We’ve never seen a woman-and-her-dog movie like “Megan Leavey.” Haven’t seen a war movie like it, either. The two go together in making this true life-based film unique, but there’s a third quality — let’s call it a heightened level of no-nonsense — that’s the real reason why this military biopic stands out.
“They are tricky to make,” Kate Mara, who plays the title’s Marine K9 handler, says of pooch pictures. “As a dog lover, I have a hard time seeing dog movies because I just feel I’m going to be manipulated into being emotional. I’m glad that that’s not the case with our movie.”
“I loved that this was a unique way into a story that you might think you’ve heard before,” adds Gabriela Cowperthwaite, who made her feature directing debut with “Megan Leavey” following the SeaWorld-changing success of her documentary orca expose “Blackfish.” “It’s a female Marine, for one, and then it’s the K9 unit. I’ve worked on Iraq and Afghanistan documentaries for a number of years, and never knew anything about K9 units.
“But something that was really, really important to me was that I didn’t want this to feel saccharine,” Cowperthwaite continues. “I didn’t want those ‘Aww’ moments, when you’re looking at this dog and you’re automatically thinking about snuggling him. This dog ain’t cute, and she’s not necessarily the sweetest thing when we start out. I loved that.”
The real Leavey was a troubled, trouble-prone youth from a small Hudson Valley town north of New York City. She joined the Marines on a fairly vague notion that the Corps might give her wayward life some direction but got in more trouble at boot camp. As punishment, she was assigned to clean out the dog quarters, where she met the unstable German shepherd Rex.
Somehow, this unlikely pair bonded and learned together, and eventually completed 100 missions in Iraq, where Rex’s explosive-sniffing abilities saved untold American lives. After being wounded in a firefight, though, Leavey was sent stateside without Rex. Following her discharge, she fought a very public battle to adopt Rex, who like her was suffering from PTSD at that point and was, not unwisely, considered unsuitable for release into the civilian world.
Now a veterinary technician, Leavey served as an adviser on the film’s production.
“I’ve played a bunch of true characters before, and sometimes I’ve met the real people and other times I haven’t, depends on what you’re making,” notes Mara (“House of Cards,” “127 Hours,” “We Are Marshall”). “I thought with this one, it was vital to meet Megan. We met a couple of weeks before shooting and we were, like, instantly at ease and comfortable with each other. Felt like I’ve known her for years; we’re both from New York, we’re both sports fans, we kind of speak the same language in a way.
“And then, she wasn’t there every day on set, but she was there for a few different scenes. I just always felt like I had her support, which was really lucky.”
“I was expecting this warrior-type person, and what I discovered was she is self-effacing,” Cowperthwaite adds about the retired corporal. “Doesn’t like being called a hero. When she speaks about her time in-country, she says we, she doesn’t say me. She’s so full of humility, which I think is also very Marine but that’s actually her DNA.”
Mara humbly acknowledges that her own pseudo-Marine training for the film, while intense, wasn’t close to the challenge real recruits face. Experts from Corps K9 units were also, naturally, all over the production, not only to teach Mara how to handle herself but also her main co-star, Varco, and all the other stand-in and background dogs.
“That was great,” says the actress, who owns a 14- and a 15-year-old Boston Terrier. “Varco and I were learning at the same time because he had never done any training with finding explosives. And it was his first movie as well! He was young; it was completely new for him.
“When I found that out, I was quite nervous about it. I was expecting them to bring me an older dog who had done this a thousand times or who was an ex-Marine. And there were a bunch of dogs on set, but this one called Varco, our star, was so amazing at it.”
Cowperthwaite employed her observational documentary-making skills to the dog scenes, ensuring cast and crew were always prepared to react to anything an animal might do spontaneously rather than be bound by the demands of the script.
“I always had to be on my toes and ready to improv, because sometimes Varco would do what we asked him and sometimes he would do something so much more amazing,” Mara explains. “Specifically, when we would get into emotional scenes. You can tell a dog to sit down, but if you’re doing or saying something next to him, he’s gonna react.
“One day on set... I’m sitting on the floor next to him and I’ve gone through some things and I’m crying,” the actress recalls. “As soon as he noticed I had tears coming down my face, he turned and started licking the tears off. Everyone kind of just froze — either he thinks she’s dessert or he’s concerned about her — and it was so beautiful and surprising.”
But never cute. Rex could get scary and dangerous, and playing those scenes with Varco could be, at the very least, unnerving.
“The trainers know what to do to get a dog excited,” Mara says, more confidently now than, perhaps, on those days of shooting. “There’s a toy that they play aggressively with, so when the trainers take out the toy and wave it around, the dogs see it and think it’s a game. So it’s a very little thing that excites these animals, but that’s easy to be scared of. Those dogs are bigger than me, so I genuinely got why you would be scared of this animal.”
Mara had become friends with Cowperthwaite after seeing and being inspired by “Blackfish,” which triggered such an outcry against how killer whales in captivity are treated that SeaWorld eventually agreed to end its breeding program and alter how the aquatic mammals are presented at its parks. When “Megan Leavey’s” producers were searching for a director, the actress recommended Cowperthwaite as much for her attitude as for their mutual love of animals, though.
“We have very similar creative sensibilities,” the director acknowledges. “We don’t want things to be cheesy or feel saccharine. We made sure that Kate portrayed Megan as the tough girl that she is and not the sweetheart that falls in love with the guy.
“And she’s also amazing with animals,” Cowperthwaite notes.
Contact Bob Strauss at firstname.lastname@example.org or @bscritic on Twitter.