Adam McKay On Applying Comedic Roots To Political Hot-Button Material


With his Oscar-winning 2015 hit The Big Short—which took the prize for Best Adapted Screenplay, along with four other nominations—director and co-writer Adam McKay turned the 2008 financial crash into an entertaining and revelatory comedy-drama, demonstrating a penchant for political hot-button material, and making it its own genre as he sets up his next projects.

With Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Steve Carell recently coming aboard McKay’s Untitled Dick Cheney Project—an Annapurna/Plan B drama about the polarizing and disturbingly impactful Vice President—the director also has Bad Blood following right behind, with which he continues his unique dissection of major national controversies. The drama will star Jennifer Lawrence as 19-year-old prodigy Elizabeth Holmes—founder of bio-tech company Theranos—who saw her business rise to an estimated value of $9 billion in a little over a decade, before becoming mired in controversy.

At a time when studio movies are increasingly formulaic escapism, you are plying a politically and socially aware genre that we haven’t really seen since the films of the ’70s. You transitioned from Saturday Night Live to Will Ferrell comedies that were escapist fun with subtle subversion between the lines. What prompted you to reverse that formula?

That’s a good question. I came at everything I do through comedy, starting with doing stand-up comedy in Philly, improvisation with the Upright Citizens Brigade, Second City. I was lucky enough to go through Chicago and the way they do comedy, there’s always a point of view and political and social edge. I built that into everything I did, and then Saturday Night Live was a lot of political humor.

I’ve always been really interested in the history of our country, how our government works, corruption, crazy stories. This combination caused the jump to more flagrantly going at these topics, as opposed to letting them exist under these comedies. It feels like the roof has been caving in. It’s one thing to be making fun, silly jokes with a point of view. Once the weight-bearing beams of your house start falling on you, it really gets to a point where it’s like, OK, it’s time to be a little more naked about it.

I also felt there was a real challenge, too. In everything I had learned from doing the comedies, could I make these subjects come to life, and make them entertaining? I used everything I learned to pump up a subject like banking reform and banking fraud, something that usually makes a lot of people glaze over.

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We have our first tweeting president, and you can’t escape politics, with more subjective coverage that often doesn’t even try for objectivity, telling a niche audience what it wants to hear. You used clever devices like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain complex subprime mortgage formulas in The Big Short, and got away with it. What makes you feel that theaters, where people go to escape problems, are the right places to tell the stories of Dick Cheney and Elizabeth Holmes?

You just said it really well. There’s this economically incentivized, partisan paintbrush out there. I think what people are craving is what really is going on. A big part of movies has always been cutting through that crap and showing something that expresses a human truth we all can connect with. What I was really happy with about The Big Short is that those issues aren’t right wing or left wing. It was just about corruption, which is really all I care about.

Many people would call me a lefty and a democrat, but I actually don’t consider myself that. I’m just against corruption, and this was a true story that was riveting to me. I was really happy with the fact that we got a lot of support from what would, traditionally, be considered the right wing. We had people like Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren and a bunch of right-wingers who really liked the movie because they knew it was true.

The excitement comes when you can take these subjects and can cut through all the intentionally placed barb wire and rocks and garbage that keeps people away from getting to the essence of the subject. Once you really get to the core, it can be amazingly entertaining. In general, there’s a belief amongst a lot of people that our culture is lying to us in the way it is telling us what’s interesting and what’s not. What’s traditionally considered boring, that actually is where some of the most exciting subjects are.

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Is there a period or a touchstone film that informs where you are now going as a storyteller?

I guess it’s universally accepted that the ’70s were a golden age for movies. There, you look at a movie like All the President’s Men. It’s a true story that’s so artfully and masterfully told, and it elevated beyond republican, democrat, right wing, left wing, because at its core, this was a story about great journalism. You also had fictional movies with great core ideas, and there, Network is probably my all-time favorite movie, and certainly, one of the most important movies ever made. You also had The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, these expressions of suspicion of consolidated power going on at that time that was very real, very connected to the world, and very exciting.

You also saw documentaries really get their legs under them with the Maysles Brothers, and films like Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA. That spirit was picked up by Michael Moore in the ’80s with Roger & Me, which I still consider an all-time classic. People forget that whole movie is about outsourcing, which is not a right- or left-wing subject. Moore called it before anyone was talking about it. For comedies, the touchstones are Dr. Strangelove, Idiocracy, and The Producers, which is really about grand fraud. Those movies were hugely influential.

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Some feel the election of President Trump will spawn these kinds of cautionary tales you mentioned that came out of Vietnam and Watergate. Acknowledging the Trump presidency has just begun, what kind of movie catalyst might he be?

We’ve been headed in this direction a long time, where things have just been bending in the wrong direction. Big money really started to take over our government and our culture, and people have been getting itchy about it and complaining. There have been upsetting flare-ups, and you’ve seen our system start to fall apart until that truck full of eels finally hit the wall, with Trump. But I think if it hadn’t been Trump, it would have been someone else; would there really have been a difference between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump?

Think of the most wackadoodle candidate you can think of, and that’s just always where it’s been headed, with all this happening through information war, and crafty usage of focus groups, marketing, advertising, messaging.

This is a very interesting time we live in. It’s not about boots on the ground and dropping bombs. What we’re seeing Putin do, what’s happening here in the United States, it’s about creating consensus through information and advertising and misinformation and manipulation. I think we’re going to see a big change, with technology also changing. I’m really excited to see this post-traditional genre period that we’re headed to.

