Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite earned critical acclaim for her riveting 2013 documentary Blackfish which spotlighted the plight of killer whales at SeaWorld’s aquatic parks. With 2017’s Megan Leavey, Cowperthwaite turns her attention to the true story of the bond between a female Marine and her incredible canine partner. Megan Leavey is set in the military environment but it’s not specifically a war film as much as it is a movie that focuses on the lasting relationship formed between Leavey and her military service dog, Rex, after she was assigned to the K9 unit out of Camp Pendleton, CA.
Cowperthwaite’s Megan Leavey boasts an impressive cast led by Kate Mara (House of Cards, The Martian) in the title role. In addition to Mara’s four-legged co-star, Varco, the supporting cast includes Bradley Whitford, Tom Felton, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, and Ramon Rodriguez.
Bleecker Street’s opening the PG-13 drama on June 9, 2017 and in support of the film’s theatrical release, director Cowperthwaite and producer Pete Shilaimon participated in a publicity tour that included a stop in San Diego to promote the film. In our exclusive interview, Cowperthwaite and Shilaimon discussed why they were attracted to this project, snagging a topnotch cast, and bringing this inspirational story to the screen.
It’s interesting that we’re talking about Megan Leavey when Patty Jenkins is out with Wonder Woman and everybody is talking about women as directors and being able to lead films like this. Do you think there’s ever going to be a point where that’s not a topic of discussion and it’s the norm?
Pete Shilaimon: “I hope so.”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “That’s such a good question. You know, you never know. I feel like, first of all I’m so excited. I always tell people, ‘If you don’t see Megan Leavey, promise me you’ll see Wonder Woman. (Laughing) My producer will kill me! But Beguiled, the Detroit riots film that’s coming up, there’s all these amazing female [films]. Beatriz at Dinner… I’m like just go see them because it’s not that they’re just directed by female directors, it’s that they’re good. You’re going to find yourself in them. You’re going to see versions of yourself in there. And that was so exciting for me with this movie is that we have a female Marine and we’re coming on the heels of some of the best war films ever made, in my opinion. They’re such masterpieces and yet as a woman watching them you have trouble finding yourself in them. You have trouble, like, ‘Who would I be? The wife at home?’”
You’re not represented.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “Right. I’m not any of these people. And so with this it’s a unique opportunity to be able to show us a version of what it would be like for us, and then understanding more about sacrificing, PTSD, and coming home from that perspective and kind of create some understanding or compassion for this issue by bringing in a whole audience. So, that’s a cool thing.”
You just mentioned great war movies, but I don’t see your film as a war movie. Am I interpreting it wrong?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “You see it as a relationship film?”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “So do I, couched in the contents of a war film. Yeah, people are going to say it’s a war film done with a relationship involved or whatever. But I do see the basic DNA of it as being a relationship film.”
Was the war aspect secondary to you as you were setting this up?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “Believe it or not, the war was very important for me. I came from making documentaries. Life before Blackfish I had worked on as a producer Afghanistan documentaries and Iraq documentaries, and so it was part of my coming up in documentaries was depicting some hardships and some grittiness that’s going on out there in the world. And so for me, just a relationship film… I’d seen many of those scripts, just a sweet sort of relationship film, to me those are fantastic; I see those films but that didn’t feel like mine to make. This because I think it was a female in an environment where you don’t see a lot of females, that’s what felt unique and exciting to me. It just felt different.”
At what point in the process did you meet with the real Megan Leavey?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “Before everything. We were still developing the script at that time and meeting her was just very grounding. I sort of realized she could be me, she could be a friend. This was important for me to focus in on how down-to-earth she was in spite of what she’d been through and was this larger-than-life warrior and all that in the script. You sit with her and she could be any of us. And so, to me, reminding myself of that as I was directing Kate, and Kate knowing that anyway, was important to me to get that authentic young woman, that girl, having that come across. That’s what’s going to be something that people relate to.”
When you were speaking with Megan, did anything that she said to you change the script because of your interactions with her? Or was the story there and she just helped you make it more human?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “I think as a result of meeting her I did what I could working closely with the female producer Jennifer [Monroe] as well as with Kate’s input later. We took out a lot of the ‘cute’ in it. The cuteness, you know, the cute sassy girl stuff which I think is so fun in certain contexts in certain movies but it’s like, ‘Let’s remember not only is she a female Marine who’s had a hard life but that she joins an elite unit – the K9 unit – and then she’s in that unit and she’s a leader in that unit. So, we can be less cute.’ We know that side of filmmaking and everything and that’s so fun in certain movies, but it’s like, ‘Let’s take her a little seriously here.’
