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My son was declared dead at exactly the second that I had the creative epiphany of my my life. A few minutes earlier, after his mother and I decided to disconnect the myriad machines keeping him alive, one to every organ in his body, we stood there, all of us, and waited for the last movement of his chest. My daughter was the only person who spoke. She said to me, “Dad, I know you think you can’t make this movie. But you have to. You have to finish it. It would destroy Hunter if you didn’t.”
When his heart did finally stop, names and images of soldiers began tumbling in my head. Scusa, Hardt, Kirk, Thomson, Martin, Mace, Griffin, Gallegos. I use their last names because that’s how soldiers refer to one another. These eight men all perished on Oct. 3, 2009, in the Nuristan Valley in Afghanistan. It was the bloodiest battle of the war, the most heroic, the most decorated. Two men were awarded the Medal of Honor. I was making a movie about this deadly day called The Outpost, based Jake Tapper’s book.
The doctor “called it” at 12:21 on July 2nd, 2018. It was then I realized Hunter had been roughly the same age as the men who died in the Battle of Kamdesh. For weeks, months even, I had been in contact with the Gold Star families. I had empathized with them, gleaned whatever I could about their sons and husbands, even shed tears with them. But now things were different. Now I understood their loss. I understood the battering ram of emotions when the end comes as suddenly as it did for both these soldiers and my son.
It was then that I had the clarity of how to make the film.
I contacted the studio minutes after his death. I told them I wanted to come back to Bulgaria and finish what I had started. (No doubt they’d begun searching for a replacement for me, as they should have.) I also told them that I really had to make the movie my way. It was going to be dedicated to Hunter, so I had an extra responsibility there. But now, more than ever, the film was also being made for the families of the fallen. This was going to be a war film, not an action film. The studio was fully on board.
Maybe now would be a good time to mention that I myself am a vet. I graduated from West Point in 1984. It was peacetime back then and I never served in combat. So, if I could not fight next to my brothers then the least I could do was honor them. That is why I had grasped hard at the notion of telling the story of Combat Outpost Keating in the first place.
It’s a helluva story.
This was a base placed right smack at the bottom of three mountains. Tactically, it was the worst place to put soldiers. It was inevitable that the Taliban would descend by the hundreds on this tiny unit.
These 54 troops? They weren’t SEALs, they weren’t Special Forces, they weren’t Rangers. They were not the elite units that seem to be the basis of every movie made about this war: Lone Survivor, American Sniper, Twelve Strong, and so on. The members of Bravo Troop, 3-61 CAV were regular guys — most of them infantry, the kind of dudes you don’t make movies about. None of them had ever been through what was about to transpire. But when all hell broke loose at about 6 a.m. that morning — and through the next 12 hours — the men held their base, they never gave up, and those who were killed had all been in the process of trying to save somebody else.
I knew if Hunter’s death was put to film, I would want it honestly portrayed — without fanfare. Tragedies in art don’t come from death itself but from the potential that was lost because of death. That’s what we needed to focus on.
Along with our writers Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, we re-entered the fray of the script. We made sure the audience would know each of the men on a personal level. We’d know their ambitions, their love of their wives and children.
We made sure that the battle itself was as accurately shown as we could get it. (Several of the soldiers from the battle came on set to steer us right.) We couldn’t show everything, but we showed enough.
I insisted that we should shoot the battle sequences in uninterrupted “oners” — long takes that would engulf the audience and help them experience the unrelenting terror these men went through.
I also made it a point to hire as many veterans as I could to play the characters. Daniel Rodriquez, one of the surviving heroes of the fight, plays himself.
Finally, I promised the families that we would show the deaths of their loved ones as they happened, no glamorizing, not one bullet more than actually felled them. I wouldn’t even attach a musical score to those moments. All these men were straightforward and proud soldiers who’d resent having their deaths exploited. So what you’ll see on screen is what happened. No more. No less. And, by the way, Hunter, who loved movies and was himself an assistant editor, would have ripped into me if I had done it differently.
As you can imagine, there is no day, no hour, that I don’t think of Hunter. But now the same can be said of Michael, Joshua, Josh, Kevin, Vernon, Stephan, Chris, and Justin.
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