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.