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‘Raw and gritty’: ‘Puppy Love’ tells story of prophetic young dishwasher with brain damage

Hopper Penn plays Morgan in the film “Puppy Love.” (Courtesy of Michael Maxxis)

Hopper Penn looks for challenges when looking for roles.

It took him less than two dozen pages of reading the script for “Puppy Love” to want to play Morgan.

“A few days before getting the script, I was talking to my friends and my sister,” he says. “The only role I really wanted to play is something different from who I am. I wanted it to be far off of that. I met with the director Michael Maxxis, and I told him that I was interested.”

Illustration by Cathryn Cunningham/Journal

Then came the audition – which Penn says was one of the worst of his career.

“Mike liked the awkwardness of it,” Penn recalls. “Before I knew it, I was off to Canada for the project.”

“Puppy Love” tells the story of Morgan, a prophetic young dishwasher with brain damage. He befriends a homeless prostitute named Carla. The two are brought together through obscene circumstances and embark on a perverse journey through the gutter.

The film is based on Maxxis’ cousin, Morgan.

Rosanna Arquette in a scene from “Puppy Love.” (Courtesy of Michael Maxxis)

It stars Penn, Paz de la Huerta, Donald Cerrone, Michael Madsen and Rosanna Arquette.

“Puppy Love” will screen as part of the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival on Friday, Oct. 16, at the Motorama at the Downs Santa Fe.

It is one of a half dozen films to screen at the drive-in theater.

During preproduction, Penn spent time with Morgan and heard his stories.

“I got to live with Morgan for a month before shooting,” Penn says. “Mike wanted me to pick up all his habits. Thankfully, I already smoked cigarettes, and that went hand in hand. Every morning I had McDonald’s, and I drank Coca Cola for three months straight. We also played video games and went to pawnshops.”

While on set, Morgan was also a production assistant.

Hopper Penn and Paz de la Huerta star in the film “Puppy Love.” (Courtesy of Michael Maxxis)

“He was often asked to help with certain scenes,” Penn says. “Getting the cadence down to Morgan’s way of talking was also a great challenge. Morgan has a way of piercing through with his eyes. I had to work on that.”

Maxxis wanted write the film because he wanted to tell Morgan’s story.

“He’s pure and innocent, and he’s a symbol of new beginnings,” Maxxis says. “Carla helps him transition to adulthood as he becomes more mature. The real Morgan is like that. He loves everybody, and he likes to have fun and watch cartoons.”

The production shot for 25 days and used more than 100 locations in and around Edmonton, Alberta.

Albuquerque resident Donald Cerrone in a scene from “Puppy Love.” (Courtesy of Michael Maxxis)

“We shot in the winter, and it was tough and painful,” Maxxis says. “I had to continue shooting over the next year and a half to get some different shots. It was about finding a nice balance between naturalism and the cinematic magic. I wanted the film to have a raw and gritty feel to it.”

Penn felt a connection to Morgan throughout filming.

Often, he had to remember that many of the scenes actually happened to him.

“There was one scene where Morgan got every emotional,” Penn recalls. “After that, I started not hanging in the room in between takes. I felt like Morgan was part of me. I felt his pain, and I wanted to make sure that we were doing his life justice.”

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