Based on the true story of two war veterans,Megan Leavey celebrates the unbreakable connection between a brave Marine and her best friend.
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.”
Twenty-year old Megan Leavey (Kate Mara), aimless and unhappy, leaves her home and mother Jackie (Edie Falco) in upstate New York in 2003 to join the Marines. After completing boot camp, Megan attends military police school at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. While cleaning up kennels for the K9 unit as punishment for a night of misbehavior, Megan becomes fascinated with the “working dogs” trained to sniff out explosives in war zones.
She joins the K9 division and is assigned to take on an unruly German shepherd named Rex. Mentored by the gruff Sergeant Gunny Martin (Common), Megan gradually gains Rex’s trust and forges a bond of uncommon depth. Megan and Rex are deployed to Iraq, where she learns the ropes from fellow dog handler Matt Morales (Ramón Rodríguez).
Putting her life at risk as one of the first women to operate in an active combat zone in Fallujah and Ramadi, Leavey completes more than 100 missions with Rex, who sniffs out a massive cache of weapons hidden in a terrorist’s home and detects numerous roadside bombs. During their second deployment in 2006, enemy forces outside Ramadi detonate a remote-controlled land mine that injures Megan and Rex in battle.
In the ensuing firefight, Rex helps protect the troops risking his life multiple times so Megan can be taken by helicopter for emergency medical treatment. Megan suffers ruptured eardrums and memory loss, but most of all, she’s devastated by the fact that Rex is no longer by her side.
She returns to civilian life with a Purple Heart and a new mission: to reunite with her canine partner, officially classified as “unadoptable” because of his combat-induced trauma. Encouraged by her father Bob (Bradley Whitford), Megan starts a campaign to raise awareness of her goal to adopt Rex, which gains the attention of Senator Chuck Schumer. Senator Schumer then assists Megan in the biggest fight of her life: to give Rex a loving home.
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.
Pamela Gray made the Variety list of “Ten Screenwriters to Watch.” She has written such films as A Walk on the Moon, which received a Golden Satellite nomination for Best Original Screenplay; Music of the Heart, which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination; and Conviction, which won a Women Film Critics Circle Award for Best Female Images in a Movie and netted Hilary Swank a SAG Award nomination. Gray has written pilots for ABC and CBS as well as screenplays for Warner Bros., Paramount, Disney, Universal, Miramax, New Line and HBO. She recently adapted Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel The Husband’s Secret for CBS Films and is currently developing a Broadway musical based on A Walk on the Moon.
Annie Mumolo is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of the blockbuster comedy Bridesmaids. Mumolo also wrote the screenplay for Joy, based on the life of Joy Mangano. She is currently writing, producing and set to co-star in an untitled comedy for TriStar, re-teaming with Kristen Wiig.
Tim Lovestedt frequently collaborates with comedy queen Annie Mumolo. He developed the animated pilot “Space Cops” with Emmy-winning actor Eric Stonestreet, who is attached to produce and voice the role of “Gauge.” Lovestedt and Mumolo are currently co-writing “The Untitled Tupperware Drama Project” for HBO, which they will also executive produce. He is also working on rewrites on the feature Dog Days, for LD Entertainment.
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.
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.”
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.”