Todd Phillips sits in a London hotel, feet up, coolly puffing away on his e-cigarette. He looks more like an American on holiday than a tired film director on the junket trail for his new movie, but Phillips has good reason to look content: the crime drama War Dogs is easily his best film in years.
A decidedly Scorsese-esque film based on a pair of Miami hustlers who make a fortune selling guns to the US military, it has more than a few comic flourishes – as you’d expect from the director of Due Date and the Hangover trilogy – but War Dogs also has something serious and troubling to say about the way governments and corporations generate wealth through conflict.
Miles Teller is a superb hub for the movie, playing a directionless 20-something who goes from a penniless dropout to multimillionaire, but Jonah Hill is its stand-out. As arms dealer Efraim Diveroli, he’s charismatic, manipulative, fearless and faintly psychotic. His turn in War Dogs goes alongside his performances in Cyrus, Moneyball and The Wolf Of Wall Street as the best in his career so far – his acting is big and broad, but also grounded in something real and disturbing.
Ahead of War Dogs’ worldwide release, here’s what Phillips has to say about making his crime drama, and turning Jonah Hill and Bradley Cooper – the latter has a small yet pivotal role as a shady gun-runner – into two of the most sinister villains of 2016.
I found Jonah Hill’s performance terrifying, which I wasn’t expecting.
How did you go about dramatising that character? Did you and Jonah talk about his psychological makeup?
It was a tonne of discussions and working with Jonah. And of course the writing process – coming up with this character. I tell you, the good thing about making a movie like this, even though it’s based on a true story, is that it’s not Lincoln, it’s not the Mohammed Ali story. Nobody knows who these two guys are. So Jonah’s able to come in and colour the character in a specific way, and it isn’t necessarily the way the character is in real life. It’s very liberating to be able to do that, and really create a movie character. We’re not making a documentary. While the events of the story are hopefully fairly accurate, the character itself you have some freedom with.
He’s that perfect storm of confidence and manipulativeness.
Yeah, and swagger. But you’re right. It’s always fun to see an actor like Jonah play somebody who is supremely confident. I don’t know a lot of people who are that supremely confident, and Jonah certainly isn’t in real life, and I’m not. So to embody that is really fun for an actor, and really memorable for a character.
That’s the interesting thing isn’t it? There’s two sides to it; like I said, he’s kind of the villain of the movie, but also there’s the envy side. A bit like when you watch something like Goodfellas, where you think, “God, I wish I could walk in somewhere and snap my fingers…”
Yes! Exactly. Those are the most magnetic characters, and they’re always found in gangster movies. Even though this isn’t a gangster movie – this is a wannabe gangster movie, which is, these guys worship Scarface, they are of that ilk in a certain way.
Isn’t it interesting, the cultural half-life of Scarface? That it’s survived for as long as it has? It’s 33 years old, isn’t it? And yet gangster rappers love it, students love it. I used to love it.
Yeah, people love it. It’s a very aspirational movie, you know, even though it probably shouldn’t be. But it’s exactly what you said: it’s like, you have to love Tony Montana. He’s so magnetic and so charismatic. Particularly, with regards to our story, I know a lot of kids who grew up on Miami Beach, and all those kids worshipped Scarface because that was their movie. it’s one of the only movies shot in Miami.
I was gonna say, it’s a local movie!
…So they felt like they owned it, you know? They owned it. So that’s very much how it found its way into our story. It felt like something these guys would worship the way my friends who grow up there worshipped it.
You might get asked this a lot, but is this the kind of film that’s slightly more difficult to get made these days?
Yeah. It’s a great question. And it is. This is not… listen, if I hadn’t made three Hangover movies and Due Date for Warner Bros, it probably wouldn’t have gotten made. If I’d taken the script to Paramount, where I never made a movie, they probably wouldn’t do it. But the one good thing about those movies is, they made $1.7bn, and what happens in Hollywood is, you have goodwill. But the goodwill is perishable, so you have to use it… you know?
You have to spend it wisely.
You have a cinematographer, Lawrence Sher, who you work with a lot.
Your films well shot in way that comedies generally aren’t.
Thank you. We take this very seriously. I mean, to me, I see enough movies that look like TV shows – and by the way, TV shows nowadays look great too – but you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do.
And part of the fun of making a movie, and this is my 10th movie, so… every time I do a movie, I try to make it more cinematic as a filmmaker.
I remember watching Due Date and being really struck by the way it was shot.
