The old saying goes that truth is stranger than fiction and the story behind the drama/comedy War Dogs, which arrives in theaters this Friday, couldn't be any stranger. Chances are pretty good that a fictional story about two 20-something stoners securing a $300 million arms dealing contract with the Pentagon would never make it to the screen, or as director/co-writer Todd Phillips said: "If you handed me that screenplay, I would think, 'This is cool, but it’s so unbelievable.'" Here's the twist with War Dogs, it is based on a true story.
Recently the movie's two stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, along with Phillips (the director of the mega-successful Hangover franchise) and veteran journalist Guy Lawson, who broke the real story in a 2011 Rolling Stone article (and later wrote a book entitled Arms and the Dudes, released in 2015), met with the media to discuss the film, the characters, and this bizarre saga that has to be seen to be believed.
How It All Began
Guy Lawson: [In 2008], this story was hiding on the front page of the New York Times with a picture of this cracked up ammunition and these two dudes who supposedly scammed the Pentagon and lied and cheated their way to a $300 million contract. I read the article and I was like, “That just doesn’t sound right,” so I tracked the story and met with my editors and asked them what they wanted me to write about and they said, “Find stories that have young people doing [f’d] up things." And this was it.
Todd Phillips: [In 2011], I read [Guy’s] Rolling Stone article and the thing that really attracted me to it the most was the idea that it was a real story. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it was real. Sometimes you’ll read an article and you’ll think, “This feels like a movie,” and you look into it a little bit, unwind it, and the more we looked into Guy’s article it just became more and more of a movie. Again, the thing that appealed to me the most is the idea that it was based on a real story.
Jonah Hill: I read the [Rolling Stone] article when it came out and tried to get the rights to it, but Todd’s company had already done so. The irony is that when we made the film I was 31 or 32, but at the time the article came out, I was in my 20s, and [when you’re that age] and you’re looking for stories for movies, usually the great stories are about people in their 30s or 40s because they’ve lived more life and are usually accomplishing more incredible things. But I was really attracted to how insane the story was and that the characters were my age.
Miles Teller: Similarly, when you’re looking for scripts with characters around your own age, a lot of times they don’t have the kind of responsibility that Jonah was talking about. I think these guys’ youth kind of gave them a certain bravado and a little bit of ignorance that was needed to keep pushing them along this path. But, for me, I always wanted to work with Todd and you throw in Jonah and Bradley Cooper’s gonna act in it and produce it, so I didn’t really have to juggle that. This is something that I absolutely wanted to be a part of.
Playing Flawed Characters
Jonah Hill: Fortunately, I’ve played a good amount of characters now with some pretty deep flaws [laughs]. I would say it wasn’t that fun a lot of the time to play, although it might seem like it. I remember we were in Romania and I was just really bummed out and I told Todd, “I’m just sad playing this guy.” And he was like, “But he’s such a great character” [laughs]. I guess it’s hard to play someone who is hurting a lot of people and deceiving people who trust them, not to bring some of that home with you. I definitely felt that when I was doing it, but, for me, it's just a great character and a great challenge.
Miles Teller: With David, when the movie starts, he’s completely unaware of what this business model is. The audience is beginning to understand the infrastructure of what these guys are gonna do. David starts out kind of aimless and directionless, and that’s not all that long ago [for me]. I was just really interested in the dynamic between [the two], and what that friendship was.
The Shoot Around The World
Todd Phillips: We shoot as much as possible in real locations, in real countries and cities. I always think what it brings is a sense of chaos because you’re landing in Morocco and you’re shooting the next day, and half the crew’s jet-lagged and there’s a real chaotic sensibility to that which always finds itself into the movie. I think that’s really invaluable and hard to [create] on a soundstage in L.A. We were in Jordan, we were in Morocco, we were in Romania, Miami, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, so that bouncing around creates this chaos. For me, the best place was Morocco, we shot in Casablanca and Rabat. I just love going to these countries and filming on the ground.
Jonah Hill: I think [Miles and I] really started to bond when we started making the movie because we started in Romania and it was really like just the three of us and it’s not really an English speaking country, so you really do get to kind of know each other really quickly.
Miles Teller: Usually with a movie you get a week or two weeks to rehearse and get to know the other person, but I was wrapped up [in another movie]. So, yeah, you do bond when you’re waking up at 2 a.m. in a different country and you don’t know anybody.
Jonah Hill: The great fun of being in this movie—aside from working with everyone involved—is that my character is so outlandish, colorful, deceitful and manipulative, but everyone described him as very charming. I worked with Todd and our costume designer Michael Kaplan in building this character, from the hair and the tan to all the gold jewelry. But there was one thing missing as we got close [to filming]. So I thought of people that you’ve only met once or twice but you kind of remember for the rest of your life and I was thinking why that is, and a lot of times it’s because they had a really distinct laugh. I wanted to not only create a distinct laugh but one that this person would have. I showed it to Todd and he blessed it and we just did it.
Todd Phillips: I always think it’s interesting how certain actors find their character through the wardrobe or the hair or the way a character walks. Jonah came to me a couple of days before shooting and said, “I think I figured out this guy’s laugh,” and he did the laugh for me and I thought it was dead-on. We’re making a movie about two real people, but nobody really knows who they are. We’re not making Lincoln where everybody knows what he looks like, so we took a lot of liberties with these characters.
Jonah Hill: I mostly watch documentaries [because] I think that things that happen in real life are endlessly fascinating to me. With Moneyball or Wolf of Wall Street or [War Dogs], they all feature people finding an angle or a loophole or some unseen avenue to get into something or make something important. In Moneyball, it’s a positive thing. In Wolf of Wall Street, it’s a very negative thing. In this movie, it’s kind of a very ambiguous thing. If the government says it’s legal, is it okay to do? And that’s for everyone individually to decide. That’s what I really found interesting about it.
Guy Lawson: It’s a strange experience watching your work emerge on the screen. I was surprised and pleased by how much journalism is in the movie. How much Todd and the team bring to it. I wanted it to be a documentary because I’m a journalist, but there’s a lot of important issues being brought to the world about America’s role in proliferating weapons, about the lack of responsibility among those in authority in this country. It’s ridiculous, there’s never any consequences, there’s never any lessons learned. There’s no movie like this out there right now, so I think for journalism this is a bright moment. It’s not a documentary, but it takes on serious issues in a serious way.
War Dogs storms into theaters this Friday. Advance tickets are on sale now!