” is both a story of war and a story of love. Based on a true story, the movie centers on Megan (Kate Mara
), a woman at the end of her rope. She joins the Marines and winds up in a K9 unit with a problematic and intense dog, Rex. They become partners in more ways than one.
While women weren’t supposed to be on the front lines, Megan and Rex were actually in front of the front lines searching for IEDs. The pair were inseparable, and once Megan left the Marines she worked for years to adopt Rex after he was decommissioned. She fought as if her life depended on it all the way to Congress. She was finally able to bring him home to be with her until he died.
This is a wonderful, emotional film helmed by the award-winning director of “Blackfish
,” Gabriela Cowperthwaite
” is in theaters now. Head over to the film’s official site for tickets and screening information.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Joseph Allen
W&H: I loved the movie. I am a dog person. I’m also a short person who has a very large dog, so it resonated with me a lot.
Gc: Right, watching Kate [Mara] be about the same size as Rex, I’m sure you were like “I feel the same.”
W&H: So, you’re best known for “Blackfish
,” which has had such a profound effect on our culture, so talk about how and why you wanted to make the shift into narrative.
Gc: You know, it kind of came to me right when “Blackfish
” was starting to strike a nerve. Some agents and managers approached me and said “Have you ever thought of doing narrative?” And I hadn’t really, but to me it was story-dependent.
I’m a storyteller, and I thought “This sounds amazing, I love movies so let me give this a try.” It’s been amazing. A lot of tools transfer over from one to the other, but all in all I do hope to be able to do both in the future. Whether it’s documentary or whether it’s narrative is all story-dependent to me.
W&H: Do you worry that now that you’ve made a documentary about animals and now a narrative about animals, that you’re going to be the go-to person for anything that has an animal in it?
Gc: I definitely see a lot of scripts and get a lot of documentary ideas that revolve around that world, and I love that world, but to me, as I said, it’s story-dependent. “Blackfish
” — to me — worked in spite of the fact that it was about an animal.
There have been plenty of animal documentaries. I think “Blackfish
” struck a nerve more directly and got that mainstream audience because it had a compelling story and compelling characters.
If you’re going to have your film do work out there in the world, you have to kind of back into issues. I think they work better that way — backing into an issue is much more effective in my experience than preaching an issue.
W&H: Megan Leavey
” is such an intense film. I was reading some of the material that said it’s not really about war — it’s about a relationship between a woman and her dog and getting her life together. But what about that story made you say, “Okay, this is the first narrative that I’m going to do?”
Gc: I had worked on Iraq documentaries before in a previous life, all these squad-level stories of mostly marines in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I don’t remember, but I don’t think we ever interviewed a woman, which was so surprising to me that it didn’t occur to me back then.
I was so curious about how a female marine comes up in that world, and especially in the context of those wars. And we had never done canine, I knew nothing about the canine unit, so it was two fresh entry points into a war story and the opportunity to get people to understand the context of this world by having characters that were not acceptable to them before.
That was exciting for me, and in terms of the animal thing, I read it, and I thought “This is a special story.” Because I think just like “Blackfish
,” the animal in this, similar to the killer whales in “Blackfish
,” can remind us of what we love most about ourselves: compassion, friendship, loyalty, and all these things. To me, I think animals have a way of reminding us of the things we love the most about ourselves.
And yet it’s set in a war, so it was just a really fresh take on a story that you might think you’ve heard before. It was just a very unique opportunity to tell this story.
W&H: I was also reading that Kate was attached to the film before, and because she was so in love “Blackfish
,” she suggested you for this. Talk about how that happened.
Gc: Yeah, she was attached as you said, and she sent me the script and said “If this resonates with you, I’d love to work with you.” And she also suggested me to the producers, so really I went in, read the script, went in and pitched it, and I was on a plane three weeks later. It all happened very, very fast.
W&H: That’s impressive.
