- 19 Aug 16
Based on an extraordinary true life tale, Todd Phillips' latest film War Dogs is a black comedy about the international arms trade. He talks about truth being stronger than fiction, the rise of Donald Trump and hanging with Bono and Tom Cruise.
War Dogs, the latest film from Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips, tells the extraordinary true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz (played by, respectively, Jonah Hill and Miles Teller), two friends from Miami who managed to become major international arms dealers, courtesy of public contract auctions on the Pentagon website.
While the film does manage to convey some of the reasons behind America’s dysfunctional relationship with guns – in particular thanks to Diveroli’s Scarface fixation – the director maintains that it isn’t a comment on the hot topic of weapons control in the US.
“These guys could have been selling potato chips to the government,” says the friendly and hugely engaging Phillips, between drags on an e-cigarette, in his room at Claridges in London. “I don’t think they had an affinity with guns. Efraim took to it more than David, who doesn’t touch a gun in the movie. In terms of Efraim’s fascination with Scarface, that’s different – every kid in the world is fascinated with Scarface. In particular, if you know anyone who grew up in Miami, which I do, it’s a very interesting movie. It was filmed in Miami, and not a lot of films were, so Scarface was their movie, it belonged to them.
“All the kids I knew who grew up in Miami have this weird thing about the film,” he adds. “They think they’re gangsters, that it’s their movie and so on. So that’s really what we were conveying. It wasn’t so much about fascination with guns.”
War Dogs was adapted from a Rolling Stone article by journalist Guy Lawson, which Phillips read whilst on a plane to Bangkok to film The Hangover Part III. When you consider that some of the finest films of 2016 have been documentaries, and that American Crime Story – based on the OJ Simpson case – has been the best TV show of the year, stories about real life events have definitely been in the ascendant of late.
“Well, I actually started my career making documentaries,” notes Phillips. “I had a company back then called Stranger Than Fiction, and it’s always been something that’s attracted me. Even the movies that I love in real life, they often have that element. David O. Russell, for example, makes great truth-is-stranger-than-fiction movies. I do think that as we get more superhero movies and sequels, there is a certain audience who crave something real. Also, there is a thing now, at least in the States, where people are starting to realise that the system is rigged.
“Whether it’s The Big Short or Money Monster, or even this movie, people are making films about that idea. I mean, that’s what Donald Trump is running on, even though he couldn’t be more part of the system.”
What does Phillips make of the whole Trump phenomenon?
“It’s embarrassing,” he replies, shaking his head. “It’s particularly embarrassing when you go overseas. Americans travel with a lot of baggage – we carry the country with us – and you’re probably smart enough to know that not everyone is represented by Donald Trump, or gun nuts. It’s just horrifying to be honest with you.”
Do you know anyone who supports him?
“Jonah and I were talking last night, and he mentioned that he knows someone who does,” says Phillips. “It was like someone saying they have a unicorn. I’m like, ‘You do?!’ The one good thing you could say about Trump, if you look at it with an open mind, is that he has made it possible to not be part of the political system, and enter in a serious way. All we’ve had for the last however many years are the Clintons and the Bushes. Obama’s great, but he was always a politician. Trump’s not a politician, so maybe three cycles from now some genius, great person will enter because Trump did it, but actually be somebody brilliant.”
While there are fine performances in War Dogs by Teller, and Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas as his wife Iz, the heart of the film is the powerhouse turn by Hill. Indeed, it’s the actor’s finest effort since The Wolf Of Wall Street, in which he delivered one of the greatest comedic performances of the decade so far. Phillips says that one of the joys of working with actors like Hill and Robert Downey Jr – whom he directed in Due Date – is that while they are demanding, it’s all in service of the film.
“The goal is always to improve the script,” he says. “As opposed to complaining about the size of their trailer, which does happen. I mean, it’s the typical clichéd Hollywood stuff, but you do have to deal with that occasionally. But yeah, we wrote this movie with Jonah in mind. In many ways, the movies he’s done, and the baggage he brings, identifies the tone of this movie. The ability to jump between drama and comedy, and that swagger the character has, he’s very at home with all of that. And once Jonah came on board, then I started casting the other parts.”
With that, it’s time for Hot Press to head back to Dublin, although not before Phillips has shared an anecdote about the city’s most famous son.
“I did meet Bono once, fleetingly,” he recalls. “A friend of mine who ran NBC invited me down to Saturday Night Live. When we were going to the after-party, I got put in the same limo as Bono, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and Lorne Michaels. It was the most random thing. I was totally blown away by it. I didn’t say a single word!”