Rod Lurie had spent about an hour talking to TheWrap about “The Outpost” — the combat movie he directed that was scheduled to have its world premiere at this week’s South by Southwest Film Festival — when he stopped and frowned.
“You can say that as you sat with the director, he was wondering whether South by Southwest was even going to be going on,” he said in a conversation that took place on Feb. 28. “There is a real fear that it could be canceled. And I really, really wanna screen at South by Southwest.”
His film, of course, will not screen at SXSW — and neither will anything else, with the city of Austin canceling the festival on March 6 over coronavirus fears. Sadly, the setback was par for the course for “The Outpost,” a taut and emotional film that faced a string of difficulties as Lurie and his team worked to tell the story of a remote base of 43 American soldiers who fought off hundreds of Taliban attackers in Kamdesh, Afghanistan in 2009.
The filmmakers had to deal with making a large-scale combat movie on a small budget, but also with a race against a competing project, an injury to the lead actor that could have derailed the movie, the sudden and tragic death of the director’s son during pre-production and, finally, with the cancellation of SXSW.
“There was always something threatening to kill the film,” said producer Paul Merryman, who added that the production team began using the military abbreviation for rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) that were sometimes used to attack the outpost. “We had a phrase among ourselves — we called it ‘the Weekly RPG.’ There was always something, whether it was the tragedy of Rod’s son or Scott Eastwood breaking his ankle.
“And now, the latest RPG is the coronavirus.”
Its troubles aside, “The Outpost” is a tough movie with heart, an immersive war film that honors the men who fought in Kamdesh while making it clear that their superiors had put them in an impossible situation on a base hemmed in by mountains. The battle itself, during which eight Americans were killed and for which two would win the Medal of Honor, is the harrowing and extended climax of the film. Lurie and writers Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson spend enough time establishing the geography of the camp and the personalities of the soldiers who man it that when all hell breaks loose, we know what’s happening and care about who it’s happening to. And just as important, the film includes some quieter notes in the aftermath of the battle, adding a lovely emotional coda to the story.
The film is based on a 2012 book by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.” Tamasy said he was drawn to the subject after seeing a CNN documentary and being amazed that the soldiers were placed in a valley that made them sitting ducks for attackers. He and Johnson developed it as a pitch and were in the process of making a deal with Universal and producer Scott Stuber when they got word that director Sam Raimi was interested. “We took a meeting with Sam and actually walked away from the deal at Universal to work with him,” he said.
But two stumbling blocks came up: Raimi decided he wasn’t the right person to direct the film, and the writers learned that Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, one of the two soldiers who received the Medal of Valor for his performance in the fight, was writing his own book, “Red Platoon,” and making a deal with Sony. “When we got word that he set his film up there, we knew we were in a race,” Tamasy, who considered writing the story for TV to beat Sony to the punch, said.
Merryman, who had brought the film to Raimi, left that company, took the project with him and looked for another director. He was a fan of former film critic turned director Lurie, whose work includes the Oscar-nominated film “The Contender” and the television series “Commander in Chief.” And Lurie’s history as a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point was another drawing card.
“I’m almost certain I was the fourth, fifth or sixth name on their list,” Lurie said. “The elephant in the room was that my last theatrical film, ‘Straw Dogs,’ was a box office disaster. So I got a lot of offers that you offer to directors who are on their ass. I basically held off until I could get a thing that was perfect for me. And I felt that ‘The Outpost’ was, given my own history as a soldier and my love of these films.”
But Lurie’s Western series “Monsters of God” got a pilot order at TNT, so he went off to make that. When the pilot was completed and the network didn’t pick it up for a series, he returned to “The Outpost,” at which point Tamasy said, “The biggest challenge was, can we get it done fast enough?”
The film was financed by Millennium, but much of the budget had gone to securing the rights to Tapper’s book. “We didn’t have the budget to make the movie that was originally written,” Lurie said. “The movie that was written was this massive thing that involved several locations, but I decided to set the whole thing on one base, to really be on the ground with these guys to see how awful the situation was.” Tamasy and Johnson, who were nominated for an Oscar for “The Fighter,” made constant changes, moving scenes in which the army met with leaders from the village itself — which the production couldn’t afford to build — to the base.
Lurie was determined to make the battle “pitch-perfect to the truth of what happened,” taking extensive notes from Ty Carter, the other soldier who’d won the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. (He is played in the film by Caleb Landry Jones.) “He was able to tell us which door handles to grab and how many shots were fired,” Lurie said.
