Metro-East Living

‘Max’ star and director worked like dogs for authenticity

Josh Wiggins stars as Justin Wincott in an action scene with Max the precision-trained German Shepherd in the movie “Max,” which opens Friday.
Josh Wiggins stars as Justin Wincott in an action scene with Max the precision-trained German Shepherd in the movie “Max,” which opens Friday. Wanrner Bros. Entertainemtn Inc. & MCM Pictures Inc.

Josh Wiggins, star of the movie “Max,” knows a thing or two about dogs and loyalty.

The 15-year-old actor’s family not only has three dogs, but his father works with a K-9 police unit in Houston as a bomb-handler. Before he started filming, Wiggins toured his dad’s operation.

“It helped a lot. I could see how the dogs have this connection to their trainers,” Josh said.

To get to know his canine co-star Max, a precision-trained German shepherd, better, Josh trained a few hours a day on the set.

“I’m very comfortable with dogs,” he said, “so I adapted pretty easily.” But authenticity was his goal.

“And it was 90 percent dog. How well-trained they are is amazing. The handlers would be very specific, like tell them to move their tongue back inside their mouth if it was hanging out. It was insane.”

The film opens locally on Friday. It stars Oscar nominee Thomas Haden Church (“Sideways”), Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”), Wiggins (“Hellion”) and Robbie Amell (“The Flash”) as the Wincotts.

Director Boaz Yakin and his young co-star Wiggins, who plays Justin Wincott, arrived in St. Louis on a whirlwind press tour, and sat down for a conversation at Blueberry Hill. Gracious and enthusiastic about the film’s positive reception so far, they talked about the extra effort to make the tear-tugging family drama as authentic as possible.

Even with the surefire combination of a heroic dog, kids finding their way, well-meaning parents and honorable military men, writer-director Boaz Yakin knew he would not take the easy route with “Max.” During a recent interview, the regarded filmmaker behind “Remember the Titans” and “Now You See Me” recalled his latest work as one of the most difficult projects he has ever tackled.

Yakin became involved when his friend, co-writer Sheldon Lettich, approached him with an idea. “He wanted to show the human-animal bond in a respectful way, using a military dog, and from there, we started to roll,” he said.

Lettich, a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam, had written “Rambo III” and numerous Jean-Claude Van Damme films. This one, however, would be not just an adventure, but would include the war in Afghanistan and a family story, Yakin said.

People don’t realize dogs can suffer just like humans can in stressful situations, Josh added.

In the film, Max serves on the frontlines in Afghanistan alongside his handler, U.S. Marine Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell), but after a traumatic experience, the dog is unable to stay in military service, and is adopted by Kyle’s family in Texas.

He connects with Kyle’s teenage brother Justin, a sullen adolescent, who has issues, especially with his ex-Marine dad Ray (Thomas Haden Church). Working through them, he and Max establish a strong relationship. This leads to answers about what happened to his brother, and other solutions to problems, including the dog’s recovery from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Yakin knew there would be extensive preparation with an animal as a major character, but he was surprised at how conscientious the handlers were.

“The people at Birds and Animals (Hollywood agency, used in “Marley and Me” and “Dr. Dolittle,” among many others) were great. They have a long list of movie credits. They were so gentle and smart, so engaging with the dog. They helped us a lot,” he said.

For this film, he had to work with the handlers to establish his shots because was important where to designate his camera so the dog could see the trainer’s directions.

“The camera placement was tricky. I quickly learned how much scope I could have. Whether I got the scene with the dog or not, I really didn’t know until I got in the editing room because that’s when I could see if all the emotion was there,” he said.

While he enjoyed creating an emotional bond with Max, he was thrilled to work with Thomas Haden Church and Lauren Graham as his marquee stars.

“Thomas is a great guy. He’s from Texas, from a ‘Great Santini’-like military family, and it was so close to who he was, he almost didn’t want to do it. But he got into it, and I think anchors the film. He really brought it as a Texan, too,” Yakin said.

“Lauren and Thomas integrated into the story so well, I realized in the editing room, and I had less anxiety after seeing their work,” he said.

“Max” is Josh’s second movie, the first being “Hellion” with Aaron Paul, three-time Emmy winner for “Breaking Bad.” He said he learned a lot from the actor who played his troubled dad, as well as from Church and Graham.

“I’ve always loved acting. I would do scenes with my friends and put them on YouTube. I have a big appreciation for movies. In ‘Hellion,’ acting was cathartic. To be able to play different people is awesome,” he said.

For his second big screen venture, Josh said he was drawn to the family focus in “Max.”

“The big reason I wanted to make it was it was a very mature story, with complex characters and emotions. I felt really good about it, that I could flex my acting muscles. It’s not a typical story, one that’s not made very often. People go through an emotional journey,” he said.

He’s pleased with the finished product. “It’s exactly what we set out to do, make a family film that different generations could see, and that it’s respectful,” he said.

Yakin agreed.

“It was a tall order, but I think we succeeded.”