Opening this weekend Todd Phillips fantastic new film, War Dogs, and it’s based on one of the craziest true stories of the last few years: Two twenty-something stoners won a $300 million contract with the Pentagon to supply America’s allies in Afghanistan with arms. And before you go thinking that couldn’t have happened, it did. The film is based on the Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson (later expanded into a book) titled “The Stoner Arms Dealers: How Two American Kids Became Big-Time Weapons Traders.” In the film, Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, and we watch how two ambitious young men become weapons traders for the U.S. government, landing multimillion-dollar arms contracts and living the high life before everything comes crashing down. It’s easily Phillips best work since the first Hangover and I definitely recommend checking it out in theaters this weekend. War Dogs also stars Bradley Cooper and Ana de Armas. For more on the film, read Matt’s review.
At the New York City press day I landed an exclusive interview with Todd Phillips. During our wide-ranging conversation he talked about how the project came together, what he learned from test screenings, editing the film down from his first cut to the finished film, Jonah Hill’s awesome performance and what it took to get him in the film, making the movie at a price, why he won’t use digital cameras on his next project, wanting to make a fucked up biopic, his love of Noah Hawley’s Fargo, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
Collider: I’m gonna start by saying how much I like this movie. Jumping in I want to start with the editing stuff, how long was your first cut of this?
TODD PHILLIPS: It was probably about 2 hours 15 min, which is about right, because the end is what, 1:55? Yeah it’s 1 hour and 55 min, so it was probably 20 minutes longer in the first cut.
Is that an assembly cut or is that your first cut that you could show?
PHILLIPS: Assembly doesn’t count, I don’t watch assemblies, we don’t do it like that; we just start on reel one scene one and we got in order. So we don’t really do assemblies, so my cut was probably 20 minutes longer.
So you have that cut and then you’re showing it to friends and family?
PHILLIPS: Yeah. I show it to some people involved in the movie, show it to Bradley [Cooper], show it to some people I trust at Warner [Bros.] like friends of mine that have been there for so long and they’re guys I trust; and other editors and people I know, writers.
So with the 2 hours 15 minutes cut I’m sure you’re hearing positive feedback.
Then what happens from the 2:15 to get it to the 1:55?
PHILLIPS: Well, I wasn’t trying to get it to that, I always like movies that are really tight, personally. My movies tend to move pretty quickly, so it was just taking things out where you’re…Oddly enough I have a paranoia about people not understanding the movie, any movie, so I’m always maybe over explaining. So when you show it to people they go, “You don’t need to hit the nail on the head with that, we got that, you have a whole other scene where you’re explaining that but people understand it.” So you start realizing, “Oh good, I can take that out” you start just thinning it out.
Let’s talk about honest feedback, do the people you out in that room at the beginning really being honest with you, or are they sometimes hesitant to say things?
PHILLIPS: No, I think I’m a pretty open-minded guy and the people I’m putting in that room are friends of mine and, for example, Bradley Cooper who’s a producer on the movie is going to be brutally honest, he’s a producer on the movie and wants the movie to be as good as possible. I’m not looking to be patted on the back, you’re looking for feedback and they know that. Sometimes it’s the opposite, sometimes they give too much because they don’t want to come off as “Yes Men”, not Bradley but other people. So sometimes you feel like they’re over critical in a way, you just have to find the balance. And really you don’t know until you put it in front of 400 strangers which is obviously the test screening process which I do on every movie, and so really we didn’t know what we had until we put it in I think we did it Alhambra the first time and that’s when you’re really getting honest feedback because those people don’t give a shit they’re just coming to a free movie and they just either liked it or didn’t.
When you showed that first test screening, had you brought it down to under 2 hours?
PHILLIPS: I think it was probably literally only five minutes longer.
How did you do with that first test screening?
PHILLIPS: We did really, really well. In fact it was oddly our best test screening, the next one went down a little, and then we were done. So we didn’t do a ton of them, and when I say a little I was like, “Oh that’s interesting” and we kind of went back to the Alhambra cut and that was basically the movie.
That’s funny because often times you speak to people, directors, and when you’re so close to the material…I’ve spoken to people that sometimes have to be reminded not to cut out something because they think it no longer works because for whatever reason they get in their own head, so they have to keep on reminding them, new audiences to remind them it worked.
