A straight line can be drawn between the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” — which exposed the unnatural and sometimes dangerous conditions under which marine parks typically keep and breed captive orcas — and SeaWorld’s 2016 decision to phase out use of so-called killer whales in performances. The splash made by that movie kept its director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, in the news for months after its release.
But that controversy eventually subsided enough for Cowperthwaite to make another film. Despite sharing an animal theme with “Blackfish,” her new film, “Megan Leavey” is a radical departure for the filmmaker, who had previously worked exclusively in documentary for almost two decades. Although based on the true story of a Marine dog handler’s fight to adopt her bomb-sniffing dog Rex after leaving the military, the film is a drama, starring Kate Mara in the title role.
While in town to promote the new film, Cowperthwaite, 46, sat down to talk about the path that led her from one animal story to another.
Q: You were working toward your PhD in political science when you first fell in love with documentary. How deeply does politics inform your work?
A: I’m interested in and compelled by issues. The idea of bettering things, of making a difference.
Q: Isn’t that what every documentarian dreams of?
A: I’ve learned one thing about making a difference as a filmmaker. It’s almost impossible if you come in shouting from the rooftops. I feel like I’m more effective in making a difference when I come in with some humility: Teach me something I don’t know. With “Blackfish,” I was just a mother who used to take her kids to SeaWorld.
Q: Was this before the 2010 death of SeaWorld animal trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed while working with the orca Tilikum?
A: Oh, yeah.
Q: And yet you could sense, even then, that there was something wrong at SeaWorld?
A: I call it the cringe factor. We all have it. You see something and cringe a little bit, like trainers standing on a whale’s nose. I would look around and everybody would be laughing and smiling, and I’d think to myself, “I’m a wet blanket. I’m the problem. I just need to get with the times. These people mean well. I’m sure these whales are probably taken care of.” You end up anesthetizing yourself. For me to be effective as a filmmaker, I almost have to come in as part of the problem. With “Megan Leavey,” that means I have to come in as someone who didn’t know about the K9 unit and didn’t have any idea about what it means to come back from the front, as a veteran. What worked about “Blackfish” wasn’t that I was looking to topple SeaWorld. I was trying to answer a question, trying to understand why someone died. Are these whales happy? Do they like each other? How did they get here in the first place? I can only do what I know how to do, and the tool at my disposal is storytelling. The reason “Blackfish” worked is that there was a story behind it: Tilikum’s story.
Q: You’re saying that “Blackfish” is connected to “Megan Leavy” by an abiding curiosity about the films’ subjects, which in each case happen to be animals. Would you call yourself an animal person?
A: Yes, but I didn’t know that I was. I have dogs. I have always been intrigued by and felt compassion and empathy with the natural world, but I never thought of myself in that limiting way: “Now the only films I should make are animal movies.” Nothing like that. How did “Megan Leavey” come to be? It was an opportunity to tell a story, as a way for me to access a world, and maybe crack open a little opportunity for compassion. It was about a female Marine, which is something we never hear about in war movies. And then there’s the K9 unit. I had worked on documentaries before about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and never encountered a K9 unit. That to me was unique and fresh. But yes, I also think that scripts with animals are just going to be coming my way more often than for most filmmakers.
Q: “Megan Leavey” isn’t just one thing, either. How important to you is the film’s subtheme of sexism in the military?
A: That was a challenge I felt, in a way. Here I have this amazing issue: females in the military.
Q: It’s like there could be a whole other story there, even without the dog.
A: Totally. There are things in “Megan Leavey” that we deal with really quickly, about what it’s like to be a woman in the Marines, but we don’t dive deep into them. And yet they were interesting to me. Each one of those things could have been its own movie, but there was a need to stay faithful to the idea that there was this relationship between Megan and this dog. That was the challenge.
Q: Isn’t it a love story above all else, and not just an animal movie?
A: It’s a total love story. But the movie is called “Megan Leavey,” not “Megan and Rex.” It’s really about someone coming to love herself by virtue of loving something else. The romantic relationship she has with her fellow Marine Morales is another thing I loved about the film: Morales is completely emotionally available, and she’s totally not. He’s completely ready for a relationship, and she’s 100 percent not.
Q: You’re flipping the script for romantic drama.
A: Totally flipping it. It’s not one of those movies where she goes “in country,” and then it’s all about her and a guy
Q: How faithful is the movie to Megan’s actual story?
A: It’s what she went through. The difficult part is what you leave out, but what’s there is truthful. In real life, Megan didn’t just do one tour, like she does in the movie. She went to Ramadi and Fallujah. She was a Marine, and a member of an elite unit. I shoved this line into the movie, because I heard a real Marine say it: She’s “in front of the front line” — sweeping everything to make things safe for everybody behind her. It gives leadership a whole new meaning. I kick myself because we couldn’t show all of what she did in the film.
Q: Given your “Blackfish” background, don’t you worry that it’s unethical to put dogs in harm’s way?
A: There are questions that I never asked myself until “Blackfish,” this being one of them. Military working dogs don’t choose to be there.
Q: They’re drafted, in other words.
A: Correct. But dogs have been our companions, and have evolved alongside us, for 10,000 years. We have mutual loyalties. SeaWorld was 40 years of an apex predator in a pool. Yes, I do grapple with the fact that dogs are there, and they don’t want to be. That’s a difficult one for me. That said, countless lives have been saved. There has never been a war where we have not fought alongside canines. Does that make it okay? It makes it another reality of war, in my mind.
Q: Which is worse: sexism in the military, or sexism in Hollywood?
A: A light is being shone on female directors right now, so you’re seeing a desire to hire more of us. Hopefully, what will happen is that it’s not just a box that people are trying to check off, but that people are paying attention to what we can bring to make a movie better.