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'Vice' Traces Dick Cheney's Ascent From Yale Dropout To Political Power Player


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. The Academy Awards are this Sunday. Our guest, Adam McKay, wrote and directed the movie "Vice", which is up for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Christian Bale, who stars in "Vice" as Dick Cheney, is nominated in the Best Actor category. "Vice" covers Cheney's years from the time he flunked out of Yale to his eight years as President George W. Bush's vice president, when Cheney used various means to turn himself into, arguably, the most powerful vice president in American history.

"Vice" draws on the work of investigative journalists and combines that with some speculation and comedy. In that respect, it's similar to McKay's previous film "The Big Short" about what led to the financial crisis of 2008. McKay's also made straight-up comedies, like "Anchorman" and "Talladega Nights." He's a former head writer of "Saturday Night Live," where he and Will Ferrell created the sketches satirizing George W. Bush. Terry interviewed McKay last month, shortly after "Vice" was released. Let's start with a scene from the film, when George W. Bush asks Cheney, who, at the time, was CEO of Halliburton, to be his vice presidential running mate.


SAM ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) I want you to be my VP. You're the solution to my problem.

CHRISTIAN BALE: (As Dick Cheney) 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.

ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) Right, right. I can see how that wouldn't be enticing to you.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) However, the vice presidency is also defined by the president. If we were to come to a different understanding...

ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) Go on. I'm listening.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) I sense that you're a kinetic leader. You make decisions based on instinct.

ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) I am. People always said that.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) Yeah. Yeah, very different from your father in that regard. Now, maybe I can handle some of the more mundane jobs - overseeing bureaucracy, managing military, energy, foreign policy.

ROCKWELL: (As George W. Bush) That sounds good.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Adam McKay, welcome back to FRESH AIR and congratulations on the film. Cheney has a legacy. He was one of the most powerful vice presidents in American history. How are his accomplishments still with us, for better or worse, depending on your political point of view?

ADAM MCKAY: I mean, there's no question Cheney is a brilliant bureaucrat, a brilliant operator. He has a patience and an intelligence in viewing Washington, D.C., and how the gears of power work. What Cheney conditioned us to get comfortable with was the idea of, you know, extraordinary rendition, extreme interrogation. These ideas that 20, 30 years ago would have been considered outlandish, suddenly, were very comfortable to the American people. And then the biggest thing he did was by going to war - and then in the end, turned out the intelligence was bogus, which - I mean, if you're right wing or left wing, I think you have to agree that was the case - and how America just moved on from that.

And I think at that point, we started to get comfortable with the fact that our government wasn't entirely working for us and that there were agendas inside our government that didn't represent the will of the people. So I think in an abstract sense, he changed the way we view government. But then in a very tangible sense - I mean, let's face it. The Middle East became completely destabilized. You had the rise of ISIS. You know, they tripled the debt. And then, obviously, the world economy collapsed. And they were, really, the first administration who nakedly put lobbyists and corporate insiders in regulatory jobs.

GROSS: There's a scene I want to play from fairly early in the film. And this is when Cheney is a young man. And he was - and I didn't know this about him. But apparently, this is true because you say most of the stuff in the film is true. He was expelled from Yale. And...

MCKAY: Yeah. Yeah, his - Lynne actually worked with a local businessman who was able to give out two scholarships to Yale every year. But back then, Yale did not accept women. And so Lynne was a straight-A student. You know, Dick Cheney was more of a B student. And she talked her boss into giving Dick a scholarship.

GROSS: So how come - how did he - did he flunk out?

MCKAY: He - (laughter) there's one story he tells. And he doesn't tell a lot of stories. But there's one story he tells about being drunk at a party and riding a tricycle down a staircase very, very drunk. And, I think, he partied a lot. Yeah. He was basically - he lost his scholarship initially. His family tried to scrape together money to keep him there. And then eventually, he flunked out.

GROSS: It's so hard for me to imagine Dick Cheney riding on a tricycle, drunk, down a staircase. But (laughter) you also, in the screenplay, have how he was arrested twice for driving under the influence. And so what happens before the scene I'm going to play is that he's arrested for driving under the influence during a time after he's flunked out of Yale, and he's moved back to Wyoming. And his job, at the time, is kind of hanging powerlines in Wyoming. And so he's doing a lot of, like, climbing poles to hang power lines. So after he's arrested for driving under the influence, Lynne Cheney reprimands him and, basically, gives him an ultimatum. So here's that scene. And Lynne Cheney is played by Amy Adams, and Christian Bale is Dick Cheney.


AMY ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) Two times - two times I have to drag you out of that jail like a filthy hobo.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) I'm sorry, Lynne.

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) What? What did you just say?

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) I'm sorry, Lynney (ph).

