'War Dogs' Screenwriter on How His Experience in Iraq Helped Shape Todd Phillips' Movie
"One of the first things that Todd asked me was: 'Your script feels really, really authentic. There are all of these tiny details. Where did that come from?' And I said, 'It came from being there.'"
There is a scene towards the middle of Todd Phillips' War Dogs that sees the film's two 20-something stoners-turned-arms dealers, David and Efraim (played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill), running from gun-wielding insurgents down a desert highway after their hired driver had stopped for free gas in Fallujah. They're saved at the last minute by an American patrol coming the opposite direction down the highway in Humvees.
This really didn't happen to David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli — the subjects of a much-publicized Pentagon criminal investigation and Guy Lawson's subsequent Rolling Stone article — but it did happen to War Dogs screenwriter Stephen Chin.
"This is it — I’m going to die on a highway in Iraq because I was dumb enough to hire a driver who wanted free gas," said Chin of what he was thinking while in the middle of the desert in Fallujah. "I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to anybody in my life as to those soldiers who came down the highway, so that sense of elation in the film was really my sense of elation."
In 2004, Chin found himself in Iraq trying to procure the life rights to Jack Roe and Brent Balloch — two young men trying to start a radio station in in the war-torn country. He brought a contract with him to the Middle East in the hopes they would agree to sign it.
"You feel like you’re at the center of the world stage," Chin said of being a civilian in Iraq, only a few years into the war.
In the late '90s, Chin, a Yale graduate, worked as a film executive and an independent film producer. He worked with Miramax and the Weinsteins, with producer credits on Harmony Korine's Gummo, Larry Clark's Another Day in Paradise and the boxing drama Play It to the Bone, starring Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas.
When asked if his experience in Hollywood prepared him in any way for his time in early-aughts Iraq, Chin laughed, saying, "Coming up in independent film gives you the feeling that you don't have to play by the rules."
When Roe and Balloch wanted to change the terms on the contract that Chin had brought, he climbed up his hotel with his satellite phone in order to call his friend in business affairs at Focus Features to assist with the new terminology.
"[They] said to be really careful and to keep my head down, because there’s a lot of gunfights at night and there’s some stray bullets that go over the roof sometimes," Chin remembers. He tells of lying on his stomach on the roof as helicopters flew by overhead and he heard gunfights happening in the streets below.
"When bullets are flying and people are chasing you down a highway, your f—ing movie credits are so utterly insignificant," Chin said, with a laugh. "You can't pull up your IMDb page and say 'Look, I'm this guy.'"
He returned from Iraq with Roe and Balloch's life rights in hand. He wrote their story into the screenplay I Rock Iraq, which would land on the 2007 Black List.
Knowing that Chin had already written the Iraq-set screenplay, Phillips — the director behind the Hangover series — approached him to adapt Packouz and Diveroli's gun-running saga, not knowing he had actually been to the country. Chin remembered: "One of the first things that Todd asked me was: 'Your script feels really, really authentic. There are all of these tiny details. Where did that come from?' And I said, 'It came from being there.'"
He parlayed his experiences in Iraq into writing what would become the Warner Bros. dramedy, which hit theaters this past weekend, grossing $20.8 million globally.
Now a full-time screenwriter, Chin just finished a science fiction tentpole for Legendary based on "a classic piece Chinese IP." He traveled to China in order to conduct on-site research for the project. He concluded: "I want to continue be able to tell stories with a kind of authority."