War Dogs: Interview with Director Todd Phillips

War Dogs grew out of the story of two stoner kids, barely into their 20s, who became multi-millionaires as the most improbable of international arms dealers.  But just as they reached what should have been the pinnacle of success, it all came crashing down in spectacular fashion.

People Making Bad Decisions

One of the unifying themes of Todd Phillips’ movies is people making bad decisions.  Whether it’s a few post-college guys starting their own frat house or four friends planning an ill-fated bachelor party in Vegas, there are always repercussions that are outrageous and completely unexpected.  Bad decisions are again at the center of “War Dogs,” but there is an edge to the humor, born of the fact that the film is based on a true story of a couple of guys who managed to turn a little-known government initiative on its ear…to the tune of $300 million dollars. 

Phillips offers, “I always think movies have a little more gravity to them when you can take real events and build on them.  It’s a movie about the rise and fall of two young guys, chasing their image of the ‘American dream,’ who got a little too greedy.  And, you know, a little bit of greed gets in the way of good decision making.”

Bradley Cooper, who served as a producer and also appears in the film, adds, “One thing the movie shows is how susceptible someone can be when everything is put in front of him on a silver platter and how people deal with excess differently.”

It all started during the George W. Bush administration when huge no-bid contracts to supply the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being awarded to conglomerates like Halliburton, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin.  As criticism of the perceived cronyism and war-profiteering grew, the government decided to level the playing field with FedBizOpps (short for Federal Business Operations), which opened the bidding on military contracts to…well…virtually anyone.  Unfortunately, there were just enough loopholes to make it possible to take advantage of the system.

The tale was chronicled in a 2011 Rolling Stone article called “Arms and the Dudes,” by Guy Lawson.  “The Bush administration was trying to favor small businesses,” Lawson expands, “and no business was smaller than these dudes, sitting in a studio apartment in Miami Beach with nothing but a bong on the table, a laptop and a cell phone.”

Producer Mark Gordon recounts, “I was on a plane when I first read the story in Rolling Stone, and I couldn’t believe it was true.  Everything about it cried out to be made into a movie.  I’ve always found that audiences love films about characters who beat the system, even if they ultimately get their comeuppance, one way or another.  Add in the fact that these two seemed the most unlikely people to pull off this kind of hustle, and you have something really special.”

Gordon adds that Phillips was the perfect director to bring the tale to the big screen.  He states, “There is no one better than Todd to tell a story about outrageous characters getting into all kinds of trouble.  He’s the master.”

“War Dogs” also marks the first film on which Phillips and Cooper teamed as producers under the banner of their new production entity, Joint Effort.  Cooper relates, “I was very interested to see how Todd was going to take the article and realize it cinematically.  I loved the idea of a film about what these guys did, knowing it would be spawned from Todd’s brain.”

“As I was going through it,” Phillips recalls, “I thought, ‘This has the makings of a terrific film.’  And the more we dug into it, the more evident it became that it could be a great two-hander with the right two actors.”

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star, respectively, in the central roles of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, and both say they were intrigued by these characters who jumped at the opportunity to reap huge rewards without giving much thought to what they were sowing.  Hill remarks, “There’s definitely something enticing about watching people make it rich without following the rules.  It’s why I’ve always loved gangster movies…movies where the guys with swagger win.  Until they don’t,” he smiles.

“It’s a cool story,” says Teller.  “You have to respect what they were able to do; at one point, they had a $300 million deal going.  That’s an insane amount of money for a couple of guys in their early 20s who were just fakin’ it till they made it.  It’s fascinating how things can kind of snowball and you can get in way over your head.”

The real David Packouz admits, “I won’t lie, it was pretty awesome for a while.  We would go to parties and people would introduce themselves: ‘I’m a stockbroker or I’m in real estate… So what do you do?’  ‘We’re international arms dealers.’  The initial reaction went from ‘You’re kidding, right?’ to ‘You’re full of s**t,’ but once they realized we were not joking, they were blown away.  One reason the story is so crazy is that very few people make it big in the arms business, especially at our age.  The fact that we won a contract to supply the entire Afghan army was totally bizarre.”

