Directing your first feature film is always a challenge. Doing so alongside a co-director as famous as Channing Tatum, also making his directorial debut, adds an additional layer. As does shooting in 2020 during a pandemic. Not to mention almost every scene involving an animal whose on-set cooperation was iffy at best, and physically dangerous at worst.
Dog stars Tatum as Jackson Briggs, a military veteran assigned to drive an unruly Belgian Malinois dog named Lulu down the west coast to attend the funeral of her late handler, Sgt. Rodriguez. The comedy, which also tugs at the heartstrings, is exclusively in cinemas Friday, February 18 from MGM and United Artists Releasing.
Reid Carolin met Tatum on the set of 2008’s Stop-Loss, for which the former was an associate producer and the latter starred. They’ve been friends ever since: Carolin wrote the screenplays for Tatum’s films Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL, with the two also establishing a joint production company Free Association.
Carolin spoke to BOXOFFICE PRO about on-set injuries, his relationship with the military, and the film’s unusual (and accidental) title.
I’ve interviewed a few movie co-directors previously, but this pair has a wrinkle which wasn’t present with any of them: Channing Tatum is one of the biggest actors on the planet. So were you actually co-directing 50/50? Or was it more like, “Oh yes, whatever you say, Mr. Tatum.”
[Laughs.] It would be really funny if he woke up one day and was suddenly that guy. I’ve been friends with him for about 15 years. He’s honestly like a brother or a best friend at this point. We’ve been around each other during the weirdest moments of our lives, the worst moments of our lives, the best moments of our lives. So to me, he’s “Chan,” and it’s strange that he’s a movie star. We became buddies before he became this thing. [They met several years before Tatum truly became an A-list star in the early 2010s with roles like 21 Jump Street, G.I Joe, The Vow, and Magic Mike.]
As for the co-directing process, I’m sure it’s what brothers would say, or people who have been around each other for a really long time. You learn to argue effectively and efficiently. You learn to read each other’s minds a little bit. And of course, you deal with the weirdness of navigating what is essentially a benevolent dictatorship with somebody else. But the cool thing about it is both of you get to discover what the movie is all the time. I have this vision in my head, he has this vision in his head, and it’s becoming this strange version of both of them. It’s like unwrapping some kind of twisted gift. “I didn’t see it becoming this.” But then you fall in love with it.
Do you have a favorite story of a way you had to pivot when filming because the dog wouldn’t cooperate?
There’s a lot of them. Every scene with the dog, to be honest! Every scene, you go in with a plan, then the plan goes totally out the window. You realize you’ve got to do something else.
The first day of shooting, we’re like, “Let’s put the easiest thing on the first day.” And the easiest thing is, Chan and the dog wrestle with a stuffed unicorn. We’re just going to run over to this location and shoot it, we’re going to have a great day, everybody’s going to clap. At least we’re going to have a good day #1, because there’s no lines!
So Chan starts wrestling with the dog, and the dog just goes completely crazy, rips this thing out of his hands, and sort of whacks him with it. I’m watching at the monitors. “Why is he bleeding?” It’s a stuffed animal, but he has this gash down his head. Turns out there was some sort of music box in the thing, which she was shaking hard enough that it came out and gashed him. We had to glue it shut, finish the day, then he had to go get plastic surgery. We shut down for at least a few days so it could heal up. And we knew off the bat, this was not going to be an easy shoot.
Many A-list Hollywood actors and actresses get plastic surgery, but not for this reason.
No, this was a first. [Laughs.]
That anecdote befits the most upvoted comment on the movie’s official YouTube trailer: “Don’t let this movie motivate you to get a Belgian Malinois without doing your research first.”
If you’re going to think about owning one of these dogs, a Belgian Malinois, you better be prepared to give the vast proportion of your life and time to it. They require a lot of attention, they have a ton of energy. They’re incredible dogs, they do things that no other dogs can do. [The U.S. military uses them frequently for their usefulness in combat zones.] But they will work you.
We bought three dogs [to play the role of Lulu] for this movie. They were a year and a half old. They had washed out from a place that trains them in Amsterdam to become military dogs. I don’t know what happens when dogs don’t make it, where they go, but they had uncertain futures. So we effectively adopted these three dogs and brought them back to the United States with three trainers. Each had their own trainer. We started working with them about a year before we shot. In that year, we had been told, “After the end of the movie, we’ll figure out something.” All of their handlers, who said they would never want a dog that demanding, fell in love with their dogs and they all adopted them. Now they all have happy homes.
2021 alone saw three new movies titled Pig, Lamb, and Wolf. You’re really hopping on a hot trend.
We’re part of the canon. [Laughs.] I’ve got to tell you, from the very beginning when we were developing this film, Chan started calling it Dog. “And we’ll rename it later.” That’s what I thought: I’m never titling a movie Dog. When you hear the movie’s titled Dog, you’d think, “That was probably conceived in some marketing meeting and they did a bunch of testing.” It was actually strangely the opposite. As we were digging into the movie, we realized, “This character doesn’t want to call the dog by her first name, Lulu.”
There’s a couple issues. One is, Chan’s actual dog who passed away was named Lulu. We didn’t want that kind of emotional tissue. Also, it was a way of naming the dog clinically, treating the dog as an animal – until, towards the end of the film, she really becomes a sort of fully-fledged “person” in his eyes. So we thought calling it Dog was a really great metaphor for the way this culture of people [the military] has to deal with things, very clinically. Until that dam breaks and you realize it’s more than just a dog.
So it began to develop these layers of meaning. And eventually we realized, “Oh, we’re actually going to title the movie Dog.” And I just didn’t want to do the next Turner & Hooch or Marley & Me, like Briggs & Lulu.
With all the franchise films these days, with their colons and their subtitles, most people don’t even call these movies by their full official titles. That’s not going to be an issue with this film.
Definitely not, no. Although when we release the minute-long version of this movie on TikTok one day, we’ll just shorten the title to D. [Laughs.]
Your first movie was Stop-Loss, an ensemble cast plot about the military. The lead character in Dog is also a military veteran. What is it about that subject which appeals to you for protagonists?
I honestly never planned on making stuff in that genre or subculture. I guess I tend to be drawn to very specific subcultures of people that I haven’t had direct experience with. I’ve had a lot of friends and family members who have served, so I’ve been around them. I’ve loved certain movies that dealt with characters who served, movies like The Last Detail [a 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson] which actually helped inspire this. It didn’t necessarily portray people from that culture as either heroes or broken people, even though they typically get pigeonholed into one of those two tranches. I like the more three-dimensional characters that are strange and unruly.
It was kind of the same thing with Magic Mike. If you had told me, when I started my career, that my biggest movie would be about male strippers? [Laughs.]
Speaking of which, I saw in a recent interview that you wrote the first installment in only a month and the upcoming third installment [Magic Mike’s Last Dance] in even less time than that, about two and a half weeks. How long did Dog take to write?
Dog was about a month and a half or two months.
As a first-time feature film director, what was the biggest surprise or challenge?
It was all a challenge. The biggest one was navigating Covid during our first movie. I’d been on a lot of movie sets. I’d done short films. I understood the job. But you never really get it until you do the job. It’s an intense amount of responsibility. It’s just a lot. It burns you out.
I think one of the things I would say to other first-time directors, having now done it: make sure you take your health seriously. Giving yourself the ability to show up every day and actually answer questions, or be there to make decisions. Because a lot of times you’ll get delirious and start saying yes to stuff. Realize that everything is like a controlled avalanche, and you don’t have the ability to work with it anymore.
But really, the most challenging thing was navigating the pandemic. We started shooting, I want to say, August of 2020. We were one the first new movies—if not the first—to start shooting in the U.S., excluding movies that had already been shooting and got stopped. So we had to create protocols from scratch, before they were later set by the industry.
This film is receiving theatrical exclusivity, which has hardly been a guarantee for movies these past two years. Why is it important for audiences to see this on the big screen?
When you design a movie for the big screen experience, you’re doing things visually and sonically, you’re creating it for the audience to see it in a particular environment. That’s not to say it’s not going to look good at home, too, but it’s going to look and feel and sound way better on the big screen.
We made a real effort to shoot with great Panavision anamorphic lenses, to light and color the movie in the way a theatrical movie deserves to be treated. We have a big score with Thomas Newman and an orchestra, really providing a sonic experience for everybody that’s going to be a lot better than watching it on your iPad or something. [Newman previously composed the scores for films including Skyfall, 1917, and Finding Nemo.]
We were conscious of the fact that we made a movie which, today, is not a guarantee to be on the big screen. We don’t have big special effects. We have a movie star and we have a dog. But everything else from a production standpoint was designed for a larger screen. I think everybody who chooses to see it that way is going to be really rewarded.
AT THE MOVIES
What is your all-time favorite moviegoing memory or experience?
Oh, man. There are too many to count. I vividly remember seeing Jurassic Park for the first time as a kid and going, “I can’t believe that’s possible.” Everybody probably has that memory. I remember seeing Traffic in Sun Valley, walking out of that theater and thinking to myself, “I want to be a director.”
When I was a sophomore in high school, my friend’s mom lived in Salt Lake City and she brought me to the Sundance Film Festival. I saw the first-ever screening of The Big Lebowski. I didn’t know who the Coen brothers were, I didn’t know anything about independent cinema. I saw The Big Lebowski, came home, and told all my friends, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life.” We went out to the bowling alley and made an independent film about bowling.
Of course, claiming it’s the best movie you’ve ever seen in your life when you’re only 15 isn’t as high a compliment as it sounds.
[Laughs.] Yeah, everything was the best movie I’d ever seen in my life! It very quickly turned into The Thin Red Line [which came out only a few months later in 1998].
What is your favorite snack at the movie theater concession stand?
This is going to sound so cliché, but I’m going to go with popcorn, extra butter. It just goes with movies. But I’m a natural foods loser, I usually make everything all organic. [Laughs.]