RED DOG REDUX

Se­quel does not stray far from the orig­i­nal film’s win­ning for­mula, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

KRIV STENDERS

Levi Miller and best mate in Red Dog: True Blue, left; with his on-screen grand­fa­ther Bryan Brown, be­low

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