PHILLIPS: I think when we did that first test screening that should’ve been enough, this movie didn’t need a lot, I just get obsessive and think, “Whoa that was a pretty good score, maybe we can get it better and take this out and do that and change that” and then, like I said, it goes down a little and you go, “Oh, no, no. That was what we had, let’s go back to that.”
I think Jonah [Hill] is one of the most talented actors working right now, he’s real good, the same with Miles [Teller], but for me though Jonah is like he’s operating on another level. Talk about getting Jonah in the film, because I know he’s selective with projects.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, Jonah turned down The Hangover by the way, Jonah is known to be very selective which I admire in him, and I actually like actors who are really careful about their choices and thoughtful about their careers. But like you I think that Jonah is fucking electric, he vibrates off the screen every time I see him in a movie, I don’t know what it is but you kind of can’t take your eyes off him. We wrote this script with Jonah in mind so I was gonna just do whatever it took to get him, he actually turned it down at first because he was just finishing Wolf of Wall Street –we’ve been working on this project for a while– and he turned it down because he didn’t want the character to be too close to Wolf of Wall Street, and we went down other avenues, rewrote the script a little bit, came back to him six months later and I said, “Just read this new draft. I really think you’re gonna dig this, you really gotta play this guy” and he came onboard and I was really happy because he is one of those actors who is just additive to the roles that he chooses.
Talk a little bit about what you’re thinking if he says no.
PHILLIPS: I mean, I had other choices, we would’ve went down another road. But I don’t mean to say –If Will Smith chose to play Neo in The Matrix it’s a different movie, right? So there are always different movies, directors have a lot of tools with which to paint with, no tool is more effective than the casting, so that’s a biggie.
I was just talking to another person who was telling me what he wanted to cast and what the studio ended up casting, and it’s so interesting because the director wanted to do something and that would’ve been a way different movie, and the studio ended up putting a cast in and the film was not good.
PHILLIPS: Interesting. I’ve done enough movies where the studio doesn’t weigh in so much on casting, and I don’t mean that in a braggy way, I just mean ultimately when they work or don’t work it’s my fault at this point.
I would imagine after the Hangover movies you had a lot of choices in terms of you’ve delivered money to Warner Bros. and they’re filmmaker friendly so I’m sure there are many scripts that you were being offered. Was there a project that came close to going besides War Dogs?
PHILLIPS: No, because I don’t really take scripts like that. I always write or rewrite my own movies, and like I had said in the press conference, I read this article when we were shooting Hangover 2 and became interested in it. So I kind of set my sights on one thing and I go and do that, it wasn’t that there were four other things I was weighing. I was amazed at directors that have four things and can choose one to go and go, “I’ll do this one” I kind of focus on one thing and just see it through. But you’re not wrong, and the interesting thing about War Dogs and one of the reasons I hope it does well, and I’m not just talking selfishly, the reason you hope The Big Short does well, the reason you hope Nice Guys does well is because it’s not a sequel, it’s not a superhero movie, and it’s tough to get those movies made nowadays because audiences aren’t necessarily showing up. So I had made three Hangover movies for Warner Bros., I had made Due Date, those movies put together…We made four movies in five years that did a ton of business, and what I learned is you have goodwill at the studio but that the goodwill is perishable, it could go away. Studio heads change, history changes, so you must use that goodwill when you have it.
Absolutely. Ultimately it comes down to that a lot of people lose sight of the fact that it’s a business. Movie making at this scale is a business and you hope that you’re able to mix art and commerce in a way that you can keep making properties.
PHILLIPS: That you’re interested in, exactly.
Talk a little bit about doing this at the budget you had, I don’t know what you spent and you don’t have to tell me.
PHILLIPS: It was a reasonable budget of 42 million, for a movie like this. For a studio movie I know it sounds like an enormous amount of money…
You did the first Hangover for 35 I think.
PHILLIPS: Yeah, 32 actually. So this was 42, it’s ten years later and this obviously has much more scope as far as just travel goes but it’s not an expensive movie in relation to studio movies. I realize that’s a huge amount of money but in relation to studio budgets it’s pretty decent, so to do it at that meant we were – You see we shot in five different countries, and to do that you’re not traveling with your entire crew obviously, so you take your core 10 guys and women and you just land in morocco and hire a local crew and cross your fingers. There’s a way to do these movies and travel the world at a budget still, or at a price I should say.
I will tell you it is very impressive you pulled off this film at that budget, because that isn’t a lot of money when you’re talking about what you’re trying to accomplish with the scope of this film.
