OUTPOST SPECIAL: This interview is part of a special feature surrounding the film The Outpost. Click the following links in all caps to read our REVIEW, and our interviews with Medal of Honor recipient TY CARTER and the author of The Outpost book, CNN’s JAKE TAPPER.
Director Rod Lurie’s visceral, honest, and heartfelt vision of the Battle of Kamdesh makes THE OUTPOST the best war film born of the modern era. He spoke with us about the key decisions that set the film apart and make it live in your mind long after the credits roll.
INTERVIEW BY MATT TUTHILL
RI MAGAZINE: You’re not just a veteran, you’re a graduate of West Point—an institution which prides itself on producing leaders who win by their wits, being better prepared, and not just being technologically superior to the enemy. And yet, it was decided that, to get a foothold in this region, it was okay to set up an outpost that basically left our men like fish in a barrel, at the bottom of these mountains. As you dug into the details of this battle and figured out what they were up against, it must have perplexed you.
ROD LURIE: Well, let me give you a piece of information that I don’t think has appeared anywhere. When I was a cadet, my squad leader was a guy named Mick Nicholson. He was a complete hard-ass, but he was also a fantastic cadet, one of the greatest cadets that ever walked that campus. In fact, he became the brigade commander the following year. He was perfect. And it was Colonel Mick Nicholson that set up that outpost, which I found shocking, when I read it.
So I wrote him a letter, although he never responded to it, saying, “I’m going to make a movie about your decision,” though I never ended up never using his name in the movie. I really, really respect him. In fact, he is now a four-star general, and he has been in conflict with Trump a couple of times.
In any case, Mick Nicholson is not going to just set up things haphazardly for no reason, so there was a reason to build those outposts. If you look at any photo of the combat outpost, you’ll see that right next to it is a village—100 yards away, so they built it for counter-insurgency. They wanted to make nice with the villagers so that the villagers would be more loyal to the United States than they were to the Taliban.
The other thing was that this particular outpost was on a road that had been used as a supply route of weapons from Pakistan to the Taliban. So, there were reasons for building this outpost, and a few other outposts like it, but in my opinion, reasons not good enough, because there was just no way that there was not going to be a time where there would be some sort of overwhelming force, really well-armed, that was going to sneak down from their high ground, onto our low grounds, and attack, which is exactly what happened.
RI: The action is incredibly intense. You can’t take your eyes off it. But did you have concerns about making any of the action, quote, too cool, or too entertaining?
LURIE: That was really, really important, that this didn’t come across as a piece of entertainment. Before the film began, we contacted the families of all the men who had lost their lives, and there was only one family member who we spoke with that was openly hostile to us. You know, “You’re a bunch of Hollywood guys, you want to get rich off the death of,” in this case, her husband. I told her, “I will just bury my head in shame if that is what happens, because it’s exactly what we don’t want to happen.”
Also: almost everybody who is involved in this film, emphasis on the word almost, was working for scale, which is the equivalent of minimum wage. We had several veterans in the film, including myself, and this was very important to us, that the film comes across as absolutely authentic, and that we seek the truth everywhere that we can get it.
But there’s something else, which you probably already know, which affected me the most profoundly in this area, and that’s the fact that when I was in prep on this film, my son Hunter died. He was 27, and he died right in front of my eyes. I just saw the last breath go out of him, my whole family did. And sometime later, my daughter said to me, “You know, dad … I know you feel like you can’t make a movie, or any movie, but you have to go back and make this one, and you have to make it great, because if you didn’t it would kill Hunter,” who was a movie lover. And the last time I saw him, it was with all the actors in this film and some of the actual soldiers.
I took that to heart, and I called up Millennium and I said to them, “Okay, I’m coming back, but everyone needs to get out of my way. I dedicate this to my son, now.”
I realized something else, which is that Hunter was the same age as the men who died, and pretty much all the families, including those who were a little bit hesitant on the film, they got behind me in a way that was just beautiful. I was a member of this terrible club now. I guess that’s a very long way of getting to the fact that I now had to consider: if my son’s death was portrayed on the screen, how would I want to see it?
The answer is with honesty. We see the deaths of these men on the screen, and there are no music swells. You don’t linger on the deaths. They die as they did, instantaneous in most cases. In some cases it lingered, but it was all done with honesty.
