Despite earning A$22million at the domestic box office, a sequel to the 2011 hit Red Dog was never a sure thing. Surely producer Nelson Woss (Ned Kelly, 2003), with director Kriv Stenders and writer Daniel Taplitz, had captured the kind of lightning-strike chemistry that generally proves impossible to recreate? But when Taplitz pitched an inventive story treatment, Woss and his director were convinced there was a new narrative to be told and Red Dog True Blue, starring the charismatic kelpie Phoenix, was unleashed.
SCREEN-SPACE spoke with Woss and the film’s head animal trainer, the renowned Zelie Bullen (Racing Stripes; Charlotte’s Web; War Horse) ahead of its European debut as the Opening Night film of the Berlinale’s Generation Kplus programme strand…
SCREEN-SPACE: Five years between a legitimate homegrown blockbuster and a sequel is an eternity in film terms. Why so long?
NELSON WOSS (pictured, left): A lot of people told us to quit while we were ahead (laughs). The director, Kriv Stenders and I both have young children and there was an opportunity to make what would very much be a family movie. We wanted to make a film that we could bring our kids to. And we are thrilled to be able to tell Australian stories on the big screen, to celebrate what is special about being Australian. We love films from Hollywood but I thought it was nice for our kids to have a bit of a spectrum and see stories about themselves. As a practitioner in the Australian film industry, we are just happy to work (laughs). So when we get an opportunity to make a film, we are going to make it, especially one that is located in such a beautiful part of the country.
SCREEN-SPACE: The first film’s star, Koko, was a natural in front of the camera. In True Blue, you’ve recaptured that casting magic with Phoenix. What is your leading man’s pedigree?
ZELIE BULLEN: Phoenix was born and raised by Carol Hogday, the same lady who bred Koko. He was chosen by the production because he’s a distant cousin of Koko. He’s a very sweet, happy, responsive dog. He loves doing all the publicity, meeting and travelling, but he was also very hard working on the set. He loves to work and be led, feeling that sense of belonging and contributing, like a lot of dogs. (Pictured, right; Bullen, with Phoenix)
NELSON WOSS: Filmmakers aren’t too bright. We did an Australian-wide search for the sequel’s star then ended up going back to Carol, whose home had just had a litter of pups from which we chose Phoenix. He’s got the same abilities and star-like character as Koko.
SCREEN-SPACE: How many different tricks or cues did Phoenix have to learn before the shoot?
ZELIE BULLEN: A lot of animal work on film is clearly defined behaviour in a small area. Even in the vast outback setting of the Red Dog films, we need to be very specific about directing actions; which leg he’s lifting, which way he’s looking, how many steps forward he needs to take to hit his mark or still be in the correct lighting. The training is intimate, very precise. In that regard, he’s less a ‘trick dog’ and more a technically proficient actor.
SCREEN-SPACE: The chemistry between star Josh Lucas and Koko in Red Dog was crucial to the film’s success. What needed to be done to ensure that level of mateship was recreated between Phoenix and your new star, Levi Miller?
NELSON WOSS: Levi and Phoenix (pictured, right) spent time together before the shoot and, like the pros they are, they immediately bonded, and that is clearly evident on-screen. There is that classic ‘boy and his dog’ connection in their performances, which enhances the ‘coming of age’ elements in the story.
ZELIE BULLEN: Levi is a similar kind of character to Phoenix, in many respects. He’s that soft, kind, loving boy. I remember one moment when Phoenix jumped sideways – someone had stood near his tail, I think – and Levi was beside himself, not willing to keep filming until he was assured Phoenix was ok. He is a very compassionate, caring young man, which Phoenix responded to.
SCREEN-SPACE: One of the film’s great moments is a scene featuring two of our acting legends, Bryan Brown and John Jarratt…
NELSON WOSS: No spoilers! (laughs) But, yes, how amazing to have two living legends of the Australian film industry together. Bryan loved the first film and has a passion for music as well, and both films have some iconic Australian music, so given the chance to play the banjo in the film…well, he hit it out of the park.
ZELIE BULLEN: And he loves dogs and clearly loved working with Phoenix. There were times when I had to step in and say, “Bryan, I have to take him and work him now,” and Bryan would say, “No, no, I’m patting him now, just a minute.” (laughs)
SCREEN-SPACE: More broadly, how would you define the relationship between the working dog and the people of the interior? What did you have to capture to honour that bond?
NELSON WOSS: With these films, and it was the same with Ned Kelly, you’ve got to capture the heart and soul of the people and the place. We don’t have the big budgets that allow for effects trickery, so we come from the heart. It is an authentically Australian story that people from the heartland will understand. But it is also a story that travels well and, very much like Red Dog himself, was always going to roam.