In the Director’s Statement found in The Outpost press notes, director Rod Lurie writes, “You’ll tell the truth as best as a film will allow you to tell it. You’ll shame the devil, you’ll honor the men, and you’ll remind your audiences that regardless of who they voted for, and regardless of what they think of military decision making, that these young men, these young soldiers, had a courage and humanity that needs to be admired for the rest of history.”
The Outpost certainly lives up to this mandate. As many journos have pointed out, the film is a “respectful” depiction of The Battle of Kamdesh, the bloodiest American confrontation of the Afghan War. But the word “respectful” feels reductive. What the film does is honor the brave men who had the unfortunate mission of defending an outpost located bottom-valley-deep surrounded by three huge mountains—a rather futile endeavor.
The film is a testament to the valor of our servicemen as well as a reminder of how, over and over again, American military leaders sign off on impossible operations, knowingly leading their own men to doom. It’s the soldiers that must fight, often to the death, to survive insurmountable odds—with little to no support from the higher-ups.
But Lurie never overtly brings politics into the fray. He doesn’t have to. The presentation of the story, as it happened, is enough.
(The recent breaking news about Russia paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers lends the film a disturbing timeliness.)
Based on the 2012 Jake Tapper best seller, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, The Outpost is deftly and reverentially adapted for the screen by Oscar nominees (for The Fighter) Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson.
In the movie’s first few reels, we meet and get to know the men of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV, incredulously assigned to Combat Outpost Keating. Then, on October 3, 2009, the 53-soldier unit is attacked by 400 Taliban members in a bitter 12-hour battle. The film’s soul lives in that 40-something minute combat sequence—correction—lives in the young men who risked (and for 8 gave) their lives to hold the outpost.
The excellent ensemble includes Scott Eastwood (looking more and more like papa Clint), Caleb Landry Jones, Orlando Bloom, and Milo Gibson (yep, Mel’s son).
West Point grad, Lurie, made it his personal mission to bring this story to the screen. Lurie is no stranger to socially-conscious work. A former film journo, Lurie made his narrative feature debut in 2000 with Deterrence, about the potential consequences of a retaliatory nuclear strike on Iraq.
His subsequent credits include the powerful political drama, The Contender (garnering Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges), The Last Castle about an explosive conflict that arises between a warden and his prisoners and the egregiously overlooked Nothing But the Truth, a potent defense of journalistic integrity. The latter two had their own unfortunate controversies which stymied audience attendance. (NBTT didn’t even get a distribution because of the production company declaring bankruptcy—but you can find it on DVD.)
Awards Daily recently spoke to Lurie about this important new work that will most certainly be in the awards conversation.
Awards Daily: After 1917 and Dunkirk, I didn’t think it was possible for a modern-day combat film to come close to those visceral experiences, but The Outpost does just that.
Rod Lurie: Thank you, Frank. Thank you very, very fucking much. I really appreciate that.
AD: When and why did you decide this would be your next project?
RL: In 2011, I released a movie called Straw Dogs, which I’m really proud of on a creative level and on a philosophical level, but it completely tanked. It was pretty much a fiasco due to the fact that the central part of that movie was a very famous rape scene. And nobody went. It just killed me. I was offered movies (since then) but not the kind of movies I wanted to make. I spent a lot of time developing and doing television work…I knew my next movie had to be…something that came from deep inside of me…
Three years ago, my agents told me that Sam Raimi wanted to meet with me. And I went to his offices and he had The Outpost screenplay, written by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy…Raimi was going to be the director, and for reasons I’m not really privy to, he decided he did not want to and he asked me, if he produced it, would I direct it? I couldn’t at the time because I was going to do a big pilot for TNT and that took me out of the loop for over a year…
Then (producer) Paul Merryman had left Sam’s company and Sam gave him The Outpost. And he met with me at Art’s Deli in Burbank and he had the writers with him and they wanted to do a miniseries now. And I told them I didn’t think it was a miniseries but I loved it as a movie. And we walked it over to Millennium, who had expressed some interest in it several years ago, and they bought it in the room. Next thing you know we’re casting and trying to get the movie made.
AD: Discussing pro versus anti-war films, I’ve been immersed in World War II combat films for a project I’m working on. I’ve watched a ton from Anzio to 4 Days of Naples to Massacre in Rome. Some are gung-ho kill-Nazi films, others are gritty and condemning like Cavani’s The Skin and Come and See. You focus on the soldier’s struggles and not the politics.
RL: I didn’t want any politics in the film. I want as many people to see it as possible. I didn’t want anybody to dismiss the film because they thought it was either like The Green Berets, which is one of the rare pro-war films, or that it was something to shove in the face of our politicians…It was really important to me that this was a soldier’s story. I think liberals and conservatives both have a love for the American soldier. We may have a problem with the wars themselves and the policy makers, but I just wanted to get into the mud with the soldiers. In many ways the film owes a debt to Paths of Glory…It’s really about (the soldiers) and their plight. And that they’re really at the whims of the decision makers, not of politicians but of their military leaders who don’t take into account the devastation that can [happen] to them. This outpost was put at the base of these mountains. And there were reasons for it, counterinsurgency being the top one, but the reasons were not good enough. It’s like Paths of Glory. There’s a reason to try and take the anthill but it’s not good enough.
By the way, you mentioned some really great films, none better than Come and See, especially the last hour of the film. It’s just extraordinary filmmaking, more about the toll on the civilians than it is about the soldiers. But it’s also a chronicle of events which is what [The Outpost is] as well.
AD: You reference Paths of Glory and what you do in The Outpost, in presenting events so honestly and without the political bells and whistles—I think it’s actually more anti-war than it’s being given credit for.