When we showed the film to the families… They reacted the way that we had hoped, which is with a certain graciousness and gratefulness for the integrity with which we showed it. This became really important, we became completely obsessed with this.
RI: My deepest condolences to you. I knew you had dedicated the film to him, but I never would have guessed that he informed such a crucial creative decision.
LURIE: Look, I don’t know how you or Robert feel about him politically, but there’s something rather beautiful about the persona of Joe Biden. My wife, a few months after Hunter’s death, gave me his book called PROMISE ME, DAD, and in that book, he talks about the need for purpose after something like this happens.
What my wife said to me, “Our children are supposed to be our legacy,” and in this case, I’ve become my son’s legacy. I want his name spoken forever, and I want the same for the names of the nine fallen—nine including Ed Faulkner, who overdosed after the battle.
If we want their names to be spoken forever, this is one way to do it, and so it became my purpose. My son will be part of the purpose of everything I do for the rest of my life.
RI: Some of the men who actually participated in the battle played themselves in the film or consulted.
LURIE: Jariko Denman and Ray Mendoza were the military consultants on the film. They were brilliant and they guided us through everything—from how to eat an MRE, to how to fire the M4, how to fire mortars, how to march and run with your weapons, and they’ve had basic training, so they did all of that stuff.
But we had several people that were directly connected to the battle, who were there. One is Ty Carter himself, the Medal of Honor recipient, played by Caleb. With just this brilliant specificity, he was able to show us what happened to him in the battle. I believe that what we see him going through in the battle is pretty much perfect, in terms of its authenticity. He would tell us exactly where he shot that one Taliban guy he shot, and how he went down, and how far away he was, and show us how Brad Larson, the sergeant who was with him, shot two guys. And when Ty was running with Mace on a stretcher at the end, when he basically stopped breathing, just to collect himself as he was running, and how he collapsed at the end, and what hand he used to open the door of the Humvee. It was perfect.
We had another, the guy who plays Sgt. Brad Larson, he is named Hank Hughes. Hank Hughes was a lieutenant at that base in real, but not there for the battle. He helped me with the screenplay, he was a great actor.
Then, there was Daniel Rodriguez, who literally played himself. Rodriguez was somebody we really wanted. He fought in the mortar pit, and we came up with the idea of inviting Rodriguez to play himself, and he really wanted to but he wasn’t so sure he could do it. When I sent Daniel a photo of the extra who was going to play him he decided to played himself.
The full weight of the battle begins to land on Ty Carter, portrayed by Caleb Landry Jones.
He had to replicate the death of his best friend, Kevin Thomson, who died in front of his eyes, and that was quite a day for us, because Rodriguez was able to show us exactly how his friend died, and he was cool, and calm, and collected, and almost cold about how to treat the scene, and then, when we were done, he went away and, I think, fell apart. Which is what soldiers do, we fight a battle in the field, with the emotional ramifications later.
RI: We never get close to the Taliban fighters. We always see them at a distance, as the men would have seen them from the outpost. Were you ever tempted to get a closeup of a bad guy’s face, or did you always know from the start that doing it this way would be more effective?
LURIE: The point of the movie, for me, anyway, was telling it completely from the outpost, and from the point of view of these men. We would only see the Taliban as they would see them. Almost everything that you see in the film is how the men would see it, so really, the closest that you ever get to them is when they’re on the outpost, or through the scopes. In the original screenplay, something like 30% of the movie was told from the point of view of the Taliban, but several things came into play there. One is that our budget was so low, I just decided that it would be much less expensive if I did everything at the outpost.
The studio [Millenium] wanted me to get in thick wherever I could between our guys and then the Taliban. That’s because that studio primarily makes action films, and they’re very, very good at it. I’m a big fan of The Expendables, the Rambo films, or the … Has Fallen series.
But one of our mantras was, “We’re making a war film, not an action film,” and that’s a very significant difference.
I came out of watching Dunkirk, so blown away, and impressed, and I realized that there is just a new standard for how to make a war film, and that you have to do it in new, creative ways. I decided that, for almost every sequence in the battle we would do it without cutaways, as oners, or single shots. And 70% or 80% of the movie is one flowing shot. I thought that would just be the best way to immerse you in the battle.
Rod Lurie is the director of 19 films, including Resurrecting The Champ and The Last Castle. Follow him on TWITTER and INSTAGRAM. His son Hunter, to whom The Outpost is dedicated, worked as a film editor.