PHILLIPS: Yeah it’s got some scope and Larry [Lawrence Sher] my DP and my production designer are a huge part of that obviously.
I think that you used practical locations so you’re not…
PHILLIPS: 90% practical.
Right well like that apartment building in Miami, that’s a real place, that’s not some studio.
PHILLIPS: I know people think it’s green screen because it’s so clear outside but that’s just if you choose the right time of day to shoot you’re gonna actually get it to look like that.
Right and a lot of people don’t know, and I’m gonna mention a superhero movie, but Deadpool, they made that for 55 million. And that’s because they did it with all practical locations, except for some green screen obviously but…
PHILLIPS: And I bet you of that 55, 25 of that was spent in visual effects, at least.
Well, that number doesn’t include the fact that Tim [Miller] owns Blur.
PHILLIPS: Oh, there you go. That makes total sense, I didn’t know that. So that really should’ve been a 100 million dollar movie.
If I was a betting man I’d say he put 5 or 10 million of Blur’s money to make it look good.
PHILLIPS: Good for him.
But I mean, that’s his calling card, that’s his movie. You know, his first film, he now gets to do whatever the fuck he wants. Talk a little bit about what camera you chose, are you using film, digital?
PHILLIPS: This is the first movie I did it digitally, and that had a lot to do with the fact that we were running around to so many countries and we were a little bit worried about all the film and the film stock and the consistency. Larry really talked me into it…
So you were against it.
PHILLIPS: I was against it, honestly on my next movie I won’t do it again, I would shoot film again. It’s just something about film, and I’m not trying to be a snob, but my basic reason for it is actually really dumb but there’s a part of magic that’s lost when you shoot digitally. When you’re literally seeing exactly what you’re gonna see in the movie theater, most directors would go, “That’s perfect, so much control” and I’m going, “Where’s the magic part where you look at dailies the next day and you’re like, “Aww”.” So there’s a piece of magic I always feel like gets lost shooting digitally, and there are other reasons I have for it too but…
I saw you at CinemaCon talking to the theater owners…
PHILLIPS: They’re my boys.
Please, the movie theater is my church, my temple, it’s where I shut everything off, and watching films on a phone to me is blasphemy. But I’m not 15 and growing up with an iPhone, so it’s a new generation…
PHILLIPS: I know and I hate to sound like an old man but the real reason for me is when I’m directing a movie, the audience’s experience is part of that. In other words, when we were shooting The Hangover and I go, “There’s gonna be 400 people laughing at this moment”, it’s part of the soundtrack of the movie. So if you’re watching it alone at home I promise The Hangover isn’t gonna be as funny as it is on Universal City Walk on a Friday night or a Saturday night; I know that, I’ve seen it on HBO. So you try to preserve as much as possible of the theatrical experience, like is said I don’t mean to sound like and old man, but there is something to that where I just think that it’s part of the soundtrack of a film.
I wanna talk about balancing fact versus fiction with the material. The fact is you’re basing this on very real people, very real events, but you’re also making a movie, and you gotta entertain people and justify the 40 million dollars that you’re spending to make this film. Talk a little bit about where did you decide the line was in terms of what you could exaggerate and what needed to be completely accurate?
PHILLIPS: A great writer once said, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.” And what that meant to me was, as long as you’re delivering the picture and the story and as long as you’re getting to the essence of what the movie is about, it’s ok to…You’re not a documentary filmmaker in this case, I’ve made documentaries, you’re not making a documentary and we don’t want to ever pretend that we did. This is certainly based on a true story, but like I said in the press conference, we’re not making a movie about Ray Charles or Abraham Lincoln, these are guys that while it’s a story that may be known and probably most people don’t know it, they’re not guys that are known. So we and the actors really took advantage of bringing their own characteristics to the characters, bringing the swagger that Jonah brought to Efraim. So I didn’t feel so beholden to that. But as Guy said in the press conference, as a piece of journalism it’s fairly…He was happy with how accurate it was.
The other thing is you’re shining a light on wars’ money.
PHILLIPS: Right. I think there’s been a lot of movies made about war, there’s been a lot of movies made about soldiers and patriotism and how important what they do is, but there haven’t been a lot of movies made about the small amount of people that make a large amount of money off of war. And I think it’s an interesting to be talking about.
