How the Vice team built their genre-busting, fourth-wall-breaking Dick Cheney satire
Vice may not be the most conventionally festive movie, but when it hits theaters on Christmas day, writer-director Adam McKay hopes his Dick Cheney biopic becomes part of your holiday traditions nonetheless.
“What better thing is there on Christmas morning when your children run downstairs and rip open the presents than to see Dick Cheney sitting under your Christmas tree?” McKay says with a laugh.
Like McKay’s 2015 drama The Big Short (which netted him an Oscar for best adapted screenplay), Vice is an ambitious, fourth-wall-breaking experiment, following Cheney (an unrecognizable Christian Bale) from lowly White House staffer to vice president. Amy Adams plays his loyal wife Lynne, with Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and frequent McKay collaborator Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld.
It’s an incisive portrait of a hard-to-understand-man, ping-ponging from serious drama to pure farce, with plenty of cameos and genre changes along the way. Hitting theaters Dec. 25, it’s already racking up the accolades, leading this year’s Golden Globes nominations with six, including best musical or comedy.
Ahead of the film’s release, EW sat down with McKay, Bale, Adams, Carell, and Rockwell to talk all things Cheney — as well as fakeout endings, faux Shakespeare, and singing on set.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So when Adam came to you all and said, “I wrote this movie about Dick Cheney,” what was your initial reaction?
CHRISTIAN BALE: Well, saying that he wrote it with me in mind, I’m not sure whether to be offended at him for that, really. [Laughs] But I have to say, what an incredible leap of faith [he] took in doing that because I didn’t believe that I could do it at all. It was a little bit like Dick Cheney with his fisherman’s hook… I think Adam kind of knew he was going to reel me in because if I was going to do that research ahead of time, I’d start getting obsessed with it and the possibilities. So when it came to be crunch time, I just wanted to work with this crowd again, and it was just too tantalizing.
And there’s always that great idea that the next project you do might be your last because you balls it up so badly that nobody will ever hire you again. So that’s always a seduction.
AMY ADAMS: I think that every time. [Laughs] It seemed like an enormous challenge. Once I read the script that was all it took to hook me. Adam’s script, and Christian was in it. It presented an amazing challenge, and that’s something that always excites me, thinking I might fail. Why does thinking I might fail excite me?
BALE: The only problem we had to overcome was that Rockwell was going to be in it. We were like, “Oh no, Rockwell’s gonna be in it.” But nevertheless. [Laughs]
SAM ROCKWELL: [Laughs] Yeah, I was flattered and titillated and ready to go. It’s daunting, but I was excited. And [McKay and I] had kind of crossed paths before a little bit and almost done some stuff, so I was really excited to work with this guy.
STEVE CARELL: I would do anything with Adam McKay. That’s the bottom line. And I knew it would be fun. I knew it would be exciting. I knew it would involve very bold filmmaking decisions, which I love. It would be absurd. There’s not a second of hesitation. I knew nothing more about it than Adam’s doing a movie about Dick Cheney, and I was like, I’m in. I don’t need to know any more than that.
BALE: And I think also doing the research and realizing why Adam had picked Cheney, because initially, not knowing — as many do not — much about Cheney. And I came to understand how Cheney has been such a consequential figure for decades in government and played such an important role as to how we are here today.
Adam, I know you’ve talked a lot about wanting to be true to this story while also having fun with it. How did you find the right balance?
ADAM MCKAY: I think from the beginning it was always a mystery, and that’s what was exciting to me, reading all these great books by these different journalists and these interviews and articles and everything. I told Christian this right from the beginning: This guy does not want a movie made about him. He’s done everything he can so there’s not a movie made about him. He knew the spotlight was not the friend to his power. And I love that.
And the other part of this movie that was really exciting was: Who are these people who are doing these things? And where are they coming from? What are their choices, what are their motivations? And these guys went after it in a way that was just breathtaking and inspiring for me as a director.
These are characters who have been in the public eye, but they are so cryptic and notoriously private — especially Cheney himself. How did you try to understand them and get inside their heads?
BALE: For me, I’m a very slow learner. I really am. It takes a long time for me to learn, but I forget it very quickly.
MCKAY: That’s a terrible combo. [Laughs]
BALE: But just sitting with it. [My phone] is just full of videos of Mr. Cheney talking and me listening and listening. My whole family is asleep, and I’m watching Dick Cheney. I’m listening to him and imitating him and trying to figure him out. [Laughs] And referencing the script. I wish I could do it more quickly, but my brain doesn’t work that way. But you gradually settle into it where it hopefully becomes natural instead of a gimmick.
