Making a movie about a controversial figure like Dick Cheney is no easy prospect. How do you portray him? Vilify him or make him sympathetic? Black and white or with nuance? For a cinematographer, it’s equally challenging to answer those questions, then translate it into a visual approach. That’s exactly what the filmmakers behind Oscar-nominated Vice had to do. We spoke with cinematographer Greig Fraser about what went into giving Vice its look.
To Editorialize or Not
The questions above were ones the filmmakers of Vice needed to answer before choosing how to shoot the project. “The ‘look’ discussions came after we decided what we want the audience to feel,” says Fraser. “We first discussed more holistically what the film was about and what it was saying.”
What they decided was that they wanted to adhere to facts as much as they could, and let those facts speak for themselves. “We were filming a portrayal of a real-life person. So, respectfully, regardless of what one thinks or one’s politics, it’s important to be as truthful as you can be, and as honest as you can be, without deliberately demonizing.” Therefore, they set out to not editorialize visually, especially not negatively. “It was a very conscious decision that we weren’t going to demonize the guy visually,” says Fraser.
For example, those less sympathetic toward Cheney might be surprised by scenes of the former vice president’s home life, which are warmly lit and serenely shot. But there was no reason not to do that: “It needed to have that honesty about what home life is,” the cinematographer says. “We didn’t need to make his house fluorescently lit and dark and brooding, like a New York City apartment in the ’70s. That would be the opposite of what we were talking about doing and what we actually did.”
(L to R) Director Adam McKay, Christian Bale, producer Kevin Messick, and Greig Fraser on the set of Vice. Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy.
The Responsibility of ‘Performed Documentary’
Throughout his career, Fraser has shot many projects based on true stories — several of which, like Vice, depict historically significant events. Recreating those moments on screen can sometimes feel like making what he calls a “performed documentary.” As an example, he mentions Zero Dark Thirty and its recreation of the 2011 secret raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. “It’s the closest thing that anyone can get to that particular situation as a civilian,” he says.
The same goes for scenes in Vice of the behind-door discussions Cheney had while in power that influenced the trajectory of America as a nation. It’s representing history in a way that shows everyday audiences what they never could have witnessed otherwise. That can be a powerful responsibility, though Fraser does offer a caveat. “Everyone’s acting, and everybody knows that. No one’s going to fool themselves into believing that we’re witnessing history. But it’s the closest thing we can do to witnessing history.”
He also believes movies can represent history in meaningful, publicly conscious ways. “In 100 years, something like The Hurt Locker is going to be the film to represent the Iraq War if you want a representation of what that war was,” he says. “Hopefully a film like Vice can be the representation of that for Cheney.”
Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell in Vice
Deciding When to Shoot Simply
There are no stakes here involving Navy SEALs with high-powered rifles like in Zero Dark Thirty. Instead, Vice has, as Fraser puts it, “a lot of sitting around on couches and at desks and talking.”
He doesn’t mean that negatively, however. Those talks were as significant as the raid, and just as important for an audience to understand. Enabling that meant not letting camera work get in the way. “It’s a rather meaty, dense script, with a lot of ideas. We wanted to make sure that there’s an underlying visual simplicity to the cinematography,” Fraser says. They executed that with very calm, locked-in camera work during important discussions like those that take place in the Oval Office. Sometimes, they would do lightly floating handheld work as well, such as in scenes in an underground bunker immediately after 9/11.
But though the camera is often still, the film does have a kinetic energy that’s familiar to anyone who knows director Adam McKay’s work. Fraser attributes that energy to the fact that other moments in the film didn’t need to be shot the same way. For example, sequences depicting a young Cheney involved in a DUI, or torture at Guantanamo Bay, are shot in a different style. “There were other points in the movie visually that we could go a little bit crazy with,” Fraser says. “So we know that we could always be cutting away to something that was more frenetic.”
Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney in Vice
Getting Close to an All-Time Performance
It’s impossible to talk about Vice without talking about Christian Bale and his award-winning embodiment of the former Vice President. Every accolade for his performance is earned, but from a visual point of view, it’s something that is greatly complemented by the decision to get very close to him with the camera.
That could have been risky, because of the prosthetics used to make Bale look so much like Cheney. Bale gained 40 pounds, shaved his head, and bleached his eyebrows, but there were still enough prosthetics on his face to leave only the actor’s natural forehead, ears, and under-nose visible. “Because you’re putting latex over real skin, there’s always going to be an issue,” Fraser says. “You’re always having to be mindful of the prosthetics.” That’s because latex shot so close can look unnatural and sabotage any intended illusion.
Breaking the illusion would have been a dealbreaker, especially for significant moments, such as when Bale as Cheney breaks the fourth wall to directly talk to the audience and accuse them of being culpable for his actions. But moments like that proved that close-ups could work, because of the sheer quality of the makeup and prosthetic work. “The second that he turns his eyes away from a person in the scene and looks straight down your soul, it was as intense for me as it is for the audience,” Fraser says. “Being the closest person in the flesh to that performance that will be immortalized forever on film is quite a unique position. You definitely do have a biological reaction.”
All images from Vice courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.