Todd Phillips is vaping. At least, he was vaping when IndieWire sat down with the “War Dogs” helmer a few weeks back to talk about his latest feature, a fact-based film that leans far more towards the dramatic than the “Hangover”-esque antics most people expect from the guy who directed the actual “Hangover” trilogy. That Phillips vapes isn’t exactly shocking — again, there’s certainly an expectation of behavior when it comes to the filmmaker behind “Road Trip” and “Old School” — but his open nature and keen honesty about his own work is pleasantly refreshing.
Phillips doesn’t like to chat too much about future projects and things that might happen (and don’t even bother to mention the litany of projects that populate his IMDb profile’s “in development” section, he says most of them are not real) and he’s not especially interested in the narrative that “War Dogs” is somehow a different direction for his career. But Phillips does like to talk. “He’ll give you all the time you need,” a publicist said before the interview. “He’ll answer every question.”
“It’s The Same Process”
Based on Guy Lawson’s 2011 Rolling Stone article which became his 2015 book “Arms and the Dudes,” Phillips’ “War Dogs” follows two Florida twentysomethings — played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller — as they unexpectedly and ambitiously jump into the world of international arms dealing. While there’s some fun to be had (a trip to deliver some guns in Iraq is particularly amusing), the film doesn’t shy away from showing the more nasty, and often scary, side of a business the two are woefully unprepared to undertake. It’s not “The Hangover” with guns.
“I don’t see it as that big of a departure,” Phillips said of his newest film. “It’s more dramatic than certainly ‘The Hangover’ [films] are. To me, and maybe I’m just too inside, it just still feels like my movie.”
When mention of the film’s trailers — which, early on, played up the film’s humor, especially that Iraq trip — was made, Phillips caught himself. “Why?,” he asked. “Do you feel like people are going to be like, ‘What the fuck? It’s not funny’?”
More than anything, though, he just seemed curious. It’s hardly the first time Phillips has spoken about his changing tastes and career turns, and it likely won’t be the last.
“I remember when I did documentaries and I started doing narrative films, and people would go, ‘How did you make that leap?’ I would go, ‘It’s all storytelling,'” he said. “It’s the same process. I just don’t see it as that big of a leap.”
Mayhem, Chaos and More
In fact, Phillips thinks the film fits in pretty neatly alongside his other films – from his comedies like “The Hangover” series to his early documentaries like “Frat House” – as all of them delve into his favorite topic: Male mayhem.
“It’s a movie about guys making bad decisions that lead to mayhem, which is really what all my movies are about,” the filmmaker said. “Oddly, it’s almost too similar to me. I love chaos, so bad decisions lead to mayhem equals chaos, and I just love chaos. I love it in my own life. I love it in movies. I love documenting it in movies.”
Phillips joked, “It’s not like I did ‘Age of Innocence’ after ‘Goodfellas.’ That’s a leap.”
One thing that Phillips might be worried about, however, is making sure that people actually turn out to the film, no matter how it’s been packaged and sold to its potential audience. “War Dogs” is hitting theaters at the tail end of a very crowded summer season, a release strategy that Phillips wasn’t initially sold on, and one that Warner Bros. had to finesse him on a bit.
“I go, ‘I don’t want the fucking summer. I don’t know about this,'” he said. “They go, ‘You know, by the end of the summer, everyone’s so beat up by the noise and some disappointments.’ No one’s waiting for this movie. It comes out of nowhere. This isn’t ‘Suicide Squad.'”
“I’m Just Not a Superhero Guy”
That might sound a little harsh, but coming from Phillips, it might actually be a compliment. After all, for a guy who thrives on chaos and mayhem, he’s not at all interested in jumping into the superhero movie craze, and what’s more out of control right now than superhero films?
“My problem is I can’t make a movie that I know nothing about. I’m just not a superhero guy,” he said. “That said, I watched Chris Nolan’s movies and those are up there with the fucking ‘Godfather’ trilogy. For me, he’s the greatest filmmaker and it’s just mind-blowing what he does.”
If nothing else, Phillips knows what he likes and what he likes to make.
“I don’t go to Comic-Con, I don’t read that stuff,” he said. “I don’t watch those movies. They give me headaches half the time, they’re so loud. Ultimately, it’s all you have as a director is your point of view and your taste, and I don’t know that I would add anything to the next ‘Justice League’ or whatever they’re making. Those aren’t my kind of movies, but I like them and, by the way, they help get movies like this made because they make the money and it keeps the film business going.”
So what does Phillips have coming up next, if not a superhero movie or something equally as loud and wild? Better to ask him, rather than turn to his IMDb profile, which lists no less than 13 projects currently in development, most with Phillips serving as producer.
“All that stuff is never accurate,” Phillips said. “It’s never accurate. You know that. I have nothing right now. I’m kind of looking for what the next thing is, so I haven’t settled on it.”
That’s not entirely true, though, as Phillips did admit that he and frequent collaborator Bradley Cooper (who, yes, does appear in “War Dogs”) are working on the recently announced television adaptation of the ISIS book “Black Flags.” But he’s even trepidatious about getting too gung-ho on that.
“That is something that got announced, because they announce things at the worst times and then you’re doing a junket and then everybody asks about it,” he laughed.
Beyond that, however, Phillips just don’t want to blow smoke up anyone’s ass, vaped or not.
“My problem with talking about it is not that I’m some super secret filmmaker or I feel like everybody is so interested, it’s that literally 90% of the shit you talk about never happens,” Phillips said. “It’s just the nature of the business.”
“War Dogs” arrives in theaters August 19.