From Phish And Frats To Gunrunning — How ‘War Dogs’ Director Todd Phillips Became A Master Of Mayhem
“I like movies about guys who make bad decisions.”
It’s a Sunday afternoon in August. My Wookles snapback feels out of place on the 39th floor of Manhattan’s Mandarin Oriental, where Todd Phillips, director of beloved comedies such as The Hangover trilogy and Old School, is talking about his latest film to members of the press. I’m his last scheduled interview of the day.
I’m fanboying hard because Phillips just perfectly described the one single thing I love about his all films but couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Let me repeat it:
“I like movies about guys who make bad decisions.”
I nod, doing a mental fast-forward through The Hangover and the extreme hazing in Frat House, finishing with KY Jelly wrestling and Will Ferrell streaking in Old School. He continues.
“Why do I like that? Because bad decisions ultimately lead to mayhem. I like to document mayhem. That’s my thing. Whether it’s GG Allin or parking lots at a Phish concert or The Hangover and Old School. Often times the mayhem brings friends together… like in Old School and The Hangover. In War Dogs, it kind of pulls them apart. You know? There’s just something about chaos that I’ve always been attracted to.”
Like millions of millennial men my age, I lived out my college experience under the watchful eye of a Todd Phillips movie poster. A poster from Old School was front-and-center on the wall of my living room. My roommates and I picked it up at the annual poster fair that happens in the student union every year at the beginning of the fall semester. If you were in college between 2003 and 2006, you know exactly what poster I’m referring to: Will Ferrell as a Frank the Tank, holding out a shot of brown liquor, looking like he was about to spew boozy vomit everywhere in a moment of drunken sorry-for-partying glory.
That poster saw everything in my apartment: parties, moments of beer pong glory, flings, roommate fights and new friendships. For a few years it was a staple in almost every single male dorm room, right up there with a packs of condoms, a beer bong, and Pink Floyd’s “back” catalog poster of bare female asses painted as classic Pink Floyd album covers.
When I meet Phillips one-on-one to discuss his latest work, War Dogs, I ask him about how often fanboys like me gush about how films like Road Trip, The Hangover and Old School are staples of their college experience.
He smirked, briefly, kind of like the split-second face tick he gives Luke Wilson after announcing “I’m here for the gangbang” in Old School.
“It’s always guys. Never been a girl… I’ve had guys come up to me in Vegas, L.A., New York, but it’s never once been a woman…”
Phillips documents mayhem and he documents it well. But the bedrock of almost every Todd Phillips film is really the unique, jocular spirit of male friendships in that chaos. There’s a reason why his characters in The Hangover and Road Trip are so damn relatable to almost every single friend group. In real life, friend groups tend to typecast their members. That’s why Phillips’s movies strike such a chord with an impressionable young, Bro-y demographic — we all have a friend who’s a Stu or an Alan or a Phil or a Mitch or a Frank or a Beanie.
They talk like us. They act like us. They booze and bust balls like us. His character are just like us, man.
War Dogs is dramatically different than Phillips other work. It’s not a comedy. It has comedic moments of situational glory and comedic dialogue, but the undertones are deadly serious. Rather, it’s a badass story about obtaining “The American Dream” and pissing it away. It’s based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article about two 20-something Miami stoners who became international arms dealers by exploiting a public loophole in the Defense Department’s contractor system during the beginning of the Iraqi War. Jonah Hill plays Efraim Diveroli and Miles Teller plays his slightly more sympathetic best friend and gun-running parther, David Packouz. Together the duo jetsets between Miami, Jordan, Las Vegas, Albania, and the volatile Anbar province in Iraq to fulfill orders from the U.S. Army for guns and ammo. It’s basically the real-life version of Warren Zevon’s legendary rock ode to ’70s gun runners, “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”
Spoiler alert: Along the way, Efraim and David did some illegal shit involving AK-47 ammo for the Afghani army. The government’s clenched fist of justice brought both their weapons contracting business, AEY Inc, and their bro-y bacchanal to a halt. Efraim did four years in prison for conspiracy. David was sentence to seven months house arrest.