I just don’t think old genres are going to exist the way they did in the past. The movie Get Out is prime example. That movie was so exciting. It was a horror movie, it was a comedy, it was a satire. There are three different genres in there. They call it a horror movie on the surface, but there was so much going on with that. You’re seeing that more and more. Get Out was high-level stuff.

Get Out Box Office

Universal

Feels like a forecast of cynical cinema.

What Trump is the result of is really layered, nuanced, amazing, very skillful manipulation, and I think, as we come to grips with that, we’re going to get more sophisticated. The American public clearly is getting more sophisticated, from the days where you just saw a pretty picture of some soap and the line, “It keeps you clean,” and people would buy it, to nowadays. You look at the advertising that’s on, you look at the way that people talk; clearly, there’s a giant learning curve going on, but right now, we’re not quite ahead of it.

So, I really just look for just a giant shift in what movies are, how movies are presented, and you’re seeing it too. You noticed it, where audiences really get fatigued with the same old storyline; some of the big-budget superhero movies really take their lumps on the fact that they settle into well-tested, old storylines. People are demanding layers. People are demanding unpredictability. They’re demanding some sort of challenge, shock, and surprise. By the way, as I say it aloud, I realize, that’s always what movies have been about, but now the demand is just much more critical and stringent than it’s ever been.

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Explain why Dick Cheney so captured your fancy, and why Christian Bale, when he doesn’t look like him at all.

I’ll start just saying, I don’t know if there’s anyone like Christian Bale on the planet Earth. The man’s just amazing. My experience with him on The Big Short, I’ve never seen anything like it, how he becomes a person. What I wanted to avoid was, I didn’t just want someone to do an impression of Dick Cheney. What Christian Bale really does is he psychologically breaks someone apart and puts them back together again. I’ve never seen a process like it.

I’ve never seen someone work so hard at it, and it is hard on him, but really amazing to watch. The second I thought of doing the movie, I knew right away, the most exciting person to play him is Christian. I’m not worried about him looking exactly like Dick Cheney, I’m worried about him getting into the essence of this guy who’s complicated—surprisingly or maybe not so surprisingly, depending on your view of him. I wanted Christian Bale to play him before I even started writing the script.

The second part of your question, why Dick Cheney? It’s a giant chapter in U.S. history. I don’t feel like it’s ever been fully examined. A lot of crazy stuff happened during those eight years, and this is a vital puzzle piece in what got us to this moment with Donald Trump, with the world, as it is now, and Dick Cheney is at the center of it.

He was one of the most powerful leaders in American history, and quietly had a bigger effect on global events and the shape of the current world than just about anyone around. At the same time, we treated him a little bit like a punchline, calling him Darth Vader. I felt like there’s an incredible story here about American power, about manipulation, and at the same time, about a real person, with real struggles with his wife and his family. The more I dug, the more I found. Our surface impression of Dick Cheney actually goes 15 stories down into the ground.

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The Big Short was a cautionary tale. Is Cheney?

There’s some of that, but this is different than The Big Short, a film about a system that goes wrong. The Dick Cheney story is about the effects of power, on a person, on a family. It’s just something that we don’t talk about enough, the psychological effects of power—of consolidated power, a centralized power, and what does it do to you. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a quote from George W. Bush where he said, “You’ve got to be careful. It’s amazing what power will do you to you. Trust me, I’ve been in there. I’ve seen it happen.”

He didn’t say he was talking about Dick Cheney, but I got the feeling he was. It’s a very astute comment for Bush to be that conscious of what power could do to people. I think for the average person, walking around, it’s almost impossible for us to understand what it’s like to be in that White House, and wield that kind of power, and what it does to the human psyche. That’s the cautionary tale part.

Having naturally appealing actors like Bale, Lawrence, Carell, and Adams bringing flawed, unlikeable characters to life, is that your secret sauce in being sure an audience will relate to them?

One hundred percent. It was the trick we used with the Will Ferrell comedies—look at who he played. He was a pretty awful guy for the most part, in Talladega Nights. In Anchorman, he’s a downright pig. Step Brothers, completely selfish. That was always Will Ferrell’s magical power. He is such a decent guy, in real life, that people would read these characters on the page and say, “He’s not likeable,” and I would say, “You haven’t seen Will Ferrell play him.”

Christian, Jennifer Lawrence, these are great actors that people have a connection with through their body of work, and they appreciate the process they go though in becoming these characters.

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You had a comedy called Border Guards. Will and John C. Reilly, as these guys who see themselves as patriots, who are determined to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing the border and then find themselves on the wrong side of the border. You guys wrote this before Trump, but given all that’s happened, is it now too much on the nose to be funny?

I don’t think so. Will and I really felt like that was one of the best things we’ve ever written. It’s up in the air, because we sent the Cheney script to Annapurna. It’s possible I will produce it and we’ll get another director, because we both feel like it’s a movie that has to get made.

Is it possible you could have imagined the immigration crisis we now face, back when you wrote this?

I’ve got to tell you, never did we imagine we’d be in this place. We knew Hillary wasn’t the best candidate in the world, and there were moments we said, “Can this guy really win?” But what has happened has been pretty crazy and no, we’re not sleeping on this project.

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