Hangover director Todd Phillips brings his bromance expertise to arms-dealer drama War Dogs
Jonah Hill and Miles Teller are a couple of twenty-something guys who set out to become players in the arms trade, in a black comedy that uses entertainment to bring a serious subject to wider notice
Todd Phillips is known for films about inebriated men making bad decisions (The Hangover series), a road trip shared by a stressed out father-to-be and a lunatic wannabe actor (Due Date), and a group of grown men who start a college fraternity (Old School). His forte is showing adult men doing really, really dumb things. He is, in fact, the originator of the bromance film.
With War Dogs, Phillips again directs two men – played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller – who get pulled into a morass of trouble because they are young hotshots in the dicey weapons business.
Phillips’ latest is based on a true story, one told in a 2011 article in Rolling Stone magazine about two twenty-something guys – David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli – who came out of nowhere and won a US$300 million arms contract. The story was turned into a bestselling book, Arms and the Dudes. In the film, Bradley Cooper comes over as a sinister, and startlingly good, accomplice.
Is the subject a serious one? No doubt. Is the film funny? Absolutely. This is Phillips, after all. “The main job of a director is the purveyor of tone,” he says. “To take a movie where the tone is a little schizophrenic and deliver on that, that was the exciting part of doing it.”
The director says it wasn’t his first time with original source material. “I’ve made mistakes before, where I’ve read an article and thought, ‘this would make a great movie’. And then I dig a bit and realise it’s better off as an article. So in my head, I knew I’d gone down this road before. But the more I tinkered with the idea of a screenplay, it just got better and better. It felt right. It kept feeling more and more like a movie.”
Hill signed on to play Diveroli – the ballsy, aggressive and audacious half of the duo, a foul-mouthed, coke-sniffing weapons wunderkind who enrols his childhood schoolmate Packouz (a mild-mannered, straight-living Miles Teller) into his particular brand of lunacy. Diveroli convinces Packouz he needs to quit his dead-end jobs, and start making real money by procuring weapons for Afghan troops.
Phillips skillfully layers the plot with salient points about how war is a giant money-making machine without lecturing too heavily.
“The real David is earnest, he was selling bedsheets to retirement homes in Miami and doing massages,” says Phillips. “He runs into his best friend from school who is making a pile of money doing this weird thing he introduced him to. There was so much breaking down we had to do for the audience to understand the process, but we could do it through David because he didn’t know it either.”
While Packouz came on set and gave input to the filmmaking team (he even has a cameo), Diveroli has famously wanted nothing to do with it. That the film is told through Packouz’s eyes, in a way, makes it more relatable. “It’s very much his story,” says the director.
Fact-based feature films that are predicated on weighty or controversial subject matter have the potential to fascinate the average cinema-goer, if done well, says Phillips. He cites The Big Short – which turns the mortgage crisis of the mid-2000s into a compelling drama – as an example.
“It couldn’t be a drier topic, but [director Adam McKay] did it so well,” says Phillips. “He took something I couldn’t give a s**t about and made it palatable. I didn’t even think I’d ever know or understand anything about it. Sometimes you just have to present information in a particular way – you have to dumb it down or entertainment it up – just to get people to understand, and that’s okay.
“It’s an interesting time now, where there are a lot of movies being made that show the system is kind of rigged. That’s what this is. It’s more an indictment on the government than it is on these two guys. The s**t is just stacked up against the little guy who always takes the fall.”
Coincidentally, Hill had wanted to acquire the rights to Arms and the Dudes before realising that Phillips had got there first. The actor wasn’t initially sure that he wanted to play Diveroli. “But then I read the final version of the script, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is too good a character not to play.’ I knew I’d be bummed when I went to the cinema and saw someone else playing it,” he says.
Hill was ultimately drawn to the inherent humour – dark as it occasionally is – in the script. “What I think Todd does beautifully in this movie is he takes all this information – that war is a business – and makes it palatable to an audience.
“You’re going to get this really crazy, frightening, insane information that would normally be told very straight to you on the news, and that you may not be able to digest, and you’re going to get it served to you in an entertaining, pop-culture kind of way.”
The storyline hews pretty closely to how actual events unfolded. Teller, whose character narrates War Dogs, and who was such a revelation in 2014’s Whiplash, was drawn to the fact-based nature of the story.
“I love the words ‘based on a true story’ at the beginning of a film,” Teller says. “It buys you so much with an audience. How did these two guys, at this age and at that point in their lives, get a US$300 million dollar deal?”
Phillips was careful not to portray his stars as a couple of bumbling idiots who unwittingly get caught up in a dangerous mess: as he shows in the film, Diveroli and Packouz knew exactly what they were doing, even if one had more reservations about it than the other. The real villain, as it turns out, is the US military-industrial complex.
“Maybe there will be some accountability,” says Phillips. “It may reopen the idea that instead of blaming these two 23-year old kids, who else is in the room? Let’s look at the government. How did those guys make these decisions? They weren’t hiring these guys to arm US forces. They were hiring them to arm Afghan forces in their fight against the Taliban.
“In the best case scenario, that could be brought up and it could effect change. It’s a high bar to hope for, but who knows?”
War Dogs opens on September 1
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