“I have a feeling that some people look at this movie and think it’s an indictment of these two boys. But really it’s an indictment of the U.S. Government,” Phillips explains. “The way they lacked a system of checks and balances at least at that time and let these two kids take the fall for something they let happen.”
“Bradley Cooper’s character says that ‘the government chooses to look the other way, don’t give them a reason not to.’ These guys fuck up so much that they end up on the front page of the New York Times,” he adds. “Then the government had to deal with. But the government would have been much happier if it went off according to plan. What happened at the end of the movie, these guys take the fall. They stop the deal and the Afghans don’t have bullets to fight the Taliban. It actually had world wide repercussions.”
I ask him about what drew him to the project as his “next thing” after the massive success of The Hangover trilogy. As he puts it, the authenticity of War Dogs is a little like going back to his documentary days, which started with his film Hated about punk rock shock performer GG Allin in 1993.
“The same draw that would bring anyone to it. The fact that this is a real story. If this was a work of fiction that someone handed me as a screenplay I would say the characters are cool but it’s not believable.” The idea that it is real definitely grabs me. Maybe it goes back to the documentary stuff, but the most intriguing stuff to me is the idea that this really happened.”
Despite the gravity of the War Dogs story, there are still all the Todd Phillips hallmarks that Bros fetishize. Bong rips. Babe girlfriends. Cocaine bumps. Stripper titties. Scarface-esque AK-47 sequences. Living recklessly with total excess. That’s why Dan Blitzerian’s right-on-cue cameo feels completely natural in such a testosterone-driven cinematic world.
Turns out they’re buddies.
“I’ve been friends with Dan for 10 years. Pre-Instagram Dan…”
“Dan has created this great persona and I’m not saying it’s fake, it’s totally Dan. I’ve been around Dan for a long time — playing poker and just making bad decisions together. I was like, ‘hey man, you want to be in the movie? We’ll be in Miami…’ And he was like ‘fucking why not? Let’s do it.’ It definitely fits his world.”
The goofs for his own amusement don’t stop there. In War Dogs, David Packouz — the real-life AEY arms dealer behind Miles Teller’s character — also makes an appearance.
“I was meeting with David in researching the movie, he became part of the thing. Obviously the story is based on him. Turns out he plays guitar. I was like, ‘I’ll put you in the movie now if you want. And he was like, ‘that’d be cool. What should I do?’ I told him that I’d figure it out, and I came up with the idea that he’s singing at the old age home. Singing ‘Don’t Fear The Reaper’ to a bunch of 90-year-olds.
“Again, 99% of people don’t know that’s him, won’t know that’s him. When I do things like that it’s usually an inside joke.”
Old School wasn’t the only Todd Phillips movie poster in my college apartment. Hanging above my bed was the poster for Bittersweet Motel, the documentary Phillips filmed through 1997 and 1998 that followed Phish on tour across the United States and Europe. The documentary hit theaters in 2000, right around the time Phish announced their first extended touring hiatus. It was released around the same time as Phillips’ first major studio comedy, Road Trip.
Full disclosure: I was obsessed with Bittersweet Motel in high school, the peak of my Phish concert going days until later in adulthood. It holds the dubious distinction of being both the last VHS I ever owned and the first DVD I ever owned. It’s a divisive documentary amongst Phish fans — some complain that it wasn’t serious enough or hone-in on their musical talent, instead making the members of the band and the fanbase look like cliche, cringe-worthy stoner goofballs. Personally, that’s what I love about it.
Despite Todd making films that gross billions of dollars and have world-wide cultural implications, questions about Bittersweet Motel have shocked my brain for 16 years. Moving on from War Dogs, his commissioned documentary about a Vermont jam band the only thing I can think about discussing.
I take plunge beneath the water line.
Todd: It was so fun. I wasn’t a Phish fan. They hired me to make that movie based on…
BroBible: Hated, right?
Yeah. And it’s so random that they’d like that movie. So I wasn’t a Phish fan but I certainly became a Phish fan. I traveled the world with these guys and Trey in particular was so warm and so interesting and such a great guitar player. I just remember flying around Europe with them on their plane. To me that was one of the great experiences.”