RL: It’s very hard to make a film that is not anti-war. But what does anti-war mean? With those World War II films, you can’t be anti-the reasons for that war but you can make a film that shows you the horrors of war and why we should never be at war. The Normandy scene in Saving Private Ryan is a very anti-war sequence in a film that is very pro-soldier. Obviously, I’m never going to compare my film to those films…but Paths of Glory, Saving Private Ryan, Come and See were movies that were very inspiring to us.
AD: You were smart to develop the characters first before tossing them into combat. How did you work with the actors/writers to achieve the results you wanted?
RL: The accentuation of these characters is really important before we go into the final battle, otherwise they’re just people dropping…and it becomes a video game. So we tried, with every character—there were eight people who lost their lives—we tried to, at some point, give them their time in the sun and get to know them a little bit. Tragedy in movies doesn’t come from death it comes from what we lost because of that death. And all these guys had loves at home, a future at home, they had aspirations. And all those things disappeared when they needlessly lost their lives. So we really wanted to reinforce that.
I had all the actors communicate and form a relationship with either the people they were portraying or with the families of those who died so they got to know them very well. And when they got to set, each of them had this massive obligation to get it as right as they possibly could. And the actors themselves would come to me and say, can we tweak this scene or add this scene in order to give a little bit more humanity and life to these characters? When these actors start to research their own roles, they begin to know (them) better than I do. So the screenplay was always evolving…for many reasons—some budgetary, some as we got more educated about the battle at Outpost Keating and some from wanting them to sound more soldierly, because the writers were not soldiers, but they’re great fucking writers. And then, finally, from long discussions in rehearsals with the actors. So you’ve latched onto something that was really important to us.
AD: Can you speak a bit about assembling the incredible cast? Scott Eastwood and Caleb Landry Jones were particularly outstanding.
RL: Scott, to me, is a better actor than his dad was at that age. His father has become one of the all-time great actors…Scott Eastwood is really capable of this beautiful empathy. We met a few times to discuss the role and the movie. He spoke with Clint Romesha (his character) on the phone and started to understand him a little bit. Scott has this zeal to be a really terrific actor, he wants to grow. He’s not a guy who, like many other actors I know, thinks he has all the answers, thinks he’s beyond growth.
Caleb is the like opposite of Ty Carter, the guy he portrayed. When I met Caleb at Mel’s Drive-In, he had hair down to his ass, he was skinny like a lamppost. He’s a hippie-type, a commune-type. But I knew he was a great actor, and he promised me he was going to be able to nail this. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his brother was a Marine who lost both his legs in Iraq. And when his brother read the script, he told Caleb, ‘You are fucking making this movie and you’re not going to fuck it up.’ Caleb went to meet Ty Carter in Austin. And Ty calls me and he says, ‘This guy’s gonna go to the gym, right?’ He did go to the gym and got in shape and shaved his head. And he did bust his ass in boot camp. And he did get this right. And for me it’s one of the great war movie performances ever. I really hope he’s remembered by these groups at the end of the—whatever the end of the (season) is.
AD: What would awards attention mean to you and the film?
RL: Awards attention is something you want to get people to see your movie. It’s just one of the metrics that people use when deciding what movie they’re going to see. And I love seeing my team recognized. I would love to see Caleb recognized. I would love Lorenzo Senatore, the DP who was so brilliant…The beauty and the genius of 1917 is not so much the one-ers, it’s the appearance of a one-er. They did a lot of stitching. We did very little stitching. What Lorenzo is able to pull off in this movie is simply stunning. And the creativity we used in trying to shoot these scenes is stellar. And the production design is beautiful, I love the score by Larry Groupé. I wrote the song for the end of the film. I would love to see Rita Wilson, who sings it, up on that stage.
AD: It’s a beautiful song.
RL: Thank you! Rita really nailed it and helped with the lyrics. A lot of these people are at the beginning of their careers and I’d like to see that boost for them—people who don’t normally get recognition. It would be really nice
AD: The one lousy thing is the film opening during this pandemic. It’s a big screen film. That’s got to be frustrating for you.
RL: We were supposed to open SXSW. And that went down. Then we were supposed to have a big premiere at West Point. That went up in a puff of Covid smoke when the cadets were sent home. Damn, I graduated from West Point and always dreamed of going back there with some kind of triumph. Then we were supposed to open it on 500 to 700 screens with Fathom, and that went away when all the major chains delayed their openings. So now we’re on 71 screens and on VOD. I’m very happy to say, we’re number one. We’re the most watched film in the country. I’m very happy with the critical reception at the moment. But obviously it is heartbreaking, but I will tell you something, Frank, I think this is going to be the new normal…It’s just the way it’s going to go.
AD: You came out of film criticism. Can you go back and assess your own films through a critical eye? Do you?
RL: Are you kidding me? It’s all I do. And it’s all that any filmmaker does is go back and reexamine their movies…I basically got out of that business because I didn’t think I was anywhere near as good as people like Manhola Dargis or David Denby or Pauline Kael or Ebert, and that I would never rise to the top. So I sometimes read these reviews and, from certain people, I learn from them. When they tell me, objectively, what is working and, more importantly, what is not working in a film, I definitely take it to heart.
AD: Is there anything that you excised from the cut that might make it onto a Special Edition Blu-ray?
RL: There will be a few deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. There is one in particular that I regret is not in the movie. It is based on a true incident in which the men on patrol come across a baby in the middle of the mountains. They decide to take the baby with them, only to be pursued by the baby’s grandmother. It creates a small shitstorm because the villagers now believe that the Americans have tried to kidnap one of their babies.
Almost every director will tell you about the one or two moments that they (or the studio) cut from the film that keeps them up at night. This is mine.
The Outpost is currently on VOD and in select theaters.