Interview With Jonah Hill And Todd Phillips On New Film 'War Dogs' Jonah Hill and Todd Phillips talk with Rachel Martin about their "War Dogs," which tells the mostly-true story of two pot-smoking 20-year-olds who win a $300 million U.S. government weapons contract.
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Interview With Jonah Hill And Todd Phillips On New Film 'War Dogs'

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Interview With Jonah Hill And Todd Phillips On New Film 'War Dogs'

Interview With Jonah Hill And Todd Phillips On New Film 'War Dogs'

Interview With Jonah Hill And Todd Phillips On New Film 'War Dogs'

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Jonah Hill and Todd Phillips talk with Rachel Martin about their "War Dogs," which tells the mostly-true story of two pot-smoking 20-year-olds who win a $300 million U.S. government weapons contract.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government was awarding hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts to American companies, everything from fixing air conditioners to supplying weapons. And many of those contractors made a whole lot of money, including David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli. These two 20-something pot-smoking guys from Florida figured out how to sell old Chinese ammunition to the U.S. government for $300 million.

It is a true story, first told in a 2011 piece in Rolling Stone. It's now the premise for the new film from director Todd Phillips. The film is called "War Dogs." And it co-stars Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as the masterminds of this racket. Jonah Hill and Todd Phillips join us now.

Hey, you two. Thanks so much for being with us.

JONAH HILL: Thanks for having us.

TODD PHILLIPS: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: Jonah, I'll start with you. You actually, I understand, tried to grab this story for your own creative purposes before you realized Todd had already optioned it.

HILL: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I read it and was completely blown away by what I was reading 'cause the story was so unbelievable. And that paired with a character that was so manipulative and sociopathic and charismatic at the (laughter) same time...

MARTIN: You're like that's the guy for me.

HILL: ...I said, hey, there's my guy. And then, of course, Mr. Phillips had already beaten me to the punch.

MARTIN: Todd, why'd you want to make this film?

PHILLIPS: What stuck out to me was the idea that it was true. In other words, if it had been a piece of fiction in The New Yorker, I'd be like, oh, these characters are really good. This is a cool setting, but I just don't believe it. And the fact that it was real was actually the thing that first struck out to me. And the more we kind of looked into the story on our own, it just kept feeling more and more like a movie.

MARTIN: Jonah, you intimated that this guy's character is not - I don't know, he's not a nice guy. Efraim Diveroli is the character who you play. He's a crude, self-serving serial liar. I mean, you - when you talk to actors, often they say, oh, but the bad guys are always more interesting to play. But was there something that you connected with in him, in Efraim?

HILL: Thankfully, there wasn't a lot I connected with Efraim.

MARTIN: That's a good thing.

HILL: It is a very good thing. But I'm very, very attracted to morally ambiguous characters, not just pure bad guys or pure good guys. But I think morality is so individual and personal, and people draw their own lines of what that means for them. And I like playing characters that, you know, a couple could go see the movie and one person could love him and one person could hate him.

MARTIN: Can you talk about what the gray lines were for him, then, in this story, in this plot? Where was Efraim kind of trying to make decisions, figuring out his own moral calculus?

HILL: Well, I don't think he was trying to figure out his moral calculus (laughter). I think his lines of ink are pretty thick of - already drawn. But just the idea of what he's doing, initially, is not illegal. That, to me, was the most interesting part is that he's really easy to paint as a criminal - he eventually is. But initially, he saw a loophole, and he went for it. It could have been selling oats, but it was selling guns.

MARTIN: Todd, people probably know you best as the director of "The Hangover" trilogy. This film has some similarities. It's raunchy and funny at times. But it's also - maybe not a political commentary - but about political things, which is different for you. Was that something you'd been interested in for a while?

PHILLIPS: It wasn't that I wanted to make a political movie, it was that I do happen to like movies about guys who make bad decisions.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

PHILLIPS: And this just seemed like one of the worst. And there is something really exciting about documenting real life. I mean, how many days or how many months have you had that are purely dramatic? And how many months have you had that are purely comedic? Real life is a mixture of those things. So I think if you do it right and if your sort of attempt is at reality, even when reality is absurd, it's going to be a balance of tones.

MARTIN: So speaking of absurd, whose idea was it to give Efraim that laugh?

PHILLIPS: (Laughter) That's all Jonah. You know, it's so interesting because actors always find different ways into their characters. You know, sometimes it's wardrobe or hair or the way the guy walks. And I remember, like, it was maybe two days before we started filming, I think, and Jonah came up to me and said, hey, I think I figured out how this guy laughs, and I want to do it for you. And I said, please and he...

MARTIN: Jonah, you don't want to give us an example, do you?

HILL: No, but I can...

MARTIN: Can you describe it?

HILL: ...Explain it to you, if you want.

