The mak­ing of a ca­nine su­per­star

Phoenix the kelpie is fol­low­ing in some fa­mous paw prints, writes FIONA PUR­DON

Sunday Herald Sun - - Screen Scene -

IT was the last scene in a long day of film­ing at a re­mote cat­tle sta­tion in Western Aus­tralia’s stun­ning Pil­bara re­gion. The sun had long set and, as the clock ticked past 11pm, the film crew was ready to pack things in.

But the young star was anx­ious and the stunt he’d been asked to per­form — jump­ing off the roof into the dark­ness be­low — was ter­ri­fy­ing.

No amount of coax­ing could en­cour­age the debu­tante ac­tor to make the 1m leap un­til one of the movie’s off-screen he­roes came out of the shad­ows.

Zelie Bullen climbed up on 2m of scaf­fold­ing and held her arms wide. And Phoenix, a shy but de­voted two-yearold red kelpie, flew into her em­brace — not just once, but 15 times un­til they got the shot right.

It’s a small scene in the much an­tic­i­pated new Aus­tralian film Red Dog: True Blue — which opens on Box­ing Day — but it demon­strates the love af­fair that helped cre­ate the onscreen magic sure to make this pre­quel as suc­cess­ful as the orig­i­nal.

Red Dog, based on a true story about an own­er­less kelpie who wan­dered the Pil­bara, was a sur­prise hit in 2011, tak­ing more than $21 mil­lion at Aus­tralian cinemas.

The new movie re­unites Perth-based pro­ducer Nel­son Woss, Aus­tralian direc­tor Kriv Sten­ders and Cana­dian scriptwriter Daniel Taplitz. Woss was keen to tell more stories about the leg­endary Pil­bara kelpie, but nei­ther he nor Sten­ders wanted to do a re­make. Woss says Taplitz came up with the con­cept of the pre­quel.

“We wanted to do a film with the same heart and soul as the first one,” he says.

“The first film is about com­mu­ni­ties com­ing to­gether and the sec­ond one is about fam­i­lies com­ing to­gether.”

On-screen, the new film com­bines big-name stars such as Bryan Brown and Bri­tish ac­tor Ja­son Isaacs (best known as Lu­cius Malfoy in the Harry Pot­ter films), with 14-year-old Levi Miller, who plays Mick, a young lad sent to live with his “grandpa” (Brown) on a prop­erty.

But the off-screen star is Bullen, a 46-year-old an­i­mal trainer from the Gold Coast who mar­ried into the fa­mous Bullen cir­cus fam­ily. She has, with hus­band Craig, es­tab­lished an in­ter­na­tional rep­u­ta­tion for her work.

Woss orig­i­nally hired the Bul­lens to train three horses for the movie but was so im­pressed with their work that he gave them the “dream job” of co-or­di­nat­ing train­ing all the an­i­mals on set, in­clud­ing Phoenix, his five stunt dou­bles and the three dogs who play his girl­friend.

“Zelie has an amaz­ing tem­per­a­ment with an­i­mals, there’s no doubt she’s a horse whisperer but I didn’t re­alise she had the same ca­pac­ity and ta­lent with dogs,” Woss says. “All the an­i­mal action through­out the film is very hard to achieve and cru­cial to the emo­tional im­pact and suc­cess of the movie. Part of what makes the movie so ter­rific is the spe­cial work Zelie, her team and Phoenix were able to de­liver to­gether. The an­i­mal action sur­passed what we achieved on the first film. It was pretty ob­vi­ous from the mo­ment Phoenix came un­der Zelie’s su­per­vi­sion it was a match made in heaven and they were go­ing to be tight. Phoenix is like Zelie’s shadow.”

Woss, an an­i­mal lover him­self, adopted the star of the first movie, Koko, af­ter film­ing wrapped. Sadly, Koko died from con­gen­i­tal heart dis­ease in 2012.

He says he was for­tu­nate Koko’s breeder, Carol Hob­day, who lives in ru­ral Vic­to­ria, had a new lit­ter of pup­pies when they were start­ing to de­velop the pre­quel. He says Phoenix, a cousin of Koko, was raised with the in­ten­tion of be­ing groomed for the film.

“Phoenix has a sim­i­lar­ity of looks and has sim­i­lar fa­cial fea­tures to Koko and has the same X-fac­tor,” Woss says. “Phoenix has what all act­ing stars have. Some­how when he walks into a room, he changes the tem­per­a­ture of the room.”

Bullen agrees Phoenix is a spe­cial dog who quickly learnt com­plex tricks.

She de­vel­oped a close bond with him within four days — a record for the trainer — and was able to teach the young kelpie to re­spond to about 50 com­mands for the film

“He’s got that de­sire to en­gage, with his eye con­tact and he has that spark,” she says. “He is a very ath­letic, en­thu­si­as­tic, vi­brant, love­able and pli­able dog. He wants to per­form, he wants to en­ter­tain.”

Red Dog: True Blue opens on Box­ing Day

TRAINER ZELIE BULLEN AND PHOENIX RE­LAX ON HER FARM IN ILLINBAH VAL­LEY. PIC­TURE: RUS­SELL SHAKE­SPEARE

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