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About The Production
Megan Leavey, the movie, began on the day that Megan Leavey, the person, walked into LD Entertainment production offices and told her remarkable story. "We cried in our conference room," recalls producer Jennifer Monroe. "It was incredible to see the war from a female Marine's perspective. This took place during a time when women soldiers couldn't be on the frontlines and here's Megan, who's able to go in front of the frontlines because she belongs to the K9 division."

Leavey's brave story proved irresistible to the producers. They enlisted writer Pamela Gray (Conviction) to meet with Leavey and shape her life experience into a screenplay. Additional rewrites from Annie Mumolo & Tim Lovestedt incorporated characters based on an amalgam of Leavey's real-life comrades.

Once the script was completed, LD Entertainment CEO Mickey Liddell knew exactly who should play the intrepid title character. Emmy-nominated for her role as hard-charging reporter Zoe Barnes in "House of Cards," Kate Mara had previously appeared in Liddell's TV series "Jack & Bobby." He remembered the petite actress as a formidable presence equal to the task of portraying the indomitable woman at the heart of this story.

"Kate has this tough exterior and Megan's like that in real life," producer Liddell says. "They're both New Yorkers and when she shows you a personal moment on screen, it just tears your heart open. I sent the script to Kate and two days later we met for breakfast. She told me, 'I have to do this role. Do not cast anyone else. This is my role. I am Megan Leavey.'"

Mara remembers her gut reaction to the screenplay. "I bawled my eyes out," she says. "The thing I love so much about Megan's journey is that she starts off kind of lost, but when she becomes a Marine and meets this incredible animal she finds her purpose."

Above all, Mara admired Megan Leavey's intensity, determination and unwavering loyalty to her canine companion. "Megan and Rex loved their job and the Marines they protected," she says. "And Megan loved Rex. Nothing was going to stop her from getting her dog back, and she did it with grace and a great attitude."

An Animal-Loving Director

Like many of the film's cast members, Mara was profoundly moved by Gabriela Cowperthwaite's SeaWorld exposé, Blackfish. The filmmaker's 2013 documentary galvanized public outrage over the theme park's treatment of captive whales, prompting changes in SeaWorld's policy. A devoted dog-owner and animal advocate herself, Mara arranged a meeting with Cowperthwaite through the Humane Society. "Gabriela and I talked about different ways we could continue the fight for animals," Mara says. "I really wanted to work with her because she's one of my heroes, so I suggested that Gabriela direct Megan Leavey."

Producer Liddell followed up on Mara's recommendation by meeting with Cowperthwaite. "She came in and within five minutes I decided, 'I'm hiring her,'" he recalls. "She knew the script inside and out, she was passionate, she had great empathy for animals and she was interested in the subject of females in the military. Obviously the fact that she was the animal advocate who made Blackfish also felt right, so I knew during that first meeting that Gabriela needed to be the director for Megan Leavey."

Cowperthwaite had never directed a feature-length scripted drama, but she had an obvious gift for fact-based storytelling. "I come from documentaries and Megan Leavey is based on a true story, so I felt, 'I can do this,'" Cowperthwaite says. "A lot of war movies depict the experience of a male soldier. Very few follow a woman. It was fascinating for me to look at how a woman starts out in boot camp and ends up becoming a Corporal. What did that entail? I was also very curious about the K9 unit. What have these dogs been doing for us during war time? Rarely do movies follow a woman in combat or look at the canine sacrifice, so I saw Megan Leavey as a great opportunity to peel back the layers of that world."

Cowperthwaite also responded to the way the script dramatized Megan Leavey's personal evolution. "When we first meet Megan in the film, she's in a sort of downward spiral and she doesn't feel supported by anyone in her life. The relationship thing is pretty challenging for her," Cowperthwaite says. "It's easier for her to connect with this dog who shares her similar tough exterior, but who's probably longing for a connection as much as she is. Megan finds a kind of symbiosis there."

The director wanted to underscore the physical and psychological sacrifices made by American soldiers. "One aspect of the film that was really important to me to get right is the fact that these men, women and animals experience very dark scenarios and a lot of them come back broken," says Cowperthwaite. "And I think as civilians we're just not entirely equipped to understand what they've been through let alone help them." Megan has PTSD, which is worsened by the fact that she's not with Rex. "It's inspiring to watch her charge back up, remembering what made her join the Marines in the first place."

To deepen her understanding of the story, Cowperthwaite spent time with the real-life Leavey. "Reading the script, I'd pictured Megan as this unapproachable warrior, so I was blown away when I met her by how sweet and chill she was," the director says. "She doesn't telegraph what she's gone through. She doesn't see herself as some war hero. She bristles when anyone calls her that and immediately tips her hat to all service members. She never says 'me' she says 'we'. She exudes humility."

