DOG is a buddy comedy that follows the misadventures of two former Army Rangers paired against their will on the road trip of a lifetime. Army Ranger Briggs (Channing Tatum) and Lulu (a Belgian Malinois dog) buckle into a 1984 Ford Bronco and race down the Pacific Coast in hopes of making it to a fellow soldier's funeral on time. Along the way, they’ll drive each other completely crazy, break a small handful of laws, narrowly evade death, and learn to let down their guards in order to have a fighting chance of finding happiness.
Ask Channing Tatum what Dog is about and he’ll tell you it’s about a road trip that a guy takes with a dog. But of course, it’s so much more than that. For Tatum, it’s his directorial debut — he co-directed with producing partner Reid Carolin, who wrote the script from a story developed with Brett Rodriguez. And Tatum stars in it as well. But more than all of that, it’s a movie about the uncanny ability of road trips to go awry in the craziest possible ways and how animals can be healing, even when relationships with them aren’t unconditionally effortless. So perhaps, it is that easy to describe it — a road trip that a guy takes with a dog — in the end, they rescue each other.
This dog in particular, an anxious, boisterous Belgian Malinois named Lulu, is a war hero, who worked with her handler Riley Rodriguez — who served in the Army Rangers with Jackson Briggs (Tatum) — for many years. Sadly, Rodriguez has passed, and it’s up to Briggs to pack this dog into his ’84 Bronco and drive her down the Pacific Coast to Rodriguez’s family in time for the funeral in Arizona. Briggs, however, has no interest in this trip — after a traumatic brain injury, his interest lies in getting back to active duty. The only way to make that happen? To do his C.O. a solid and get Lulu to the funeral on time.
Driving a dog to a destination? How hard can it be? Pretty difficult, it turns out. No road trip movie is fun without antics — have you ever taken a road trip with no antics? It’s impossible. But along the way Briggs and Lulu bond in an unexpected way, even through adventures with ornery pot growers, a car break-in, and a luxury hotel con. (Lulu needs a comfortable bed, so says a pet psychic they meet on the road.) Needless to say, Lulu and Briggs both bring a lot of emotional baggage on this trip.
Lulu also comes with an owner’s manual — an I Love Me Book, which is something most people in the military actually create. They can range from a simple book of all their military paperwork to a beautifully designed scrapbook, filled with mementos. For Lulu, this was a book full of letters written by Rodriguez to her and DVDs that calm her anxiety down. Though Briggs mocks it at first, he grows to embrace its highlights getting to know Lulu through Rodriguez’s eyes.
For Tatum and Carolin, the inspiration for this movie came from a very real place - a documentary the pair produced for HBO called War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend. They were fortunate to get to know many in the Army Rangers community who work in the Special Operations with their dogs. And while several movies about the military have focused on action and combat, they realized there were many more stories to tell.
“The Rangers do very specialized things, so they have these walls up, but a dog can come in to the room and turn hardened soldiers into these puppy dog sort of loving guys,” says Tatum, who during a particularly tough time in his life, lost his longtime best friend, his dog Lulu. “So, we went through a bunch of different machinations of how to tell that story: What is that bond between a human and a dog?”
For their directorial debut, the pair wanted to choose something that was particularly meaningful to both of them. On the heels of the documentary they produced, they decided to continue to exploring that connection. To move forward, Carolin says, they worked out how to bring it out of the military world and into this world of the road by thinking through all the epic road trips they had taken.
“When we connected all the dots of these experiences we’ve had in life, everything pointed us toward making a road movie. So, we decided to set this movie on that type of canvas in hopes of bringing people into this world of Special Operations soldiers and their dogs, that’s very insular,” Carolin says. “Road movies are our favorite kinds of movies. Mostly because they’re full of heart and humor. They make you feel something and expose you to new ideas and places and wild characters.”
Casting a movie is never an easy task, but how do you audition for a co-star when it’s a four-legged friend? For DOG, that meant working with three incredible dogs, each of whom encompasses all the traits they were looking to explore: Britta, Zuza and Lana.
“We had to have a Swiss army knife of dogs, in a way,” Tatum says.
Of course, there were plenty of humans to round out the cast. A road trip is nothing without its adventures — and Briggs and Lulu had plenty. Along the way they encounter outlandish characters who not only bring comic relief to Briggs’s mission, but teach him about trauma, healing, and bonding.
Briggs and Lulu pile into the Bronco, traveling from Washington state to Arizona, in what he hopes will be an uneventful journey.
Adding quirkiness to the road trip, Kevin Nash (former WWE superstar) and Tony® Award winner Jane Adams (Hacks, Wonder Boys, Broadway's An Inspector Calls) play Gus and Tamara, cannabis farmers who create some real drama for Briggs when Lulu runs off. While Gus initially mistakes Briggs for an interloper, Briggs ultimately befriends the couple.
Adams, who only met Tatum and Carolin on Zoom before they offered her the part, says she really enjoyed acting opposite her pet co-stars and felt a real kinship with them. But also with Tatum and Carolin. “I just love them. They have such a great energy,” she says. “They really are friends and they communicate seamlessly.”
Unlike Adams, actor Ethan Suplee (Santa Clarita Diet, My Name Is Earl, Remember the Titans) who plays Noah, a former Army Ranger dog handler, was initially not as eager to work with dogs. “When you get around these dogs… I think they're probably more capable than I am,” says Suplee.
