Soundtrax: Special Edition
Episode 2020-4, September 2020
Based on journalist Jake Tapper’s award-winning non-fiction book, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, Rod Lurie’s film THE OUTPOST tells the true story of a small team of U.S. soldiers battling against hundreds of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Originally built to engage the locals in community development projects, Combat Outpost Keating — located at the bottom of three steep mountains just 14 miles from the Pakistani border — faced a constant threat of attack by the Taliban, putting the U.S. soldiers stationed there at significant risk. When the Taliban heard of US military officials intentions to close the outpost, they decided to make a statement.
Rod Lurie’s film is meticulously dedicated to telling the story accurately. It’s an outstanding film and a tribute to the eight soldiers who died, their heroism, and that of many others who risked lives to protect their follow soldiers during a horrendously outnumbered battle. It’s both a vicious military combat film with an fiercely emotional resolution after it was all over. In his review for Variety, Peter Debruge called the film a “harrowing immersive account” of the battle and wrote: “THE OUTPOST isn’t glamorous, but it’s respectful of the sacrifice and split-second decision-making that Bravo Troop faced, amplifying the terror of such an impossible assignment by attempting to mirror the characters’ point of view.” David Ehrlich at IndieWire stated, Director Rod “Lurie does a strong job of threading the needle between excitement and calamity; shooting much of the 45-minute long ambush in hectic, agile long-takes allows him to capture the Battle of Kamdesh for all of its terror, and with a clarity that allows us to feel that terror in our bones.” The film was praised by veterans, including those who fought in the battle, for its realistic depiction of warfare, everyday soldier life, and the looks of the base.
Composer Larry Groupé is an Emmy-award winning composer and conductor who has written and produced scores for numerous documentaries, feature films, and television dramas. His ongoing collaboration with director Rod Lurie has resulted in a number of outstanding scores, from DETERRENCE (1999), THE CONTENDER (2000), NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (2008), STRAW DOGS remake (2011), THE OUTPOST (2020), and others, as well as films (I WOKE UP EARLY THE DAY I DIED (1998), THE UNKNOWN (2005; aka CLAWED: THE LEGEND OF SASQUATCH), Lou Diamond Phillips’ THE TAO OF SURFING (2016), Mario Van Peebles ARMED (2018); documentaries like UNDER THE BOARDWALK: THE MONOPOLY STORY (2010) and THE STORY OF THE BATTLE OF OUTPOST HARRY (2010), and television films for other filmmakers. Larry is also the founder and director of the Palomar Film Music Workshop, which will hold its next Summer Scoring Workshop on June 21-29, 2021. For information see https://palomarworkshops.com/.
Q: You’ve worked with Rod Lurie long enough I’d assume you have a kind of shorthand in developing your scores for his films. What was the conversation like with THE OUTPOST and how did the score develop from your first discussions?
Larry Groupé: I would hope that we would have a shorthand by now, but the amazing thing with myself and Rod is that we really do reinvent ourselves on every project. There is no quick answer to the film—I still have to come up with the magic answer. If you listen to all the scores I’ve done for Rod, they’re really quite different, which is a good thing—it keeps us on our toes, and Rod really expects brand new thoughts on each project as they have their own needs. But we do certainly have an understanding with each other, which is the benefit of a long-term relationship. Like when he says “this seems too nostalgic,” I know really what he really means… like “it’s too interpersonal,” or “you’re being too on-the-nose.” I guess the short answer is we go through the same full process on every project; we don’t really have a time-saving method, given the fact we’ve done so much together. I think what we do gain from it is that he trusts me and knows that I work really hard and that I’ll revise until my fingers fall off until it’s right. So I think, for him, there’s a strong value knowing that and I would do that, and he knows I like to be completely invested in the films.
“My score is very much about the internal strife of the soldiers themselves: how they stood up for each other, how they argued with each other, and how they dealt with their situation. That was the mandate.”
Q: In that regard, how did the conversations begin on THE OUTPOST as far as developing the kind of music he wanted?
Larry Groupé: Number One: “This Is Not An Action Picture!” That was a jaw dropper. Two: “No Sweeping Hollywood Theme.” What he meant by this was, “Larry, in a war movie” – which is very different from an action movie in his mind – “the bullets and the bombs are the score, so you will never write an action sequence when we’re out in the compound running around in the middle of a firefight. You will write the music when they’re stuck in the Humvee or the bunker trying to figure out what to do, and how they care for each other and things like that.” So my score is very much about the internal strife of the soldiers themselves: how they stood up for each other, how they argued with each other, and how they dealt with their situation. That was the mandate. That was what he put to me, from a director’s point of view. That doesn’t include anything musical, but that’s what he wanted my purpose to be. So that’s hugely important. A lot of the sound design efforts of the score are clearly there, because he didn’t want big themes, he wanted a more modernized score. So I went of course to a fair amount of electronics, even though there are some very nice moments of an Americana type theme where it was called for near the end of the picture, and that was fine. There is orchestra almost in every cue, believe it or not, but it’s just part of the encompassing soundscape of what the score is.
