WASHINGTON — She directed the acclaimed documentary “Blackfish” (2013), exposing the controversial treatment of killer whales at SeaWorld theme parks.
Co-written by screenwriters Pamela Gray (“Conviction”), Annie Mumolo (“Bridesmaids”) and Tim Lovestedt (“Parenthood”), the film follows Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), a young Marine corporal whose loving bond with her military combat dog Rex saved many lives during a deployment in Iraq.
“It’s a unique way into a story we think we’ve heard before,” Cowperthwaite told WTOP. “It’s a female marine story and we don’t hear those a lot, and the K-9 unit is something we don’t hear about a lot. I knew nothing about either one of those, so it was interesting to me and kind of a unique opportunity.”
In order to maintain authenticity, Cowperthwaite collaborated with the real Megan Leavey.
“Megan was there during the boot camp scenes and actually plays a drill sergeant,” she said. “She was actually there, consulted on the script and so forth, so she was part of the shaping of the narrative.”
That narrative includes a compelling character arc for the protagonist.
“As we depict in the film, [she] starts off feeling like she has a challenging life with really no prospects, flunks out of school, loses her job and joins the Marines,” Cowperthwaite said. “This is a story, in my mind, of someone coming to value themselves by virtue of valuing something else, loving herself because she ends up loving something else [her dog]. … She doesn’t feel quite whole without him.”
This human-animal bond adds a unique spin to the battle sequences in Act Two.
“It’s a brothers-in-arms story with no brother,” Cowperthwaite said with a laugh. “It’s a female, it’s a K-9, but really, it’s the story of this bond formed. … They bonded and had an unlikely friendship in the beginning. He’s very aggressive; I think she saw some of herself in him when she first joins the K-9 unit. But they went out and wound up saving hundreds of lives and going on the tours together.”
As the film nears Act Three, don’t be surprised if it tugs on your heartstrings.
“Of course, she comes back and [the dog] redeploys and he goes back in country, so that obviously is the Third Act, where the question is: he saved her and now it’s her turn to save him,” she said. “The Third Act to me is really important about a service member coming home and what she has to go through. As civilians, I’m not sure we completely understand what it is that they need. … The aspect of coming home and the PTSD was so important for me to try to just … hint at what that might be like.”
“House of Cards” star Mara was already attached to the project when Cowperthwaite came aboard.
“I knew her from ‘Blackfish,’ my previous movie; she became involved in that and an animal advocate as a result,” Cowperthwaite said. “[She’s] a tough soul in this beautiful, lovely, petite body and veneer. She can channel the whole spectrum of emotions that Megan has in this narrative trajectory and nails each one of them. I was impressed. One of my favorite things about the movie is Kate’s performance.”
While the “Blackfish” advocacy introduced her to her lead actress in Mara, Cowperthwaite said there were other distinct advantages to shooting a narrative feature film as opposed to a documentary.
“Much bigger toys,” Cowperthwaite said with a laugh. “Really, just the help was amazing. There’s a production designer who built a base for me from the ground up! So all these people, these pros dedicated to executing my creative vision, was amazing. I was blown away by that.”
At the same time, there were also inherent challenges.
“I come from a world of spontaneity and not knowing what’s going to happen,” Cowperthwaite said. “There’s a magic and adrenaline rush that comes with that, having to be spry and agile — I love that part of filmmaking. With [‘Megan Leavy’], there’s a script, there’s a document and you have to adhere to it. So I was finding myself trying to find spontaneity in the performances and doing things to keep it fresh and to make it feel authentic, because those are the types of films and characters that I love.”
What does she want audiences to take away from the movie?
“Sometimes this human-animal bond, if properly depicted, can crack open some empathy and make us understand this world of war in a fresh way,” Cowperthwaite said. “Maybe this can access a whole audience that wouldn’t see a movie like that otherwise, because we have these fresh agents we’re telling a story through. To understand both the human sacrifice and K-9 sacrifice in these situations.”
In the end, you’ll reconsider the sacrifice that military dogs go through.
“These animals have evolved alongside us for 10,000 years,” Cowperthwaite said. “There’s never been a war where we haven’t had K-9s there to protect us. And they’re not choosing to be there in the way that we are [as humans]. So in a way, it’s kind of unfathomable to imagine their sacrifice. With the K-9 unit in particular, a line that I made sure got in there is that they’re ‘in front of the front lines,’ clearing swaths of land so that everyone behind them stays safe. Imagine that level of sacrifice!”
Listen to WTOP anchor Shawn Anderson’s full conversation with filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite below: