Megan Leavey

Based on the true story of Megan Leavey, a young marine, whose bond with her combat dog helped save many lives during their employment in Iraq.    
  • Starring: Kate Mara, Bradley Whitford
  • Director(s): Gabriela Cowperthwaite
  • Producer(s): Mickey Liddell, Jennifer Monroe, Pete Shilaimon
  • Screenwriter(s): Pamela Gray, Annie Mumolo, Tim Lovestedt
  • Distributor: Bleecker Street Media
  • Animal Coordinator: Birds and Animals
  • Release Date: Friday, June 09, 2017
  • Rating: Outstanding

Featured Animal Action

Throughout the film, Megan Leavey has a dog, seen performing such mild action as sitting/standing/lying, being held or petted, and walking/running on or off leash. For all of these scenes, trainers used hand signals and verbal commands to cue the mild action, which the trained dog was accustomed to performing. The barking/growling was also a trained behavior.

In the scene where Megan walks towards the training field and sees several military dogs in individual fences, the dogs in the scene were walked from their holding area to the training field by their handlers. The dogs were placed into individual 20ft x 5ft outdoor runs. The runs have all been inspected and doors checked for security. Their handlers stood out of camera. The dogs were provided with water on a regular basis.

When Megan walks inside the military dog kennel, waters the place down with a hose and meets Rex for the first time, with Rex barking at her, the facilities and safety elements on stage were excellent with plenty of quiet areas for the dogs to relax in. The dog’s handler stood just out of camera and made occasional whistling noises to keep him barking. The dog jumped at the bars and barked wildly, which he was trained to do.

In the scene where Megan practices with a can on the obstacle course, practicing commands on her dog, the dog was walked to set by trainer and introduced to the actress. The actress was well acquainted with the dog at this point and the director got some shots of Megan leading the dog around the obstacle course.

In the scene where the soldier releases the dog, the dog chases Megan and bites her on the pant leg, this intense scene was broken up into a series of shots so the actor was not exposed to any danger. At the end of the day, it was a stunt woman who took the bite.  The dog had been trained and prepped for many weeks by his trainers. For the first shot, they had Kate Mara standing in the middle of the field in the “bite suit.” On action, they had the soldier let the dog go, the dog ran towards the actress. Before the dog could reach her however, the trainers cued the dog to stop, which he did. After getting that shot, the stunt woman stood in for Kate Mara, wearing a bite suit. They also tied a dog’s tug toy around her waist on the bite suit. On action, the dog was cued by his trainer to “attack,” the dog ran towards the stunt woman, and tugged on the toy, making it look as if the dog were tugging on the suit.

In the scene where the general leads Megan through the fake medical tent with dogs lying on beds and soldiers acting as if they’re tending to the dogs’ injuries (a training exercise in the film), and Rex bites a soldier’s hand who’s trying to tend to him, the dogs were all walked to set. The dogs were allowed to have time on the mats getting used to the feel of the PVC and getting to know their actor handlers. Some of the soldiers in the scene are actually the dogs’ trainers in soldiers’ outfits. Prior to shooting the scene the vet on stage circulated around the mats prior instructing everyone on how to bandage and how to hold the dogs legs. Additional handlers were standing by, off camera, to assist if required. Rex was set on his mat by his trainer. This action of Rex biting the man’s hand had been prepared for many weeks. On action, the dog’s trainer got his attention using a bait stick and the cue “go get it.” On this cue the dog spun around quickly and bit the actor’s hand, with no actual contact or pressure, the dog just placed his mouth around the hand and gently held the pose. After getting the shot, the dog was rewarded with treats!

In the scene where Megan walks into the kennel with a bowl of food and sits in front of Rex’s cage and he reluctantly eats, one of the dogs playing Rex is walked to set and placed in the kennel. Her collar and lead were removed and she was allowed to work at liberty in her kennel.

