The making of a canine superstar
Phoenix the kelpie is following in some famous paw prints, writes FIONA PURDON
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