Under the Radar

'Megan Leavey': Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Dog Tale Explores Combat Stress


"Megan Leavey" is a movie about a real-life Marine and her strong bond with a military working dog named Rex. It's a complicated movie about the complicated experiences of a real Marine and the post-traumatic stress that both Leavey and Rex must endure. Don't go in expecting a heartwarming and heartbreaking Disney-style animal movie. You'll probably cry at the end but "Megan Leavey" will earn those tears with a grown-up take on the costs of war.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite made her first feature film with "Megan Leavey," but she most recently directed the influential documentary "Blackfish." That film's controversial revelations about the treatment of Tilikum, an orca held in captivity at Sea World, changed many attitudes about the practice of keeping whales in captivity and inspired an ongoing boycott of Sea World's business.

"Megan Leavey" centers on one Marine's efforts to adopt her working dog even though the dog shows aggressive behavior that's almost certainly related to his experiences in combat. Kate Mara stars as Megan Leavey. Ramon Rodriguez and Common appear in support roles. The three actors joined Cowperthwaite for a day of on-camera interviews and we've got video included in the story below.

Gabriela Cowperthwaite also gave Military.com a longer interview where we went into more detail about what she wanted to accomplish with the movie.

“Megan Leavey” is your first feature film.  What drew you to this story?

I was interested in this mostly because it was a unique way to tell a story about someone going to war and coming back from war.  It was a female marine, something we don’t see a lot in film.  And it was the K-9 Unit, which was completely new to me.  I had worked on Iraq documentaries and Afghanistan documentaries in the past and never knew anything about the K-9 Unit.

I was curious to crack open these worlds for people.  The more we do that, the more people can access the story.  My hope is that we’re going to get more than just the same people who would go see all war movies. We want to be accessible now to young women.  Or people who know nothing about the Iraq War, but love their dog. This story was a fantastic, unique opportunity to be able to do that.

It’s also a story about people who join the military without a real purpose and how they find one.

That’s very much what Megan is about.  And I think it's something that a lot of us can relate to.

When we start out, she doesn’t have a lot of prospects in her life, she doesn’t feel supported by her family.  She makes this really brave choice and is able to find herself not only through the discipline in the family of the military, but by coming to value herself because she comes to value something else.  And that’s Rex.

The military can teach you to value your partners and care about them and create that family that, up to that point in your life, you hadn't experienced.  I mean it's very brothers in arms.  Megan was able to feel that and then be transformed by it.

Megan Leavey stars as bootcamp Drill Sergeant and Kate Mara as Megan Leavey in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's MEGAN LEAVEY, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Michael Tacket / Bleecker Street

What was Megan Leavey’s participation in the movie?

She's actually in the film as one of the drill sergeants at boot camp.  So she was hands-on in the South Carolina part.  That’s where we filmed the Parris Island part of the movie.  She was there as a consultant and she read the script. We all met with her beforehand, so she was a part of the production very early on.

I think she liked the film.  She saw the final cut a couple months back. Of course, I was on pins and needles to hear what she thought, but I think she's pleased overall.

Did her efforts to adopt Rex effect any long-term changes in military policy regarding military dogs? Or was her situation more of a special case?

The big change came with Robby's Law back in the Clinton era. Military working dogs was being recognized homes were being found for them.  As you can see in the film, the idea of a dog coming back with their handler can be very complex.

Most K-9 unit handlers would say that it makes the most sense for a dog to come back and be with their handler. Oftentimes, they're redeployed and there are issues with an animal who could very well be experiencing PTSD.  It’s going to be very difficult to put that dog with just anyone.

There are constant efforts to allow military working dogs to come home and be re-partnered with their former handlers or at least have that be the first consideration.

Director of Photography Lorenzo Senatore and Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite on the set of MEGAN LEAVEY, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Michael Tacket / Bleecker Street

There have been a lot of military-themed dog movies and I have to say that Rex is the most complex character portrayal of a dog. Are you a dog owner yourself?