There’s witty responses but I think we were cognizant of making her cool, a little cooler like the real Megan. So, yeah, she totally informed it.”
I thought it was interesting you didn’t insert too much of a love story, which might be expected from a female-led movie with a woman as the main character to see more of a romantic angle. That was a fantastic choice that you made to limit that. Was that in the script initially that there wasn’t going to be much of a story told that direction?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “In the script it did have them together. That was the first thing I took out. I’m glad you appreciate it. It was just like, ‘This isn’t the story we’re telling. Not at all.’ For me it was just this amazing thing which Ramon Rodriguez channels so well as Matt Morales the corporal who she might have a relationship with, but it’s really like let’s be honest, he’s more emotionally available than she is, right? Let’s let her be who she is and the thing that breaks her open is Rex, and that’s the relationship story.”
How did you know from the production angle that this was the right story to tell at the right time?
Pete Shilaimon: “It’s always difficult to tell a story with the backdrop of war, right, especially with the climate that we’re in right now and have been. I think Mickey Liddell who pretty much greenlit this movie was very confident in this film and really wanted to tell a story from the female perspective and the canine. I think it was very strong about making this movie. There were a lot of people who said don’t do it. If I’m being honest, there are tons of people who said this is tough. Mickey just kind of fell on his sword. He’s like, ‘I don’t care if we make money. I don’t care if we lose money. We’re going to go make this movie. We’re going to make it with Gabriela and Kate.’
We also have a history of working with female directors because I personally feel like they’re incredibly talented. I think we need more voices out there. So for us, Mickey had to make it.”
I like that the film is titled after Megan and you didn’t make the choice of going with a war or military-inspired title.
Pete Shilaimon: “That was Gabriela!”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “I wanted to go with Leavey. I think both Kate and I wanted to go with just Leavey, truth be told. Just the last name just to be, ‘This is what she’s called.’ It felt real. But I think people thought that if you have the Megan in there it’s interesting because suddenly you see it’s a woman and that’s different. I get that.”
Everyone says not to direct animals, so how was your experience directing dogs in Megan Leavey?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “And I love it so much because everyone’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you directed him so well.’ And I’m like, ‘I didn’t do anything.’ He’s amazing. You know, he would be treat-motivated. I would say what I wanted and the trainer would set it up rather quickly with treats. We’d get that performance. The key was, for me, just not to do a lot of takes with an animal, obviously. You don’t want to tax him; you don’t want to make him uncomfortable. So it was, ‘We’ve got to be ready, guys,’ and that’s where my documentary (background) comes in. It was like, ‘Roll now!’ There’s no adjusting lights. Do it all, set it up, bring him in, and he’s going to deliver and we just better be rolling. The responsibility fell on us. We had to get it right because he’s Paul Newman and he’s going to nail it.”
Pete Shilaimon: “That’s what I loved about being on set with Gabriela. It was such a different way of producing for me to be with Gabriela. She comes from such a different world that I completely fell in love with. The documentary world is just so fast and so spontaneous. It’s so, ‘Let’s do it! Let’s do it! Let’s do it!’ From the movies that I’ve worked on it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s wait another 10 minutes until her hair is perfect,’ or whatever. Gabriela does not work that way, which is incredible.”
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “Mess her hair up more!”
Pete Shilaimon: “Make everything dirty. It was great.”
So what you’re saying is that every filmmaker should be a documentarian first before they do features.
Pete Shilaimon: “I can say that. I think it gives you a lot of speed on set. Yes, I can say that.”
And maybe you’re approaching it a little more honestly?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “I think that’s hopefully [true]. We’re supposedly trained in the real stuff and knowing what real looks like. That’s something that I would feel. But, you know, I also had Kate and I had all my actors get that. Everybody acts from within and they all get the authentic thing that I was trying to do. That’s the kind of acting that they prefer anyway, more freeing to them. I was given the gift of actors who love that and who were light on their feet that way. It was lucky all around.”