Absolutely, and in the beginning of the film you’re shining a light on what it costs to outfit someone, per person. So it’s like keeping the air conditioning on, I thought that was a fucking great fact that they don’t even think about. When you were scripting this thing and coming up with the story you want to tell was there something that you cut out as a result of budget, or because you didn’t think you could fit it in the story?
PHILLIPS: Yeah, there were definitely things you change and make compromises on. We wanted to shoot at an arms convention in Dubai, and it just proved to be too expensive. That arms convention we do in Vegas, they hold one in Dubai every two years and they also hold one in Vegas called “The Shot Show”, which is what we based ours on. But the one in Dubai is actually really unbelievable, and we were gonna be able to shoot –or that was the idea– but it just proved too expensive. So you just have to make certain adjustments and that’s just the compromise of making a film on a certain budget.
You went to the Dubai arms show?
When you’re walking around there, what did you see that just floored you?
PHILLIPS: Well what floors you is just the quantity, it’s like when you’re floored for the first time at Comic-Con at the vastness of it. So picture that but every single thing you’re looking at literally costs hundreds of millions of dollars. I mean, there are tanks, and planes, and there’s stuff in there that just blows your mind. So really what blows you away is just the size of it.
Yeah I can’t even…We’re talking like a trillion dollars…
PHILLIPS: Right, it’s insane.
I know you hate talking about future projects, so I’m not gonna talk about future projects.
PHILLIPS: Thank you.
But I am curious about genres that you have not worked in, like areas that as a filmmaker you would like to explore.
PHILLIPS: An area I would love to explore is a really fucked up, a genuinely fucked up, biopic, and I don’t consider this a biopic at all, but a genuinely fucked up biopic. I have a couple of things in mind that I’m looking at that I think could be really cool.
Let me do a follow-up, one of my problems with biopics is that most of them try to do too much…
PHILLIPS: Listen, I’ve said this from day one, a biopic to me should be at most spanned 12 years of a person’s life. You don’t need to start everyone as a baby, growing up, etc. I couldn’t agree with you more. And what I meant by truly fucked up is a truly new take hopefully on that genre of biopics.
The other thing about biopics is a lot of times the subject you’re covering doesn’t want anyone to see the gray. Ultimately they want to be redeemed, they wanna show that maybe they have a drinking problem, but no drug problem, they want a PG-13 kind of safe version.
PHILLIPS: Not the one that I’m working on, but I hear you.
The other thing is television right now is the best it’s ever been.
PHILLIPS: Yes, I agree with you.
It’s unbelievable, and is there an element with like a biopic or telling a more extended version…Because sometimes you get into someone’s story and you’re like, “That’s gonna be a great two hour movie, but it would be an amazing six hour miniseries.” So how do you judge what format, and also is there a story or are you interested in the television format knowing the creative freedom of HBO?
PHILLIPS: I love really good television, like everybody. The thing that blew me away most recently and I’m a little behind and late to the party because I’ve been working on a movie so I don’t watch anything, but I just watched about two months ago both seasons of Fargo, and it blew my…That might be the best thing I’ve seen on TV. I literally called-up Noah Hawley the creator ad just said, “Can I just have lunch with you?” I had no reason to have lunch with him except to just say, “You blew my fucking mind” [Laughs], literally, and we did and I spent an hour and a half just telling him how he blew my fucking mind because I couldn’t believe how good that show was. I couldn’t believe how well he captured probably one of the top three filmmakers out there, the Coen brothers, how well he captured their tone and how well he weaved in other Coen brothers movies into the two seasons. So I look at that and I just get like, “Fuck this shit. How do you beat that?”
That’s what I’m saying it’s the best it’s ever been.
PHILLIPS: I know, and part of why TV is so good is…And I’m not taking away from it, but part of why it is so good is you get to spend so much time falling in love with these characters. To spend 60 hours with Tony Soprano is just gonna be…When you have minds like that working on the show and you have actors like that who were in that show, it’s just gonna be fucking phenomenal.
I agree. I also think that the limited series nature of cable, the eight episodes, ten episodes, you look at network television and there’s a reason it’s shit. When you’re 22 episodes in…
PHILLIPS: How do you do it?
PHILLIPS: What I love about Fargo is the anthologyness of it. It’s that that’s it, that story exists on its own. I know there are connections obviously but it’s like, “Boom!” ten episodes and then we move to something else.
War Dogs opens in theaters this weekend.