In other scenes involving training, for example when Megan has Rex lead her into a fake Iraqi training house and Rex discovers something in a desk, production placed the dogs into position, while their trainers remained in the same line up outside the training house. The trainers also placed meats around the furniture and at the top drawer of the desk, so he would immediately go there and sniff it out.

In the scene where Rex is in the vet’s office with a muzzle on his mouth and Megan holds him down, the dog was well prepared for the scene. When production is ready to shoot the dog jumped on the table and the trainers placed the muzzle on. On action Megan placed an arm over the dog as if restraining him. When the dog approaches, and the dog barks at her, the trainer cued the dog from behind the camera to bark.

When the soldiers and their dogs are about to ship out to Iraq and they’re lined up in formation at the airport, the handlers bought the dogs onto the runway. The four dogs were positioned to start alongside the aircraft, they waited for their individual cues and the dogs walked across the set passing and moving into the plane, marching to the back of the plane. The dogs were walked over this several times before filming so they could get used to the texture.

In the subsequent scene when the soldiers are in the planes with their dogs in their respective cages and Rex barks repeatedly, the crate has a large camouflage sheet over it forming a tent like shelter. The trainer places the dog in the crate and he is given time to become accustomed to it. On action the trainer, who is positioned with the camera at the side of the crate, tells the dog to speak, the dog follows suit.  Megan lies on her side, leaning into the crate, stroking him and talking to him.

When the plane lands in Iraq and Megan disembarks the plane with Rex in-tow, before shooting the scene the trainer walked the dog off the plane to get him comfortable with the action. The trainer then handed the dog on a leash to the actor, who repeated the action. Soon after, when Megan is in her barracks with Rex inside his cage, and Rex barks hearing explosions in the distance, the trainer walked the dog to the set.  The trainer placed the dog in his kennel and told him to stay. The first AD used a clapper board to replicate an explosion. There is dialogue from Megan, two more clapper board bangs were used to replicate two more explosions. Rex lifted his in reaction.

In the morning when Megan awakens and Rex is chewing on a sleeping bag, the dog was prepped for this scene repeatedly. He had a rehearsal with the prop department with the actual sleeping bag in a quiet area. The trainer said, “Chew” and the dog began to knead and chew the bag.

In the scene where the soldiers sit in the back of the trucks with their dogs driving through Iraqi towns, the local police and security worked with production to ensure the public were kept back from filming. Production and the American Humane representative worked tirelessly to clear all the debris from the streets to make it safe for the dogs. All the smoke and the distant burning garbage effect was organically oil based and safe for all the actors and dogs. The Humvee drove the streets with a max speed of twenty mph. The trainer was in the Humvee with the actors and the dog. The dogs traveled on the floor sitting up next to their K9 actor handlers.

Four dogs in the Iraqi village worked ad lib and were nosing around some rubble, this was achieved by cutting very small pieces of meat treats and on action large handfuls were thrown in the area. And two costumed handlers walked across the area, also as protection for the dogs. One dog crossed the road after the convoy passed. This had been well prepped, on vocal cue from an ad, and when the convoy was clear, one costumed handler (out of camera} called the dog the opposite street. On cut all the street dogs were released for the day and returned with their handlers to their transport vans, where the handlers carefully cleaned up the dogs and inspected for them for injury before preparing them for their return journey to their homes.

In the scene when Megan leads Rex to check a car and Rex sniffs the car all over the place, trainers stood off camera holding the dog’s favorite toy. On action, they stood behind the car and waved it in the air, the dog reacted by barking and lunging.

In the scene where the Humvee patrols the street at night and they stop and they all get out of the vehicle walking down the street with the dogs, the trainer prepped the dogs prior to filming, laying a food bait trail which they followed, sniffing the ground to seek the treats, and into a building.

