By Phil Contrino
After establishing his voice as a writer on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 1990s–early 2000s, Adam McKay has created a body of film work that defies easy definition. He struck gold with tongue-in-cheek comedy hits such as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers before eventually tackling The Big Short, a film about the 2008 financial collapse that manages to be both sobering and hysterical. The Big Short won McKay an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and became a $133 million hit at the global box office. Now with Vice—a genre-hopping look at Dick Cheney’s life and career—McKay continues to tackle big topics without losing his sense of humor.
I caught up with McKay in early December when Vice was just starting to screen for the press. He spoke about going to the movies growing up—he even worked at cinemas in college—and how the theatrical experience has had a major impact on his work.
When I talk to directors, I always like to hear about their first memory of going to the movies. It usually turns out to be somewhat significant.
I don’t know if it was my very first time, but my first memory must’ve been in pre-school, so you’re probably talking like ’72. I remember the movie—Lassie Come Home—and it was with my mom and dad and I was small enough that they were carrying me. The theater was just packed to the gills and we walked around looking for seats and we couldn’t sit together. It was so packed I had to sit with my dad and my mom had to sit a couple seats away. I just remember Lassie running down the runway of an airport barking and big vistas of the countryside. It was the first time in my life I’d ever experienced 400 grown-ups all staring at the same thing. It was a very powerful and impactful moment for a little kid, and I’ve never forgotten that.
Do you worry that if you revisited that movie it would disappoint you? I know that happens a lot.
The thing is I remember the experience of going to the movie theater more than I do the movie. I only remember a couple of images, so no, I’ve actually never gone back to look at it. But then there are movies which I remember much more clearly, like Bedknobs and Broomsticks or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and those movies I have watched again and they actually hold up.
So is it true one of your first jobs growing up was at a movie theater?
In high school I washed dishes at restaurants and at a hospital to afford my car. But my second job was at the Eric Twin Frazer in Pennsylvania off of Route 30, and I got a couple of my friends to get jobs there. It was the summer after my freshman year in college, and we had the best time. It’s a summer I’ve never forgotten.
I assume you got to watch a ton of movies. Does one stick out?
Well, there was one movie that turned out to be very influential, which was the movie Tin Men by Barry Levinson. All of my friends loved Tin Men and we would go in and watch scenes from that all the time. To this day I could almost say every line of dialogue from that movie.
Did it have any kind of influence on your own work?
Oh, without a doubt. I’ve actually spoken to Barry Levinson about it … his first two movies—Diner and Tin Men—are tremendously impactful. What I loved about both of them was the attention to detail, the little snippets of dialogue, the little things in the deep background. He was casting for characters that ordinarily would be lacking, like the 11th lead that you wouldn’t really think about. I loved how those movies had such a distinct sense of time and place. Diner I’ve seen probably like 15, 20 times, and Tin Men countless times because I worked at the theater.
Are there any other movies you can think back on as you were developing your own voice, movies you watched and thought, “This is what I want to do with my life” or “I gotta make something like that”?
So I had the job after my freshman year of college, and then I transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia, and I got a job as an usher with the Ritz 5, which was the art house theater. For me that was like a cathedral because I lived outside Philadelphia, and for people going into Philly the art house theater to go to was the Ritz 5. It’s actually still there to this day. I got to see a lot of movies, and because it was the art house theater they were all interesting. But one I never forgot from that time was a war movie called Hope and Glory. I remember watching that one a lot. And then there was a Stephen Frears movie—Sammy and Rosie Get Laid—and I watched that one like 25 times.
So yeah, these movies embed themselves into your psyche because you’re watching them over and over again in the live movie experience. That was a such a big part of my time in Philadelphia. So even though I was working at the Ritz 5, I would go to other art house theaters and watch old Kurosawa movies. At that time, Spike Lee was one of the really hot directors. Anytime he had a movie coming out we would be there opening night, and my circle of friends loved movies. So much of our lives revolved around going to the movie theater.
Looking at some of your biggest hits from Step Brothers to The Big Short, do you think they would have had the same kind of cultural impact if they hadn’t been shown in a theater?
I don’t know if there’s anything better than watching a comedy in a giant movie theater. I remember going to that same theater off of Route 30 when I was a little kid. I remember seeing the movie Airplane! eight, nine times, and just crying with laughter … the whole audience was roaring. So when it comes to the movies I’ve done, especially with the comedies that Will [Ferrell] and I did early on, those are really built around audience reactions. In fact I remember a really cool thing: I went to meet my sister—who lives down around San Diego—for dinner one night and it was after Step Brothers had come out. We had dinner and then we decided to go see another movie, and we were leaving the movie and Step Brothers was playing at that movie theater—it had been out for like four or five weeks and usually by then the crowd starts to thin a little bit—and I was like, “Oh, let’s just peek in.” We opened [the door] and the theater was packed and they were roaring with laughter, and my sister and I ended up standing there in the hallway right by that entrance for about a half an hour, just watching it and enjoying it. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten. We left and got in the car and said, “That’s how you’re supposed to watch a movie.” It was really, really cool.
What is it like to show your movies to audiences for the first time? With a complex movie like The Big Short, can it be a little nerve-wracking?
