Thanks to Todd Philips, Jonah Hill is fist bumping South African arms dealers in cafes and Miles Teller is selling calculators.
On a drowsy Sunday morning we sat down for the War Dogs press conference, where director Todd Philips and stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller spoke about their new film. The adaptation of a true story, based on the actions of online arms dealers David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, is Philip’s first foray into blending comedy and true crime drama. The film was based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article which was later turned into a New York Times bestseller.
What made you guys want to tell this story?
Todd Philips: When I read Guy’s article I couldn’t believe it was a real story. Sometimes you read an article and think this is a movie. And you look into it and unwind it and find out, no this is meant to be an article. We looked into Guy’s article and unwound it and it just became more and more of a movie.
Jonah Hill: I read the article and tried to get the rights to it, but Todd’s company had already done so [laughs]. The irony is that I ended up making it when I was 32, but at the time the article came out I was in my mid 20s. Usually the great stories are about people who are older because they’ve lived their life and accomplished more incredible things, but when there is an interesting story about someone your age — especially when you are younger — you’re like that’s crazy. There aren’t many of these.
Miles Teller: Similarly when you are looking for scripts for characters your own age, they don’t usually have the responsibility that Jonah usually see in parts that are written older. They didn’t have as much to use and they have this bravado and ignorance that pushed them forward. I always wanted to work with Todd. He produced a film (Project X) I worked on years before and I really enjoy him as a filmmaker.
Could you talk about your own entrepreneurial leanings? Have you ever fantasized about starting a business?
MT: When I was in high school my buddies and I found a spot where you could find graphing calculators pretty cheap. There was a good profit margin there. We were like black market dealing calculators to all our geometry friends.
TP: When I was at NYU film school I drove a taxi for two years. I felt like I owned my own business with that taxi.
JH: I did this job so I would never have to start a business. Todd would know more about this than I would, but every time you direct a movie it feels like you are building a temporary business. You are hiring the heads of departments. It feels like I’m the CEO of a very temporary company.
What is your process so you don’t spawn copy cats? It’s the kind of film young kids may take a liking to.
TP: I don’t think that’s a bad thing in this case. These kids didn’t do anything wrong except for being railroaded by the government. I would think it’s a cool thing if it instills entrepreneurship in young people. They are not dealing drugs. They are not killing people. They ran a very valid business and made some bad decisions in the end.
Did you two (Jonah and Miles) have the opportunity to get together much before you started shooting to work out your characters without Todd around? Was there time to do that?
JH: No. Miles was coming from another film. I got a lot of time with Todd to work on Efraim because I’m taking more time in between movies now. What’s interesting is these are two people who are close but haven’t seen each other for a long time. Miles came over to my house and we got to get to know each other, but really we got to bond when we started the movie in Romania. It was the three of us in Romania, which is not an English speaking country, so you get to know each other very quickly.
MT: That’s all true. You bond when you are waking up at 2 a.m. in a country and don’t know anyone or anything.
Todd, were you specifically looking for something more serious than The Hangover movies?
TP: It wasn’t a conscious decision that I want to make an evolution in this direction, it was just a story that appealed to me. It’s tonally different than movies I’ve done before in that it’s dramatic and comedic and that mirrors real life more. In that I feel like how many days do you have that are purely dramatic, how many days do you have that are purely comedic? That’s what real life feels like.
Can you talk about the challenges of getting in the heads of these characters?
JH: It wasn’t that fun a lot of the time to play this character. I remember we were in Romania and I was really bummed out. I told Todd, I was just sad playing this guy. He said, but he’s such a great big character. It’s just hard when you are someone who’s hurting a lot of people or deceiving people who trust you, not to bring some of that home with you. He’s so fun on the outside but is really covering up these bad things he’s doing.
MT: When the movie starts, David is completely unaware of what this business model is. He acts as the audience, so as Efraim is explaining it to David the audience begins to understand the infrastructure of what they are going to do. He starts off the movie pretty aimless and directionless, which doesn’t seem all that long ago.
Has the experience of making this film changed your world view at all?
JH: I’m not very political. I don’t play very close attention. I’ll read articles in The Times. It was a really eye-opening experience as war as an economy and what our government does.
MT: It was interesting to see it as a business model and see people profit on it. Some of my best friends are military so I look at it on a much more personal level and not as globally.
Did you interact with any of the real guys, David or Efraim?
MT: David was on set. He has a small role in the film. He was the guy playing guitar in the retirement home singing “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
JH: We met David. I was at a restaurant this week and two young guys who were dressed similarly to these characters in their heyday of wealth came up to me and said “we are South African arms dealers and we can’t wait to see the movie.” He gave me a fist bump and I didn’t want to fist bump him. I tried to ask them more about their business and they immediately deflected. If you play someone in a certain world, people will misinterpret that as support of that world or occupation. So I’m sure that will play a role in my continued travels.
War Dogs comes to theaters on August 19th.