A ‘Must See’ Summer Movie!
I feel honoured to have been invited by Warner Bros. Pictures Canada, to attend an advanced screening of “Max,” a family action adventure presented by Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures.
You may have seen trailers for the movie, during which, we are introduced to a precision-trained military dog, Max, who serves on the frontlines in Afghanistan alongside his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott. When things go terribly wrong on maneuvers, Kyle is mortally wounded and Max, traumatized by the loss of his best friend, is unable to remain in service.
Sent stateside, the only human Max seems willing to connect with is Kyle’s teenage brother, Justin, so Max is saved when he is adopted by Kyle’s family. Justin has issues of his own, including living up to his father’s expectations, and he isn’t interested in taking responsibility for his brother’s troubled dog. However, Max may be Justin’s only chance to discover what really happened to his brother that day on the front, and with the help of Carmen, a tough-talking young teen who has a way with dogs, Justin begins to appreciate his canine companion.
Justin’s growing trust in Max helps the four-legged veteran revert back to his heroic self, and as the pair race to unravel the mystery, they find more excitement—and danger—than they bargained for. But they each might also find an unlikely new best friend…in each other.
“Max” stars Josh Wiggins (“Hellion”) as Justin Wincott, Lauren Graham (one of MY favourite actresses from TV’s “Parenthood”) as his mom, Pamela, and Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”) as his dad, Ray.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
When people connect with an animal there’s a primal bond that often goes beyond what we experience with other people,
says Boaz Yakin, the co-writer/director/executive producer of “Max.” That was the initial inspiration for the movie, which follows the journey of a MILITARY WORKING DOG (MWD) whose U.S. Marine handler loses his life in Afghanistan. Traumatized, the dog is adopted by the family the Marine left behind.
Yakin, a self-proclaimed dog-lover attests, “I wanted to tell a story that was emotional and heightened, while still keeping it rooted in reality.”
He turned to longtime friend Sheldon Lettich, who co-wrote the screenplay.
Sheldon is a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran and brought in the idea of using MWD’s. These dogs risk their lives, or have their lives put at risk, going far ahead of their units in order to literally smell out danger,” he adds.
That instinct was reinforced when Yakin and Lettich watched one of the many viral videos of MWDs lying mournfully beside their handler’s casket at their funerals, loyal to the end and beyond. Such videos have touched a deep chord in millions of viewers around the world.
The decision to make Max a Belgian Malinois, instead of a more familiar breed such as a German Shepherd, was informed by the fact that the Malinois has become the breed of choice to serve as MWDs for military forces and law enforcement agencies across the United States and throughout the world. Leaner than a German Shepherd, the highly focused dogs, when trained, can smell drugs and bombs and find bodies. They can be deadly and are trusted to guard the White House and the President of the United States.
Before writing, Yakin and Lettich observed the dogs in action at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base K9 Unit in California. Driven to hunt and capture prey, the Malinois has a 270-degree field of vision and the force of its bite equals 1,400 pounds per square inch. It can run 30 miles per hour and withstand the heat of the desert.
But what happens when a MWD is unable to work anymore due to injuries, stress or trauma, which can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Thanks to Robby’s Law, which went into effect in 2000, MWDs are no longer simply euthanized. They can be adopted by their handlers or other former handlers.
They also found that some MWDs have also been adopted by the civilian families of dog handlers who had been killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan. That interested Lettich, who has also owned several Belgian Malinois, and knows from personal experience that the breed is highly energetic, intelligent, and extremely task-oriented. “It’s like a human coming back, it’s an adjustment. We wanted to follow a fictional dog home stateside after his handler’s death and see where that took the dog—and the family,” he explains.
(see link for information about adoption process)
Producers Karen Rosenfelt and Ken Blancato were intrigued by the idea of a retired military search dog and the family who takes him in, and how the unlikely strangers interact to get past their loss.
Part of that vision was upping the stakes for Max, the title character, who, after losing his handler, Kyle, on the battle front finds a new friend in Kyle’s younger brother, Justin, on the home front.
Life after the U.S. Marine Corps is an adjustment for the elite, trained canines, but in Max’s case, it is particularly difficult. The trauma he faced in Afghanistan has not only left Max with PTSD, but the mystery of what happened to Max and Kyle that day inadvertently entangles Justin and his friends in a dangerous situation that escalates quickly, and tests Max and Justin’s fragile new relationship.
“The military aside, people connect with dogs so strongly,” says Yakin. “We often are able to relate to animals, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable with animals, in a way that we don’t with people.”
Max became a metaphor for loss and for getting this family to understand and deal with that loss. And to discover what they need to do in order to reconnect with each other.”
