Finding the Deeper Truth in War Dogs
Stephen Chin on becoming a screenwriter, approaching the script as if you are a lawyer, and going to extremes in the name of research.
War Dogs screenwriter Stephen Chin is not a Hollywood insider.
In fact, his path to becoming a screenwriter is a little unconventional. He began as a lawyer, but soon found himself as a studio producer, reading twenty scripts a week and producing Harmony Korine’s Gummo and Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, which he also co-wrote.
Chin finally found the story he was looking for in a GQ article about two men who started a radio station in post-Saddam Iraq. So Chin snuck into to Baghdad, traveling through the infamous “Triangle of Death,” to get the life rights to the story, which eventually became the 2007 Black List script I Rock Iraq.
That experience led to more writing jobs, including War Dogs, an adaption of a 2011 Rolling Stone article about David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, two Miami stoners who became arms dealers for the U.S. Government for director Todd Phillips (The Hangover Trilogy).
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Chin on becoming a screenwriter, approaching the script as if you are a lawyer, and going to extremes in the name of research.
WARNING: this interview contains some War Dogs spoilers.
I want to talk about War Dogs, but it’s impossible to start there without talking about your journey towards it. You’ve worked a variety of jobs, but when you finally say, “That’s it! I’m going to be a writer!”
I think it was the time when I left the studio deal, which would have been around 2002. And I was like: “That’s it. I don’t want to go to work. I should be writing scripts. I’ve said it, I’ve talked about it, I’ve thought about it, but as long as I continue to be occupied with this day job, I’m never going to really do it.” So I literally had to leave my home and travel around the world to make that break.
When I came back, I didn’t have a manger, didn’t have an agent. When I told people that I was writing, I think they were terrified. I probably wasn’t persistent enough, but I could not get people to read anything I wrote. Nobody wanted to talk to me about it. I think people thought it was hopefully a passing delusion that I would give up and go back to doing what I was good at doing, which was being an indie producer, being a financier, being a business affairs exec. Nobody ever thought that I could actually do the creative thing and write.
So this is the moment that I tried to option a GQ story about the occupation of Iraq. There were two young guys who had started a radio station in Baghdad. They were the “comedy sidebar” of the article, which was a serious article that interviewed L. Paul Bremer [Governor of Iraq] and soldiers, but I saw this comedy sidebar and I thought: “This is the story. These guys are the perfect symbol of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, American optimism, heading off to someplace they couldn’t find on a map, they couldn’t speak the language, and bluffing their way in.”
But I couldn’t option it. Conde Nast wouldn’t ever engage me and I’d been enough of a producer to know that I wasn’t coming from any place. I didn’t have a studio deal; I wasn’t associated with a big filmmaker or actor, so I was getting the runaround. Then my buddy, who was a business affairs guy, said: “You know what? Why don’t you go to Baghdad and get the life rights?” And I said: “What’re you talking about?” And he said: “You’ve done a lot of crazy things in your life, why don’t you just go?” And I thought I could do that. I don’t think anybody thought that things were going to be as bad as they were – as they later became in Baghdad and in Iraq – so I kind of did the ultimate.
Considering that background, you seem like the perfect guy to write this script, but Todd Phillips didn’t know your history before you got the job, right?
No, absolutely not.
When I didn’t have representation I wrote this script about the experience of these guys in Iraq called I Rock Iraq, which became a Black List script. It was fresh and original and it was about the experience of being a young cubicle drone slave and thinking, “I’ve got to do something, I’ve got to get out of this cubicle.” It was a story of two guys who went off to Iraq to try and make their fortune.
I don’t know who gave Todd the script, but they brought me in to meet on it. One of the questions they asked me was, “the script has so many of these tiny details in it, how did you do your research?” And I said, “I lived with these guys in Baghdad, and all of this is stuff that I saw.”
I talked about the money room, seeing these pallets of money stacked up the size of SUVs, and people cutting bricks of $100,000 dollars wrapped in plastic wrap with their knives to pay people in cash. That’s when they said, “How did you get in there?” And I said, “I hired a smuggler in Amman” – cost me $1500 as I recall – “and I bought lots of cheap, sketchy, probably completely useless body armor and I took my camera and met a guy that was only described to me as ‘An Arab guy with a mustache’ in the lobby of the Amman Hilton at midnight, and he drove me all night into Baghdad. “
I think they were pretty surprised that I’d actually been there, and I told them the story of how I drove into Baghdad and the guy wouldn’t fill up with gas in Jordan. He kept saying to me, “Petrol free, petrol free Iraq,” and we stopped at every over-turned, blown-out tanker truck and every bombed-out gas station to syphon gas.