Gc: Yeah. It’s very cool, it’s a pretty special connection. I think the producers are the types of producers that roll the dice with a director who’s never directed narrative, because basically Mickey Liddell
had a feeling. That’s so rare that a producer will say that, so that was a cool thing.
W&H: And I feel that one of the untold stories of these wars has been the role that women played in them and how they have been in combat, even though people say women are not in combat. There have been several films that have really shown that, and this one is another one of these films that says “Let’s not pretend anymore that women are not doing what they are doing.”
Gc: Right, I’m glad you picked up on that. It’s interesting because in documentary we just tell the truth, and we need a lot of story discipline in documentary, and yet you put truthful things throughout your narrative. This is based on a true story, so my point with “Megan Leavey
” is I read the script, and being the political person that I am, there are things you want to say kind of outright and on the nose about the war, or about women in the military.
And what was interesting was we tried to slide those things in — we couldn’t be on the nose with that stuff because it’s just not what this story is about. It’s really about this relationship between her and her dog, but what was cool was being able to slide some of that stuff in there, so you almost absorb it via osmosis. You’re sort of absorbing it without it being a movie about women fighting in combat in Iraq.
We throw in a line there where she’s told, “You’ll only go to checkpoints, you’ll never go on missions.” And then two scenes later she’s going on a mission, so it’s cool when people pick up on that.
W&H: That’s such bullshit.
Gc: It’s totally that, and women need to be commended for really being on the front lines, and in Megan’s case, being in front of the front lines. That fact that this has been this secret that’s just starting to come out is crazy, and yet it was cool to be able to subtly slide that in there, and have people like you pick up on it.
W&H: Are there a lot of women handlers like her? Or is it rare?
Gc: There are female handlers. I don’t know what the numbers are. I think there are just more men in every rank and file, but I don’t know.
W&H: I found it very exciting seeing the war from a woman’s perspective. All the war movies that we see where there is one woman in a platoon of men, it always goes really quickly into how they sexually harass the woman.
Gc: Totally, yeah.
W&H: And this I felt was so different because there was none of that, “Oh, what are you doing here girl?”
Gc: Right, right.
W&H: She’s here, she belongs, she’s a part of this. There was the subtle thing of “I’m clearly the only girl here and I have my own place to sleep,” but it wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I feel like she’s going to be raped at any instant.”
Gc: No that’s right, and it isn’t a movie about that. It suggests it in certain scenes but it’s not a movie about that. What’s cool about it is I want that issue to be covered: I think it’s tremendously important to recognize what they’ve been doing in the military. That said, what was so cool about this is that pretty shortly after she’s in country, you kind of forget about the gender thing.
She emerges not only as a marine that joins a very elite canine unit, which means she had to pass all the tests with flying colors, but then she emerges as a leader in the elite unit, and she’s the one who wants to go in to confront the people that made the Ied and tried to kill her.
And you don’t question it — you don’t think to yourself, “That’s not something she would do.” You just think to yourself, “She’s a marine.” You don’t think, “Oh, how strange that a female marine is doing that.”
It kind of sneaks up on you and I love that. She’s where she is and she’s doing what she’s doing because she’s earned it, just like anybody else would earn it.
W&H: And it’s interesting with her family, army is always a tool in narrative film for men who are floundering in the world and need to get their shit together. It’s really very rare where it’s, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, I’m floundering as a woman. Oh, I’m going to go into the marines.”
Gc: Right, and we’re always going to get that question. “Yeah, but why that [the army] for her?” That’s just not a question a lot of people are asking for men, and it’s unfair. But, you do have to remember there’s certain parts of the country where there are not a lot of prospects, this is a post-9/11 world, she’s a New Yorker, it’s like “Why not?”
Another thing that’s just cool about the movie is that I do see war movies [and it’s nice to make one with a female lead.] I think some of the war movies that have come out in the last 20 years, even since I was little and I saw “Platoon,” and then “The Hurt Locker
,” these are masterpieces. Some of them are masterpieces. And I think to myself when I watch them, I never find myself in them.