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) You're sorry. Don't call me Lynney. You're sorry. One time is, I'm sorry. Two times makes me think that I've picked the wrong man. You already got your ass thrown out of Yale for drinking and fighting. And now you're just going to be a lush that hangs power lines for the state. Are you going to live in a trailer? Are we going to have 10 kids? Is that the plan?

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) Can we discuss this later, please?

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) No, we're going to discuss this right now while you smell like vomit and cheap booze.

FAY MASTERSON: (As Edna Vincent) Does Dick want some coffee?

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) What? Mom, get out. Get out. Does Dick want some coffee? Jesus Christ. OK. Here's my plan, all right? Either you stand up straight and you get your back straight and you have the courage to become someone or I'm gone. I know a dozen guys and a few professors at school who would date me.

BALE: (As Dick Cheney) I love you, Lynne.

ADAMS: (As Lynne Cheney) Then prove it. Prove it. I can't go to a big Ivy League school. And I can't run a company or be mayor. That's just the way the world is for a girl. I need you. And right now, you are a big, fat, piss-soaked zero.

GROSS: OK, a scene from "Vice," written and directed by my guest, Adam McKay. So where does that scene come from? What background did you use for that scene?

MCKAY: That is a story that Dick Cheney talks about a lot and Lynne's referred to a lot. And, you know, that was a moment where Dick Cheney had flunked out of Yale. He was working as a lineman in Wyoming. We're talking the early '60s. That's a tough, tough town, tough state to work in. And what would happen is they would work on the lines all day. They would, you know, climb up and put up the power lines. I think he was an apprentice lineman, actually. So maybe he wasn't fully climbing to the top of the pole.

But - and then at night, they would go out and they would drink - like, old-fashioned, you know, 19th century drinking. And he got a couple DUIs. And I think it was even a little bit more than that, too. You know, to get a DUI in the early '60s in Wyoming, you're really doing some shenanigans with your driving. So we know there was some extreme stuff going on.

So - but he always - he loved her. He loved Lynne Vincent from the second he saw her when he moved from Nebraska to Wyoming when he was, I think, 11 years old. He was crazy about her. And, you know, there are a lot of cases where your girlfriend would say that speech to you and you would go, well, too bad. I'm doing this. But not him - he white-knuckled it. And what he did - it's actually an amazing story. He stopped going into town at night. And he stayed in this little crappy trailer with an old World War I veteran.

And they would sit there, and they would eat, like, canned tuna fish. And Dick would ask him stories about World War I. And that's how he stopped getting into trouble and then eventually got back into college, went to University of Wisconsin, started doing quite well and got on track with Lynne. And then they got married. They were actually boyfriend and girlfriend in that scene and then later got married.

GROSS: So you kind of depict Lynne Cheney as the kind of motivating factor and the power - the ambition behind Dick Cheney's initial climb.

MCKAY: No question. We interviewed some people from Casper, Wyo., to this day. And they still say, no matter who she would've married would've been president or vice president - that this young lady, back in those days, was so smart, so ambitious, so talented. But at that time, there weren't a lot of opportunities for women, so she needed a solid guy. And she picked Dick Cheney.

DAVIES: Adam McKay wrote and directed the film "Vice," which is up for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with McKay after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Adam McKay, the writer and director of the movie "Vice", which stars Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney. It's nominated for eight Oscars. The Academy Awards are on Sunday.


GROSS: In the early part of the George W. Bush administration, when you were head writer on "Saturday Night Live" and Will Ferrell was in the cast, he often played George W. Bush, even during the campaign. And you were his writing partner on that. And then after "Saturday Night Live," you and Will Ferrell did a one-man show. And so it was Will Ferrell as George W. Bush on stage.

Do Cheney and Bush look really different to you now than they did then with the amount of time that has elapsed since you worked with Will Ferrell on George W. Bush material?

MCKAY: Yeah. In the middle of that show, I really started noticing what W. Bush's position was - that he was a name. He was not a serious guy. He was, you know, by a lot of accounts, a fairly OK guy. He was fun to hang out with. And it was really clear when we were doing that show - and I think everyone kind of knew the joke beforehand that Cheney was pulling strings.

But, really, it was during that show that I just was startled by how many decisions were made by Cheney. I started hearing all these stories - you know, the second tax cut they did for the superrich. They were at the big - you know, the table and Cheney said, we should do a second tax cut. And Bush is like, we just did one. And Cheney goes, yeah, but that's our base. And they did it. And they did the tax cut. And there's another story where, finally, you know, W. Bush has gotten Rumsfeld out. And he's meeting with the next secretary of defense. I think it was Gates. And in the middle of the meeting, he just leans forward, and he goes - W. Bush leans forward to Gates and goes, what are you going to do about Cheney? I thought, that is a - wow, that is a very telling story. Like, you're the president. Why would you - so during that...

GROSS: Wait. What do you think he meant by that?

