With a career that spans nearly two decades, Channing Tatum knows his way around a movie set.
But his latest role proved to be a bit more challenging because it required him to step behind the camera and work with some unlikely co-stars.
“Every day was a surprise,” Tatum laughed. “I mean, the dogs would kind of throw you for a loop every day. We quickly realized we had this plan but it’s not going to work out. We gotta adapt to do something new.”
Working with three Belgian Malinois was no easy task, but it was something that Tatum and co-producer and long-time collaborator Reid Carolin wanted to accomplish. The duo had been looking for a story to direct and produce together for the entirety of their 15-year friendship.
“We wanted to do something that was fully ours,” Tatum explained. “It’s hard enough finding that first story to direct for yourself, much less with two people that feel as connected as we are. You want to always direct something that we both know really intimately, and this was that story. We both had a personal connection to it.”
The story Tatum is speaking about is Dog, a road trip journey that follows the rocky but lovable relationship between Briggs (Tatum), an Army Ranger recovering from an injury, and service dog Lulu, who has one week left to live, as the duo travel to a fellow soldier’s funeral. Throughout the trip, the unlikely pair lean on one another as they process life and discover how to navigate the shifting world around them. The film shows a new side to the dynamic between a man and man’s best friend.
While Dog has some rather poignant moments about grief, the film is, of course, full of plenty of laughable moments. Tatum has built a career on being the handsome and charming comedic relief. Though he technically got his start in the drama Coach Carter in 2005, Tatum’s breakout roles came a year later when he starred in the modern Shakespeare-inspired comedy She’s the Man and dance film Step Up.
Since then, he’s taken on myriad roles: dancer, lovable jock, security guard, romantic lead, construction worker, heist genius. So it’s no surprise that after spending all this time in front of the camera, Tatum was ready to step behind the scenes to try something new.
Back in 2012, Tatum told Details magazine, “I really don’t want to be in any more movies that I don’t produce. Unless it’s with one of the 10 directors that I really want to work with, I don’t have any interest in not being on the ground floor of creating it.” Tatum has kept true to his word, spending the last decade honing his craft by co-producing films alongside Carolin with their production company Free Association.
But stepping into the director’s seat is an even different role for Tatum. It comes with a lot of freedom and a lot of responsibility, but it was a task he finally felt ready for. Especially with a story that hit particularly close to home for him.
In 2017, Tatum went on a road trip of his own with his longtime best friend and pit bull Catahoula mix, Lulu. His canine companion had been diagnosed with cancer, and Tatum was committed to making every moment count.
“When I went on my last road trip with my puppy, I had that feeling of, ‘There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing left to do,'” Tatum said. “You just have to accept it and be thankful for the time that you did get and know that they’re not supposed to be here forever. I’m supposed to go on and she has to go someplace else.”
Tatum said that he was able to draw from his own grief to play the role of Briggs. And while it surely brought up some tough emotions, it was important for Tatum and Carolin to capture that one-of-a-kind bond.
“It was the end of a relationship that inspired us,” Carolin explains, “but we wanted to make sure that we told a story about the beginning of a relationship and the parts of our friendships with our dogs that really left these lasting impressions of fun and adventure in our lives.”
Their personal connection to dogs also meant they were committed to not committing a specific movie “deadly sin.” Tatum has been very outspoken and essentially spoiling his own movie by assuring audiences that (spoiler alert) Lulu lives.
“No one really wants one of those movies. I think that’s one of those deadly sins — kill the one thing that everyone loves in a movie,” Tatum explains. “Just don’t kill the dog. You can kill almost anyone else.”
Tatum felt that ending Lulu’s story there would make it feel like so many other movies before it. But he set out to tell a different story than audiences might expect, which meant exploring a narrative that often goes unnoticed.
A Different Side of the Story
“We both have a connection with servicemen and women,” Carolin explained, “and this very specific small group of soldiers that are really hard to crack. We wanted to show that culture to the world.”
The inspiration for Dog stemmed from a documentary Tatum and Carolin produced for HBO called War Dog: A Soldier’s Best Friend. The pair grew close with an Army Rangers community who worked in a Special Operations unit with dogs. And though several movies about the military have centered around action and combat, the duo realized there were more sides to the story.
“The Rangers do very specialized things, so they have these walls up, but a dog can come into the room and turn hardened soldiers into these puppy dog sort of loving guys,” Tatum said. “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?”
Carolin said that their biggest driving point for the film was showing a real, authentic side to military life that isn’t often shown on the big screen. In order to do that, they relied on as many experts as possible.
“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 said.
Former Army Ranger Donovan Hunter, who worked as a consultant on the film, said, “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.”
With full freedom to tell the stories they wanted, Tatum and Carolin chose to dive into deeper subjects like the meaning of grief and the importance of community in a raw, authentic way. Tatum and Carolin didn’t shy away from nuanced topics like PTSD and therapy. Instead, they leaned into it, showing that grief and recovery are often mixed in with some doggone exciting moments in life.