Gc: Do you know what I mean? I look and I’m like “Would I be that sergeant or would I be that lieutenant? Who am I here? Or would I be the wife, the girlfriend who’s left at home?” None of those seem to fit, none of those roles feel like me. And what was cool about reading this script is Megan could be my friend, Megan could be me, Megan could be my sister.
There’s something so accessible about her and you could see yourself in your teenage years going that direction. And for me that was just so important just an entry point there that just makes this story digestible to a totally different audience. An audience of young girls, you know?
W&H: No, I agree with you, and that’s interesting because we do see war movies always from the male perspective, and everything is about the bombs that are going off, and the dismemberment, and the limbs.
W&H: It’s trying to shock you into whatever emotion you’re going to have, but it’s always about assault of your senses, whereas here it was a war movie. We can’t say that there wasn’t a war going on, yet it was a war story from a feminine perspective. And we never see that. It’s important to remind ourselves that women and children suffer so much in war and that’s hardly ever shown.
Gc: That’s right. That’s a really good point that I hadn’t really thought of. I totally think that, and I think the third act of the movie is so important. Yes, it’s going to have all that muscular action scene stuff because that is the reality of what Megan went through. Combat is real, by and large, it’s a centerpiece of a lot of people’s experience there.
That said, for me, it was when you come out of those combat situations, yes there’s all these fireworks, and all this craziness that happened to you, and yet how you process that as a human being is totally internal. Right? It’s emotional.
For me it was so important with this film to show what it means to come home, and to maybe physically not. To be physically intact, but to be broken in some profound way. So, to me it was like, you’re going to devote an entire third act to just what that means for her.
I knew it was a risk, and I know it’s a risk, because once you tell people it’s a war film and once they see all that action, maybe they’ll miss it. Maybe they’ll be like. “Oh, well that was all the adrenaline rush stuff, now where are we? We’re in a therapy session?”
I know it’s a risk, but that said, I think it’s so much more spot on to a vet’s experience, and to being able to come out of that darkness.
W&H: What was the hardest part of the shoot for you?
Gc: It’s funny, everybody thinks it’s the big combat scenes, but those were so much easier. Those were all technical and technique and I could see it in my head, so it was just working with great people to make sure that those hit.
Honestly, I think the hardest part was trying to strike a very specific tone that didn’t feel to saccharine and too sweet because my worry was that suddenly you have a woman and a dog and people are going to already try to cast your film as schmaltzy. I was just really trying to stay authentic, and as gritty as I could possibly make it while trying to deliver an emotional thread. That’s a tightwire, you know? Walking a tightrope.
And I backed away from the “awww” factor. The little close-ups of the dogs, that was something that a lot of people want, but I refuse to do that. You have to earn your love of Rex, he should be formidable, he should be scary in the beginning. He shouldn’t be like “Awww, it’s a dog.” So it’s just a fine line.
W&H: I always ask woman directors this: We still have such a low amount of women operating at the top level of the business, and this weekend we saw the success of “Wonder Woman” and things like that. In the conversations that you have with colleagues, peers, and friends, what do you talk about in terms of what needs to change or the conversation that you might have with other directors about these types of issues?
Gc: It’s absolutely at the forefront of how we go about working in this business. My hope is, of course, to be able to have more women, more people of color, more everything at the table. I think the bigger hope is that it’s not like people are checking off boxes: I want it to evolve where studio heads and everybody just realizes that it’s actually making film better.
This is making film better, more interesting, and more unpredictable. I think that’s where art is at its best and most exciting — when you have a voice come in from left field. Well, not left field: Women are the mainstream, and it’s ridiculous that we talk about them as though [they account for the] left field.
Really, rather than just being like, “Okay, we should be checking off these boxes because we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t,” I want there to be an evolved realization that this is only making art better. That’s a harder thing — that means you’re going to have to tap into people’s psyche.
” Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Talks Dogs, War, and Feminism was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.