Guy Lawson was at a diner on a recent afternoon, feeling peevish about the state of reading in America.
“You know what a New York Times bestseller is in this country? It’s 2,400 copies — I sell 2,400 copies and get on the bestseller list. I tell that to people in Hollywood and they’re shocked. If a movie came out and 2,400 people came to see it, it would be the biggest bomb. It would be like the Michael Cimino movie, what was the name of that? ‘Heaven’s Gate’? ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ That’s what it would be.”
Lawson is the author of “Arms and the Dudes,” a bestselling book, based on his Rolling Stone article, about Miami hustlers in their 20s who founded a gun-running start-up during the U.S. military incursions of the mid-2000s.
Next Friday, Warner Bros. will release “War Dogs,” a movie based on that article. It stars Jonah Hill, the Hollywood personality who is often looked to for hyperbolic critiques of American capitalism, and is directed by “The Hangover” creator Todd Phillips, the Hollywood personality who is not.
The film also marks a first for Lawson, who by his count has had 10 articles or books optioned but until now has yet to see any of them turned into a movie.
“For a decade, I didn’t have the expectation,” he said over lunch. “My agent made sure I didn’t. There are a million ways that movies don’t happen and one way they do. To get a movie made, it’s like O.J. Simpson breaking tackles. I’m amazed when any get made.”
Lawson has shiny tussled hair and a quick verbosity, and he tends to offer thoughts with what might be called the opposite of circumspection. He had come to the city from the home he shares two hours north of Manhattan with his wife, an Indian-food entrepreneur, and their young daughters to give some interviews the previous day at the film’s junket, where he had been cautioned by Warner Bros. staffers that good publicity and ticket sales, not raw opinion, was the endgame.
He had to stop by Bloomingdales to pick up dresses for his girls for the “War Dogs” premiere in Los Angeles next week. Warner Bros. would not be flying him to the event, but he decided to pay his own way. “I figured I might as well take advantage of it,” he said. “How many times do journalists get to walk a red carpet?”
Lawson’s work contains a kind of characterological theme — other nonfiction books include “The Dukes of Oxy,” about drug-peddling hustlers, and “Octopus,” about hedge-fund hustlers — and it’s fair to say he has a bit of the street operator himself. Guy Lawson is colorful enough to be in a Guy Lawson story. He is 53 but with the exuberance of 33, and his back story, at least as he tells it, is littered with shiny objects.
Arriving in New York in his 20s after a childhood in Canada and Australia, he worked briefly as a lawyer, then moved to Montreal, where he lived in a spartan apartment in a heroin-afflicted neighborhood. He gave little thought to journalism — scripts and novels were his ambition — until he heard a local television program was looking for someone to interview authors and other luminaries. (“They said they wanted someone with no experience who no one had ever heard of. I thought ‘I’m perfect!’”)
He got the job and then, when that ended, drifted to magazine writing. He soon secured numerous magazine assignments, including some that would later become books. “Arms and the Dudes” was published last year.
If the idea of an implicit war critique as the subject of a studio film surprises you, you’re not alone — Lawson was also taken aback. For all the book’s wild tales — it includes a story of the subjects winning a $300-million contact to supply ammunition to the Pentagon, which they then procured from an illegal stockpile in Albania — also takes a serious look at hot-button topics like war profiteering.
The movie, perhaps intentionally, is not always clear on its moral tilt. At times it seems to beg our condemnation of the dudes; other times it suggests they were merely innocent products of a faulty U.S. military-industrial complex.
Lawson says he would have made the latter point more definitively.
“I like it,” he says of the film version. “They got a lot of it in. But you watch the end and you think it’s about these guys. It’s not. It’s about the system. War profiteering isn’t a crime anymore. It’s a business model. These guys didn’t break the law. The law broke them.”
He said he has come to believe that journalism and cinema aren’t just incompatible but diametrical.
“It’s interesting to see in hindsight the way [the development of ‘War Dogs’] played out. There are different forces at work. My job is to create hard-charging, see-through-the-bull ... journalism. And Todd’s prime motive is to make a movie. It’s why journalism doesn’t make good movies. Look at ‘Spotlight.’ I loved it. But I’m a journalist. All my movie friends say it’s the [worst] movie ever. Because it’s not a movie. It’s journalism.”
When it comes to Hollywood, magazine writers can be like a diabetic at an ice cream shop: close enough to smell the flavors but constitutionally restricted from doing anything about it.
Fundamentally, of course, nonfiction writers form an important part of the movie business — “Argo,” “American Gangster” and “The Fast and the Furious” were among the numerous hits based on print-journalism stories. “Arms and the Dudes” is included on this long list, spotted and sent to Phillips by Hollywood producing mainstay Mark Gordon. But the journalists who pen these stories tend to live at the bottom of the food chain, and even though much of their work has become successful films, few moviegoers could tell you those movies came from articles, let alone who wrote them.
Some journalists tend to be more accepting of this fact than others. Lawson is not in this group.
He was miffed earlier in the promotional tour when he didn’t feel Phillips was sufficiently crediting him (he says he and the director have since gotten to know each other and have patched things up) and by his own admission got himself into trouble when he offered suggestions to Stephen Chin, the writer of the first draft of “War Dogs," and Jason Smilovic, author of the second draft, and "like the girl who’s just not returning your texts very often,” didn’t hear back.
“I realized that if they wanted my opinion they’d ask for it,” he said. “But it took me a while to understand that.”
Asked what he thought of Chin’s draft, Lawson took a long pause, smiled, and said, “This would be one of those moments when Warner Bros. reminds me to be positive.”
Phillips said that Lawson’s writing had some unique qualities. “If you’d read his stories as fiction pieces in the New Yorker you would think, ‘It’s so cool, so unbelievable,’” the director said in an interview. “So the idea that it’s all true really impacted me. There’s just something very cinematic about it.”
It’s easy to see why Hollywood has flocked to Lawson’s writing. (Among other optioned recent work is “Octopus,” bought by HBO; a GQ article called “The Knife,” about L.A. gangs, which has been bought by CBS as a potential TV series; and a New York Times Magazine story about a couple of regular Minnesota guys who plot a trip to the North Pole, which is being developed as a film by Will Ferrell.) His stories are scene-rich, with the kind of reconstructed conversations, high stakes (“jeopardy,” in filmmaker parlance) and mini-crescendos that Hollywood loves.
Lawson says he doesn’t want to actually write screenplays; the man whose work seems to come from the same DNA wants, somewhat contradictorily, little to do with its bloodline. “The pure human suffering would get me. Waiting 10 years for something to come out? I go crazy if I have to wait 10 weeks.” He said he wouldn’t adapt his own material either. “My agent told me, correctly, it would be half as good and be twice as hard to sell.”
Not that he believes those professionally charged with the task are faring much better.
“It seems to me there are a lot of people on the Westside of Los Angeles are trying to gin up screenplays, taking great stories and making them average. And nothing ever happens. What if only one out of every 50 stories I wrote were published? I’d be out of a job.”
He’s also not much a fan of the companies, whether film-production entities or journalism outlets, that increasingly snap up movie rights to writers’ work, calling it “obscene” for the breadth of the rights and the size of the check.
He notes that journalism itself is plenty imperiled even without these forces. After being told of John Oliver’s recent HBO segment about the unraveling of serious reporting, which featured David Simon and others lamenting clickbait pressure and a lack of resources, Lawson shook his head.
“I think what Simon says is right. There’s no one stationed at City Hall anymore, and they don’t know anyone or anything. I mean, there were a lot of Pentagon beat reporters and no one got this story. Reporting is hard. You gotta put in the time. You gotta burn some barns.”
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