The producers were excited to be able to put a female director in charge of a movie about a strong woman. "Gabriela was collaborative and brilliant and a great listener, which partly comes, I think, from the fact that she's a mom and used to juggling a million things at once," says producer Monroe. "There's a huge skillset that comes out of that. She was an amazing director to work with."

A Platoon of Supporting Actors

Four-time Emmy-winner Edie Falco jumped at the chance to play Megan's mother Kathy, in large part because of Cowperthwaite's involvement. "I'm a big animal rights person so the draw for me with this movie was the director," says the "Sopranos" and "Nurse Jackie" star. "I had seen Gabriela's Blackfish documentary and when they told me she was directing Megan Leavey, I was in right away."

It turned out Falco shares a personal connection with the real Megan Leavey, which she only became aware of it midway through filming. "Megan Leavey's real-life father was head of the Teamster crew that worked on 'The Sopranos,'" Falco explains. "For a while, her dad was actually my driver on that show. I didn't know that until after we started shooting and I finally met Megan. She said, 'I met you once when I was a kid when I came on set with my father.' The whole thing was too weird for words but I had this very roundabout connection to this story even before I came on board."

Falco's character, Kathy, is divorced from Megan's father, Bob, portrayed by Bradley Whitford. The two-time Emmy-winner and father of three says he found it easy to relate to Bob's concerns and frustrations in trying to help Megan get back on her feet after she leaves the Marines. "You truly are only as happy as your children are," he says. "It's a very difficult to communicate with your own child when they are struggling because as a parent you can get dismissed."

Suffering from PTSD and desperately missing Rex, Megan has a hard time getting her civilian life on track. With the help of her father, she becomes motivated to fight for the one thing she really cares about: her dog. "Initially, they have this very fractured, distant relationship," says Whitford, who gave himself a crew cut with a store-bought clipper to get into character as the unpretentious working-class dad. "Bob tries to overcome that distance by reminding Megan that she has this strength that he can't even imagine for himself. I love that Bob was able to sort of help Megan be her strongest self."

The filmmakers cast actor and Grammy-winning hip-hop star Common in the role of Gunny Martin, the sergeant who oversees Megan's K9 training at Camp Pendleton. Common, whose recent credits include John Wick: Chapter 2 and Suicide Squad, admires his character's no-nonsense rigor. "Gunny's not an easy person," he says. "He's dedicated to creating great marines so he expects you to live up to your word and he's going to challenge you to do that. For Megan, he's a great disciplinarian and in many ways, a great teacher."

To nail down the nuances of his character's behavior, Common worked with a pair of Marine consultants. "Our consultants worked with me to get Gunny's perspective aligned correctly, but we didn't want to get into stereotypes. Yes, you're a soldier so you act a certain way, but you were a person before you were a soldier. Those guys helped me feel secure to the point where I could look at a take and say, 'Yeah, Gunny would respond like that.'"

Puerto Rican-born actor Ramón Rodríguez made such a strong impression on Cowperthwaite during a long-distance Skype session that she hired him to play Matt Morales, the fellow dog-handling Marine whom Megan befriends in Iraq. "When Megan first arrives in Iraq, Matt shows her the ropes, but in a real playful way," Rodríguez says. "He has compassion for what Megan has to deal with, being a woman, being new and being part of this very small group of people who make up the K9 handler unit."

Mara says she established an easy rapport with the man who plays her character's love interest. "Ramón has this incredible ability to make every line of dialogue seem like he just came up with it off the cuff," says the actress. "He's very natural and comfortable in his own skin, just like Morales. That's one reason the character bonds with Matt so quickly. They have this sort of instant connection."

Getting it Right

Principal photography on Megan Leavey began October 12, 2015, in South Carolina. In November, production shifted to southern Spain, where veteran production designer Ed Verreaux re-created Iraq War environments in the country's arid region near the city of Cartagena. "Ed has done incredible work with Steven Spielberg and the research he did for this film was pretty extensive," says producer Shilaimon. "He put together a research department that just dealt with Iraq, and then we had another research department that just dealt with the boot-camp part of Megan's life."

Determined to get herself into top Marine-level condition, Mara participated in a boot-camp-style regimen organized by veteran military consultant James D. Dever. A former Marine whose credits include Heartbreak Ridge, American Sniper and Jarhead, Dever made sure cast members delivered an authentic representation of military procedures. "Anything having to do with the Marines, James helped Kate," says producer Monroe. "She did a lot of scenes wearing actual backpacks, which weigh 65 pounds. Kate's tiny, but she went for it."

The Iraq War sequences, choreographed by a stunt team from Bulgaria, immersed Mara in intense recreations of combat conditions. "The scene where Kate gets blown up was a very big stunt piece," producer Shilaimon says. "There were so many moving parts that could have gone wrong, between fires, explosions and injuries. It was four days in the making plus five hours of rehearsals but all that preparation made the action look real."