One of the first things I did successfully that really helped nail down the picture is in the main title. It’s a little signature I call “The Dopple Drop Theme,” and it’s just that: “BOME…bomme…” That worked just wonderfully in the editorial suite when they were cutting the picture. They would pepper it throughout all kinds of places, and it just worked really well as a kind of anchor to where the soldiers were at. That became a very important signature piece that would show up in any give time or moment in the score.
Q: You described it as the “Uh-oh” theme in your album notes.
Larry Groupé: Yes! Rod loved it. It worked really well in the main title because, if you can tell the whole movie in the first five seconds then you’re getting it right! So that’s what that did.
Q. Did the fact that the film is based on a true story affect your approach to scoring it?
Larry Groupé: Not really, honestly, because we are telling a story here. Whether you’re telling a fictional story or non-fictional story, you’re still telling a story. You get into your film composer job as a storyteller, so in that way it didn’t really have a bearing on me musically; of course I loved the fact that it was a real story, and I loved the fact that the cast, with the exception of the primary three, were all veterans. So it was an extremely realistic film, and Rod, of course, having gone to West Point, fully understands how the process of the Army works and how the soldiers lives work.
If I might go off on a tangent for a second, the cast, myself, and the writers all met about five months before the shooting started at Rod’s house, and he brought in someone who would be one of the advisors on the movie, and he was one of the soldiers who had been in the original situation. He talked for over two hours about everything from the weaponry to what it sounded like to what the internal quarters were—how the men dealt with each other and all this very intimate information about how the soldiers had to deal with stress and missing their families. It was really quite something and for me was really valuable; that got under my skin and led me eventually to musical decisions. He went over on location during the shooting as an advisor but he ended up being one of the actors, and he was really quite good in it. But that was a really interesting part, kind of to your point, about the fact that it was a true story. I had gone to that original meeting and had learned a great deal about somebody who was actually there, so I think that filtered in to what I did, given how he described the soldiers’ emotional state.
Q: How would you describe the score’s operating development, from the relatively calm beginnings that orient us to the outpost and its people, the visitations to the Afghan village and, then gradually increasing upsurge of danger to the final prolonged attack?
Larry Groupé: One of the things that Rod wanted to emphasize, which was true, when they arrived… the very first daylight image when they get up there is how terrible their situation is with the mountains, which is where that Dopple Drop motif happens, and low, growling aspects of the score start to appear. They were constantly under threat in this particular outpost—they were fish in a barrel being shot at all the time, so Rod wanted the tension to be ever-present. All you can do, really, is keep turning the amp up to eleven as they approach the final, incredible forty-five minute end run of the final, extreme battle. And, once again, since I was in a way confined to the internal aspects of where they were, and their next move, and how they tried to deal with it, that was where I had to reside. I amped up accordingly as needed, but the arc of this was that Rod really didn’t want it to be too terribly different from the second that they get there, frankly.
Q. On the soundtrack album, “Run” is a cue I’m especially taken by, with its powerful 3-note horn/brass figure over underlying voices and propulsive drums. This may be as close to a traditional motif as the score would allow, and it’s reprised to great effect in several other tracks. What can you tell us about your use of this figure in the score?
Larry Groupé: Great question! That was probably the second thing I wrote after the Dopple Drop, because the scene that this was intended for has one of the great camera moves that they had in the film. They had an amazing drone operator filming this scene. Caleb Landry Jones’s character grabs some ammo and he has to run across the entire compound in the middle of a firefight to get to a Humvee in order to reload their primary weapon—and as he runs out, the drone operator running, keeping behind him through the whole shot, actually throws the drone in the air like a frisbee over some netting—he catches the drone as it drifts back down so he can continue this uninterrupted shot. This one-shot camera idea is all throughout the movie, and that’s one of the most dramatic ones. When I saw that I immediately wrote that cue—I was just desperate to write that particular sequence, and I’m very exciting when I go in and I show it to Rod, and he looks at me, and his fists clenched up, and he says, “God dammit don’t ever do that again! This cue will never be in the movie! Didn’t you listen to me?” And I go, “Alright. Gave it a shot.” So it’s not in the movie. I tried to actually place it into another scene, just to see if he would change his mind, because I so liked the cue and felt it was okay to have one action sequence at a critical moment, and he didn’t want to do it, but he said: “Larry, this is either my favorite cue or my least favorite cue in the movie—I’ll never know!” But nonetheless he made the decision and it wasn’t in the movie, but I certainly put it on the CD. It actually did generate some other themes that are used in the movie, so the materials weren’t lost, but the approach was not used.
Q: “Not Today” is an especially provocative, I guess maybe we can call it a battle cry or a rallying cry among the soldiers, and it’s one of those cues influenced by what you’d done for “Run.” How did that piece derive and did it make it’s way into the film?
Larry Groupé: That one is a little bit further along—this is when Scott Eastwood is finally using his rank and his resolve to urge the other solders to re-rally against the attackers. That’s where we got to rise up a little bit and get the blood up. It’s probably as you just said—I’m sure I drew up some of those things that I did in the “Run” cue that seemed to make sense here, because I was now using those elements in the score anyway. I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not but that’s my recollection.
Q: How did you—or did you—treat the attacking Taliban fighters, musically?
Larry Groupé: Hardly at all. The whole point of the movie was really about the US soldiers’ point of view and how they dealt with the situation. The Taliban, of course, are real and they’re there, but that’s not really what the point of the movie was about. And since Rod had said, “you’re always with the soldiers in their predicament when they’re confined or inside and not outside, and the Taliban of course are outside, so I just didn’t do it. Now, there is that other cue earlier in the film, called “Shura,” where Orlando Bloom’s character, Captain Keating, goes and has that meeting with the elders—in one of the first drafts of that scene, I started to use a fair amount—not a ton—of ethnic instruments in order to set that environment, and Rod (and I think he was right to do this) says, “No, don’t do it. Every movie in the world does this; don’t do that.” So I removed those and we kept it within the world of sound design. Again, what he really wanted from me was to keep the point of view focused on Orlando’s Keating character, especially in the end where he seems to have a momentary success with these people. Rod wanted the musical point of view to always be about whatever the soldiers are during, including in the middle of a shura [consultation] surrounded by the villagers. So I don’t address them.
Q. What was most important about the placement of your score in the film, as far as working around sound effects, when to be aggressive, when to be more introspective, and such?
Larry Groupé: Again, because we’re in these generally confined situations, even though there could be a lot of yelling or, obviously, firefights just outside the doorway, they had to make room for their own dialogue, so that left a small amount of real estate for me to be there. This is where the Dopple Drop really helped, because it was so low it just didn’t interfere in the spectrum of sound that the soldiers are yelling or shouting or talking, and the higher bullets, RPGs, and other effects aren’t in the score’s sonic area either. So that’s why there’s a lot of low material like the Dopple Drop, but there are also a lot of classic analog synthesizers. Those seemed to cut through really well because they could have shape and they could fall and they could drop and they were not the same as the wartime real sound effects. That was very helpful for me, although there was a bit of trial and error to find that. I have to give an enormous credit to the dub stage people that put this together. Rod has a tendency to always keep music kind of low, because he doesn’t want it to interfere with what he feels is reality; it’s an argument we have every film! But the dub stage people, given the amazing amount of sound effects they had to contend with, were really in my opinion, wonderfully generous and really pushed the aspects of the score, so I’m glad I made it in as far as I did. Rod eventually agreed that that was totally working. And there are a few moments—like when the soldiers are phoning home and other intimate effects—where there’s some very nice score bits that really have a chance to shine, and of course the ending where they’re helicoptering out and other specific emotional times.
Q: Another cue I like a lot is this stepping pattern in “Apaches Arrive.” It’s kind of an uplifting moment, like “They’re finally here! They’re going to take care of the attackers!” How did you decide to deal with that musically?
Larry Groupé: This was a critical turning point. They had been waiting something like 30 hours for air support to come in, and this had to do with the real story. The weather was very bad, they couldn’t get in, they were just constantly delayed waiting for the Apache helicopters which would have turned the tide of the battle. They in essence did, along with the big bomber that came in afterwards, take care of that. That was a major turning point and a glimmer of hope for the soldiers, so when the Apaches come in, this is where Scott Eastwood’s character is in his particular bunker and he’s shooting at all these Taliban coming down the hill, and then the Apache’s suddenly come in and he goes “Wow, what’s happening?” and then the Apache flies overhead shown in a great camera shot, and the apex of where this big synth thing builds to is that moment where it flies overhead. Even though it’s kind of a hopeful cue, like you say, it’s still very, very dark because it really was death from above for the Taliban, but it’s to the soldiers’ advantage. I like that cue a lot, especially the really long , final classical B-major chord that holds for something like 45 seconds. That really worked as a great transition as we go into the aftermath of that scene, and move on through the picture.
