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Director Adam McKay talks Dick Cheney biopic ‘Vice,’ moving from comedy to drama, and how Philly was his film school

Adam McKay, in town Thursday to accept a career achievement award from the Film Society, talks about his new movie 'Vice,' and falling in love with movies in his hometown of Philadelphia.

(L to R) Director Adam McKay, actor Christian Bale, producer Kevin Messick, and cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set of VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release.
(L to R) Director Adam McKay, actor Christian Bale, producer Kevin Messick, and cinematographer Greig Fraser on the set of VICE, an Annapurna Pictures release.Read moreMatt Kennedy

Spending time in local movie theaters is nothing new for Malvern native and Oscar-winning writer-director Adam McKay. He logged hours at the Eric Twin in Frazier and the Ritz Five in his high school and Temple University days.

The circumstances will be somewhat loftier when he enters the Film Center (formerly the Prince) on Thursday evening to receive the Lumiere Award for lifetime achievement from the Philadelphia Film Society, which will also screen his new Dick Cheney biopic, Vice. Speaking of awards, Vice has already been bestowed with six Golden Globe nominations, the most of any movie this year, including fellow local Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born.

“I love it every time I get back to Philly even for a day or two, because it’s Philly, and because it’s where I fell in love with film,” said McKay, who just quit smoking, and who attributes his good mood to over-the-counter medicine.

“God bless nicotine lozenges. Without them, I would be an insufferable maniac. Or I’d be more of an insufferable maniac,” said McKay, who’s been on a health kick since suffering a mild heart attack amid the pressure of finishing Vice, a movie that may have endangered his health but that also saved him. Doing research on Cheney’s string of heart attacks allowed him to diagnose his own symptoms and seek treatment, so now he’s fine.

Somewhere in there is a joke about all of that being as funny as a heart attack, but surely not up to the standards of McKay, who built his movie career on a series of inspired and commercially successful comedies with pal Will Ferrell before edging toward drama with The Big Short, HBO’s Succession, and now Vice. Along the way, he’s established himself as the kind of director who can summon a cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, and Tyler Perry — playing Dick Cheney, Lynn Cheney, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell, respectively — as easily as Ron Burgundy blowing a conch shell to assemble his news team in Anchorman.

McKay said he sought movie theater jobs in part for the free movies. He rattles off the names of favorites he saw gratis while working — Stephen Frears' Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Barry Levinson’s Tin Men, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, Spike Lee’s School Daze (not to mention some repertory Kurosawa at the old TLA).

That was his film school, but his path to Hollywood went through Chicago and New York, where he learned stand-up and improv and created sketches and short films for Saturday Night Live before branching out with Ferrell on Talladega Nights, The Other Guys, Step Brothers, and Anchorman. Those who knew him when — including Carell — say his talent was always evident and was suited to more than comedy.

“I think people are just starting to see the scope of his skill set,” said Carell. “He has a massive intellect, he’s incredibly passionate and opinionated and bold. As a friend and as an employee, I can’t think of a more fun or inspiring person to work with. I’ve known him for an awfully long time — we go back to the early ’90s together at Second City, so I’ve seen the genesis — and I also knew there was more inside of him than people realized.”

McKay is not one to say drama is more important than comedy, but after the Anchorman sequel, he found himself looking at “our crazy, undulating world” and sensing that “the kind comedy we’d been doing didn’t really fit” what he felt needed to be done.

“It all goes down to kind of a gut feeling. If I’m going to be up at 5:30 and a car’s going to pick me up to take me to the set, I’m going to have to be excited. If that is not there, at that point you’re not using your position the right way … If it’s just a paycheck, you feel like you’ve blown it, and that’s where the change came from.”

That’s when he “collided with” the Michael Lewis best seller The Big Short, a readable and excoriating account of the Wall Street malfeasance that led to the Great Recession. It was highly readable but not necessarily highly filmable, so McKay (who won an Oscar for the script) used his knack for inspired comic flourishes (Margot Robbie talking about collateralized debt obligations in a bubble bath) to make the material accessible.

The scene is not a throwaway gag. It gets to McKay’s firm belief that the hopelessly complex investments behind the financial crisis were designed to be inscrutable, so as to lull the public into thinking that complicated was boring and that boring was innocuous. The same way, he says, the intricacies of foreign policy and energy policy (two subjects of Vice) can get buried under impenetrable levels of bureaucracy and diplomacy.

“When you make people bored, when you make people not care about the government, ultimately other people take control of it,” he said. That’s a theme of Vice, which follows the soft footsteps of Cheney’s political career — congressional aide, White House chief of staff (1975-77), secretary of defense under George H.W. Bush, then vice president to George W. Bush. The Cheney of Vice presents a phlegmatic face to the public but wields incredible and (in McKay’s view) unprecedented and dangerous power behind the curtain.

“To me, you have this old man who works quietly and carries no evident charisma, but when you lift the stone, you see somebody who changed history as much as any figure in American history, “ said McKay, whose movie positions Cheney as the real driving force in what the director sees as catastrophic choices on the Iraq war, the war on terror (torture and drone strikes), and fossil fuels (the movie argues that although Cheney left the oil services giant Halliburton, the company’s priorities never left him).

At the same time, he tells the human story of the Cheney marriage via Adams’ Lynn. Early on, Lynn helps her husband get his life on the right track, and his career becomes a form of repayment.

“He was a tough kid from the Plains states who had a simple ambition to make his wife proud, and how that turned into something much darker. To me, that struck a chord,” McKay said.

With The Big Short and Vice (he’s now awaiting delivery of a script about scandal-plagued Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes), McKay has migrated away from comedy and toward the weighty. His next project is a series of documentaries on global capitalism and the environment, the latter a subject that worries him a great deal.

“Things are changing so fast in the world. They’re so berserk, I have a suspicion that in two, three years, global warming will change our world in ways we can’t even fathom,” he said.

I asked McKay, whose commercial success has paid for a solar-powered house in California, whether he has studied the plans of wealthy people who intend to evacuate to New Zealand.

“New Zealand won’t save you. What’s coming is coming for the whole planet.”