RED DOG REDUX
Sequel does not stray far from the original film’s winning formula, writes Philippa Hawker
When filmmakers have a runaway hit that exceeds all expectations, of course they start to think about the possibility of a sequel. Red Dog was just such a project: a 2011 movie that dominated the local box office and became the 10th biggest Australian film of all time.
“We tossed a few ideas round,” the film’s director Kriv Stenders says, referring to conversations about a follow-up that he had with Red Dog producer Nelson Woss and screenwriter Daniel Taplitz.
“But nothing felt right. For us it was lightning in a bottle, and we didn’t know if we could duplicate it.” Then out of the blue, a couple of years later, Taplitz rang with an idea. And this time, Stenders says, “It felt so right.” Red Dog: True Blue was on its way.
The original Red Dog was based on a book by English writer Louis de Bernieres that told the story of a legendary canine from Western Australia and the role he played in bringing together an outback community in the 1970s.
Red Dog: True Blue takes place in the 60s, with a framing story that takes place in 2011, the year of the first movie’s release. In a sly, self-referential touch, a man called Michael Carter (Jason Isaacs) takes his two young sons to the cinema to see a family movie called Red Dog. He’s a harried, frazzled figure, but the experience jolts him out of his preoccupations and takes him back into the past.
He has a close personal connection with the film. It turns out that when he was a kid, his companion was the original Red Dog, and he sits down to tell his small son all about it.
This was the origins story Taplitz came up with, Stenders says. “He pitched me the idea and then about three months later sent me this draft and it was the most complete thing I have ever read. I read the script and said, I can see it, I can see every scene.”
There is always plenty of additional work to be done in bringing a script to the screen, particularly when the lead role is an animal, Stenders says. “Breaking the script down, working out the gags, looking at where we’d spend the money, where we’d save the money — they’re all the things you normally do with a film.
“But, really, the pointy end is this dog. Trying to find the right balance of how to get the dog to be a dog, without it being too fantastical, and also trying to do something that’s charming and entertaining.” There’s the particular challenge of working out what a dog can be trained to do. “And you can’t do that overnight. So there’s a lot of pre-planning and logistics.”
Red Dog: True Blue takes us back to the mid-60s, when 11-year-old Mick (Levi Miller) is dispatched to a cattle station in the Pilbara. Mick’s father has died suddenly and his mother is unable to cope with the loss, so her son is sent away to stay with his grandfather in a remote location, in an environment that is completely new to him.
For the role of the grandfather, Stenders says, he thought immediately of Bryan Brown. “He’s such a great actor and has the gravitas we needed.” To play Mick, “Levi was the next cab off the rank. We looked at lots of great boys, but he had that innocence and that period look we were after, and a very specific quality the story needed.” Miller starred in the blockbuster Pan (2015), the origins story of Peter Pan, and he is also in the forthcoming adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones.
For Red Dog: True Blue, there was an even more crucial casting decision. The star of the first film was Koko, a natural performer who took to fame with aplomb. Sadly, Koko died of congestive heart failure in 2012.
Getting the canine contingent for the new movie wasn’t easy, Stenders says. “The trainer would find a dog and train him for a month and then realise, this dog isn’t going to be up for it, back to square one. And that took time. It was a bit nerve-racking.” A dog called Phoenix is the central performer, but several other dogs fill in on various occasions throughout the film.
Preparation is half the story: flexibility is the other half, particularly when it comes to working with animals. “The thing about filmmaking is that you’re always adapting, always being thrown punches. And it’s how you take the punch or dodge it, that’s the art of it. There are times,” Stenders says, when “what I call creative compromises actually enhance what you have rather than dilute it.
“In every film, and especially in a Red Dog film, there are curve balls. We had bad weather, dogs got sick, and some days the dog just doesn’t want to perform or is underperforming, is not feeling well or is tired.” Sometimes the compromise can be simple. In the original screenplay, young Mick had a few misadventures with a one-eyed bull that oc- cupied a paddock close to the main house. The filmmakers realised it would be impossible to train a bull to do the things it did in the script.
“Then Nelson said one day, what if it’s a horse that thinks it’s a bull, and we went, that’s great, that’s even better.”
When a sequel was being discussed, years earlier, they had tossed around a few ideas and one of them, Stenders recalls — “I really don’t remember too much about it” — had elements of Citizen Kane or There Will Be Blood, a historical drama from 2007 about a miner turned oil tycoon, played with ferocious bravado by Daniel Day-Lewis.
There’s nothing of the tone of There Will Be Blood in Red Dog: True Blue, needless to say, but the figure of a miner is part of the story. Lang Hancock makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a visitor to the station with a few different notions about the future. In an extended scene in which he plays the banjo, is intimidated by the dog, and makes a passing reference to his unnamed daughter, he is seen in fairly lighthearted terms.
Hancock, says Stenders, “for better or for worse, is a West Australian icon. And the Red Dog films play with all that Australian iconography and history — that’s what I like about them. Even though they are playful stories, they look at Australian history and the context of what Australia was compared to what it is now.
“I thought Lang Hancock was such a great character to thrust in there, it just felt right.”
An almost unrecognisable John Jarratt plays Hancock, a casting suggestion that came from Brown.
It was also important, says Stenders, that there was an indigenous presence in a film set when land rights were becoming a significant political issue.
“We already had a great relationship with the Ngarluma community from the first film,
FOR US IT WAS LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE, AND WE DIDN’T KNOW IF WE COULD DUPLICATE IT
Levi Miller and best mate in Red Dog: True Blue, left; with his on-screen grandfather Bryan Brown, below