Q. That brings us to the song “Everybody Cries”–would you describe how you created the melody to go with Rod & Rita’s lyrics and how you used that melody a few times in the score as well?
Larry Groupé: Let me answer the last part first: The idea of putting bits and pieces of the song in the movie was Rod’s idea after I had initially written it. He wanted to use it so it would make more sense when we finally hear it in full at the end. But how that worked was actually eight or nine months before shooting began when Rod’s 26-year-old son—completely unrelated—died. Rod was overseas scouting the location for the movie and he has this terrible 22-hour flight back to where his son was in Michigan just in time to hold his hand when he died. Then he picked himself back up and returned to location, and on the plane on the way back he dictated a monotone set of lyrics that had a little bit of a rhythmic quality, and from that I was able to construct what I felt was a good melody for this. I knew that this was going to be an emotional song, somewhat like a ballad but not like a totally dripping ballad. I wanted it to be kind of intimate the way it ended up the way you hear it now. So I just went ahead and did it, and actually sat there at the piano and sang it into a mic and sent it back to him, so he could get a sense of the song, which he liked, and then I got hold of a friend of mine in San Diego to do a guitar and singer-songwriter version, because Rod he wanted it, in essence, to be that way—and that sat in the movie for the longest time as a placeholder; and as a matter of fact he kept all those guitar parts and I added some string quartet and such to the final and then Rita Wilson did the final vocal.
Q: That song allows the audience, at the end, to experience the emotion that they’d maybe been sitting on throughout the film as all this awful attack is going on.. it almost works as an epitaph for what they’ve seen before.
Larry Groupé: Bingo – you’re exactly right. That is what we were trying to do with that, to give a moment of reflection, especially after that final scene with Caleb Landry Jones and the therapist, and then the song happens at the end of the film and continues over the end titles. Because it is also a melody we’ve heard before, it connects the song with what we’ve seen before during the battle.
Q: Looking back on your experience scoring THE OUTPOST, how do you regard this film among the many high points in your filmography?
Larry Groupé: I’m extraordinarily proud of the film in and of itself. I think the score works very well and it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. It’s not a hyper-featured score because of all the sound effects and so in, but I’m mainly more proud to be part of the movie because of the fact that it was real, that Jake Tapper took five years out of his life to write this story and to get it out into the public eye, which was very important, and for Rod, between his son and his own military past, it’s terribly personal. So I like it a great deal. It’s always a hard question for me to answer because usually I especially like whatever I just finished because I’m still really close to it, but then as time goes by then, there are things I like about most of them! I still think THE CONTENDER will probably be the one that’s special for me, because it’s the one that launched us and it’s also a really big thematic score, so I always like it.
Q: I still listen to that one all the time! It’s a great score.
Larry Groupé: Thank you!
Q: You’ve also given us this powerful soundtrack album for THE OUTPOST, which has all the music we’ve heard behind and within and underneath sound effects, is all presented to listen to. How did you select the cues and assemble an album of what he have—and in some cases, hadn’t—heard in the movie?
Larry Groupé: This is not an uncommon thing to do, but I basically made miniature suites out of most of the cues in order to make the listening experience a little more palatable, so it’s not just a bunch of little, short tracks. I made them longer, and the order in which they appear is not necessarily in show order, although it’s somewhat that way. And then I also included at the end what I call “Fade to Black,” one of the original themes that I had done, which was created out of my MIDI studio, and I’ve always liked the piece. I often write an overture for Rod when we begin, because it helps set the tone of either instruments or themes that would potentially be used in the movie, and it’s a good way to start the conversation with him. So that’s a very old original theme that is absolutely used—especially the low cello theme—throughout the picture. So I thought it would be fun to include that, so that’s why it’s there.
Q. What’s coming up next for you, that you can talk about?
Larry Groupé: I’m just about to begin a real tiny independent out of San Francisco called THE GUITAR MAN. It’s a documentary feature about a real fella who’s a guitar player up in the Bay Area working in one of these high schools where they have lots of kids who were in gangs or in trouble, and he was trying to use music to help them put some positive vibes in their lives, and not go down the dark side. He also ended up working at San Quentin for the same reasons, doing music for inmates there. So this is a story about his life and his musical contribution as a person. So that’s just beginning, but as far as on the bigger stage, Rod of course is fielding quite a few offers now, so who knows what it’ll be. As long as he sticks with me, hopefully continually, then that will be the next big thing to talk about, and I just don’t know what that is yet.
Special thanks to Matt Verboys of La-La Land Records for coordinating this interview.
The limited edition soundtrack CD for THE OUTPOST is available from La-La Land Records
Randall can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at https://twitter.com/randalldlarson and https://twitter.com/MusiqueFantast1