War is hell.
Though that may sound cliché in, there’s no question that any war requires incredible sacrifice that can be difficult to understand for those who have never been involved in the military. Still, over the years, this has not stopped filmmakers from attempting to bring the intensity and tragedy of war to life on screen.
With his latest film, The Outpost, director Rod Lurie (The Contender) may have come closer than others to depicting reality with his incredible and intense look at the famed Battle of Kamdesh, the bloodiest engagement in the Afghanistan War. When he was first offered the script, Lurie says that he found this particular project too enticing to pass up, especially considering his own military background.
“As a military guy, I’m living every day on military websites and [I have] my military friends on Facebook and on Twitter, [so] I was aware of the story,” Lurie begins. “Certainly, I was aware of The Battle of Kamdesh. It’s absolutely within military folklore at this point. So, when it was brought to me, there was just no doubt I was going to do this. It was, by the way, brought to me by the first director of it, Sam Raimi. Sam had decided to drop out as director and was not going to produce it. Although he didn’t ultimately end up producing it, I first heard about it as a film project in his office with his head of development—a guy named Paul Merryman—and the film’s two writers, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. I knew there was just no way [that] I wasn’t going to do this film.”
The Outpost tells the story of Bravo Troop 3-61 CAV, a small unit of U.S. soldiers left alone at the remote Combat Outpost Keating, who are tasked with helping maintain the peace and build relationships with the locals. Trapped at the bottom of a deep valley between three mountains in Afghanistan, the division sits exposed and faces daily attacks from insurgents. Then, when an overwhelming force of Taliban fighters attacks them, the unit finds themselves faced with the impossible task of defending their station and staying alive.
Relentless and unyielding, The Outpost is a visceral experience that makes the viewer feel as though they’re in the middle of the firefight. While he may have never been directly involved in combat himself, Lurie also argues his passion for this project extends from his desire to honour his brothers-in-arms.
“If I’m really being honest, it’s my lack of experience that made me want to make this film,” he confesses. “I graduated in 1984 from West Point, the United States military Academy. [It was a] tough four years. I graduated into a peace time and served in Germany. I was with an air defense unit. I was never on a battlefield and never had a bullet pass my head. I never fired a bullet at an enemy. My life was never in danger in any real way but that’s not true of my classmates. Many of my classmates have decorations that they wear on their chest from their valorous actions and from being in the field of battle. When I go back to my reunions at West point, I’m one of the guys who wasn’t in battle. It’s not a great feeling, to be honest with you. I always knew I wanted to make a war film, but not just any war film. It had to be about the war that my brothers were fighting in. So, if I couldn’t be on a battlefield with him, then I was going to honor them and this was the best way to do it… [It’s] the only way that I can do it right now, I think.”
Of course, with any film of this nature, preparing for the role would be an intense process. Though some of the cast were military veterans, Lurie notes that the actors who were experiencing basic training for the first time found themselves pushed much harder than they had expected.
“I really had to put these guys through the ringer,” Lurie recalls. “A lot of the guys were already vets. They were soldiers and they knew how to hold an M4. They knew how to fire a weapon. They knew how to move. But a lot of these guys, they’re like trained at Carnegie Mellon University. They are not soldiers. So, I sent them to basic training with our military guys…. This was not easy for a lot of these guys. I mean, there are many times at lunch where they would come and they would sit with me and there would be a tear rolling down their eye, going ‘I didn’t expect this humiliation. I didn’t expect this physical toughness.’ I had to train them properly, so that was very, very, very difficult for them.”
“Now, [then there’s] somebody like Caleb Landry Jones, who plays Ty Carter, the medal of honor recipient, in the film,” he continues. “I’ve never seen a guy more dedicated than this kid. It’s just incredible. When I first met Caleb, he was exactly what I thought I was going to be, which is like this hippie type. He’s as Olive Oyl (from the Popeye series) and he’s hairy down to his [butt]. It’s like the opposite of the sort of buff, tough bald-headed [guy] who was Ty Carter… But I knew that Caleb was a great actor and, from speaking to people about him, I knew that he was dedicated and he would somehow transform himself into this guy. In fact, I sent him to meet Ty Carter. Ty called me and he said, ‘Rod, this guy is going to work out’. He was really nervous, but… Caleb transformed himself. That also meant militarily. So, he took it very, very seriously when the military guys trained them. In fact, Caleb’s brother, a guy named John Jones – is a Marine who lost both his legs in battle and he came to Bulgaria and trained with his brother. So, there was lots and lots of an attempt at authenticity in this film. I think we nailed it, in the end.”
