the fact that you were able to do improv and be part of the creation of a great improv group, a famous one, a legendary one. Does that mean, are you smarter than other people?
Adam McKay: Well there’s a lot of people who do improv very well and I was extremely lucky that I got to go Chicago when the creator of long form improv, Del Close was actually teaching, so I got to have him as my teacher for five, six years which I still can’t believe I got that experience before he sadly passed away. It’s an incredible form, it teaches you a lot of things. For me, it really taught me how to write. The fundamentals of improvisation are really writing fundamentals but the fact that you’re doing it on your feet and it’s so active helps me with directing as well.
Preet Bharara: I find that odd, can I just ask about that? So you create a screenplay and you write all the words down. I’m guessing your sitting at a desk and not sort of acting it out. Maybe you did it this way, I don’t know, did you get a bunch of people in a room and sort of write the script from an improv? Probably not, your very careful.
Adam McKay: There are people that do that. Mike Lee, the great director from the UK does that. He gets his actors together and he has them improvise and he starts writing it down, so really in a way the actors are writing the script with him.
Preet Bharara: Your equally comfortable both erupting in the moment with comedy and dialogue and story and also sitting quietly with the candle burning at your desk?
Adam McKay: I love writing at my desk, yeah. It’s really one of the more enjoyable parts of making a movie and when I say improv teaches writing, really what Del Close did with improv and all the people who learned from him is you’re just breaking apart the components of how you make a scene. How do you create a play? How do create a piece of feeder? And the way you’re doing it is kind of in reverse in a way and so you just get to all those sort of creative forks in the road and that’s what Del would do. He would take you to the creative fork in the road and he’d stop everything and he’d go, “Okay here we are at this creative fork in the road and someone has said something to you and you have to respond to it.”
Preet Bharara: But it also it teaches you more than writing, does it teach you confidence? Do you have to be incredibly confident to attempt improv or is it the reverse?
Adam McKay: I think there’s some confidence to it. I remember the famous actor’s nightmare that people have, actors have, and what it is, is you show up for the opening night of your play and you realize you don’t know any of the lines. So I had that dream one time and it was opening night and I’m doing a one man show and I haven’t prepared anything. And in the dream I went, “Oh it’s no big deal, I’ll just improvise it.”
Preet Bharara: How’d that work out for you?
Adam McKay: And then the dream just became a normal show, give me a word, I did a one man improvised show. It wasn’t the greatest show but no one knew.
Preet Bharara: When you woke up did you write it all down?
Adam McKay: I didn’t remember too much of the specifics but I do remember the total absence of terror that would have normally been there and just going “Oh no big deal, I’ll just improvise it.”
Preet Bharara: I think I read somewhere that you will be directing the movie about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal is that right?
Adam McKay: We are developing that right now, yeah. The great screen writer Vanessa Taylor is working on the outline now.
Preet Bharara: Sorry I interviewed John Carreyrou for the podcast as well, his book, Bad Blood, which was terrific.
Adam McKay: Oh so good, he’s a great journalist too.
Preet Bharara: Will that movie be tragedy as well with comic elements?
Adam McKay: You know I can’t help myself. Whenever it’s a character I always just go what’s the heartbreak in the character? And even with Elizabeth Holmes I was like, what’s her heartbreak? How do you get like that? So I don’t know. Probably not, that sounds too much like Vice, but it will be different. It definitely will be.
Preet Bharara: Will it be more like Anchorman?
Adam McKay: It’ll be a remake.
Preet Bharara: I would do a sort of cross between Anchorman and Talladega Nights. I think that would capture the essence of Theranos very well. I’m happy to be a consultant on the film if you need one.
Adam McKay: It’s gonna be a lot like Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. That’s what the movie’s gonna be like.
Preet Bharara: Wow. You know I think you’re really pushing yourself as a director. I’m very impressed. Let me ask you this personal question. When you’re at the Oscars will you prepare an acceptance speech for if you win best director or will you improvise that?
Adam McKay: I will very roughly, I’m not almost definitely not gonna win best director, it’s gonna be Cuarón who by the way, deserves it. So he will win, but screenplay I have an outside chance at so, I will, in my head just get my thank yous in line and then I’ll think of one line that has a point to it.