And that’s how I ended up in a gas station outside Fallujah on the big highway from Jordan to Baghdad where I met some bad guys, and that story eventually made into the movie because, in real life, Efraim and David never left Miami, and they had another friend who spoke Russian go to Albania.
So, as we did the story, Todd said, “What if we used that story in the movie? I don’t want to cannibalize your other script, but I think that would be very cool to do something like that.” And I said, “Look, we have to get them out of Miami and I think it’s important that they actually go to the warzone and actually be at risk and not just be phoning it in.” That’s how that ended up in the script.
At one point I was trying to get the life rights of these guys in Baghdad and I had drafted a really short form contract because they didn’t have any access to lawyers. They wanted to make some changes, so I asked them where I could get a signal for my SAT phone to call my lawyer buddy in LA, the one who had encouraged me to go to Baghdad.
And they said, “You’ve got to go up to the roof. There’s a ladder but you have to be really careful because night is when most of the gun battles take place, so sometimes there’s stray rounds that fly around. There’s a lip on the edge of the roof, if you can lie down flat below that, you’re cool.”
So I climb up to the roof, and I call my buddy. And he has no idea, he’s back in Los Angeles and says, “Oh hey, what’s going on? Where are you?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m in Baghdad.” He’s like, “Really? You’re in Baghdad?” And, at the time, there was nothing close by, but there was enough of a battle with helicopter gunships running around town, shooting at people.
So there was all this distant gunfire going on, that, at one point it got close enough that the guy says to me: “What’s that sound in the background? Is that gunfire?” [Laughs.] I remember telling him: “No, dude, that must be a car backfiring down the block or something,” and here I am, belly-down on the roof in Al-Mansur, trying not to get my ass shot off, asking this guy for legal advice while he’s probably at some dinner in West Hollywood.
I think the fact that I did this stuff gave me credibility. I was going to give energy and attitude and I had access to guys that were this crazy…
You certainly did one of the craziest things ever just to write a screenplay that you didn’t even have a deal for.
I didn’t even have a deal, yes. [Laughs.]
It’s funny, at the time, I was trying to get a press credential, but, as you know, it’s really difficult to get a press credential. None of these outlets want to help in any way.
So I asked an executive that I knew if she would give me some letter from her company saying I was a writer and that they should let me across the border. And, at the time, I didn’t want to do this by myself. So I said to her assistant, “You know, I’ll pay your way if you want to come with me because I would prefer not to be alone on this.” I think it’s always good to have a buddy, so if something bad happens, the other one can help them out. And he got really excited, he totally wanted to do this, he was really up for this, and like all of us, he had creative aspirations, wanted to maybe be a writer, and basically he got really, really excited about this. And then he talked to his parents about it and his step-father was a famous, famous journalist, broke one of the biggest stories of the 20th Century. And he said, “Are you crazy?! You’re going to go through Jordan, through the desert, and try and sneak into Iraq now?! Forget it!” And he backed out on me. [Laughs.] So I had to do it alone!
Was War Dogs always a comedy?
What I recall Todd telling me is, “I don’t know what this movie is yet. I have an instinct that there’s something amazing here, but what we have now it almost seems like it should be a documentary,” because the Rolling Stone article had a lot of factual information about the legalities of what the guys had done, and about the process and procedures of arms procurement by the U.S. government.
Enough of what I saw in Iraq was really funny in a darkly comedic way. So because the subject matter was so heavy, but Todd’s great gift is as a comic director, from the beginning I hoped I would be able to write something that would be serious and compelling – something that would tell the true story about what was going on with the arms procurement business in the aftermath of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions – but also something that would not feel like a very important, hard-hitting cable movie. Something that would be as thrilling, entertaining, and funny as I found going to Baghdad.
You also met with David Packouz personally, didn’t you? Did it help you with character motivation to understand the real reasons why these guys did what they did?
Totally. In the beginning, I had complete freedom and Todd said to me, “You know, David doesn’t have to be a massage therapist” – which is mentioned in the Rolling Stone article – “and they don’t even have to be Jewish, they don’t have to be from Miami, they can be whatever you want.”
I fought from the beginning to say David has to be a massage therapist because there’s nothing more humiliating to being a young dude in your early twenties, in Miami, surrounded by beautiful models and South America billionaires and the hottest clubs in the world, and your job is to tote this table around and rub the sore, aching muscles of sometimes, not-so-attractive people for a living. I think it says a lot about a guy looking at the rest of his life, and thinking: “is this it? Am I going to rub people’s muscles for the rest of my life?”
It seems like one of those details that seem too crazy in real life. Like if you were to say, “I have an idea about a guy who’s a massage therapist who becomes an arms dealer,” that might be rejected as “too ridiculous” yet it’s a real detail.