MARTIN: Sure.

HILL: Yeah. I mean...

MARTIN: It's hard to describe.

HILL: Well, it's not the sound that is what's interesting about it. It's, like - basically, when I met David Packouz, he said, if you met Efraim once, you never forgot him. And I thought about people in my life I had met once or twice and I remembered forever. And a lot of times, I realized they had a really distinct laugh. So I tried to create a laugh for Efraim that was distinct but that fit him. And moreso, the way it started to be used during the scenes was in a way where he was encouraging the person talking by laughing. He was making them feel comfortable and at ease and put their guard down so he could then easily manipulate them.

MARTIN: Yeah. In the end of the film, your characters, Efraim and David, are convicted of fraud. Efraim goes to jail. David gets put on house arrest, and there's a faultline in their relationship. That's what transpired in the film. In the end, for these two men, what happened to their own personal relationship when this was all over?

PHILLIPS: Well, when we were making the film, Efraim was still in jail serving his sentence. And actually when we were editing the movie, he was in jail. He had just recently gotten out, and he lives blocks away from David, still in Miami Beach. They don't talk because David is still suing Efraim right now. I forget for the amount, but it's a pretty large amount of money that he feels is still owed to him.

MARTIN: Director Todd Phillips, speaking to us from our studios at NPR West. And Jonah Hill talked to us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. The new film is called "War Dogs."

Hey, you two, thank you so much.

PHILLIPS: Thanks, Rachel.

HILL: Thank you. It was great talking to you.

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'War Dogs' Cries Havoc And Lets Slip The Dudes Of War

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play war profiteers in director Todd Phillips' War Dogs. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture hide caption

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play war profiteers in director Todd Phillips' War Dogs.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

In such dudes-gone-wild comedies as Pineapple Express and The Hangover, guys get incredibly wasted, do phenomenally stupid stuff, stumble into spectacular trouble, and yet somehow emerge relatively unscathed. Of course, scenarios like that don't play out in the real world.

Except that they do, according to War Dogs, an amusing if underachieving bad-boys farce based on the escapades of two twentysomething gunrunners. Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz are the actual names of actual people, high-school weed-buddies who went from attending an Orthodox synagogue in Miami Beach to brokering surplus Cold War-era ammo in Albania.

As depicted here, the ruthless Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and the impressionable Packouz (Miles Teller) are quite similar to the portrayals in Guy Lawson's 2011 Rolling Stone story, published soon after the two were busted for defrauding the U.S. government. That doesn't mean everything in the movie really happened. After all, War Dogs was directed and co-written by Todd Phillips, auteur of The Hangover series.

The film's most harrowing chapter is based on co-scripter Stephen Chin's 2004 trip to Baghdad to chronicle the exploits of two completely different young American wannabes. Chin blended Diveroli and Packouz's tale with episodes from an unproduced script about his misadventures in Iraq, a country the War Dogs mutts never visited.

Interlaced with the fact is much more fiction, notably the character of Packouz's Latin-accented lover (Ana de Armas). The charming actress' presence dilutes the movie's dangerously high testosterone level, while her character's objections to her beau's activities help him see the light.

War Dogs begins in The Big Short mode: flippant and cynical but eager to elucidate. It's narrated by Teller (whose alter ego has a cameo as a retirement-home folksinger), and crowded with facts about military purchasing. Price-tags pop up on weapons and equipment as Packouz introduces the world's second oldest profession: war profiteering.

A part-time masseur who's trying to get ahead by selling bed sheets in bulk, Packouz is delighted to encounter Diveroli, an old pal who just returned to Miami after being introduced to weapons reselling in L.A. Diveroli has chutzpah, a distinctive high-pitched giggle, and a plan to get rich. Oh, and a machine gun he whips out when a drug deal proves unsatisfactory.

What really changes the guys' lives, though, is a Pentagon procurement website designed to spread the wealth of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations — "Ebay, but for war," they exult. Lowballing prices, repackaging prohibited materials, and sheer ignorance take the two guys far until they luck into a lucrative role as frontmen for a banned weapons dealer (Bradley Cooper). But maybe that's not so lucky, after all.

Despite dealing in cash, counterinsurgency, and adrenaline, the film fails to sustain the rush of its first hour. Phillips tries to compensate by packing the soundtrack with songs — mostly overexposed classic-rock tunes — but this is no Goodfellas. The arrival of yet another familiar opening riff begins to sap the movie's energy.

War Dogs would probably have been more compelling if the filmmakers hadn't strayed so far from the true story. But they manage to slip a fair amount of interesting commentary between the blunders, bong hits and wartime near-misses, and Cooper's character returns at the end with an interesting rationalization. It seems, to paraphrase, that even the baddest dudes are sometimes overpowered by the need to be badder. That's a moral the director of The Hangover Part III must surely understand.