For director, Leavey’s compelling story needed to be told
In theaters is a film about a young woman who joins the Marines looking for something to give her life purpose. Not a very social person, Megan Leavey finds a spark at Camp Pendleton when she meets a dog named Rex — an equally tough nut to crack.
Through patience and training with the canine unit, Megan and Rex are sent into combat to sniff out explosives buried in Iraqi dirt roads. This is their story of a bond that even combat cannot break.
Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite has brought some of the most amazing documentaries to audiences, making an impact with her work. In television she has produced for the History Channel “Shootout: Fallujah,” “Shootout: Battle Cry Ramadi” and “Hunt for Bin Laden.” In film, she directed “City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story” and a little film about a big whale in the still-talked-about piece “Blackfish.”
Her current film, “Megan Leavey,” has already won the Truly Moving Picture Award from Heartland Film, and I suspect there will be more accolades to come. I spoke with Cowperthwaite about the many issues tackled in the film — from the emotions of being a woman in war to the struggles of our military returning with PTSD.
Jeri Jacquin: Good morning Gabriela, thank you for speaking with me this morning about the film.
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: Absolutely, thank you too.
JJ: What drew you to this project?
GC: I think it was an opportunity to really understand the war from a female Marine’s access point. That was an incredible opportunity for me, as I have worked on documentaries on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and never really remember an interview with a woman. I never really got to know their thinking in these situations, so for me, that was a tremendous opportunity.
In addition to that, I never knew about the canine unit. I knew nothing about it working on those other documentaries. So suddenly I’m coming into this war on two different perspectives that I don’t think we have heard a lot from before. What a great entry point into the context of war that can maybe access more people teaching them about loyalty, friendship and sacrifice.
JJ: What was your impression when you first read the script?
GC: I thought, “I can do this.” I think, honestly, because it is a true story and I’m a true story buff coming from making documentaries. It was a female protagonist and a cool one.
For me it was important for me to depict a woman that I feel like I know and that represents my friends and family members. Someone who is making a brave decision and has some witty comebacks and isn’t just a wallflower that smiles on cue. I just wanted to see myself and my friends in this kind of film, and this seemed like the opportunity.
JJ: The film addresses PTSD, which is an important issue for the military. Was that an interest for you as well?
GC: I am very interested in PTSD, and for me that was one of the most important things that I could address in the film. It is very special to me, because I think trying to understand what it is like for our military to come home is something we don’t have very much experience with in the civilian world. I don’t think we can truly know what they went through, and I think it’s hard to understand what they need. I think we are getting to be better listeners in that way along with the help of PTSD groups.
For me to pull back the curtain on what that is like to come back physically and mentally in tact, but a little bit broken, is very important. Megan shows that she needs her partner back with her to help her with PTSD. For some of our military, it is not that specific.
JJ: You are dealing with so many different issues here. You are dealing with a war, Megan’s character, who has obvious issues of her own, dealing with the dog unit and PTSD. That had to be a challenge to focus all of those into the film to make each issue heard.
GC: I appreciate that. It was definitely a challenge and the even bigger challenge are all the things you leave out. There are so many important story threads — what about the political commentary about the war one could make, or about a ton of things regarding women Marines and dealing with their situations. There are so many levels and layers, so you have to have story discipline within this, and to focus on this world from Megan’s perspective. You have to hone in on that relationship and how that bond gets built, because that is really what the story is — loyalty and friendship.
JJ: Speaking of the relationship, everyone watching the film fell in love with Rex. How was that for you, especially in this context of loud and intense?
GC: He was such an amazing animal and so sharply focused and he was treat driven. He loved doing things, and a beautiful animal. I knew he was going to knock it out of the park with his performance. I mean, you look at that face and look at those eyes that stare right at you, and you feel the impact on an emotional level. He was going to give us the take.
This is where my documentary training came in handy because it was get on your feet and get ready to film whatever Rex does, because it’s going to be magic. We were not going to put these dogs through a lot of takes and not do anything that would tax them. So to get our side of things in gear was important because it was only going to happen once.
