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Aug 21, 2016
Originally published on August 21, 2016 9:35 am
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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.