What about you, Steve? How did you get inside Rumsfeld’s head?
CARELL: Well, you know, there’s the public and the private persona, and the private is your best guess as to who he is and what motivates him. As Christian was saying, you have the script to guide you, you have all the source material, the video tape of how he acts when he’s at a press conference or in the public eye. And then you try to surmise what might lie on the other side. Adam and I were talking early on about how Nixon and Kissinger spoke of Rumsfeld and said, “You gotta watch out for that guy.” And for Nixon and Kissinger to be wary of a third person says a lot.
MCKAY: I think they said, “Watch out for that guy, he’d take his own mother out to get ahead.”
CARELL: [Laughs] Yeah. That informs a lot about who someone is behind closed doors. So you take little bits of information like that and you try to use it. But at the same time, he’s a human being. You can’t go in editorializing about what you might personally think about somebody. You have to remove yourself from that. Just think about them as a person with flaws, with motivations. He’s a robust personality to be sure — but incredibly motivated and not someone to be messed with, obviously. And really, really smart.
George W. Bush is the figure who’s most in the public eye, and he’s been portrayed in so many different ways over the years. Will Ferrell was a producer on this movie, and his version of Bush is so well-known from Saturday Night Live. Sam, were you thinking about how Bush had been portrayed before at all?
ROCKWELL: Yeah, I watched all that stuff. I watched [Josh] Brolin [in W.]. I watched Will Ferrell. And Steve Bridges. And there was a guy named Frank Caliendo. So I watched that, and then I stopped watching that, and I just watched Bush. But I wanted to kind of see the template.
Some actors are different. Some actors if they’re playing Hamlet or whatever, they’re not gonna watch Nicol Williamson and whoever doing Hamlet before. They’re just gonna wanna do their Hamlet. I like to watch all that stuff. But like these guys, I get obsessive.
Oddly, for such little screen time, it felt like a lead role because when I was away, I had to listen to him, and that was weird. It’s a very small part, but I had to stay in it. It was a lot of work for that amount of time you know? [Laughs] But it was cool and most of my scenes are with [Bale], and he would do this thing where he would do the voice, so I started doing the voice. I’m not like a method guy per se, but we would sort of start talking about normal stuff, like Steve Zahn and actors we’d worked with. And we’d been in a movie together, a Shakespeare movie years ago, and we would just talk about normal stuff that we would talk about, but in the voices. So that was kind of fun, because it was a way to stay in it without being totally out of our minds.
So what was the most unconventional topic you talked about as Dick Cheney and George Bush?
ROCKWELL: Oh god, I don’t know. What do you think?
MCKAY: I like Steve Zahn. Dig into that a little bit. [Laughs]
BALE: That would have been great to record, wouldn’t it? Cheney and Bush talking about Steve Zahn.
MCKAY: [adopts Cheney voice] “Steve’s good. He’s very underrated. He brings a light to whatever he’s in.”
BALE: And I mean, Sam was thrown into the deep end, wasn’t he? Because his first day was the scene at the ranch.
ROCKWELL: Yeah, I was so nervous. I did this thing, I did a football slap on your bum, and I thought, “Oh no, this is not going to go well.” [Laughs] But I thought it was something Bush would do with Cheney, like a guy thing.
BALE: And then he’d probably think, “This is not going to go well.” [Laughs]
ROCKWELL: Exactly! And I thought he was going to break character. He stopped and he turned and he didn’t break character, and then we kept going. And then Adam said, “Hey, why don’t you do that again?” and I said, “No, I think Christian’s gonna knock me out if I do that.” And you started laughing. But it was fun. It was fun to play.
BALE: Sam, you can slap my ass any time. You get the green light.
ROCKWELL: Okay, good!
Amy when you were diving into Lynne, was there something you focused on to sort of unlock who she is?
ADAMS: It’s interesting. It’s hard to identify exactly when it happens for me, but I do know that when it clicks, it clicks. Like all of us, I was constantly watching her, constantly listening to her, constantly reading her words to stay in her. But like these guys, I think I just stayed in voice. I was thinking about myself when they were talking about them. [Laughs] But once I stepped onto the set, I didn’t really think about Amy’s voice or her opinions really. I’d go in and debate with him [McKay] about the day’s politics or how I felt about his wardrobe choices.
