Adam McKay Can’t Believe We’re Nostalgic for the Bush and Cheney Years
The ‘Big Short’ director talks the new Murdoch-inspired HBO drama ‘Succession’ and teases his upcoming Dick Cheney biopic, ‘Backseat’: ‘There’s a need to redefine that era.’
Adam McKay wishes Succession wasn’t so timely.
The Big Short and Anchorman director, who is currently running test screens for a new biopic that stars Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, executive produced and helmed the first episode of the HBO drama, which follows the power plays and moral corruption of a dysfunctional global-media family. The Murdochs? The Redstones? The Trumps? Take your pick for who you might project onto the fictional Roys.
While, sure, a subject like this is always going to resonate on some level, the broader themes of wealth, privilege, economic inequity, and family betrayal in Jesse Armstrong’s (The Thick of It, Black Mirror) scripts seem especially inspired by recent headlines and watercooler conversations.
“And it’s not just media families,” McKay says. “It’s this kind of dynastic wealth. Wealthy families, nepotism, the crazy amounts of money and power in the hands of the few. I actually wish it wasn’t as relevant it as it is.” He starts laughing, perhaps realizing how naively idealistic he must sound. “I wish we were in the age of some sort of new age rebirth of democracy and equitable society and opportunity and growth for all,” he continues. “But we’re not!”
The first episode of Succession introduces founder and CEO of a media empire, Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a hammer-wielding mogul in the spirit of Rupert Murdoch. Despite constant existential reminders of his mortality, the aging financial oligarch finds the greatest threat to his power and legacy coming from his three children, each with a ruthless ambition hampered by their respective entitlement, haplessness, and inexperience. In other words, in the spirit of the Trump children.
“I know when you do a show that sort of has a relationship to the real world, people end up seeing more prescience than there sometimes is,” Armstrong laughs when we read the laundry list of real-world corporate family dynasties the show seems to call upon. “You start with something related to the world, and then if you’ve done something decent I think you end up with people going, ‘Oh, wow, you’ve predicted the future.’”
When McKay first met with Armstrong roughly 10 years ago, he had written a script that was explicitly based on the Murdochs. Their conversation, however, sparked a light-bulb moment. Why tell a story of just one family, when if you expand it to one inspired by dozens, if not more, there is more creative freedom and the stakes become that much more interesting?
“People are 100 percent correct to look at the nepotism and see the Trumps,” McKay says. “To look at the win-at-all-costs, vicious approach and see what the Murdochs have done with their media empires. To see the dysfunction and the generational gaps of the Redstones. All of it is accurate. You could go so far as the royal family to some degree.”
And while it may or may not be hard to imagine the Trump children engaging with their father with quite the same intensity of discourse that Armstrong has scripted for the Roys—“I hear you bent for him and he fucked you,” Logan chastises his oldest son after he bungles a deal—the Trumpian lens through which we see pretty much all of pop culture these days was certainly on everyone’s mind when making this show.
“Dynastic power and questionable talents of offspring, does that feel alive in America? Definitely,” Armstrong says. “Am I happy people think about it in that context? Yes. Were those names raised in the writer’s room? From time to time. They were more another set of archetypes for us to draw on more than it was like, ‘We can do the Trumps by the back door!’”
Still, it might be fair to say that in McKay’s case, that Trumpian lens is dominating his mind.
The afternoon we speak, he is preparing to run another test screening of Backseat, a movie described as “the story of Dick Cheney, the most powerful vice president in history, and how his policies changed the world as we know it.”
Aside from an announced cast that includes Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and some leaked photos from the set, not much is known about the film or the tone McKay—whose genre work runs the gamut from The Big Short to Succession to Saturday Night Live to Talladega Nights—is aiming for with the work.
McKay says the question of tone is one he’s actually asking himself right now as he starts to test the film in front of audiences.
“Sometimes the crowd just beats you up and just wholesale rejects what you’re trying to put out there and doesn’t want to go down that hallway, and at that point you have to leave some treats on the steps to lure them in,” he says. “So there are times where in this Cheney movie I’ve said, ‘alright, take the restraints off and let it be funny. Let it be absurd and let’s lean into it right here, because we know we’re going to end up here later.”
He is, however, continuing a mission that he applied to Succession to his work on Backseat, which is to tell a true story as honestly as possible.
“I don’t think either has some hard agenda of slamming against consolidated wealth and portraying these people as cartoon characters. I think when people are done watching it they recognize that there are definitely layers to this story,” he says, echoing Armstrong’s assertion that it would be “reductive” for Succession to have been a blanket indictment of the characters involved.
What McKay never expected, to bring up that Trumpian lens again, would be how the current administration would inspire, at least in some circles, an expressed nostalgia for the Bush and Cheney years. He outright cackles when we bring it up to him and ask how he thinks that might affect the way Backseat is viewed.
“I never thought I would see that,” he says about the rise of Bush-Cheney apologists. “I will tell you when that started happening, I just went, ‘I’m gonna keep my mouth shut because I’m making the movie about it.’ It’s truly incredible.”
That’s not to say that he’s not already noticing how that notion is coloring his test screenings. “The reactions I’ve seen from audiences to the Cheney movie are endlessly fascinating. There’s a need to redefine that era and a need to have a certain perspective on it that’s safe and comfortable.”
Still, McKay marvels at the parallel themes between Cheney’s story and that of Succession. “The whole Cheney movie is about power and the effects of power and consolidated power, more so than anything I’ve done at this point probably,” he says, including The Big Short on that list. “It’s clearly the story of our times.”
As much as we might disapprove of these people and their ethics, or be disgusted by greed and the imbalance of wealth, Armstrong points out that we’re still endlessly fascinated by it all—the people and players involved especially.
“These are privileged people and they have a kind of savagery and carelessness which I think is actually kind of disgusting but slightly appealing,” he says. “It’s the element of Trump, who doesn’t give a fuck what he says next that I suppose our characters share that. I think there’s a part of people who find that quite interesting as well as quite disgusting.”
What is it like, then, for someone like Adam McKay to be so immersed in that world for so much of his time in recent years, between The Big Short, Succession, and Backseat, which he is still so hard at work on?
“Well, I could tell you what my wife would say,” he says. “She would say it’s time to go do another comedy.”