I have three dogs and appreciate those comments because I think they're right on.  One thing I did not want to do was to make this feel like a saccharine film where the moment you see the dog you're automatically in love with them and want to cuddle them.  I wanted it to feel like these dogs have been through a lot and the sacrifice is pretty unimaginable.

Rex exhibits aggressive traits from the get-go. That makes the bond with Megan, when they finally do bond,  that much more special because he is a complex dog and a complex being, just like she is. That’s part of why they bond: she recognizes some of herself in him.

(center) Kate Mara stars as Megan Leavey in Gabriela Cowperthwaite's MEGAN LEAVEY, a Bleecker Street release. (Credit: Jacob Yakob / Bleecker Street)

Along with Rex, Megan is also struggling with PTSD when she gets home and it turns out that he's her best treatment.  The idea that a dog with PTSD isn't fit to live in civilized society suggested some parallels with how some people treat humans with post-traumatic stress.

That’s one of the most important things I wanted to do with the film and that is really the third act.  All the action is done, all the big set pieces are done and the fighting in Iraq parts is done. I wanted to make people focus in on what it is like to come back from the darkness that is war and what it’s really like to transition back to the civilian world.  I was trying to help the rest of us to understand what it is that they need.  I don’t think we can ever completely understand what it is that they’ve been through, but we can listen and try to do whatever we can to heal them or support them.

The thing Megan needed more than anything else was to feel that partner at her side. That’s what made her whole.  Knowing that he was redeployed and that she might lose him was excruciating for her. Rex had sacrificed so much for her and others.  I hope people come away with an understanding of what it means to acclimate to the civilian world and what it is that we can do to help that process for each individual who comes home from war.

It's not an exaggeration to say that you came to this movie after having directed one of the most influential documentaries of all time.  "Blackfish" really changed things for a lot of businesses and a lot of animals.  Documentaries have come to the fore in the last decade or so. There are quite a few filmmakers who’ve built a following making themAfter “Blackfish,” you certainly had opportunities, and you chose to make a feature. Was that something you had always wanted to do?

I think that it’s story-dependent for me.  Whether it's a documentary or a feature narrative, it depends on the story.  If the story is authentic and gives an opportunity to let an audience feel something and think something different, then it's an attractive prospect for me. I am a storyteller.  As much as people say, “Oh, you know she's an animal advocate or she's this or she's that,” the thing that I found that I can do most effectively is to tell a story and hopefully back people in to caring about something.

With that toolset that I have, that’s where I try to make a difference.  And so whether it's narrative or it's documentary is story-dependent.  Some content and some stories should not be feature films and some should not be documentaries.  That’s usually my point of entry. How authentic, how good is this? How much does this story affect me and what do I think I can do with it?  Those are the questions I ask myself.

Several of the younger actors in your movie are really talented and haven’t always been used well in other movies. Your film has outstanding performances across the board. As a documentary director, how did you approach working with actors?

I've directed plays before, but I've never directed actors in a feature film. I'm very proud of my actors.  What I love doing with them is I like finding out what's special about them as people and allowing for some room and allowing for some non-scripted spontaneity in each of them.  I felt like I would see these little moments of magic in them that I was so excited about.

A lot of it is just allowing them some room to do what they’ve always known they can do, but have always been constricted on sets by scripts or by directors. Let me free them up to do what I know they can do because all of them are great actors.  What makes them special in this role?

Common stars as Gunny Martin in "Megan Leavey."

Common is this larger than life guy.  I was surprised by his humor and I put as much of it as possible into the movie.  The idea that a gunnery sergeant is dressing you down and yelling at you all the time is not realistic.  Our military consultants say they come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes humor is the way to inspire and to make your troops feel like a family.  That was like a pleasant surprise. I just pushed him to show his humor and I loved watching that spontaneity out of him.

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