The movie really helped characterize the behind-the-scenes personalities in Phish.
Yeah, yeah. Because they were pretty quiet and didn’t talk very much.
Page, and Mike — even in the movie they don’t talk a lot. But it lets you realize, ‘This is why Trey is Trey’ and ‘This is why Mike is Mike.’
I think there are a lot of people who are like, ‘yeah, I’ve been to a 150 shows, but I don’t really know these guys besides their stage personalities.’
It’s interesting that they chose to be that way in life. Forget the movie. They have these really intimate shows with 80,000 people but you don’t really know who they are.
You really played up that buddy angle in the documentary, which was always very interesting to me. Bittersweet Motel documents that in better than any musical documentary does.
Better than it documents the music, quite frankly. The most you can take out of that movie… we had a really small budget. So we were shooting a lot with one camera, which is insane. But what we did do right, thank you, was capture those moments. Like the ‘I like Page’s new shirt,’ — we did this to really help you understand the warmth and connection.
Or Trey calling Brad a fucking tool.
I love that stuff.
Why did you get into documentaries?
Quite frankly, it was because at that point I wasn’t a talented enough writer at that point. I mean at 18, 19 you’re not a experienced enough writer. You need to live a little until before you can write unless you’re a naturally gifted writer. I mean so much of writing is drawing from your own experiences. Old School happened because we made Frat House when I was growing up. You need to live a little before you can sit down and write. So how do you live a little? Documentaries for me was almost a way for me to live life on fast forward. I mean I found out that I was going on tour with GG Allin for 6 months. That’s living. Who’s going to do that? [Editor’s note: For context, GG Allin literally throws feces at his fans and has a female urinate in his mouth in Hated].
I learned a lot. Traveling around Europe with Phish, I lived. I fucking lived. It’s going to inform your work later on life.
Do people still ask you about Frat House?
Yeah, yeah. All the time.
That’s one of those movies that feels like a time capsule of the mid 90s.
Such a weird PR backstory around it too. It’s almost snowballed into a larger than life thing.
I actually like what happened to Frat House, quite frankly. Because it never aired on HBO. It won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival, but it never aired on HBO.
Wasn’t it because it was too vulgar for HBO or something?
There were a million reasons, but what it really boils down to is that we fucked up in the way that we got releases from the kids. They were really drunk and stoned when we got them to sign releases. You have to be of fully sound mind and body. They were signing releases when they weren’t. So that’s fucked up on our part. We did fuck up. That said, the movie has become a cult film in that not everyone got to see it. And people talk about it in a way that just added on to what it was. If it was on HBO it would have been a thing that came and gone, but now it’s this thing. I hear from the kids in the movie all the time who are now 40 year old. And they’re like, ‘can you just put it out already? Who cares.’ They’re fine with it.
We saw a lot of debate over it on BroBible a couple years ago. Some people were like ‘yeah Todd made this movie that shows how big of fuckbois these kids are’ Other people are like, ‘This is not at all what Greek life is like…’ which is true to a degree. Still it’s one of the most culturally divisive things in America…
Yeah, I know it’s crazy. But the truth is it isn’t all like that. We document the ones that were. I mean yeah, you go to Harvard and they probably don’t do that. I have no idea. But we found two that were. And there are certainly plenty that still do. And, by the way, in the research for that movie I remember going to UT-Austin and trying to shoot there and those kids ultimately wouldn’t let us shoot there, but they let me spend two nights in their fraternity house. I saw shit that was so much worse than what got into Frat House. You wouldn’t believe it. We were dying to shoot there but ultimately they called the chapter head and he said ‘absolutely fucking not. Get that camera out of there.’ That kind of thing. But I saw way worse shit. So it happens. It just doesn’t happen everywhere.
Why’d you want to focus on fraternities?