Yeah, I always test my movies. Obviously with the big comedies you want to see them in front of a crowd, but even with The Big Short and the most recent one, Vice, they’re made to play for audiences. They’re not made to be little obscure things that only a couple of people see. So I love to test screen. I love to get crowds in the movie theater. I love to feel that energy in the room. I mean even with The Big Short, it’s a little more dramatic, but there’s still some really funny stuff in it, and even if you’re not tracking laughs from a crowd, you can just feel when an audience is engaged. You can feel when they’re moved, you can feel when they’re bored, you can feel all of that, and it’s incredibly helpful. And you know, this most recent movie, which is a big, big epic film, it was invaluable to sit in crowds of 300 to 400 people and feel them watch this movie.
What did you learn from that? Is there something that surprised you in terms of crowd reaction? Obviously, you can’t get into spoilers—or are there spoilers with a political biopic? But what is your big takeaway now that you’re showing it to people?
Well actually there are some pretty sizable spoilers in Vice. We have a couple of moves in there that we’ve had to ask the press not to talk about, and you’ll see about three or four shocking moves.
What you learn is that usually your instincts are right. You can feel when it’s dialed in and you can feel when it’s not, and there’s just something different that happens when you get a large crowd of people together. There’s a different energy going on. I mean, I’ve even noticed it when I watch a comedy by myself in a hotel room or on an airplane. I remember seeing Wedding Crashers in a packed theater at the Hollywood Arclight and the whole place was rocking and roaring with laughter. Once you know you can play for an audience, you can kind of do anything at that point. Then your movie is fine on television, a DVD, or airplanes … but first and foremost it’s got to be able to play for an audience. That’s the experience you want to nail.
Let’s talk about getting Vice to the public. The marketing campaign, especially the trailer, is really great. Did you have any input on how the marketing materials came together, or was that out of your hands?
We were lucky. We had a really talented marketing group over at Annapurna. Mike Pavlic was the lead on it and he did some great stuff. So yeah, I was definitely going back and forth with him. We made this movie not to be some sort of dusty political movie. We wanted to show how lively the stuff is, how it affects our lives, how it can be tragic, but it can also be really funny. That trailer encapsulates it pretty well. There are parts of the movie that are aesthetically funny, and then there were other parts that are dramatic and surprising. I really wanted to have all those different layers going on.
The trailer is surprising. You expect a Dick Cheney biopic, and then you watch it and say, “OK, I’m intrigued now.”
Well, also Christian Bale’s transformation—it is truly is an incredible thing. You see the sense of humor; you see the playfulness.
He’s a great actor. He has a chameleon-like nature where he is different every time on-screen.
That’s the reason I wanted him to play Dick Cheney. There was no one out there I’d rather see interpret this mysterious, shadowy figure than Christian Bale. He was the guy to do it, and I knew he wouldn’t rest until he got to the center of who this guy was. It’s almost like the physical transformation is a byproduct of all the psychological work. I use the word artist because you really have to call him that. He’s also entertaining as hell. Not only is he this great artist and great actor, but he’s fun as hell to watch. It’s a great combination.
I’ll close with a question about the business side of the industry. You’re somebody who creates content for multiple platforms. Do you think it’s unfair that streaming and theatrical seem to be pitted against each other? It seems like you and plenty of other creators have no problem working across platforms without bashing one or the other.
We have a company with Will Ferrell—Gary Sanchez Productions—and we’ve done every type of release you can do. We’ve done a lot of theatrical, we’ve done streaming, we’ve done television, we’ve done network, we’ve done cable. And what’s great about it is each one has its place. We did a little movie that was for streaming that came out last year that probably wouldn’t have gotten a theatrical release because it was a pretty small movie, so in that case we were happy with streaming. But then at the same time we do movies like Vice or Daddy’s Home 2 that are perfect for theatrical release. What I can say is from our point of view, it’s all about the events. It’s all about what is the right event for the thing that you’ve made. To me there’s nothing better than a big theatrical release … that is the most exciting thing. But what we’re seeing more and more is that you can create events with the premiere of a big TV show. We have a show—“Succession”—on HBO, and that certainly felt like an event, and at the same time we had that movie Ibiza that was released on streaming, and that had kind of its own event quality to it. So as long as it lives in the realm of events, I think everything’s fine. The idea of pitting [platforms] against each other is kind of ridiculous. It’s really like saying that musicians have to hate novelists … there’s room for everyone. None of us are buying any of that.
Theaters aren’t going anywhere. I’ve been hearing for decades that they’re going to go away and they don’t. People like to go to theaters. That’s not changing. At the same time, it’s also nice to have other ways to watch things and I think that’s the way we look at it.
I’ve heard it said that movie theaters are really competing with the other out-of-home options. At the end of the day, people want to get out.
It’s true in a basic way. Sports, theaters, and restaurants—those are the big three. And you can include live theater and live concerts, but those things have been around for what, 8,000 years? They’re going nowhere. There’s always going to be a bunch of people kicking a ball around or dribbling a ball around. There’s always going to be a bunch of people watching storytelling and theater. There’s always going to be a bunch of people getting together and eating some kind of food. And even the competition between sports and theater and restaurants—I’m not even sure that really exists. I think people like to mix it up. They like to do it all.