You have an amazing cast. That supporting cast is crazy good.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “And to even call them supporting casts…isn’t that just crazy? How do you ever say Edie Falco ‘supporting’ anything? With Edie specifically, I always make the joke that I felt like I was given a sports car like a Ferrari and I’m driving around the block at 5 mph. I have this gift of Edie and it’s just not enough scenes for her; she should be carrying half the movie. It’s Edie! But she’s a generous spirit. She wanted to do it. She liked Kathy and knew she could bring that spark to it. She’s such a pro so she just did it and nails it.
And then there’s Bradley Whitford. He’s so good in this and he’s so not the Bradley Whitford we’d seen before. He’s not that slick-talker guy who’s so fricking brilliant in his characters. He is the thinker, think before you speak guy in this movie. Sort of like, ‘I have something wise to say but I don’t even know how to talk to my daughter.’ Having him kind of restrained like that is so beautiful to me in this film because it’s very father/daughter. That, to me, is very sweet.
Common, just an amazing, special [man]. One of my favorite surprises of all was him, this larger-than-life guy who could be just this in your face constantly but showing some humor, showing some humanity. It’s very Gunnery Sergeant – that’s what you find sometimes in these guys. But also to see that in Common and see him excited, I think, to just try something new like that was just a huge surprise and kind of a gift.”
And even Tom Felton. This is a different type of role for him.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “Totally. Totally, and him just having to Marine up, buff up for it. He’s so lovely, too. He is just always good in everything he does, but to see him… There are people who don’t know it’s him. Totally don’t know it’s him. Like, ‘That’s Tom Felton?’ He’s totally just kind of owning it, you know? And he’s like a medium guy – he’s not a huge guy – but he fills the shoes of that guy and you picture him in the leadership role there. Very, very lucky.”
Pete Shilaimon: “I will tell you between the script and Gabriela being our director, it was not a very hard movie to cast. People wanted to do this. For the producers we would have a hard time casting movies generally, like maybe some stuff in the script didn’t work or not a big fan of the director or whatever, but with Gabriela and the script it was easy to cast this film. People just wanted to work on this. A lot of Blackfish fans – almost all of them.”
I would think it would be very tough to throw a rock and not hit a Blackfish fan.
Pete Shilaimon: “Seriously, that is true.”
When you were speaking with the real Megan Leavey, what did she tell you about Rex that helped you make sure you were capturing the dog correctly?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “I mean, the whole ‘everything you feel goes down leash,’ that type of thing. Rex looks almost exactly like Varco. When she saw a picture of the dog we were going to use, she’s like, ‘That’s Rex,’ so we kind of knew.
In terms of casting, not specifically him but in terms of what to do with the dog and Megan the character on set, it was very much this whatever you’re feeling is going to go down leash and the dog’s going to feel it. So that line in the movie just always stood in the forefront. The technique with those scenes was like, ‘Oh my gosh, they are absolutely tethered. Tethered physically, bonded emotionally, never leave each other’s side.’ And, really, just the drama of splitting them up in the end is so different. People go through this coming out of war where the only people who are ever going to understand what you’re going through are your brothers in arms. In this case, it was even more so because they were so interconnected. I guess that to me, that amputating that being away from the real Megan, was just devastating. So remembering that and carrying that forward in the narrative was important.”
Are you going back to documentaries or is it feature films from now on?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “I want to do both, if both will have me. It’s all story-dependent. Some stories should be only documentaries. Some stories should just be narrative. You can never guess what you’re going to get attracted to.”
Do you know it as soon as you see it?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “As soon as I see it. I start immediately texting my agents. ‘I’m on page 10 and don’t let this one slip by.’ Or I see a synopsis of a documentary and I’m like immediately responding in all caps, ‘OBSESSED. Don’t move. Don’t breathe, nobody move and nobody gets hurt.”
What page of the script was it with Megan Leavey when you said this was your film?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “The checkpoint scene. All the way through and then watching her in-country and then really what was happening in-country. That first moment of, ‘Oh, I guess I’m a Marine with this dog and we’ve never done this before. We’re supposed to protect not only all of our troops but all these Iraqi civilians.’ That weight of the world on this girl’s shoulders, who really is a young woman but feels like a girl, to me was like I felt the chills.”
And Kate Mara was so brilliant in that scene.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: “She’s so brilliant. It’s like my favorite thing about the movie is Kate’s performance.”
(Interview by Rebecca Murray. Video by Gary Murray.)