Asked about the response he’s gotten from those involved that have seen the film, Lurie is grateful for the overwhelming support that he has received from the veterans and their families. However, that should not be surprising. To his credit, The Outpost works hard to depict The Battle of Kamdesh as realistically as possible. In fact, one of the most amazing aspects of the film is the fact that some of the survivors themselves are in the film, in some cases playing themselves.
“Not only have they seen the film, some of them are in the film,” he asserts. “Daniel Rodriguez, who fought in the mortar pit, plays himself in the movie. Not only that, but he had to relive for us the death of his best friend. He actually staged it for us. He told us exactly how it happened, which was obviously a hugely traumatic experience for him, but he was a good soldier and he fell apart after he did that for us. We had a screening for many of the survivors of the battle and for the families of the fallen last October in Washington DC. That had to have been among the most emotional nights of my life. Certainly, that’s pretty remarkable. It was really something. What these families realized was that their loved ones, their names, will live on now. They don’t just disappear into the ether. Their names matter.”
Though Lurie recognizes the value of every man who served in Kamdesh, he chooses to frame the narrative in segments that focus on the unit’s rotating (and brief) commanders. Given their dramatic differences in approach, Lurie felt that this would be a good way to highlight them and how their varying styles to leadership affected the unit.
“The commanders were targeted by the Taliban, so I thought that was one way to sort of honour them. One after another, they either die or have to leave the outpost. They also have different styles of command, which I thought was very interesting. So, the story sort of changes as we go along, based on the leadership styles of the commanders. I just thought that it would be a very effective form of storytelling.”
One interesting aspect of the film is the fact that, though they live and serve together, there are no guarantees that the troops will come together until they’re on the field of battle. Popularized over the years as the ‘band of brothers’ mindset, Lurie believes that, while may be willing to sacrifice themselves for one another, the truth about the relationships between men off the field may have become overstated.
“I think you’ve latched onto something really, really interesting. You’re right. They are not friends,” he points out. “In fact, sometimes they’re actually like almost enemies. They will fight in the barracks, but they do learn that, in the field of battle, they’re all brothers. They are absolutely brothers. The real Ty Carter will tell you how unpopular he was among the other soldiers. Nobody liked him. He didn’t like anybody, but he saved a lot of lives. He put his life on the line in a very dramatic way for at least for one soldier and probably for several more. That is what it boils down to. These guys that are in Afghanistan right now, I’m talking about troops for all nations, they’re there to survive more than to do anything else. That means being there for your brother. It’s really simple.”
“That’s not a good enough reason to have troops over there, in my opinion. It’s not a good enough reason. During the Second World War, you ask every soldier why they’re there, [and] they’d all have the same answer. You’re going to stop Hitler. I don’t know that if you asked any soldier at any war after that why are they are there that they would have the answer. The closest common denominator [as an] answer would be ‘to keep my brother alive’. That’s the reason that they’re there. It’s not good enough, but it is what it is.”
In addition, while other famed war films such as Saving Private Ryan and 1917 choose to emphasize the gravity of their specific mission at hand, The Outpost opts to instead focus on survival as the mission itself. For Lurie, this level of sacrifice was one of the most inspirational aspects of the project.
According to Lurie, “Scott Eastwood, who plays Sergeant Clint Romesha says [in the film that], ‘Our mission is what it’s always been.’ Then he says, ‘To survive’. That is indeed what all but eight of them did. They survived. But there’s something also very inspirational about that. This movie is not a morose thing at all. You will likely come out of this very moved, but also very inspired by the human spirit and what the human calculus is capable of. When I was at West point, what I was told was once you think you have exhausted everything, you’re only 10% of the way there. That’s something you see in The Outpost.
For full audio of our interview with Rod Lurie, click here.
The Outpost is currently streaming on iTunes, Google Play and other VOD sites.