Belgian Malinois are also known as Dutch Shepherds, and most people associate them with military, Secret Service or Navy SEALS, says Animal Coordinator Andrew Simpson, whose company, Instinct Animals for Film, was responsible for casting the dogs in the movie.
“We looked at probably 150 dogs to try and find these characters,” Simpson says. “And we knew this movie wasn't your typical Belgian Malinois movie. A lot of this was character-driven — the dog had to face emotional moments and it also had to be able to have an emotional connection to the lead actor.”
“They were wildly beautiful creatures,” says Tatum. “I’ve been around dogs my whole life; we had ranch dogs, house dogs, I’ve had lap dogs… but these are different. They have cat-quick reflexes but where a cat chills and sleeps most of the day, these dogs are 100 percent all the time.”
One of the most special things about this film is the attention paid to the dogs and how prepped they were to be on-screen: two of the three were flown in from Europe and trained for over a year to prepare. Carolin and Tatum focused on photographing dogs in a way that most dog movies don’t, in order to truly make Lulu a main character in the film.
“In dog movies, typically the way you see an animal is in an insert shot. There's a trainer right off camera doing something so the dog does a specific behavior and then you cut back to the action,” Carolin says. “We really wanted to do as much as possible in wide shots, where the dog had learned behavior and could interact with Channing in a more complex way. Our trainers were so incredible. And Channing spent months working with these dogs every day, so that we were able to achieve a level of realism that most animal movies don’t.”
For Tatum, being around dogs comes naturally, so it was tough for him to pretend he couldn’t connect with one, let alone three. There’s a certain irony in bonding with an animal just so you can both act like you’re not bonded.
And watching them act was magical for everyone. “The three dogs are wonderful, like really great acting, so fine and subtle and beautiful,” Adams says.
Tatum recalls a road trip — one of many, he says — that he and Carolin took a few years back.
They had a truck built to go off-roading and spent three days in the desert just tearing it up. When they got back, Tatum was driving down Hollywood Boulevard with people just staring at the destroyed car that sounded like it was about to explode: “There’s just a thing that happens on a road trip when your car is pretty jacked up afterward. You feel like you did a good job.”
Adds Carolin: “A car has always got to get destroyed on the road. It’s not a road trip if it’s not.”
Dog certainly lives by this adage. But for a road trip movie to have the perfect tinge of Americana, you first need the perfect car. The guys decided on a sleek, vintage, blue ’84 Bronco to hit the highways. Because you have to have a beautifully restored car if you’re going to feel Briggs’ true anxiety when Lulu rips it up.
“Lulu destroys the car. She chews up the seats,” says Carolin. “And it’s Briggs’ prize possession. You know, he took probably a year to restore this car, handstitched the leather and everything. So, needless to say, it’s his worst nightmare that this dog just treats it with utter disrespect. They go head-to-head in the car quite a bit. And that’s where a lot of the fun in the movie came for us, doing these scenes where this guy who is absolutely in love with having worked on this precious automobile comes into contact with this dog who couldn’t give a damn about anything that he wants or likes in life.”
For all the scenes of conflict between Briggs and Lulu — and there are many — there is way too much fun to be had watching this dog go buck wild on such a cool car. Apparently, it was fun for the dogs, too.
“Malinois, they love to tear stuff apart, and we had a sequence where the dog escaped from her cage and she's destroying the insides of the car,” Simpson says. “So, when we shot it, we were able to use two different dogs. And it's fun when you can take a dog that is trained to do all these certain things and to look a certain way — and you can just go: hey, this is what you want to do, have fun and rip the crap out of these seats.”
Representation and authenticity were paramount to Carolin and Tatum. They had gotten to know some Rangers from the documentary, who eventually brought more guys they were connected to into the orbit. So, all of the scenes that were filmed with any military connection — from Fort Lewis in Washington to Pat Berry’s bar to Rodriguez’s funeral — were filled with actual military folks. And they weren’t only in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well.
“Whenever, wherever possible, we included real folks in this whole process. They were in charge of every creative decision in terms of how the production design looked in those worlds,” Carolin says.
To that effect they brought on former Army Ranger Donovan Hunter as a consultant. Hunter, who was a Ranger for seven years as a dog handler and then worked for the police department as a dog handler, and now trains dogs at a kennel. He has done a lot in his life, but he’d never spent much time on a movie set.
“It’s a completely different world, but at the same time, feels very natural, because it’s very military in the way it’s chaotic but everyone seems to know what they’re doing. So, I felt at home,” Hunter says. “I like that this movie shows the side of Rangers that no movie really wants to talk about. Just showing that we’re real regular people that have a job and interact with each other — what we’re doing when we’re not overseas. It was refreshing.”
But it wasn’t only the production design that the military consultants weighed in on. Hunter, along with former Rangers/dog handlers Peter Ostrander, Trey Panella, and Julian McDonald, John Dixon and Dave Nielsen worked hard to make sure that the movie captures the personality and the spirit of the Rangers and their dogs as well. And that is the guiding spirit of the movie.
“You need to know what Briggs wants to get back to and what he lost. And it should look cool. And the people in it should be cool, and real and authentic,” Tatum says. “And you go, of course he wants to get back to active duty. Of course — those are his guys and his family and his team.”