You’re really touching on the crux of what we do as screenwriters. Because if I was to say that to you in a vacuum, and it wasn’t true, it would be something we would be reaching for: “What’s the most crazy, extreme thing? What’s the most embarrassing thing we could have this guy do to explain why he would do this crazy thing and try to become an international arms dealer and try to win Pentagon contracts?”
If we reached for it, it would be written in a shticky way. We would push all the tension, all the exaggeration, all the contrast, and we would have that scene where he’s literally rubbing someone’s back when he gets the call and his buddy picks him up in a Porsche. We would do all of those things to pay off that choice as opposed to looking at it and saying, “This actually happened in a grounded way. What’s the reality of this guy?”
I think my approach from the beginning was to say, “we can be funny, but funny in a very real, grounded way.” Movies with intense situations, dark characters and people doing things of questionable legality or morality – like Goodfellas – can be really funny. But it’s really, really important that the humor is grounded in real characters, real tension, real situations.
Do you think interviewing real-life subjects has given you a greater understanding of character?
In the end, I think that real people in true life are the heart of what great screenwriting is. Whether you draw from your own personal experience or you’re privileged enough to go to the real places and meet the real people to get some insight into it, I think being able to tell those things is what elevates from the generic – plucked from the library of tropes on the Internet – and makes it something more alive… original.
So, for me, flying out to Miami and meeting David Packouz and spending all this time with him – and also trying get beyond the pat story that had been reported for Rolling Stone – having him tell me that the way it all came down was “we didn’t pay the box guy, that’s what screwed us.” That kind of detail, that opens up an entire film for me.
Sometimes you can’t even invent some of the things that actually happened.
Some of things are better than anything any of us could invent, right? And what’s great about them when they really pay off, they’re typically not things that happen in a vacuum.
In other words, there are patterns in people’s lives, so the great thing for me about not paying off the box guy was not just because “for the loss of a nail, the kingdom was lost,” it was also something that paid off profoundly for what I thought the story would be, which was about how two childhood friends risked it all, hustled, and almost made it.
And the very thing that drove Ephraim, that determination to get into every deal and squeeze every profit out of it, to take advantage of every opportunity – because he was a complete outsider and this was the only way he was going to make it – ultimately that very thing that led to his great success at an early age was also the very thing that led to his defeat.
That’s the tragedy of it, and if I was aspiring to do anything with the screenplay, it was not just to tell the story of how they pulled this off, about what happened during the war, what happened with federal contracts, what happened with the supply chain or the occupation. It was also to try and find the human side of the story behind this and see what happened to these guys who went on a crazy roller coaster ride and could have been on the cover on Fast Company, Entrepreneur magazine.
You’ve travelled and done so many things in your life, that it reminds me of something my English professor said in college: that if you wanted to be a writer, you should wait until you’re forty and just go live.
[Laughs] That’s an awesome quote. I think you need to include that in the article.
And you’ve lived a little bit at this point. How has that time informed your work?
I think what’s also important to remember is that, when we think back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and we think about all of those screenwriters under contract, there was no film school in those days. They were not people in their early twenties. If you think about the Faulkners, the Chandlers, people like Billy Wilder who came from Eastern Europe, none of these people were twenty, twenty-one.
I don’t mean to suggest that people don’t have that innate talent, that gift, that voice, but I am going to say that all the life experience that you have gives you insight, gives you perspective, gives you a way in to being able to talk to all of these kinds of people to find your story.
Do you think being a lawyer helped you as a writer?
I think it did, in some surprising ways. The first way is, as a non-transaction lawyer, a litigator; you’re trying to find out what really happened. So you’re a little bit of an investigator.
Another thing is you have to try to organize a bunch of different facts into a coherent story that you’re trying to present to a judge or a jury. So that kind of discipline is very important to being a screenwriter.
You have all these ideas – or sometimes facts – and you have to pick the ones that are going to most eloquently tell the story, to hopefully get at the truth, the deeper truth. When you’re trying to tell a story that covers years and years of people’s lives in complex situations, and you’re trying to condense that down to ninety minutes or a hundred and twenty minutes, you obviously have to make some changes. So choice is involved, and that’s where you have to know where the deeper truth of your story is.
A third side of it is that you have to be as ruthless as a lawyer and say, “I have to discard all of things that don’t really serve the story,” but I still have to find room to keep it human.
When I was a lawyer I learned that if you bleed all of the detail out, then you end up with something that isn’t very compelling. I think that’s another deeper screenwriting technique, which is: if you’re too rigorous and tight with your screenwriting and trying to accomplish so much with your writing, you bleed out all the character work, you bleed out all real details. If you really reduce it to its fundamental components, then you’re going to end up with something that, by necessity, is very generic.
You have to leave yourself some room for some of those details that make your story live. It’s a tough balance.