There are some intense sequences in the film, especially when Leavey leads Rex through streets and shops in Iraq, searching for contraband. In one of these scenes, Megan led the dog into a rug store, the dog jumped on a stack of rugs, where they eventually uncovered a load of weapons. Again, they shot this sequence in various parts. First the trainers hid pieces of meat along the aisles and corridors which caused the dog to sniff around, basically, making him look he was searching for weapons. Then they repeated this same trajectory several times without the meat, so the dog is familiar with sniffing the area and walking this route. Kate Mara watched the prep work so she knew the route. While filming the scene, the trainers were off-camera, cuing the dog at all times. When the dog ran up the several layers of rugs and sniffed and pawed the area, production also placed a piece of meat under the rugs. Like the corridor scene, they prepped this scene several times before actually shooting it. The dog was so familiar with the trajectory, he easily ran up the levels of rugs. Once he was at the top of the tower of rugs, his trainer cued him to paw the area. After filming the dog was rewarded with treats and water.

In both these scenes, the AH rep made sure no food was on set (except the food used to cue the dog). We also worked closely with the trainers to make sure the environment and set was safe for the dog to work – this includes clearing off the paths where the dog needed to walk.

In the scene where there’s a tank and soldiers on a bridge with Megan and Rex on a leash, this was a bridge over a motorway on the downward slope, it was a very quiet country road with no passing traffic. The road was closed to traffic while filming. Much like other scenes the trainer used meats to get the dog to sniff around the area. He also used the bait stick to get the dog to look back at Megan with a long stare.

In the scene where Megan and Red ride in a tank Humvee with other soldiers, production investigated the vehicle for safety and inserted a non-slip surface. The trainer was also in the vehicle and was able to maintain eye-contact with the dog, to keep him calm and cue reaction shots. When Megan and Red get out of the car and search the area, previous prep work was undertaken for this scene but it was important to lay a trail for the dog to follow.

In this same scene when a car approaches, the dog barks and the car explodes, production and trainers worked very closely with the VFX team on this scene. First and foremost, the dogs were well clear of the bomb blast and were not aware of it. Also the dog was filmed separately on green screen to capture his reaction to the blast. He basically spun around, cued by his trainer. In postproduction they made it look as if Red and the blast occurred in the same scene. When we see the dog fly in the air due to the blast, production only needed to see the dog jump in the air off a safety platform. Basically, the trainer placed the dog on a platform four inches above the ground. Then on cue, the trainer threw a meat kibble in the air and the dog jumped off the platform to catch it. They got the shot of the dog flying in the air, the rest was pasted together in post production.

After the blast when Megan checks on an injured Rex, who is covered in blood, a site was prepared on the floor of the warehouse/stage. A large sheet of plastic was laid down with a pile of clean rubble and dirt, bought from the location. This was thoroughly inspected to ensure there are no safety hazards for the dog such as glass, china or sharp stones in the rubble. The dog was then placed on the prepared rubble. The trainer laid him down on his side with his head down. He was  rewarded for staying in position. The trainer then carefully applied the dust and dirt, ensuring his eyes, ears and mouth were protected. Artificial blood was then applied to his paws. Then the actress laid by his side with her arm wrapped over him. SFX used organic vegetable oil based smoke and a small fan with dust bellowed into it creating the effect of the aftermath of an IED explosion. On the final cut, the dog stood up and shook off the dust. Trainers then washed the dirt and fake blood off of him.

In the scene when Megan and Rex are on the roof of an abandoned house, searching for weapons and Red barks at something, before grabbing on the back of Megan’s backpack and pulling her down, just as RPG’s hit the area, there was a lot of action and gunfire in this scene. Everything was carefully planned, the trainers and the American Humane Representative were fully briefed during the days running up to the shoot and on the day production took us through everything step by step, extremely careful to adhere to the guidelines. Before the RPG’s hit, trainers cued the dog to grab onto the stuntman’s backpack and pull. This was prepped many times. The RPG’s and the blast occurred without the dog anywhere near the area.