JJ: I always think the best performances are with actors that can speak volumes with their face — Rex can totally speak with his face. He was charming and cute and very, very intense when he wanted to be.
GC: Exactly! He was amazing that way.
JJ: The challenge of working around the scenes with explosives, that had to be difficult. That scene of the firefight is particularly intense.
GC: It’s so weird to say this, but it was the least challenging of all things. Having worked on the documentaries in the past, I kind of knew what firefights looked like. I wanted this all to feel real and not go flashy Hollywood. It had to be gritty and look, I was not a Marine and I have never been in country, so I relied on what I have seen in my own work.
Making it easier for me were the pros I had there helping me, which is something you don’t get in documentaries. There were heads of departments who knew how to create the base, the arms guy who knows what he is doing and they all give you what you want.
JJ: Did you have a lot of military specialists helping?
GC: Yes, we had Megan, who was in the boot camp scene as a drill sergeant, but from beginning to end of production we had two Marine consultants the entire time. Specifically, we had two female Marine consultants during the boot camp training and we had two canine unit Marine consultants with the canine unit.
JJ: Having Megan there must have really been an awesome experience for you as well.
GC: She rips into Kate in this one drill sergeant scene and it’s so awesome <she laughs>. It’s Megan doing what happened to her except it’s directed at Kate. Megan is so formidable, and her presence is very grounding. She keeps it real and gave us amazing notes for boot camp, and because there are things that the male military consultants wouldn’t know. Megan brought a whole other level of consulting with authenticity.
JJ: Megan leaves home because she is alone and goes into something she thinks will help, but is still alone. When she is in the barracks, I am waiting for her to get Rex because you start to feel that connect for her. Throughout the movie you let us go slowly into each step of Megan’s journey along with all the emotions. I appreciate you letting us go with her instead of grabbing us by the nose forcing us to go. Your cast is stellar — where do you start?
GC: Edie Falco is a cast member where I thought, “Did someone give me a Bugatti or a Ferrari or something?” I thought someone just gave me this amazing gift, and her portrayal of her relationship with Megan was more than I could have asked for. She brings it times 10 and is such a consummate pro. The key to directing Edie is to just get out of her way and let her do it.
Bradley Whitford is so lovely. He is such an amazing person and the roles he has played in the past, man, like being the smartest guy in the room or fast talking witty comebacks. This role for him was so different because he is a dad that doesn’t know what to do. Watching Bradley channel this whole other person is beautiful.
JJ: Until he gets to the point of telling Megan to fight.
GC: Yes, telling her that she is being a shell and to fight for what she wants was so beautiful. Common as Gunny Martin… wow.
JJ: All you can say is — I’m done!
GC: Right? I am so grateful for his performance, and he is such a surprising actor. I mean, he is larger than life and he’s won an Oscar, so here he comes in with his crazy humility. He knows he’s depicting a gunny sergeant who has sacrificed and served, and he does it to the best of his ability with humor. His role is so unexpected, and I told him to go with that. Of course, he screams and such but he cracks wit.
JJ: And there is the moment of humanity that one wouldn’t expect from a gunny.
GC: Yes, he respects that Megan has bonded with her dog. I loved watching him in this.
JJ: And Kate?
GC: Oh please! I think my single favorite thing about watching this film is watching Kate just because I think she does things in this that I’ve never seen her do before. Understanding how far she has to emotionally travel in these 90 minutes of the film, I think she is masterful. She does so much to bring humanity to this story, and you can’t take your eyes off of her.
JJ: Finally, when people, especially military, leave the theater, what do you want them to take away after seeing “Megan Leavey?”
GC: Thank you for your service is always there. I think we say that, but I’m not sure we always know exactly what we mean when we do. I hope this film gives you an idea of what is meant when we say it as we watch all these service people doing their job.
This movie specifically shows you the canine unit and their handlers and how these people are in the front of the front lines. They are clearing the way for the soldiers that are behind them and Iraqi civilians. There is this thing, this beautifully humane thing that these units are doing and these dogs are doing that just deserve our understanding and gratitude.
Also, dealing with PTSD when they come home and how we can maybe look at it different and pay attention and be better listeners in that context. I think that would be a great thing.