“Max” is a new movie about a military dog from Warner Bros. Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures set for release on June 26. The film surrounds a young boy left to care for his brother’s marine dog after he is killed in Afghanistan. The film blends many different genres, and I got to sit down with writer/director Boaz Yakin (abbreviated BY in the interview below), popular for directing such movies as “Remember the Titans” and “Safe.” He is also credited for writing the films “Now You See Me” and “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” I also spoke with star Josh Wiggins (abbreviated JW in the interview below), coming off his Sundance success with last year’s indie smash, “Hellion.”
My first question goes to you, Boaz. How did the project come about for you at Warner Bros. and MGM with wanting to write and direct a film about a military dog? That’s a pretty narrow focus on something.
BY: You know, I think with a lot of creative endeavors they develop as you work on them. I started out just wanting to write a film about a dog and tell a story about a dog that is exciting and emotional and full of adventure — kinda like the things I saw when I was 12 years old. I brought my friend Sheldon [Lettich] to co-write it with me, and he’s an ex-marine and a Vietnam vet, and he’s the one who said “If we’re gonna do something about a dog, it should be about military working dog. This has been going on,” and it really rolled from there. What started out as just an adventure involving a dog became a story about a family dealing with loss and it really grew as we wrote it.
To Josh, can you describe your character, how he feels at the beginning of the film towards his family and how this changes thanks to Max?
JW: I play Justin, who’s pretty much the black sheep of his family. He grew up in the shadow of his older brother, who was his dad’s perfect image of what his son should be, and he’s just so unlike his brother, so he feels like the outcast. From that he really exerts a lot of his frustration to his dad because he really believes his dad is disappointed in him. Whenever he meets Max, they’re really both in this shell, and as the movie goes on, they both begin to break out of their shell together, thanks to each other.
Boaz, you’re an incredibly versatile filmmaker, you can go from things like this to “Remember the Titans” to “Safe,” to writing things like “Now You See Me.” So, how did you handle, with this film, mixing the genres together? Especially mixing in a realistic and respectful war scenario while also keeping it PG and family friendly?
BY: I think that was really one of the more fun and challenging aspects of this project. The movie is almost like two movies in one. It starts out very much as a family drama about loss and grieving, and at some point along the way becomes a boy’s adventure like “Tom Sawyer” or “Old Yeller.” That transition had to work, and it was a great challenge and really great fun actually.
Josh, what was it like shooting a film where your co-star was a canine?
JW: It was different, for sure. But working with them has a lot of similarities to working with people. Yet, there will be times where we’ll be doing a scene and the trainers will yell out orders in the middle of a line, since they can’t necessarily stop the take whenever the dog isn’t doing something right, so that’s something you definitely have to learn to block out. It helps you focus in your performance so much more than you normally would, and on this, I definitely had to focus more on this than anything else I’ve done, and it really helps you grow as an actor.
Boaz, what made you want to shoot the film in North Carolina? We don’t get many movies here.
BY: It was a combination of things. It had to double well for East Texas, it was a great tax incentive and there are a lot of scenes that take place in the forest, as you can see just from the trailer. A lot of action scenes and adventure scenes take place in the forest — a lot of scenes in nature, which North Carolina has tons of. We shot in Crowders National Park, right here near Charlotte, and also in DuPont, which is about two hours away, and the topography was just wonderful. All those elements tied into one really made this the perfect place to shoot.
Josh, as an actor, coming off the success of last year with “Hellion” at Sundance, in which you worked with Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, what was it like coming into this film with other veteran actors like Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham?
JW: Doing this film is definitely much different than that of an indie film, but you really can’t focus on that aspect of a project going into it. You really have to treat it as equals with anything else you’ve done because if you treat it too big, you’re really not going to get the same performance out of it. You have to think of it really of what it is at its core, which is an adventure movie with complex characters and emotions, rather than the fact that it’s a studio film.
Boaz, you’ve said in previous interviews that the film focuses a lot on being an American male in this time period. How do you guys think the final film deals with that concept of how masculinity is viewed in the modern world, as opposed to what the more classic definition of it is, as his father in the film might see it as?
BY: I’m more or less specifically referring to the American male under a state of constant war, and how we’ve now been at war for 20-25 years, however long it’s been, and it’s just this low-grade pressure constantly hovering over a lot of American families. The way in which they judge themselves and are expected to present themselves is a real pressure that men are going through a lot of the time. The movie is about this kid, who has a number of adult figures he can look to compare himself against — his older brother, father and his older brother’s best friend — who ends up being the most complicated of the bunch. He has to make his own way in the world surrounded by this pressure. I do think the film is patriotic but also simultaneously questioning what particular kinds of effects this sort of patriotism yields on a family. I think that a family movie can really be challenging and a cause for provocative conversation, which I think is a really good thing.
Going off of that, I’ve heard a lot of people call this film almost a family version of “American Sniper,” in the same way of it bringing about patriotism but also questioning the sort of effects this glorified depiction places on people and society. How do you feel about that comparison? Are the films really comparable?
BY: I haven’t seen “American Sniper.” Partially, because I was working on this, and I didn’t want to be affected by it one way or the other, but I have heard many of those same comparisons about “Max.” But I can’t weigh in myself. The people who see the movie will have to make that decision for themselves. As a filmmaker, I simply can’t put myself in the position of weighing in on that comparing myself and my work to other films.
JW: I think it definitely has certain similarities, partially in how “American Sniper” shows how it is when soldiers get home, and that is something you don’t see very often in war films, which you also see in “Max,” but to a much larger degree than in “American Sniper.” It’s just not the soldiers that are going through this, it’s the families, too — not knowing where their family members are, not knowing whether they’ll be alive by the end of the day. And I’m glad this film really focuses and hones in on that.
Boaz, I’ve always wanted to know this: For movies with dogs, what is the casting process like, specifically for Carlos, who plays Max?
BY: Well our trainer, who is amazing, is Mark Forbes. He knew he had to get a Belgian Malinois. Those are the dogs that are used in the military and police and the kind we wanted for this movie. Belgian Malinois also have these inky black faces, which sometimes cover up their eyes and make it really tough to film. He had to find the rare Belgian Malinois who could do everything we needed him to do and also not have black around his eyes. He looked all around the world and finally found a dog called Carlos in Kentucky. He then sent us photos of Carlos and said he could train him, though he might have regretted that later. Carlos was gorgeous, and from there we knew that he was our dog, through Mark.
Josh, being so young in a leading role, a big question a lot of people pose that I want to clear up here is how do you balance schoolwork with the shooting schedule?
JW: It’s tough, and we really couldn’t use the public school system because that really wouldn’t suffice as something that’s sufficient. So we did an online school, which I’m doing right now. It’s tough because you’re doing six or seven hours of work shooting with five or so hours of school afterwards, so it can be really exhausting. But it’s necessary.
Boaz, I notice really small things on the poster because I’m just sort of weird like that, and one thing I pay attention to are the credits of a film, and on the poster for “Max,” your credit reads “A Boaz Yakin movie” rather than the typical, “A Boaz Yakin film.” Is that a personal choice?
BY: It is a personal choice, and frankly this isn’t a film, simply because it was shot digitally.
JW: Boaz is very passionate about this.
BY: And most movies these days aren’t shot on film anymore, while some filmmakers are still managing to still hold onto film. Quite simply, I thought it would be strange to call this a film when it isn’t technically. It is a movie — it’s an image that moves — so that was a more accurate way to describe what we’ve all created here. If I shoot on film again, I might go back to saying, “A Boaz Yakin film.” Maybe. Unless I just stick with this. But I just shrugged and was like, “It’s a movie.”
JW: I never even noticed that on the poster.
Lastly, Josh, could you describe your next project, “Lost in the Sun,” with Josh Duhamel and Lynn Collins?
JW: Yeah. It’s about a kid named Louis, who is orphaned early on after his mom dies, and his dad isn’t in the picture. He’s supposed to go live with his grandparents, and Josh Duhamel, who plays John, comes by and says that he was my mother’s best friend and that he can take me to my grandparents. After that, Louis realizes that John is only using him to help with a string of robberies to help pay off some guys who protected him in prison, and I’m forced into the getaway driver role. It really starts to focus on their relationship constantly going through these ups and downs and evolving. It’s supposed to come out around October.
Thank you guys so much for your time, and I’m really looking forward to see the movie.
“Max” hits theatres everywhere on June 26.