In 2013, the documentary “Blackfish” made waves by exposing the grim realities faced by orcas at SeaWorld theme parks.
The 2010 killing of a SeaWorld trainer inspired director Gabriela Cowperthwaite to investigate how Tilikum, one of the killer whales known famously as "Shamu," would turn on his caretakers, revealing the great suffering experienced by captive orcas.
Cowperthwaite returns to the subject of human and animal relationships from a different perspective through the feature film, “Megan Leavey." Based on a true story, the film follows the title character (played by Kate Mara) and how a relationship with a combat dog changes her life.
Leavey is a troubled young woman who enlists in the Marines to escape her small town. Her first job is to clean kennels for the bomb-sniffing dogs at Camp Pendleton, but she moves on to train a German Shepherd named Rex. Leavey is able to tame the unruly canine and the two forge a special bond that is both challenged and strengthened in combat.
Cowperthwaite said the most important aspects of both documentary and narrative filmmaking are story and character:
To me, it's all story dependent. I think there are stories out there that should have never been narrative films and fiction. And there are stories that shouldn't be documentaries, that should be fictionalized. It's story dependent ... Yes, "Blackfish" had this huge, behemoth SeaWorld corporation at its center. But, really, what captivated me about the idea of telling it was Tilikum. I had this 12,000- pound antagonist, protagonist, whatever you call it— anti-hero. And if I followed him faithfully then the story of SeaWorld would unravel itself more naturally. So for me it's just story and character.
Cowperthwaite says her experience researching orcas for “Blackfish" in some ways helped her understand the inner, unspoken life of a canine companion. But she says there is a big difference between combat dogs and captive orcas:
I did grapple at times with the idea that this is also an animal that doesn't choose to be there. How I came to think about it was just imagining the thousands of lives that are saved. The fact that this is an animal that has evolved alongside us for 10,000 years [while] orcas have been in close relation to humans in captivity for like fifty ... And this is an apex predator that needs vast amounts of room to be able to thrive, let alone survive, whereas dogs have been our companions.
It doesn't make it feel any better that they're there not by their own choosing, but it makes such a difference when you imagine how many people they and their handlers save. And that's not only saving Americans or soldiers or Marines, that's saving Iraqi civilians. That's a huge thing that they're doing.
Cowperthwaite says despite the challenges, telling Megan Leavey's story through a narrative film helped make it more accessible to audiences.
You've got to compact so much into this digestible format. With documentary I would have struggled a lot to really play out what Megan did. I think she had two tours — Ramadi and Fallujah — [and] you just can't do that in a 90-minute film. And so I had to take out an entire tour.
But think about what that means to somebody's life. She was that type of Marine, but I can't show her as that type of Marine, right? I would if it were documentary. But in order for it to be this narrative digestible thing, I had to take a bunch of stuff out.
Cowperthwaite served as a producer for documentaries about the Iraq War for The History Channel. The experience greatly influenced her choice to direct “Megan Leavey”:
In all those years when I was working on these Iraq documentaries, I don't remember us interviewing a single female. That's actually kind of unbelievable to me now. And we'd never touched upon a canine, at least while I was there. So for me there were these two fresh portals of entry into a war movie.
The relationship between Leavey and the combat dog, Rex, is the most important one in the film. The choice to downplay any other relationships, such as a romance with a man, was a conscious choice by Cowperthwaite:
When the script came to me, the role of the male — Kate's love interest — they sort of do end up together. Not to spoil my own movie, but that was the first thing I took out when I came in and did a quick director's pass on [the script]. I was like, That's not that movie. This is a movie about Rex and Megan so let's just sort of stay with that relationship ... because that's the core of the movie.
Cowperthwaite says that "Megan Leavey" differs from other war movies for one simple reason — it's about a woman soldier and her dog:
The war movies we've seen are some of my favorite movies. Maybe I'm an unlikely demo, but I do go see those. But I can't always find myself in them. I'm like, Would I be that lieutenant? Would I be a sergeant? Would I be the wife who gets left at home? And I'm like, None of those fit. And so for me this was this cool opportunity to open up the context of what it feels like to be there to a completely different audience because we've got two different access points — a dog and female.
To hear John Horn's conversation with Gabriela Cowperthwaite, click on the player above.