MCKAY: I think he meant, like, he was - he didn't know how to handle him. You know, we know that Bush's father, H.W. Bush - God rest his soul - said, I never would have recommended Cheney for my son if I had known he was going to run a shadow empire out of the White House. I mean, that's an actual quote from his father. So - but that Gates story really stuck with me. I remember hearing that and just thinking, like, wow, that sounds like a guy who's - I don't quite want to say afraid of someone but can't handle someone.

GROSS: So the movie isn't about the Trump administration. It's about the Bush-Cheney administration. But are there any people from the Bush-Cheney cast of characters who have reappeared in the Trump administration and, through making "Vice," you have a different understanding of who they are than you otherwise would have?

MCKAY: You know, a big one was in the middle of editing the movie, we had John Bolton pop up in our story of Cheney and W. Bush. And I thought, you know, maybe we should cut that. That guy, he's such a fringy kind of lunatic. (Laughter) Let's just get him out of here. And I swear to God, three days later, the Trump administration appointed him.

And that kept happening throughout the movie. We kept thinking that there were these characters and these ideas that were going to go away. And they just kept popping up over and over again. But the Bolton one was really funny. I mean, my editor, Hank Corwin, just couldn't believe it. He was like, we were about to cut that. I was like, well, he's back.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, so Bolton was - what? - U.N. ambassador during...


GROSS: ...Bush-Cheney and is now national security adviser.

MCKAY: I believe that's correct, yeah - and known for very hawkish, very aggressive foreign policy. Recently, there's footage of him with a giant smile on his face, shaking hands with Putin. That's the image I have fresh in my mind.

GROSS: And he was very anti-U.N. when he became the U.N. ambassador.

MCKAY: Oh, yeah. Bolton's a character. There's no question. And I really thought that was the end of him, so I couldn't believe it when he popped up in the middle of that. And, you know, the funny thing, too, is you see a lot of these characters from W. Bush-Cheney administration who are still out there as pundits. And you still get to hear them, every day, talk about their views of foreign policy. And that's also very strange to see these characters still walking the Earth, (laughter) espousing ideas.

But it also points to the fact that, really, none of these stories are isolated. This is a longer arc of four or five decades. It's a bigger story in transition that's gone on in America.

GROSS: Christian Bale is really fantastic in the movie as Cheney, particularly as the Bush-era Cheney. And some of it is the makeup and prosthetics. But he gets the voice so well. And the breathing - like, you can always hear Cheney when he's breathing, when he's inhaling before the next phrase he's about to speak. And he gets the pacing and the breathing perfectly right. And also, you know, Cheney, when he speaks, it comes out a little more on one side of his mouth than the other.

MCKAY: (Laughter).

GROSS: And Christian Bale got that perfectly. Why did you think of him? I mean, physically, he's the opposite type of Cheney. He's - you know, he's got a very narrow face, or at least that's how I think of it, as opposed to Cheney's much, you know, kind of rounder or more square face. Cheney's heavier than Bale is. Bale had to put on a lot of weight for the role. Christian Bale's Australian, which I never remember when he's playing an American.

MCKAY: Welsh, by the way.

GROSS: Welsh, OK. Yes, Welsh.

MCKAY: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter) But I never remember that he's not, like, a native American accent speaker. So why in the world did you think of him?

MCKAY: I think you just said it. I didn't really care about him looking exactly like him. I was more interested in the kind of psychological build of the character. And there are just very few actors like Christian Bale and Amy Adams that can do that kind of work, where they really build a character psychologically. And so it's not just mimicking gestures or mimicking motions. They know why that motion is happening. They know why that gesture is happening. And there's a psychological history to it. And there's an evolution to it.

And, man, I've never seen anything like it with this movie as far as getting to watch Christian put this character together. It's - everyone on set - every day, he would walk on. There was, like, this quiet reverence for what he was doing. And the depth to which Bale went - wow. It's - I'll never forget the first day where his weight gain mixed with the makeup mixed with all the psychological work mixed with all the character work - when it all came together, I just - literally, the hairs stood up on my arms. I've never experienced anything like it.

DAVIES: Adam McKay is the writer and director of the film Vice, which is up for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Christian Bale's nominated in the Best Actor category for his role as Dick Cheney. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with Adam McKay, the writer and director of "Vice," starring Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. McKay's up for two Academy Awards in the Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay categories. The film is also nominated for Best Picture.


GROSS: So making "Vice" was a very eventful period for you. You had a heart attack before the movie was finished. Thank goodness you survived and seem to be in good shape now. What point of the movie were you in when you realized you were having a heart attack?

MCKAY: We had just finished filming. I think we had wrapped for about a week. And it's that period where the editor is putting together the rough assembly of the movie. Hank Corwin was working on it. So you kind of have this little week and a half, two-week break. And, you know, I have a company with Will Ferrell - Gary Sanchez Productions. We're always working on TV and movies, so I was doing a little bit of work producing.