MCKAY: We would have these long conversations where she’d be in this half Lynne Cheney state.
BALE: Wasn’t there singing? I’d hear you singing a lot.
ADAMS: My favorite thing to do was “Lynne sings hits from the ‘80s.”
Like, which hits from the ‘80s?
ADAMS: Like [sings] “Pour some sugar on me! In the name of love! Yes, pour some…” [Laughs] So there was a lot of singing. I apologize if it was distracting. It kept me loose.
MCKAY: Oh god, it made me laugh. And she would just walk on set and look at me in my shorts and be like, “That’s an interesting outfit.”
ADAMS: I would. I would comment on how his wardrobe doesn’t imply that he wants to have some authority over anybody. [Laughs] So I think I got the whole camera crew in on it too. I said, “I understand for practicality why you would wear shorts, but are there any other sort of wardrobe choices?” I found ankles offensive.
But I think what was important for me was to keep it loose. To always feel like at any moment I could move in any direction any of the actors or Adam wanted to move with the character and the story.
MCKAY: [Bale] would do it too. You sang “Happy Birthday.”
BALE: I did. I got on the mic and sang “Happy Birthday.” Dick Cheney singing “Happy Birthday.”
You guys should release an album.
MCKAY: You did the Queen song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which we have on camera. He did the song, “Turn around…”
BALE: Oh, a little Bonnie Tyler!
ROCKWELL: And we did some dancing in the Oval Office.
BALE: I do believe that [Sam and I] did a little bit of twerking in the Oval Office. We had a disco ball going.
MCKAY: That is correct.
I’m curious, if each of you could sit down with your character and ask them one question, what would you most want to know?
BALE: There are a lot. I mean, there are so many. I’ll stay away from the deeper personal questions, which I would really love to understand from him, but there’s one from early on: He’s an avid fly fisherman, why did he not advocate more for the environment?
ADAMS: That is a stumper. I mean, I guess I’m gonna be really generic here, but what’s your biggest regret?
MCKAY: And I think the condition has to be that they have to answer it. Because I guess Lynne wouldn’t answer that. But if it was just the two of you…
ADAM: Yeah, her mouth would get very thin, and she’d know she was smarter than me ‘cause she is, and she’d know she could get out of the question, which she could. Because I wouldn’t press her.
ROCKWELL: I think that would be mine too. Do you have any regrets?
MCKAY: Because that would be mine as well. I’d ask Dick Cheney, has there ever been one moment in the middle of the night, where you thought, “Maybe I shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Was that really the right move?” Do you ever feel bad about anything you did when you were in office?
BALE: That’s really one of the most fascinating things about him, isn’t it? He’s resolute ‘til the end. He still says, “I’d do it again in a minute.”
MCKAY: And then a question that’s not about the movie but I would love the answer to is, [turns to Carell] “Did you go through my bag in the other room before this interview?” Just straight up. Just answer it.
CARELL: [quietly] Yes, I did.
CARELL: [Laughs] I’d ask Rumsfeld what his relationship is like with Cheney today. I’m curious. Do they go to movies together and play putt-putt golf and things?
MCKAY: I think guys like this don’t really talk a lot, do they? Huh. Yeah, Amy has never spoken to me outside of a work environment. I’ve seen her on the street, I’ve seen her at parties, and she walks right past me every time.
ADAMS: That’s kind of my M.O. Just actively ignoring him.
I’m curious what you guys make of the sort of nostalgia for the Bush presidency that’s cropped up with the current political environment. Do you feel like there’s that sense of nostalgia for how things used to be?
BALE: This is where it gets so tragic. This story is ridiculous and absurd, but absolutely stunningly tragic as well. There’s no comparison in terms of body count.
MCKAY: And also Trump isn’t done yet, so we don’t know where he’s going to end up. But I think personally, a lot of us feel the same way as when I first started hearing it: I thought it was just madness. It was like, what are you talking about? And I think the line I said was, I miss the old days when my house was infested by bees, and now we’ve just got a wolverine loose in my house.
I want to ask about the film’s structure, with all the fakeout endings and faux Shakespearean scenes and all the fourth-wall breaks. When you read the script, was there a particular moment that made you say, “This is going to be a challenge,” or “I’m particularly excited for this”?
ROCKWELL: I thought it was awesome. I thought it was like The Big Short meets Citizen Kane.
