Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite had done documentary segments with Iraq War veterans for the History Channel, and she’d made Blackfish (2013), a widely admired doc about the problematic relationship between a killer whale and its human handlers (one of whom died on duty) at SeaWorld. So when Kate Mara—an animal-rights activist as well as a movie star—was seeking a director for her passion project, Megan Leavey, a biopic about a female Marine and her bomb-sniffing dog, she found in Cowperthwaite a woman whose résumé had uniquely prepared her for that role. Cowperthwaite was called in by the production team—and, she recalls, “I was hired in the room, which I thought would never happen.”
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“The script had been in motion for more than five years,” Cowperthwaite continues, “so it was really kind of ‘go’ time when I came aboard. Kate was committed, and she had a window, so we had to move.” They filmed mostly in South Carolina, with supporting talent the caliber of Common, Bradley Whitford, Edie Falco, Will Patton, and Tom Felton. The story stretches from hardscrabble upstate New York, where Megan Leavey (Mara) was living with her divorcée mom and facing bleak prospects, to the Iraq War, where Leavey and her bomb-sniffing German shepherd, Rex, saved thousands of lives through some 100 missions.
The Iraq scenes were what Cowperthwaite really sweated. “Combat is always tough,” she says. “There’s the physical exertion of it, and then there’s the reality of what it is that you’re depicting: loss of life. It’s one of those things—can you ever properly do it justice? You’re conveying such a serious and morbid reality. How do you do that with respect? I don’t take that stuff lightly—it’s not a game for me.” (Rest assured, she gets it right.)
The real Megan Leavey came on set and advised on the production; she even appears briefly in the movie as a boot camp drill sergeant (“She’s so scary,” Cowperthwaite says with a laugh) as well as in a series of snapshots in the end credits. But the final destination of this gritty, roughhewn story packs a positive punch: “It’s about a woman who comes to care about herself,” Cowperthwaite says, “because she comes to care about something else.”
This article originally appears in the June 2017 issue of ELLE.