Subsequently, the dog and soldiers run down a staircase, where another blast hits them. First, the trainers led the dog to the top of the staircase. They rehearsed and prepped him to quickly walk down the stairs without pulling on the leash. This was achieved this by one trainer taking the lead while the other called to him come down the stairs. After they felt he was prepared production ran two rehearsals, and the trainer guided the actress playing Megan through the action.

For the explosion near the staircase, trainers had the dog jump at the end of the stairs. They accomplished this by filming the dog run to the bottom of the stairs, then the trainer baited the dog with a toy, and the dog jumped onto a mat. At this point, they released the air cannon and the stunts team stumbled down the stairs amongst the dust and rubble. Only two takes were required. The dog was not disturbed by the very small air cannon or the debris (dust and rubber) his head, eyes and ears were covered by his trainer as a precaution only. For the most part major explosions were done with greenscreens surrounding the actors and the dog. Production got mostly reaction shots from the dog, and besides the small air cannon, the dog was not near any explosions you’ll see in the film.

In the ensuing scenes in this sequence, where Megan leads Red through a battleground, and they take cover behind a Humvee, production used a very light form of blanks that adhered to our guidelines and would not effect the animals adversely.

When Megan is blown out of the Humvee by a mortar and Rex jumps out to check on her, licking her, they filmed this in a few shots. First, they filmed the dog jumping into the Humvee. Then when Megan falls out and the dog jumps out of a moving Humvee, production had the car moving at two miles an hour. The dog was conditioned to these kinds of stunts. On action, with the car moving very slowly, the trainer called to him outside the car and the dog jumped out to receive his treats. Then they shot the dog licking the actress on the ground.

Later, when we see Rex on an MRI table getting an examination, the dog was rehearsed on the table three times, without cast and crew present and the assistance of the MRI technician. A platform was built to assist him to jump onto the MRI sliding bed. He was quickly and manually laid on his side by his trainers. They then spent time reassuring and keeping him calm before the technician very slowly started the movement of the sliding bed. The lights and radiation were of course not used.

He was safe, calm and relaxed at all times and production who were aware of the incorrectness of the set up were very happy with the overall scene.

When we see Megan comforting Red in his kennel after surgery, production placed a fake bandage on the dog, which he was used to wearing at this point. Prior to filming the scene, the trainer cued the dog to lie down. He stood off-camera continuing to cue to the dog to lie against the actress and relax.

In the scene where Megan leads an injured Rex through the obstacle course, but he’s having a hard time due to his injury, all the dogs were led to the course. They were warmed up by walking and running in the field. The three background dogs, who were being handled by their costumed handlers, were then prepped over the obstacles, each practicing each of the elements in the training field. Rex’s trainers stood off-camera calling him to come then stop, then stop and stay. These instructions by the trainers gave the illusion that Rex felt discomfort. In reality, he was fine and totally healthy. All the dogs were rested and given water after filming the scene. In another sequence in the obstacle course where we see Rex with a bandage, refusing to climb stairs, first the veterinarian on set applied two light aluminum splints the dog’s legs, covered with duck tape and then covered with vet lint padding to cause no pain. These were placed down the length of the dog’s leg and bandaged. The dog was trained to limp, so even with the additional splints the limping effect is increased. Rex was in no pain and very comfortable with the action, especially for such a short amount of time.

In the scene where Megan and Rex are back home in the barracks, and Rex barks repeatedly, exhibiting signs of PTSD, the trainer brought him to the set. They positioned the dog to lie next to the actress.  Megan pet the dog. The trainer stood to the left of the cameras and cued the dog to bark at him. The dog barked and jumped off the bed in several takes.

In the scene where Megan is at a gas station and sees a dog in the backseat of a car barking and she breaks open the window, production first filmed a close-up of the dog barking first.  Before filming began, they started the car and air-conditioner to cool down the car.  The dog’s trainer practiced making the dog bark through the left back side window.  Once filming started, the trainer stayed just out of frame encouraging the dog to bark.  When they finished this sequence, they took the dog out of the car. The dog was not in the car when the actress broke the window with the baseball bat.