Determined to protect the dogs from exposure to loud noises, filmmakers relied on visual effects rather than practical explosions for the film's most violent scenes. "We didn't want Varco [the dog who portrays Rex] to be anywhere near that blast," Shilaimon says. "We didn't want to stress him out or hurt the dog's hearing."

Mara vividly remembers becoming deeply immersed in the taut bomb-sniffing sequences. "When I had Rex by my side for those combat scenes, it was unlike anything I've ever been a part of," she says. "The days were very long and very hot and very intense. We shot the war scenes quite early on, which was good because it allowed me to grow really close to Varco. Creating this world together, I felt bonded to him and also to all the guys I was acting with. Under those circumstances, you get to know each other very quickly."

Training Days

Although the canine love of Megan's life has no dialogue, "Rex" speaks volumes with his tender glances and attentive body language. Portraying Rex in most scenes is Varco, a large German shepherd who had not previously been trained as a military working dog. "At first I was nervous," says Mara. "I thought, 'Shouldn't we get a dog who was actually trained to sniff bombs and knows what he's doing?' But Varco looks very much like the real Rex, which was important. And he also had that thing we needed most for Rex: he was a ferocious dog who also has a heart of gold. Varco both terrified me and made me want to cuddle him."

Filmmakers hired two K9 handlers from the U.S. Marine Corps to advise the shoot in Spain along with two trainers who worked with Varco and his doubles in South Carolina. "Whenever Varco came on to the set, it was like a love fest for everyone in the crew," says Shilaimon. "He was the greatest dog."

Megan Leavey showcases a now-obsolete protocol, which required handlers to leash themselves directly to their dogs while conducting missions. "I knew nothing about the Marines' canine unit before I read the script, so one of the most fascinating things I learned is that back when Megan was a Marine, Rex's leash was directly connected to her vest," Mara says. "When your dog is out there sniffing for explosives and it suddenly runs off, you're kind of screwed, which I know from experience because that happened to me at one point while we were filming. You're very connected to the dog, not just mentally, but physically."

To strengthen her character's on-screen bond with Rex, Mara worked off-screen with Varco. "I helped train Varco to make it look like he was sniffing out explosives by using treats," Mara recalls. "It was just a game for him, but he learned so quickly it was amazing."

The German shepherd Chico, handled by Rodríguez's Matt Morales character, also contributed a powerful supporting performance. "We used to call Chico 'Paul Newman' because he was such a great actor and he was always stealing scenes," Rodríguez laughs. "He's a fire rescue dog so it was kind of challenging at times because Chico does this for real. I made sure to spend a lot of time with Chico so our relationship on screen would feel real and natural."

While bonding with his on-screen dog, Rodríguez learned a valuable lesson. "They say, 'it all goes down leash,' and I found that to be very true," Rodríguez says. "If you're anxious or nervous or not confident, it immediately translates to the dog's behavior because he feels what you feel. I took my responsibility as the handler for this dog very seriously because his job is to sniff explosives and protect Marines. It takes a very talented type of animal to do that."

A Healing Bond

Although Megan Leavey frames its narrative around the actions taken by Marines in the heat of battle, Common notes that civilian moviegoers will easily relate to the film's overriding themes. "Showing people what it means to be a Marine, that's part of the story, but Megan Leavey is not really a war movie," Common says. "It's more about this woman who is trying to find herself through her bond with the dog that she went to war with. It's about the idea that no matter what you go through to find yourself, it's love that's prevails. You can go to war. You can have a difficult childhood. You can make mistakes. But love is the greatest healer and there's real strength in that."

Falco would like to see the film inspire audience members to take action in their own lives. "I'd hope every person who sees Megan Leavey goes out to a shelter and adopts an animal," says Falco. "For me, the story's about what it means to take care of another living thing. This happens to be about loving an animal. It's an uncomplicated relationship and yet this kind of love can be very powerful."

Megan Leavey is also a stark reminder that extreme violence exacts a cost on combatants of all species. "Experiencing combat can be very traumatic for dogs just as it is for humans," Mara says. "When they come back from war with PTSD, dogs need to be supported and treated and put in the right space, a caring space. They need to come back to some open arms and hugs, so I want this movie to spread the word about that. And I love how this movie will make you feel so good about this little five-foot-something woman and her dog who saved a lot of people's lives and basically just conquered the world."

For Leavey herself, the cinematic story of her life carries with it a simple truth: perseverance pays off. "The main thought in this movie is, don't give up on something you love," she says. "I loved Rex. I spent four years waiting to adopt him, but even when I got depressed, I never gave up. Once you give up, it's not gonna happen, but if you keep at it, you can make things happen. That's what I hope people take away from my story."


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