Filmmaker Rod Lurie (“The Contender,” “Straw Dogs”) had a whole different career before he sat down to write scripts and step behind the camera to direct movies. He was a film critic, both in print - for the Greenwich News, the New York Daily News, Los Angeles Magazine - and on radio - KABC.
Before that, he was on the road to a career in the military, graduating from West Point, and serving four years in the Army, most of that time stationed in Germany. Even though he always revered movies, it wasn’t until he decided, that compared to his idols - Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, and Judith Crist - he wasn’t a particularly good film critic. So, he wanted to try making movies rather than writing about them.
His newest, “The Outpost,” brings him, full circle, back to his military roots. It’s the true story of a group of American soldiers who were stationed at a remote base set in an Afghanistan valley surrounded by mountains that were teeming with Taliban fighters, all intent on the idea of wiping out the Americans. Lurie spoke about the grueling battle at the heart of the film by phone from his office in Studio City.
Q: The film is based on Jake Tapper’s book “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.” I wasn’t familiar with the story. Were you before you came on board?
A: Of course. I’m a military guy myself, and this battle was certainly part of military folklore. I knew it quite well. Anybody who was in the military was gobbling up as much information about this battle as possible. It’s the most heroic battle of the Afghanistan war by a long shot.
Q: Sam Raimi was originally attached to direct, but he left the project. Any idea why the producer Paul Merryman asked you to do it?
A: Paul worked for Sam, and when he left Sam, I believe part of his agreement was that he had the right to try to make this movie. He already had a relationship with Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy, who wrote the script, and they had cut a deal with Jake Tapper. I think everyone just figured that I’m one of the few, if not the only, DGA feature film directors who went to West Point.
Q: Did you think you were the right guy to do it?
A: I graduated from West Point in 1984 into the peacetime Army. I was never on a battlefield. I feel almost guilty about that because so many of my classmates who stayed in the service have put their lives on the line, have seen bullets pass by their heads. I guess if I couldn’t serve alongside these guys, I wanted to do everything I could to honor them, to make up for it.
Q: Once you said yes, did the existing script go through many changes?
A: The script changed completely. First of all, we had a simple budgetary issue. We originally had headquarters in Jalalabad, and we had various scenes in a local village. But that meant building a bunch of sets and we just didn’t have the money for that. So, I decided to set the whole film at the base, and that forced a rewrite. Another thing was that, although they’re brilliant writers, Oscar-nominated writers (for ‘The Fighter’), they’re not military guys. So, myself and Henry Hughes, who was actually an officer at that outpost, and since has become a filmmaker, went through the script and gave it a military language that it didn’t necessarily have. I also did a lot of my own research. I spoke to people who fought in the battle and simply got more pieces of information to put into the movie.
Q: The first half of the film really establishes the characters, with intermittent bursts of action, while the second half goes into full-blown action, yet we’re still deeply involved with the characters. Do you have a different approach to directing actors and directing action sequences?
A: Not in this case. Because we followed all the actors in continuous shots through the scenes. Usually, shooting an action sequence involves multiple cameras. You pick up the scene in bits and pieces, and it’s very mechanical. But in this case, with those long takes, they had to act their way through every second of the action sequences.
Q: Would this have been a different movie if you hadn’t gone to West Point and been in the Army?
A: A much different film. Having gone to the Academy and being surrounded by so many military guys helped us tremendously with the efficiency of the movie. But there’s something more important. People who are not in the military tend to have more hero worship for the people that are in the military. And although we definitely present these guys as heroes, I don’t think that we worship them. I think we show them for exactly who they were, for the human beings that they were.
“The Outpost” will be in selected theaters and available On Demand on July 3.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy; directed by Rod Lurie; based on “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor” by Jake Tapper