BALE: I think Adam has this unique ability to be playful in the filmmaking, while still having you deeply involved in the film. It’s a fascinating thing because usually I would say, “Well, that’s going to take you out of the film, and how can you be invested and how can you feel?” But oh man, I love it. Because it also gives you respite. This is a heavy topic. There’s a lot of comedy to it. There’s a lot of absurdity to it, but ultimately, just, the worst things happened, right? And you need that slight respite. It gives this wonderful sort of confusion and absolute spectrum of emotions that I have when I watch the film.
I don’t watch many films, I assume not everyone’s doing it. But as far as I know, you’re the only one I’ve seen doing that. Fess up if I’m just ignorant. [Laughs]
MCKAY: Seventy other directors are doing it. It’s kind of hack at this point. [Laughs]
BALE: But it works absolutely impeccably. He does that really well, doesn’t he? Do you all agree?
ROCKWELL: Oh, absolutely. I concur.
ADAMS: I concur.
CARELL: I concur!
ADAMS: It’s a line from Catch Me If You Can, so [I think of that] every time someone says, “I concur, do you concur? I concur.”
ROCKWELL: You were in that!
ADAMS: I was!
I especially want to ask about the fakeout ending. What was it like shooting that?
MCKAY: I remember our first couple of screenings, I had some filmmaker friends show up, and a couple of them were like, “This is great, man, but you can’t do that. You can’t do a fake ending.” And I was like, oh I’m doing it! [Laughs] And then eventually when the movie got on the rails, it became one of the audience’s favorite parts of the movie. They started loving it.
ADAMS: I saw the movie with my mom and that was really fun for her to be, like, checking her memory to see if there was more to the story.
BALE: Did she look at her watch? Like, “How short is this film?” “It can only be a good movie if it’s over an hour 45.”
ADAMS: She actually looked at her phone. It wasn’t a watch. Full disclosure: She was looking at her phone.
BALE: But beyond the comical, it is that daydream of, what if it really had been the end? We would not have had an Iraq War. We probably would not have had enhanced interrogation, wiretapping, etc. So there’s great comedy to it. But there’s also great meaning to it.
MCKAY: My 18-year-old daughter initially told me, “I don’t like that because it made me sad, because it made me wish it had ended there.” And then in the middle of saying that, she goes, “Oh wait, I really liked that.” And that’s it! You’re right. There is an underlying emotion. In writing this story, it so easily could have ended there. The guy had a solid career. Yeah, he was a little to the right, and he saw some dodgy things, but he did a good job as secretary of defense. I mean, he was making a fortune as a CEO of Halliburton. That could’ve been it, and he got that phone call.
BALE: I love it on different levels because there’s the thing that he’s not chasing being VP. He’s being begged. That’s a whole different mindset. So he can come in as VP and say, “I didn’t ask for this. You asked for me to be there.” But secondly, I love the fact that he’s still waiting for permission. [Laughs] If he doesn’t get permission from Lynne, that’s the end of it.
And Adam, your daughter really helped out as well with some of the Shakespeare, right? She was very instrumental in that.
MCKAY: Yeah, both of my daughters perform in a Shakespeare for Kids group in town, which is pretty amazing. They don’t do it halfway. They really put on Shakespeare. So I kind of free-formed the Shakespeare from my old improv days, just gibberish. And I said, “Lily, will you come in here? How does this look?” And she was like, “Your meter’s all wrong.”
ROCKWELL: Wow, how old is she?
BALE: She’s 4.
MCKAY: [Laughs] Now she’s 18. She was like 16, 17. And she sat down and she’s like, “No, no, Dad, you can’t. Look.” So we sat down for like two hours and went through all the meter. I’d go, “But Lily, I need this line,” and she’s like, “Then you’ve got to fix the meter here.” She was like the task master.
BALE: And it worked! A friend, he genuinely thought it was from Richard III.
MCKAY: Are you serious?
BALE: He was really surprised that it was not.
MCKAY: Well, that’s you guys performing the crap out of my C-minus fake Shakespeare.
ROCKWELL: What was the longest you were in makeup, you guys?
ADAMS: He [Bale] takes it.
BALE: Four hours every morning.
ROCKWELL: And you were three?
ADAMS: On my hardest days I was about three, or three and a half.
MCKAY: You were in for a while though, Steve? When you had the old guy look?
CARELL: No, I had no makeup.
ADAMS: [Laughs] You just changed your face.
CARELL: I’m able to change my face into different configurations. It’s pretty incredible. Pop a bone out here or something. [Laughs]