But the production had to stay away from Romesha, who was working with Sony on his movie. While Lurie said Romesha spent a couple of hours speaking with Scott Eastwood, who plays him in the film, a legal letter from Sony kept everyone else at bay. (“Red Platoon” has since been shelved, Tamasy said.)
The production scouted locations in Morocco but ended up in Bulgaria, where Millennium often makes its films. Lurie was at a bar there in the summer of 2018 preparing to watch a World Cup match when his mother called to tell him that his 27-year-old son, Hunter, was in a coma in a hospital in Michigan, where he’d gone for a music festival. (Hunter, a film zealot and commercial editor, had developed a blood clot which traveled to his heart and caused cardiac arrest.) “With the help of Millennium, I got there very quickly, just in time to see him take his last breath,” he said.
“At that point, the last thing you’re thinking about is work. But Paige, my daughter, literally as Hunter is dying — we’re taking him off all the systems and they told us it would be five, six, seven minutes — she said to me, ‘I know that you feel you cannot make this film right now, but now you really have to. Anybody who knows Hunter knows how much he loved that film. And it would destroy him if he thought that the film went down because of him.'”
As he thought about returning to “The Outpost,” Lurie also found a connection between his loss and that experienced by the families of the eight soldiers killed in the battle. “I realized then that Hunter was the same age as these guys who were in the fight,” he said. “And I asked myself, ‘If I was seeing a movie about my son dying, how would I want it to be portrayed?’ I assume that the way I would want to see it portrayed is the way that the families would want to see it portrayed — truthfully, without gratuitousness. And I knew what I had to do.”
The families of the soldiers, he added, were his lifeline as he returned to work. “You cannot begin to imagine the support that they gave me through letters, phone calls, sending food to my house. And the film took on an importance that is like nothing I’ve ever felt in my life. The producers could easily have said, ‘You know what, Rod? God bless you, so sorry for the loss of your son, but you’re probably not ready right now to do this.’ But the point is, I was ready. I don’t think I could have done any other film.”
Merryman said that one of the soldiers from Kamdesh added a special gift. “When a unit goes to war and they lose men, they commemorate the lives lost in a bracelet, called a KIA bracelet,” he said. “Before the movie began, Rod had made one with all of the names of the fallen men from this battle, very similar to the ones the real unit had. But I believe that right before the production, Rod received one of the actual bracelets from Captain Stoney Portis. It had the names of all the fallen men, and then on the inside of it, Hunter’s name was there.”
Lurie returned to Bulgaria with renewed purpose — only to learn, two or three weeks before shooting was set to begin, that Eastwood had broken his ankle. “This was a catastrophe,” he said. “This character wins the Medal of Honor from running and gunning, and he’s got a broken f—ing ankle? Scott Eastwood is saying, ‘I’ll f—ing coming over on, I’m doing this movie. I promise you I can do this.’
“That’s nice, but the insurance company is not quite buying it. At that point, the entire movie can shut down. Millennium would get paid off for their expenses, everyone goes home, thank you very much. So I get on the phone with the insurance company and explain scene-by-scene how I’m going to shoot it in a way that Scott can do it. I had to redo the entire schedule so that we would begin with stuff where Scott is just standing or sitting. Then we would give Scott two weeks off while we shot all the action stuff with Caleb and the other actors. And then I would bring Scott in and we would begin with the easiest physical stuff, ending with the most difficult stuff.”
Lurie also used a two-week delay to rehearse the battle scenes, which were done in long, uninterrupted takes and had to be carefully mapped out. (The film was shot before Sam Mendes did something similar in “1917.”) “It was a f—ing bear to shoot,” Lurie said. “But I wasn’t going to let down the families; I wasn’t going to let down the people who lived through this; I wasn’t going to let down my son.
“Millennium, the crew, the actors — nobody’s was f—ing around, you know? I had my son’s photo up on the monitor and if anybody was coming to complain about anything, they took one look at that photo and walked right out of the tent.”
The film seemed to have overcome its numerous obstacles when it landed a prime slot at SXSW in Austin, a city where Merryman is from and where Carter lives. And then came coronoavirus, and the SWSW cancellation.
“It was heartbreaking,” Tamasy said. “Heartbreaking. I thought we were going to take that festival by storm.”
Millennium is now talking to a prospective distributor for what could be a release later this year, and Lurie is determined to see this one through. “I will never in my life, ever, do anything as important as this, as a soldier and as a dad,” he said. “I want to be able to tell my son that his inspiration came to something.”