But the driving force was always money.  Phillips confirms, “It’s very clear in the movie: they are not necessarily pro-war.  It’s not about who’s fighting or why they’re fighting, it’s about how much product can they move.  So war is really just an opportunity for them.  And that’s a true thing.  War is an economy.  There is an underbelly to it where a lot of people make a lot of money and these two guys are just trying to get in on that.”

As incredible as the actual circumstances were, Phillips emphasizes, “This isn’t a documentary.  He and co-writers Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin took both dramatic—and comedic—license. 

“There was a lot that happened that wasn’t in the movie or was changed,” Packouz attests, “but life is always more complicated than depicted in Hollywood movies.  You can’t fit years of life into a couple of hours, so that’s to be expected.  But I love the script; it’s fast-paced and entertaining.”

In working on the screenplay, Chin spent some time with Packouz in Miami.  He notes, “America may be the land of opportunity, but David had figured out early on that hard work alone was not going to make him rich.  I believe that’s why ‘Scarface,’ which was also set in Miami, was such an important movie to them growing up.  It became their idea of the American dream—if they had the big idea, hustled hard enough and didn’t play by the rules, they could snatch it.  So it didn’t surprise me that two ambitious young guys had figured out how to game the system, especially in the internet age.  What did surprise me was the size of the contract and how close they came to pulling it off.”

Phillips reveals that they decided early on to tell the story from Packouz’s perspective, noting, “We realized the best way into this story was through David’s eyes.  David represents the everyman stepping into this world he knew nothing about, much like the audience.”

Smilovic adds, “David was our way into the movie, not only to communicate the present-tense narrative but also all of the past-tense baggage.  And for the audience to invest in him—and, frankly, not to think he’s an idiot—they need to be invested in the relationship between these two guys…to believe the friendship is genuine.”

“A lot of my movies end up focusing on male relationships,” Phillips comments.  “There is an undercurrent of real love when you have true friends.  You feel it with the guys in ‘The Hangover’ and in ‘Old School,’ and I was trying to do the same thing in this movie because I always think that’s interesting.”

Cooper, who shared in Phillips’ brand of camaraderie as part of the infamous Wolfpack, observes, “‘War Dogs’ feels very much like a natural progression in Todd’s evolution as a filmmaker because you have male characters that don’t feel so far away from his wheelhouse, yet there’s an edginess that takes it to the next level.  The great thing about Todd is he’s always had his finger on the pulse of what’s cool.  He can take a story with a dark texture and give it a patina that makes it humorous and exciting.”

Working under Phillips’ direction for the first time, both Hill and Teller say they were drawn to the project by the opportunity to collaborate with him, as well as the screenplay. 

“When Todd gave me the script, it was genuinely too good to pass up,” Hill says, “and getting to finally work with Todd was the exciting bonus of the whole thing.  We’d talked about doing something together in the past, but for whatever reason, it never worked out.  ‘War Dogs’ came at the right moment, and I’m really glad it did.”

Teller states, “Todd is the definition of a filmmaker to me; he’s so good at what he does.  As an actor, you want to feel you’re in good hands and that’s how I felt every day.  And I loved the script; it was just as dramatic as it was funny, with action, suspense and even a bit of espionage.”

“It has a lot of different elements, and that’s what’s good about it,” Hill adds.  “I think it will subvert people’s expectations and get them talking about it, and that’s awesome.”

“The subject matter is ripe for discussion,” Cooper agrees.  “Our goal was to tell a compelling story in an entertaining way, but you never know the kind of conversations it might spark.  It’s a movie people could be talking about and debating long after they leave the theatre because the story has so many layers and is still very much in step with the times in which we live.  I think people will find it especially interesting that the program that started it all is still very much in effect.”

“War Dogs” unfolds on a global scale, so it was important to Phillips to make the film on an international stage.  He affirms, “When you’re on location, I really believe it informs everyone involved.  It informs the cinematographer, the production and costume designers, the actors…  To me, the environment is a huge tool, and this is one movie where we really took that to another level.”

Filming took place on location in Miami Beach, Las Vegas, Morocco, Romania, and Southern California.  Phillips offers, “I really wanted to convey the scope of international arms dealers, international being the key word.”