Adam McKay: I’ll do a line or two like I did last time. I said the thing about if you don’t want banks and weirdo billionaires to control our country don’t vote for candidates that take money from banks and weirdo billionaires I think was the line I ended up saying. So yeah, you gotta get one line in there.
Preet Bharara: You gotta get one. That’s your moment. You don’t have to thank me for this but if you make a Red Dawn and it becomes big then you gotta thank me.
Adam McKay: I might just go up there and yell, “Wolverines.” And then just stand there and stare down the audience for like 20 seconds and when they don’t respond just, “None of you get it, only Preet and I get it.”
Preet Bharara: I’m now very embarrassed for both of us. Let me ask you, I know you gotta go and you got awards and crazy Hollywood stuff that you do out there.
Adam McKay: Oh my God.
Preet Bharara: One quick final question.
Adam McKay: Yeah, yeah.
Preet Bharara: In what way, if at all, does the movie you just made, Vice relate to or reflect the current times?
Adam McKay: It hopefully shows how where we’re at now didn’t just happen overnight. It wasn’t some freakish occurrence out of left field. I mean I think a lot of people inherently know that and we really wanted to show through in my opinion, the face that could best represent the Republican party, Dick Cheney.
Adam McKay: A guy who’s always been there in this zealot way, a guy who’s had his power, a guy who’s very mysterious. But yeah, you see the rise of this party and it flows right in to where we’re at now and it’s funny, when we were making the movie we were highlighting the Unitary Executive Theory and now clearly that’s becoming a big point of discussion.
Adam McKay: So there are just little details in the movie, whether it’s Scalia and the Supreme Court and voting down the recounts and the death tax and the way they played with language and the think tanks. It all just is now, I mean we were shooting the scene with Frank Luntz talking about the death tax versus the estate tax on that very day and a crew member came up and said, “Look what they just put in the Republican tax bill. They’re gonna limit the estate tax and eventually get rid of it.”
Adam McKay: It kept happening during the making of the movie. The truth is the story of Cheney is the story of now and we’re just living in the era of the Republican revolution and I keep saying it, if you’re a Republican you should be happy about that. Like some of them get mad when I say that but it’s like, it’s true.
Preet Bharara: Why do they get mad?
Adam McKay: Because I think they like to be the underdog. They like to be that oh-
Preet Bharara: But that’s the American way.
Adam McKay: Yeah well it’s the liberal conspiracy. It’s the liberal media. The liberals are in charge, they’re the ones who are ruining everything. So when I say, “No you won.” Like the Republican revolution worked. Everyone wants to be the underdog. Sometimes they get annoyed. But I have heard a couple Republicans go, “Yeah, your right.” And I’m like, “Yeah, why are you upset? You got everything you wanted.” You’re never gonna hear them say that, but I mean, taxes are lower than they’ve ever been, loop holes are greater than they’ve ever been. Regulation-
Preet Bharara: But there’s always the threat that it will be taken away. Whatever side is on top; you can’t allow your constituents to feel that they’re on top necessarily so that they become complacent. There’s always the threat of the thing that you have established is gonna be taken away.
Adam McKay: Your right. When was the last time Democrats were on top can you remember?
Preet Bharara: Yeah, well Obama had the Presidency and both houses at one point.
Adam McKay: Yeah but I think he only had 60 days wasn’t it? A filibuster proof senate? ‘Cause the second he lost that they were no longer on top.
Preet Bharara: Yeah, well then there’s also the courts and the courts are also a separate matter.
Adam McKay: Yeah, yeah.
Preet Bharara: But the liberals, you know what the liberals have, you know which branch of government the liberals have, they have Hollywood. And you’re a big deal in that branch.
Adam McKay: Wolverines.
Preet Bharara: So I think you have all the power. Wolverines.
Adam McKay: Every time I see you now I’m gonna say that.
Preet Bharara: Oh my God. Adam McKay, good luck, we’ll be watching, looking forward to the next film also. Thanks again for your time.
Adam McKay: Preet, thanks for having me on man, it was a real pleasure.