Military handlers and their dogs are in it together. The oath says it all: Where I go, my dog goes. Where my dog goes, I go.
But for Max, the problem is he can’t go where Kyle goes anymore. Sent back to the U.S., Max is between worlds, no longer doing the job he is trained for and unfamiliar with life in a domestic setting.
Yakin notes, “Usually there is a 12 to 18 month waiting list for a civilian to adopt a retired MWD, but in our film we take some dramatic license. You usually have to jump through a lot of paperwork and hoops, even if you are a relative.”
Although his handler’s family wants to take him home, Max is uncertain how to interact in his new setting. He doesn’t trust anyone. His handler’s younger brother, Justin, is just as distrustful of the dog his parents put in his care.
That’s where their bond—and their adventure—begins. “They don’t realize it, but they have so much in common. They both feel isolated,” Yakin states.
The filmmakers cast Josh Wiggins as Justin. “Josh is terrific,” Yakin acknowledges. “He was immediately able to walk in Justin’s shoes. He’s very comfortable with the animals and he’s a very natural, truthful actor with an instinctive sense of what works. He was able to really ground the film.”
Wiggins immediately related to the story. He not only hails from Texas, where the film is set, but has a brother who served in the army, three dogs at home, and a father who trains bomb-sniffing dogs for the Houston Police Department.
The young actor describes Justin as “a rebellious kid. Justin feels like his older brother was the trophy son and he’s overshadowed by him, so he sees himself as the outcast in the family. I think he resents his dad because his dad was a soldier, and that inspired Kyle to go into the Marine Corps. Now that Kyle is gone, Justin blames Ray in a way.”
Yakin adds, “Justin and Ray have a contentious relationship. He feels the expectations are being placed on him to live up to his father’s and brother’s ideal. He’s trying to figure out his own way and separate himself from their orbit.”
Wiggins agrees. “Justin is so unlike Kyle and so unlike Ray and doesn’t want to be what his dad wants him to be. So they clash in that regard. He wants to make his dad mad so he revolts, but he doesn’t really think about the risks involved.”
Thomas Haden Church stars as Ray, who is grieving the loss of the son who followed in his footsteps as a Marine, and having a hard time dealing with the son at home who overtly tries not to be anything like him.
“It was important that Ray have an authoritative sensibility, but also undercurrents that indicate he never quite figured his life out. He’s a frustrated ex-Marine,” notes Yakin.
Like Wiggins, Church, also a Texan, related to his character. “My dad was in the military and wounded in combat, so I drew from that. He was always looking at things from a tactical vantage point,” he shares. “Ray was wounded in Desert Storm and he carries that identity around. He’s not the most personable guy. Add to that a major shift in this nuclear family unit and suddenly no one has the old machine to rely on in relating with the other members of the family.”
Yakin says, “Sometimes you find someone and honestly can’t picture anyone else playing the role. That’s how I felt about Thomas playing Ray. He has a unique combination of vulnerability and gruff power that you see at the same time.”
The complete opposite of her husband, Pamela Wincott is the glue that’s keeping what’s left of the family together.
Lauren Graham, who stars as Pamela, was intrigued by her character, a woman who has suffered the ultimate loss—the loss of a child, with no one to comfort her. “She is in the middle, a difficult position,” Graham relates. “Ray can’t communicate and Justin is hiding behind his video games and his bad attitude. Their connection is there, but they have to be vulnerable enough to reach out and say, ‘I need you.’ She gives them a little push, but it’s definitely their process.”
Graham describes Max as “the last piece of Pamela’s son. That’s why it’s so important for Pamela to keep him safe and in the family. It’s all she has left of Kyle, whether it’s rational or not. Max challenges Justin to stop rebelling just to grow up and take care of somebody else.”
Church adds, “They are already struggling as a family and then a new element comes in, this dog. It complicates the dynamics.”
In more than one way.
Justin is having a hard time handling Max, who is also displaying behavior that speaks to his underlying trauma, such as aggression and hyper-sensitivity to loud noises. Whatever transpired that day in Afghanistan unsettled Max to his core, and no one has been able to connect with him to figure it out or help him work through it…until Justin.
Wiggins says, “To me, Max is symbolic of Justin’s brother, Kyle. He has Kyle’s character traits of honor and loyalty, and he teaches Justin to have honor and to be loyal. The closer Justin gets to Max the closer he feels to Kyle and the better he understands why Kyle wanted to be a Marine, and why he left Justin to serve his country.”
Part of Justin’s rebellion involves bootlegging video games and selling them to his friend Chuy’s thug cousin. Dejon LaQuake plays Chuy, who LaQuake describes as “the middle man. Chuy’s family is more in the hood whereas Justin is more suburban. He’s funny and cool and has Justin’s back.”
He’s also somewhat of a third wheel when Justin meets Chuy’s other cousin…a tomboy who has been kicked out of her house and is sleeping on Chuy’s couch. Mia Xitlali plays Carmen, who has a way with dogs…and Justin. “All she’s ever known, growing up, was dogs—rescuing strays, and training them, which she learned from her own brother,” Xitlali explains.
She’s tough on the outside, but when she and Justin meet, there are sparks, although neither will admit it. Xitlali says, “Justin has no idea what to think. She has a bike, she’s hanging with the guys, definitely not a girly girl. She challenges him and he doesn’t know how to respond to that. Carmen and Justin relate because she also has no one to really turn to, no guidance, no one she can really relate to except animals.”
Yakin says, “Xitlali was great. Carmen, Justin and Chuy are an interesting trio of friends going through what teens go through and she brought a lot to that. She was also a natural with the dogs.”
Carmen shows Justin how to gain Max’s trust and train him. “She realizes it’s time to be leader of the pack and show the boys how it’s done, “Xitlali smiles. “She knows Justin really wants to get to know Max because it’s all he has left of his brother.”
Just when Max seems to become calmer, the arrival of Kyle’s fellow soldier Tyler Harne re-triggers Max’s PTSD. Justin, too, becomes agitated because Tyler has the easy relationship with Ray that Kyle had, reinforcing Justin’s feeling that he is the outcast in the family.
Tyler comes back from Afghanistan—wounded—so now he and Ray have another bond: they’re both wounded soldiers. Yakin observes, “They can relate on a whole new level. And that adds another layer of frustration for Justin, and puts another kink in the family dynamic.”
Luke Kleintank plays Tyler, who was not only Kyle’s best friend but joined the Marines with him and served in the same unit. “Kyle was the good boy. Tyler was the bad boy. I think he always wanted to be like him, that’s why he was over at Kyle’s house a lot with the family. That was essentially something he yearned for and never got in his own family,” says Kleintank.
Rounding out the human cast are Robbie Amell as Kyle Wincott; Jay Hernandez as Sgt. Reyes of the Marine K9 unit; Owen Harn as local law enforcement official, Deputy Stack; and Joseph Julian Soria as Emilio, Chuy’s cousin, and the gang member whose illegal activities cause trouble for Justin and his friends.
And then there’s Max…
It was important Max’s markings allow for his expressive face to be seen because so much would need to be emoted through his eyes. While the classic Malinois has more of a mask, Yakin wanted one that had less black around the face.
Having worked with Forbes on “Marley and Me,” Rosenfelt was confident he and his team would deliver. “He finds and trains the best dogs and his humanity with the animals brings the best atmosphere to making the film,” she attests.
Forbes searched nationwide for a young canine that could be trained and had that specific look. He found a 2 year old dog in Kentucky, named Carlos, who was lovable, curious, and so focused he had been named after Carlos Hatchcock, the Vietnam War sniper who had 93 confirmed kills and was known for his incredible concentration.
Forbes flew to Liberty Dog Camp in Kentucky to put the dog through some paces and decided Carlos was trainable. He sent photos of Carlos back to Yakin, and Yakin flew to meet the dog. “I loved him,” says the director. “He was our Max. He got all the close-ups and is the face everybody will recognize.”
Supporting Canine Cast…
Next, Forbes had to find stunt doubles for Max. “Each of the dogs is proficient at different things and were used for that specific behavior. But because the film is so dog intense, they were also cross-trained and switched out to ensure their health and safety,” explains Forbes. For example, when it got too hot out, or when a dog had exerted himself enough.
Pax and Jagger were used almost as much as Carlos, because, says Forbes, “there’s so much action in this film that three or four dogs are required to play the lead part. For instance, Jagger did the scene in the cage when Max gets upset and backs away from Justin.
Dude was chosen because he is a great stunt dog who can jump over fences and knock guys down. Chaos was chosen to run. “He’s the fastest we have and sometimes the camera couldn’t keep up with him,” Forbes attests. Pilot was chosen for her youthful exuberance.
In addition to the Belgian Malinois, the script called for two Rottweilers. Atlas plays Draco, the predominant foe Max comes up against in an effort to protect Justin and his family. Atlas runs with another Rottweiler, named Loki, portrayed by Odin. The Rottweilers also had doubles so the dogs could be switched out and rest. Ebony doubled as Draco; Loki’s doubles were Ursa and Greta.
And last, but not least, Ruscoe, Angel, Daisy, Dane, Mo-Mo and Blaster portray very engaging Chihuahuas that Carmen has rescued and trained.
Once the dogs were cast, Forbes and his team started working with all the canines about sixteen weeks ahead of principal photography. And, while he enjoys all the breeds, Forbes says of the Belgian Malinois, “They are incredible and the most athletic dog I have been around. Malinois have three drives, each to a different degree: hunt, prey and defense. Trainers use the hunt drive to teach the scent, and the prey drive for the attack work. Defense is barking, holding their ground. For the film, we’re teaching them to sit, stay, go hit your mark, look at the actor—very trained and very specific, intricate behavior, whereas in military and police work they’re actually teaching them to do a job, like sniffing bombs.”
In the film, Max is a specialized search dog. A MWD with this specific skill is trained to go out 300 yards in front of his handler off leash. Forbes and his team worked for a month on just the basics to prepare the dogs to work off leash like a MWD.
Training extended to the actors as well, to teach them how to work with the dogs. “For us it’s always a very collaborative thing,” says Forbes. “To make it look real, we need the actor after every scene to recreate it again for us and ‘pay’ the dog, so that the dog starts to relate to the actor.”
Wiggins worked with the animal trainers on the film to learn how to motivate the dog in each scene, and how to reward him. “You put a treat up on your forehead so the dog will make eye contact with you and then you feed the dog,” the actor details. “These dogs are geniuses. They are so well trained, they are amazing. We had so much trust in them and in the trainers.”
He laughs, adding, “Sometimes when the dog was off camera, they would put a big stuffed animal for me to react to instead, which was weird, but funny.”
Additionally, Wiggins accompanied his father to the Houston Police Department dog training facility and ran with the dogs who were training in the bomb scenarios to get more comfortable with how they worked. “It was really cool,” he relates.
Forbes felt the young actors were well-prepared and did a great job with their four-legged co-stars. “To be honest, it’s hard to act with an animal in a scene because we’re over there making gestures, being in eye-lines and talking to the dog and sometimes talking over lines,” Forbes explains. “Josh was so gracious. He was great with the dogs, and so was Mia. Her character is somewhat of a dog whisperer, so we worked with Mia early on and spent quite a bit of time with her and the dogs so she felt comfortable. The dogs really took to her.”
Mia particularly bonded with Carlos. “Working with the dogs just added to the fun of doing the film,” says Xitlali. “I love dogs, so seeing all the different dogs and how they work was cool. They all have their unique personalities, and Carlos was just a sweetheart. We became besties during rehearsals.”
Aside from the training, Forbes and his staff also made sure all the canines’ needs were well cared for, including setting up their own kennel on location, and building their own dog runs.
Another issue was making sure the dogs were taken care of in the heat. Shooting conditions were not ideal due to inordinately high temperatures, and the team very often coped with severe weather conditions.
“We had a tent set up with air conditioning, so that as soon as a scene was done we’d take the dog in,” says Forbes. “We also had our vans close by and they were always running the air conditioning; we could put the dogs inside for awhile to cool their body temperatures back down.”
Ron Simons was the animal and safety representative for The American Humane Association. “This set was extraordinary,” he states. “Both the director and the second unit director are very animal-conscious and both bent over backwards to make sure that the animals’ comfort was taken into consideration. The cast and crew was also incredible. There was quite a bond between them and the animals.”
In the story, as Max begins to trust Justin and bond with him, the dog’s instinct to protect and serve resurfaces—and he does just that, defending Justin and his family. One sequence in particular shows the loyalty Max has begun to feel for them, though, ironically, the filming of it was anything but defensive in terms of the animals’ behavior.
Forbes describes the scene, in which Max is fighting the gang-owned Rotweillers to protect Justin and his family, as “play fighting.” Pilot, the female Malinois and Odin, the Rottweiler, simulated the fighting. “Pilot was about 9 months old and Odin was about a year-and-a-half old, and they just loved each other and loved to play. Dogs tussle when they play; they roll around and are expressive with their teeth and mouth. If you lay in the right sound effects to that, it looks and sounds like a ferocious dog fight, when in reality they are just doing what they do in the dog run every day. Having fun.”
There’s something about identifying with an animal that allows us to drop our judgments and inhibitions, and often our cynicism. And if we can drop those, we can bridge whatever gap there is with the people in our lives, as well.”
Also worth mentioning; The Imagine Dragons, who’s song ‘Aloha’ is part of the film’s soundtrack, are animal lovers. They sponsored a rescue dog named ‘Waggy Draggy.’
Thank you Kenn Bell, creator of ‘The Dog Files’ for inviting us to share this information with our followers.
We can’t wait to attend the screening of this movie to be released June 26, 2015