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PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Adam McKay’s “Vice” hit theaters over the holidays and was met with a strikingly mixed reaction. Some consider it one of the year’s best films. Others outright declared it the worst. So…that’s quite a spectrum. For McKay, the journey began two weeks after the 2016 Academy Awards, which brought him an adapted screenplay Oscar for “The Big Short.” During a bout of post-season illness, he scanned the books on his shelf before coming to a tome about Dick Cheney and started reading. Fascination with the subject gripped him such that he had to explore the man’s life and times, and more importantly, his impact on American politics.

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“I had always been kind of intrigued by Cheney,” McKay says. “I always thought there was more there than we knew about besides the shooting the guy in the face and the Darth Vader jokes. So I just started reading the book and every four or five pages I was going, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God.’ Pretty soon I went online and ordered like five other books and all of the books had me doing the same thing, like, ‘This is an epic American story. This is crazy. I didn’t know any of this about this guy.’ I knew he had affected history but the manner in which he did it just blew me away.”

McKay was most interested in figuring out what made Cheney tick. He explored the politico’s family life and the drive that stemmed from a certain breed of determinism and ambition. Whether he figured the man out is up for debate — and if the takeaway is he didn’t, well, that might be the point.

“When I was a kid in the ’70s and early ’80s we used to talk about the toll that power would take on people,” McKay says. “I feel like we don’t talk about it that much anymore, and like, power screws you up. It’s the biggest drug there is. There’s nothing better than power: money, sex, anything you can think of, power is the one. In the very first draft of the script I had some voice over talking about how power is the thing that comes closest to disguising itself as love because you’re needed. People look at you with a want in their eyes, and it really feels close to love.”

McKay was and still is a vocal proponent of Bernie Sanders on the contemporary political stage. Turning his eyes to the next presidential election, he admits clarity is elusive. And that’s pretty much been standard these last few cycles.

“I have no idea at this point,” McKay says of what to expect in 2020. “I don’t think the Democrats know what they’re going for. The question is does Trump make it to 2020 or do the Republicans turn on him? It’s kind of up to the Republicans at this point. He’s in a lot of trouble right now. It seems like in the last five or 10 years, all political predictions have been horribly wrong. It’s really been weird. I don’t know. Biden’s making noise like he wants to run. That feels wrong to me. Feels like you’re going back to a system that hasn’t really worked very well for the DNC. I really have a feeling Trump’s not going to run again. I think even if he gets to 2020 he resigns and I think he walks away and goes ‘I was too good for you all’ and gives some speech like that.”

For more, including discussion of the film’s score and the evolution of McKay and his team’s visual approach to the material, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.

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Adam McKay photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety