MAX: A DOG OF WAR’S STORY

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I’m a cat person. But I fell in love with Carlos, the canine star of “Max”, the family drama about a traumatized war dog adopted by the family of his U.S. Marine handler who perished in Afghanistan.

Carlos, a Belgian Malinois, was born three years ago at Liberty Dog Camp, Hawesville, Kentucky.  As a puppy, he was loving, curious and very focused. That’s why his owners named him after Carlos Hatchcock, the Vietnam War sniper famed for his incredible concentration and who had 93 confirmed kills in his belt.

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Significantly, the makers of “Max” chose a Belgian Malinois – “the Air Jordan of dogs” – instead of a German Shepherd for their military working dog (MWD) protagonist because this breed guards the White House and the President of the United States.

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Lankier than German Shepherds, Belgians have extreme energy levels and intensity. They can smell drugs, bombs and arsonists’ accelerants, find bodies in search and rescue missions, track suspects for police work and serve as attack dogs.

Problem is, they are not photogenic because of their black eye markings. On cam, it’s like shooting an actor donning sunglasses.

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So, it was vital that Max’s markings allow for his expressive face to be seen. Only through his eyes can he best express his emotions for those soulful close-ups.  While the classic Belgian has a sort of “mask”, the film’s director/executive producer and co-writer Boaz Yakin wanted one with less black around the face.

And they found Carlos who stood out with his light face markings, focused personality and charisma.

While 80 per cent of the time, it was Carlos whom audiences see onscreen, it took five Belgian Malinois dogs to shoot “Max”. There’s so much action here that they required a handful of dogs to play the lead part. Of course, they dyed and lightened the faces of the four understudies to make them all look alike.

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Jagger served as the main understudy. Dude, a stunt dog, specialized in jumping over fences; Pilot in knocking people down and play-fighting. Pax bared his fangs on cue and executed all the athletic running shots – he raced so fast sometimes the cameras can’t keep up with him.

“Our only problem was that Carlos was very temperamental,” says Boaz Yakin, the co-writer, director and executive producer of “Max.”

Still, “Carlos would do everything right in rehearsal. But when we’d start shooting, he’d do something else. It drove us nuts. But lots of times, what Carlos did wrong proved so interesting they got in the movie.”

The self-proclaimed dog-lover wanted to tell an emotional story rooted in reality. Together with longtime friend Sheldon Lettich, a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran who co-wrote the screenplay, they watched viral videos of MWDs mourning beside their handlers’ caskets, loyal to the end.

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“When we saw the MWD grieving over his partner, we knew that was the core of our canine hero.”

But one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, aside from Max whimpering pitifully, struggling to reach the flag-draped coffin of his handler, pawing it then curling up to guard it,  was when Max suffered a panic attack during a July 4 pyrotechnics display.

He cowered in his cage before curling up on the lap of his dead handler’s brother. “It’s a high point of dog acting. To create genuine emotion in a dog’s performance, that’s huge,” Yakin pointed out.

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Having worked with animals myself, I know how difficult it is to make one “perform” for the camera. For that reason, “Our first task was to hire a great animal coordinator and Mark Forbes is just that.”

“We’re a pathway of communication between the director and the animal.  We find out what he wants early on, and begin the training before filming starts,” says Forbes.

“The direction may be written: ‘the dog comes in the door and lies down on the couch.’  Well, is he coming in happy?  Is he coming in sad?  Do you want him to do anything once he gets to the couch?  We have to know ahead of time because I can’t just tell the dog on the day, ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’  Or show him a script.  It may take the trainer a month to train him to do it in the way the director wants him to do it.”

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Fact is, the canine actors prepared three months for the shoot, nailing tricks such as fake lunging at people or climbing walls.

Like a true Hollywood star, Carlos performed brilliantly. “We taught 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.

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Aside from the Belgians, the script called for a couple of Rottweilers.  Atlas played Draco, Max’s antagonist, and Odin, who portrayed Loki, plus their doubles.  Ebony doubled as Draco; Loki’s doubles were Ursa and Greta.

One of the heart-stopping scenes in the movie was the chase and fight between Max and the gang-owned Rotweillers to protect Max’s humans.  In reality, it was a well-orchestrated “play fight”.

Pilot, the 9-month old female Malinois and Odin, the year-and-a-half old Rottweiler, simply loved to roughhouse.  Dogs roll around when they play. They tussle, mouth each other and bare their fangs.

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“If you lay in the right sound effects to that, it looks and sounds like a ferocious dog fight, when they’re just doing what they do in the dog run every day. Having fun.”

The canine cast also included six Chihuahuas – Ruscoe, Angel, Daisy, Dane, Mo-Mo and Blaster.

While I had a great time watching the four-legged actors of Max, I sincerely hope that movies like this will create more awareness about the real plight of war dogs.

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I wish it will keep military forces the world over from treating MWDs like livestock, breeding then slaughtering them if they survive their tour of duty, as soon as their usefulness is over.

Military dogs are heroes and elite soldiers. In fact, they are one rank above their human handlers. They are credited with saving 10,000 lives in the Vietnam war alone. But healthy or not, they are disposed of like obsolete equipment.

In the Afghanistan War, Britain slaughtered hundreds of war dogs because they were aggressive, as they were trained to be.

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On the average, they destroyed a military dog a week.  “I have a large practice and I certainly don’t destroy a dog a week,” says one horrified vet. “The question is whether these dogs are being put down as a last resort or for other reasons.”

They even put down the Belgian shepherd Brus and the German shepherd Blade, who protected Prince William at his Welsh Royal Air Force base, when bosses ruled the pair couldn’t be redeployed or re-homed.

The U.S passed  Robby’s Law in 2000 to promote the adoption of ex-military dogs and reduce the number of euthanized MWDs. The law was named after the heroic service dog who was put down despite his handler’s valiant fight to  save him.

Despite this law, the Obama administration last year euthanized 1,200 service dogs deemed too “dangerous” for civilian adoption or jobs with law enforcement agencies.

The others were put to sleep for medical reasons, or simply because no one wanted them.

While a good number of these canines had been trained as attack dogs and ordered to do repetitive tasks which made them mentally and emotionally imbalanced, we owe them beyond measure.

They should be loved and healed rather than killed.

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“Max”, starts screening in Metro Manila this week, June 25, 2015. It stars Josh Wiggins as Justin Wincott, Lauren Graham as his mom, Pamela, and Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church as his dad, Ray.  Boaz Yakin is  director/executive producer and co-writer, with Sheldon Lettich

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