Oh, thanks. I love the look of that movie, too.
With comedies, there’s a tendency to put a character in the centre of the frame.
Well, what happens is, so many people do improvisation. And if we were to do improv, if we were doing this, suddenly we have a camera here, a camera there and a camera there. We never shoot with three cameras, we shoot with one camera like a normal movie. So we don’t do a lot of improvisation – we shoot it like a film.
They do coverage.
They just do coverage! That’s what I meant by them ending up looking like television shows, because that’s how you’d shoot a sitcom, you know? But we try not to do that.
What was your approach to shooting this, given that it’s quite a dark drama rather than a pure comedy?
We don’t do a tonne of storyboarding even on the action stuff, because you still want it to feel loose. But you basically prepare for total mayhem – but that’s every movie, you know? You meticulously prepare to throw away what you’ve prepared and just shoot from the hip.
You started in documentaries, didn’t you?
I did, yeah.
Did going from that to comedies affect the way you approach your filmmaking?
The documentaries I made weren’t necessarily newsworthy – they had a comic slant to them. They were very Nick Broomfield in style, if you know who that is.
Oh yeah, absolutely.
So he was always my inspiration when I was a young filmmaker.
This film has a comic edge, but it says something serious in a funny way. I wondered what you thought about what it says about privatisation of something like the military.
I think it’s what the movie’s about. People might see it and say, “These guys were bad,” and you go, yeah, but to me the movie’s an indictment of the US government and the Pentagon, and their willingness to look the other way when it’s convenient for them. And when it’s inconvenient, they’re hung out to dry. These guys became fall guys for that.
In some ways, Jonah’s character is a normal businessman.
Yeah, he’s a hustler. I said this to someone before because they asked me about gun control. I said, “Look, these guys would sell potato chips to the government if the government wanted potato chips.” They didn’t care what they were selling. It just happened to be that they found a loophole and an angle. They got in on something that was really profitable for them. But they didn’t care about the politics of the war. They didn’t care which side they were arming. In a perfect world, they’d be arming both sides.
I re-read the article on the way over here and I was struck by how close it is in a lot of ways.
Thank you, because we did some press with Guy Lawson in New York, he’s the writer of the article. Somebody asked him what he thought of the movie and he said that what impressed him most was how journalistic the approach was – how it stayed on-story even more than he thought it would. So I’m glad you noticed that.
There are certain lines that have strong echoes of the article. One character who has been fictionalised, though, is Henry [Bradley Cooper’s character].
Yeah, he’s a bit of an amalgamation of two characters. I mean, you do that sometimes in a movie – it’s the economy of storytelling, you know. So that character is inspired by somebody, but he’s also a little bit of our own creation.
That was another great performance from Bradley Cooper.
Yeah, Bradley’s the best. Bradley walks on the set and I’m just [breathes out]. I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m so comfortable with him – I’ve made three movies with him of course. This is the fourth. But he’s just the best.
Whose idea were the glasses? Because somehow they make him look really sinister.
That was my idea! I remember I emailed him a picture of Jeffrey Dahmer [infamous serial killer]!
Oh yeah! Of course. I hadn’t made that connection.
I said, “We need these glasses. Forget who’s under the glasses. Ignore that. But look at Jeffrey Dahmer’s glasses.” I wanted him to wear these glasses with the really heavy prescription, and Bradley wrote back, “Let’s do it.” The problem is, he’s staring through these glasses all day long, and he has the worst headache by the end of the day, because you can’t fake that prescription. So he’s looking through, basically, a legally blind prescription. His eyes are all big and weird, so it throws him off a little.
He looks terrifying.
Yeah, I agree.
So what do you think more generally about the filmmaking landscape in 2016? The summer season’s over, and it’s a relief to see something like this, frankly.
You know, it’s tough. Because everyone says they want something different, everyone says they’re sick of sequels and sick of comic book movies, but then you make something different and they don’t show up. I understand it from the studio’s perspective. It’s like, “Hey man, this is pretty much a guaranteed sure bet in a business where nothing’s a sure bet.”
A movie I really liked this year was The Nice Guys. I thought it was really well done, and well written, and well directed, and well acted – and nobody saw it, in the States at least. And that gets you nervous because, I thought you wanted original stories. This is a purely original movie, and you’re complaining about the number two, number three movie out there. And, you know, it’s tough. It’s a weird time in the movie business for sure.
Todd Phillips, thank you very much.
War Dogs is out on the 19th August.