And I just realized I was not in the best shape. I had put on weight during the movie. I was foolish enough to continue smoking, not a ton, but I was - you know, about a half a pack a day, below a half a pack a day. And I just - I didn't feel good. My doctor was warning me. And I was working out my trainer. And in the middle of it, my hands started tingling. And my stomach felt queasy. Well, those aren't normally symptoms you think of with a heart attack. You usually think of pain in the chest and the arm. And so I told my trainer, no, I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm just tired. This is just weird. And he left.

And as soon as he left, I remembered the heart attack scene we shot with Bale when he was running for Congress in Wyoming in the late '70s. And Bale had asked me. He said, how do you want to do the heart attack? Do you want it to be a pain in the arm, the chest? He goes, I could also do the queasy stomach. That's really common. And I remember asking him, like, what do you mean? I've never heard that before - queasy stomach. And he goes, oh, yeah. It's very common. And so that moment just flashed back to me while I was sitting on the couch, and I went, holy Lord. And I ran upstairs and popped, like...

GROSS: You ran upstairs. You're like - you're having a heart attack, so you run upstairs.

MCKAY: Yeah. I mean, you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCKAY: Maybe run is not the right word.

GROSS: Right, OK.

MCKAY: Stumbled, staggered...

GROSS: Yeah, OK.

MCKAY: Maybe that's a better word.


MCKAY: Yeah - careened.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCKAY: (Laughter) And I got upstairs. And I just downed four baby aspirin and called 911. And God bless 911. Within three minutes, they were there. And they had me at the hospital another three minutes after that. And the doctor was like, why did you take those baby aspirin? Like, I think he knew. Usually, the queasy stomach thing, people don't react to that one. And I said, oh, my lead actor in our movie told me (laughter) that's how a heart attack works. And the doctor said, because you acted so quickly, you have no damage to your heart. Your heart's as good as new.

GROSS: Oh, that's such good news.

MCKAY: And then he said, not only that, you have an extra strong heart. So he said, the only dumb thing you're doing is smoking. So he said, if you stop smoking, there's no reason you shouldn't live to be 100 years old. So I have stopped smoking. That is the good news. And my heart is as good as new. But, man, what a scary experience. So I called Christian Bale a week later. And I said, either you or Dick Cheney just saved my life.

GROSS: Did the doctor think the baby aspirin helped?

MCKAY: Oh, yeah, for sure. No, no, that's what they give you. And when I got in the ambulance, they gave me more. I mean, the aspirin thins the blood, which allows it to get around the blockage. It's definitely one of the moves you want to - it's not going to save your life. You still have to go to the hospital. But it mitigates damage. There's no doubt about it.

GROSS: Did you, at any point, think that your life was in danger?

MCKAY: You know, it's funny. You're going through an experience like that. It's such a roller coaster. You don't even really think in terms like that. It's just moment by moment, feeling by feeling. And there were a couple moments that got very intense where I thought, uh-oh. And I remember the one doctor saying when I was in the hospital - because I started to feel better, and then all the sudden I did not feel better. And I remember hearing a doctor going, he's having a heart event right now. And I thought, oh, man, I could really die in this moment.

And the craziest thing was they took me - they call it a cath lab, which I had never heard of before - the catheter lab. And they take you in there, and that's where your heart doctor comes in - your cardiologist. And this was a guy named Dr. Henry, who's one of the best in the world, thank God. And they get to work on you, and they're - you know, they're going to clear out that blockage. And they did, and they were amazing.

And then towards the end, I was on, you know, drugs, obviously. And for some reason, I thought it was very important that everyone at the table know that I'd just done a movie about Dick Cheney (laughter) and how ironic this is that I'm on a table having a heart attack. And of course, no one cares. But I - so I sort of mumbled it. I was like, this is weird. I just did a movie about Dick Cheney. And everyone ignored me, as they should've, except one voice to my right - just after a beat - just said, Dick Cheney - great American.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCKAY: And I went...

GROSS: That's not the point of your movie.


MCKAY: I went - you know, it's - in my mind, I was like, I don't want to argue with this guy. I think these people just saved my life. So I just went, it's complicated.


GROSS: Well, it's really been a pleasure.

MCKAY: Always a pleasure to talk to you, too.

DAVIES: Adam McKay wrote and directed the film "Vice," which is nominated for eight academy awards, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. The awards will be presented Sunday.


DAVIES: On Monday's FRESH AIR, the story of the real Green Book, the pre-civil rights era travel guide for African-Americans - the book that helps travellers find safe places to stay, eat, shop and do business. It's the subject of the new documentary "The Green Book: Guide To Freedom." We'll talk with director Yoruba Richen. Hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.