Well, I was an intern at HBO in the documentary department. Sheila Nevins who runs HBO Documentaries — still does — had seen Hated. At the time they didn’t acquire things from outside of HBO. Now they do. At the time she was like, ‘I can’t air Hated, but it’s fucking great. What do you want to do next?’ So me and Andrew Gurland made Frat House together. We pitched that movie to her, did the research, and got interested in the subject. For me, there weren’t any fraternities at NYU, but I grew up on Long Island and a lot of my friends went to schools that had them. So, when I saw them on winter break, they’d tell me stories of hazing and things and I couldn’t believe it. That’s where it actually came from. A friend of mine from high school was telling me about the hazing at his school. Which is why we ended up shooting at a fraternity at SUNY Oneonta.
I feel like you really must have gotten comfortable shooting dudes after that. Like that one scene in Bittersweet Motel at The Great Went with the shirtless guys in the tent.
Yeah, I love guys like that. People love to joke about stuff like that, but I think they’re living their true, authentic life. There’s part of me that goes, ‘I wish that was me.’ They don’t give a fuck about anything.
One of those guys in that Bittersweet Motel scene is still pretty active on a Phish Facebook group. I think I’m Facebook friends with him.
Ha, I love that. Good for him. What about that blonde girl from the movie? Do you remember her? She was doing whippets on the runway at the festival. She was the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen in my life. Where’d she go?
What was that? Like 5 o’clock in the morning? Something like that?
It was literally 5 o’clock in the morning. Who is that girl? I want to find that out. Stunning. They’re good people ultimately. Like a great group of people.
Have you kept up with any of those guys?
I did with Trey for a while. But I haven’t in years. Trey was the one that I was closest to, which you can probably tell from the movie. He was just the most accessible, the most willing to fuck around and have fun with it and talk. The other guys would kind of clam up a little bit, they were great at performing but they didn’t really want to be doing the movie quite frankly. They felt like it was Trey’s idea. And I’m glad, but nah — I haven’t talked to Trey in probably 5 or 6 years. I like to look them up and listen to clips of their new stuff. I mean I love their music. It was fun to be at his house and access the studio. I mean we got access that most fans would kill for.
Do you ever think about doing documentaries again?
Oh, all the time. I mean documentaries have become more and more accepted as wonderful, insightful pieces of entertainment. Making A Murderer this year was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. I look at that and I’m like, ‘fuck I want to do that again, for sure.’
Look documentary is 80% subject matter and 20% filmmaking, obviously. You pick a good subject like GG Allin and the movie is going to make itself, quite frankly — not to take away anything we did. But it’s GG Allin, it’s hard to make a shitty movie about him. Another good documentary this year was Weiner. Another great subject — what an open book he was. It’s such a commitment of time, though. The directors of Making A Murderer spent like 10 years on it. I’m not saying it’s not worth it, it’s incredibly compelling, but to take the time to make a good documentary… it’s just a big investment of time.
The world has changed so much since you started making documentaries, now with varied forms of distribution.
Yeah, if I made Hated today that would be everywhere. Back then we self-distributed to movie theaters on 16 millimeter film print. It’s crazy. And it would also be a way better movie by the way. I’d be able to shoot it with my iPhone and it would look better and I’d be able to film forever. We had no money so we were shooting on 15mm film which cost $500 for a reel of 11 minutes. So we could only film so much for that movie.
What sort of weight or responsibility do you feel for mentoring young film makers with your work?
I love to do it. I mean I did it dead on with Nima Nourizadeh for Project X, who hadn’t made a movie ever. I’d seen a lot of his video and commercial work and I thought he’d be perfect for Project X. It happened to me with Road Trip and Old School. I think having a mentor in life, whether you run a website or you want to be a filmmaker, is really, really crucial. So I love to do it. I love to take someone like that and help them get through that first project. That’s really key. If you’re young and have the ability to find a mentor to take you under their wing, it’s the most important thing.
Do you ever see something in the culture and feel that it’s coming right out of your movies?
All the time. I see stuff that looks inspired or influenced by me. Not to be self-obsessed, but you definitely feel things where you’re like, ‘that’s cool.’ I’m almost 45 years old, young people are coming up to me who saw Road Trip when they really young. And I’m like, that’s crazy…
And do you ask the scene with giant women’s cheetah underwear?
Well… when I was their age I was watching Stripes and Animal House.
War Dogs is in theaters nation-wide this weekend. For more about the movie, read our Bro’s Guide To Being A War Dog.