The behind-the-scenes footage that bedevilled the film A Dog's Purpose upon its release this past January is brief but painful: An obviously distressed German shepherd, Hercules, does not want to jump into a water tank, which eight outboard motors are churning to resemble a rushing river. His trainer nudges; he resists. Then we see Hercules in the tank, swimming for the wall and getting submerged for a frightening four seconds.
Thinking of it makes Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of the new dogs-of-war drama, Megan Leavey, heartsick. Cowperthwaite is an animal activist. She directed Blackfish, the 2013 documentary that exposed orca abuse at Sea World. The Hercules footage is "unwatchable," she says in a phone interview. "You don't even have to love animals to know that's wrong."
But she also knows that the director of A Dog's Purpose, Lasse Hallstrom, and its producer, Gavin Polone, are animal lovers. They weren't present when the second unit filmed that sequence. "And a film is an enormous machine with a mind of its own," Cowperthwaite says. "There are so many competing priorities. That footage is a perfect example of how, if you're not hyper-vigilant, things get out of your control."
She couldn't let that happen on Megan Leavey, the true story of a female marine (Kate Mara) and her canine bomb-sniffer, Rex, also a German shepherd (played by Varco, with backup from Luna and Big Red), who served two tours in Iraq, executed 100 missions, survived a targeted IED attack in 2006, and saved many thousands of lives – not only U.S. soldiers, but Iraqi civilians, too. The film's raison d'être is to laud war dogs for their heroism, and to educate audiences about them. (It opens Friday, with auspicious timing: Wonder Woman, another woman-directed film about a kick-ass female warrior, took in more than $100-million U.S. last weekend.)
So Cowperthwaite and Mara laid down the law: The dogs' welfare was "the most important thing at all times," Mara says, sitting in a Toronto hotel room, wearing a lacy red and black dress. She credits Blackfish with turning her into an animal activist; that's why she urged Megan Leavey's producers to hire Cowperthwaite, though the director hadn't made a fiction feature before. Mara's gaze is level and her manner friendly, but there's something flinty about her, something wary. She's believable as someone who becomes a U.S. Marine "to get away from my life," whose status as the sole woman in camp sets her apart even from her corps, and whose key relationship is with her dog.
"Megan starts off lost," Mara says. "She doesn't know what her purpose is in life. Everyone goes through that at some point – they need some guidance or passion. Through Rex, Megan finds her reason."
There's a strong outsider streak in Mara's filmography. "I'm intrigued by that in a person," she admits. "I like stories about people who don't feel like they belong. I think all of us have a bit of that."
Although she grew up in tony Bedford, N.Y., in a family that ran two football dynasties, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, as a kid, Mara yearned for escape. "School to me was a problem," she says. "The social aspect was really anxiety-ridden for me." She graduated high school a year early and dived into work, landing roles on TV (Law & Order, Nip/Tuck) and film (127 Hours, The Martian). Now, she says, "I'm able to wait for things that move or inspire me."
On the Megan Leavey set in South Carolina and Spain, the dogs were treated like Elizabeth Taylor: They weren't summoned to set until every light was lit. "Early on, I realized Varco is giving us everything," Cowperthwaite says. "We saw quickly that he would do a perfect take. So on our side, we had better be spry."
When a scene called for Rex to limp – usually accomplished by tying a string around a dog's paw – Cowperthwaite rewrote it. "It wouldn't have hurt him, but it's uncomfortable," she says. "Instead I filmed him from a low angle so the camera was shaky and it looked like he was stumbling."
She was most concerned about an early scene, where an agitated Rex intimidates Leavey. It was essential to the story: Rex had to be scary, so when they bonded, it meant something. One way to rile a dog is to frighten it, to put on a crazy mask. Cowperthwaite went with a more benign option: "There's this fuzzy blob that looks like a squirrel, attached to a pole," she says, laughing. "You wave it around behind the camera, and it excites him without stressing him out."
Huge Varco pulled tiny Mara off her feet more than once. "I survived it," she says dryly. "The scariest part is, when Megan was in the corps, the dogs were attached to the marines' vests. So if he goes running, you're running, or you fall flat." When Mara fell, Varco stopped, right? "Eventually," she says, laughing.
Mara knew that Varco was a pro; she didn't want to mess with that by loving him up too fast. But during the film's biggest action sequence, with squibs firing and pyrotechnics exploding, they had to repeat a moment where he tugs her across rocky terrain. Mara's heart started pounding. "Dog trainers have a line, 'It all goes down leash,' " Cowperthwaite says. "Varco felt Kate's tension, turned around and started licking her face." Mara welled up. "Okay, now we're bonded," she said.
The tricky question: How do two animal lovers reconcile making a movie about war dogs, who can't possibly consent to the danger they face? "It's a tough one to grapple with," Cowperthwaite admits. "Dogs have evolved alongside us for 10,000 years. I'm told there's never been a battle where they haven't fought with us. It's a terrible truth, one of the many tragic realities of war."
"That's one of the reasons I wanted to make this movie – so people know what they do for us, and respect them," Mara says. "It's not my job to say it's right or wrong that we have war dogs. But people should know that these animals are risking their lives for us, and saving lives, constantly."
"And how are they treated when they come home?" she continues. "That should be a conversation, as it should be with all veterans. They return, and we think, 'They're safe now.' But no. A lot of times, the terror comes when they get home." (For the record, Mara's two Boston terriers "have a very sweet life.")
That's why Cowperthwaite fought to include a small scene near the end: Megan and Rex in her living room with a squeaky toy. "For me, that's what it's about," Cowperthwaite says. "Uncomplicated love and loyalty, playing with toys in the sun. It shows what we can give them. What we owe them. We'll never understand what they've been through. Maybe the best we can do is try to give them what they need."