Red Dog: Red Collar Worker

Red Dog captures the wild, blokey days of the 1970s Dampier. Shot on location in isolated WA’s Pilbara Region, the producers employed a low-budget mentality and called in favours to make finances go the distance. Joanne Whitehead reports.

Set in Western Australia in the remote town of Dampier, Red Dog is based upon a legend about a local stray dog, that residents claim was responsible for creating a sense of community in the 1970s, when the coastal town was barely established. A sentimental comedy that finds laughs from not just the dog but the inner workings of the male dominated mining community, it’s adapted from Louis de Bernieres’ (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) novelisation of the story.

While wholly aimed at families and dog lovers, it might come as a surprise that Red Dog was directed by Kriv Stenders, who did the dark colonial tale Lucky Country (2009) and the intense drama Boxing Day (2007). A father now, Stenders was keen to tackle something different, and had been looking to challenge himself by doing a family film when this story caught his attention. “It was one of those very rare scripts that you read and they fly off the page,” says the director. “You know exactly how to make it, and I just knew I had to make the movie… It was exactly the kind of material I was looking for and exactly the kind of scale of film I was looking at doing.”

Initiating producer Nelson Woss had the same feeling as Stenders. “After the fabulous experience of Ned Kelly I wanted to do more Australian films; and I came across Louis de Bernieres’ book – which is set in my home state, WA – so I decided it was a great opportunity,” says Woss.

He optioned the book, commissioned and developed the screenplay, arranged the finances and hired Stenders and fellow producer Julie Ryan.

“In order to do this film, it had to be done with a low budget production methodology,” says Woss. Stenders and Ryan proved vital from an early stage having worked on first class, lower budget Australian films Boxing Day and Ten Canoes respectively.

At a reported budget of $8.5m, Red Dog’s support from both the film industry (financial) and mining industry (in kind) was essential. At the time of seeking financial backing, the cast had not been confirmed. Woss presented it to investors saying it was not about the actors, but an entertaining, true story about a dog that became the symbol for a community. “It’s a compelling story, about friendship, loyalty, and communities coming together and overcoming hardship. You’re seeing that in Australia right now. It’s a very important Australian story. It also shows a region of Australia which is basically the heartbeat of our economy.” This obviously appealed as final support came from Rio Tinto, Woodside, WesTrac, Pedigree, Screen Australia, Screen West, South Australian Film Cooperation and Royalties for Regions. Woss says the support given, “helped us to expand our budget and expand what we were able to do. Look at the film, and the production values, it’s not set in a studio, it’s not set in interiors. it’s open locations in the outback… I am so proud of this movie and the production values”.

Mining support
The most surprising of all the support offered was that by the mining companies who had not offered help for previous mining films such as Beneath Hill 60, but Nelson Woss was determined to make Red Dog. He says: “We basically dragged the mining companies kicking and screaming into this and they love it. We told them hey’d get enormous benefits out of this and they have.” Rio Tinto offered valuable support with regards to locations, helicopters and trains, which added to the film’s production values. Kriv Stenders adds: “We were really helped by the support of Rio Tinto who didn’t invest financially in the film but they gave us transport, accommodation, food and access. Without that we couldn’t have made the movie and we were incredibly supported by them, it was overwhelming – they were welcoming and excited. The mining industry has been misaligned recently; it was a chance for them to remind Australians that this is a part of Australia, an amazing, vital part. We were really paying tribute and honour to the pioneers who built the place.”

Despite all the support for this film, there were still challenges. It was “very ambitious for the money we had; huge film, incredible distances, a lot of scenes, huge cast. So it was incredibly challenging, but we always wanted to make something for a broad international audience,” says Stenders.

One of the film’s main draw cards is the red and rough yet richly stunning region of the Pilbara. And Woss says, it was never a consideration to film Red Dog anywhere else – the location is so essential to the plot and look of the film. “In order to tell this story right I had to shoot on location in the Pilbara, not in SA or Victoria. The interiors were shot in SA, but in order to [shoot on location] I had to get a cast and crew up to the outback, in the Pilbara. We didn’t have the money to do that so we had to do an innovative deal with Sky West Airlines,” another of the film’s supporters. Once there though, Woss says, “We had the most wonderful special effect there is, the landscape which was pretty much free.”

Though beautiful, this is Australia at its toughest. It was hot and dusty, making it hard for the dogs to deal with, and everything had to be carefully planned as time was limited. Stenders credits the success of the process to “an amazing team of experienced people working their hardest.”

Red dog, red camera
Easing the challenge was the fact they shot on digital. “There is no way we could have shot this on film, the advantage of digital is we could shoot for much longer with the dogs. We could maximise our coverage. If we shot this on film we would still be there and we would all be completely bankrupt. The flexibility of the digital camera allowed us to have more than one camera on set so we were able to shoot on multiple cameras a lot of the time – which again, is a wonderful way to work.”

The film was shot on Red cameras. “They performed remarkably well, Geoff Hall the DOP was able to get a great look over the cameras and if you didn’t know, you would think the film was shot on 70mm.” Stenders was aiming to get a broad canvas, shooting as much as possible with several units shooting consecutively. This also meant they required more than one dog. Though Koko is the main dog, there are occasions where other dogs were used for wide shots.

Koko was brought on to the project ahead of pre-production. Kriv Stenders and trainer Luke Hura worked with Koko for a year teaching him 60-plus commands, as he was critical to the success of the film. When asked how as a director Stenders found working with Koko, he said: “It is no different than working with an actor. Every actor is different, there is no one actor that is the same as the other. They need to be spoken to and worked with in a specific way… Like a child actor you can only work with animals for so long, they get tired, they get bored, they get frustrated, they get naughty, you have to respect them and not exploit them. Be very sensible about how you approach shooting them. It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be but still challenging”.

Red Dog had its world premiere in Berlin, where it received an incredible response from the 1000 audience members. Stenders says: “They laughed and got every gag. They laughed from the first gag right through to the end, we had them laughing and crying in the aisles. It was an extraordinary experience. I have never really had an audience screening experience like that before in my life. The ovation we got at the end was resounding, warm, welcoming and positive. I still get chills when I think about it, it was really beautiful.”

“That is the beauty of Red Dog,” says Woss. “It is a unique Australian movie and it is important for Australian audiences but because the movie is about a dog, if you love dogs, you’ll like this movie, because it transcends language. The audience for this film is dog lovers, it’s not teenage boys or 50-year old women; it’s anybody that connects with or loves dogs and animals and there is a huge global audience of people like that. All we had to do was tell an entertaining story, which was essentially a true story that we knew was good. We knew there would be an audience there and it would be a broad commercial family film.”

Red Dog is released in cinemas nationwide by Roadshow today.


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