Kriv Stenders on-set.
More than five years since the original, the team behind 2011’s Red Dog have reunited for a sequel, Red Dog: True Blue – that’s actually a prequel.
Given the fate of the first film’s lead characters, that’s a canny move, though not one driven by box office, according to producer Nelson Woss.
“There's a tight-knit team of the people behind Red Dog, and we wanted to try and find another film. [Writer] Daniel Taplitz suggested this concept which was almost like a reboot, or an origin story, that allowed us to go back and explore themes that were really interesting to [director] Kriv [Stenders] and I, because we both have young kids.”
That idea, of going back to the 60’s, firmed up around two and a half years ago, says Stenders.
“It was great that we some had time off and some time to think about it and do it properly with integrity rather than to dash in. Dan pitched us a great concept and within about a month he had a full screenplay and that's the screenplay we shot. There was only one draft. That doesn't normally happen.”
Though Roadshow had been pushing for the film, financing it “wasn't a fait accompli,” says the director.
“We still had to jump through a few hoops and get the budget to a certain level and make a certain kind of film for a certain price.”
Complicating matters was the way the industry has changed since the first film was made, says Woss.
“We had a sales company on the first film, Essential, that doesn't exist anymore. They funded a portion of the film by taking international rights. That whole business doesn't really exist anymore; people putting up large MGs for international rights. On the first film we did a unique distribution deal with Wal-Mart in the U.S. for DVDs; now DVDs are much less a component to ancillary revenues on a film.”
The production ended up with a budget only slightly higher than they had for the original film: an appropriate amount, says Stenders.
“You can't make Red Dog films for anything less than what we made these two films for, and I don't think you'd want to make them for any more: because you want to make the films responsibly and have them give the best kind of return they can.”
“But there are finite costs. There's the dog, there's the landscape, there's getting a crew up to North Western Australia, which isn't cheap. And they are period, which also adds costs.”
Red Dog: True Blue is the story of a city boy (Jasper Jones’ Levi Miller) sent to live with his crotchety grandfather (Bryan Brown), who runs a cattle station in WA. Also featured is English actor Jason Isaacs, with a creditable Aussie accent.
“Jason's played a lot of character actors and also played a lot of villains,” says Woss. “He's the guy that shoots Heath through the heart [in The Patriot]. His performance in this is really touching.”
Isaacs had been on the producer’s radar since even before the first film, when he responded to the viral teaser trailer shot by Stenders in which the director screen tested the titular dog.
Says Stenders: “There just wasn't a role for him [in the first film], but I remembered that when we came to casting this film. We approached him and he is such a lovely man [that] he agreed to come over. He came over for a week and shot scenes right at the very end of the shoot.”
Stenders, who had heard about Pan but not seen it, was looking at a bunch of young actors for the lead role of Mick.
“When we saw Levi we just looked at him purely on a creative level and he was by far the best choice. He just really personified the character. And he had that great sixties look.”
True Blue was shot at WA’s Karratha Station with compliments of the mining industry, who own it. But the new film deals less explicitly with mining than the original.
“It's pastoral: it’s [about] the passing of the torch for that region, where it went from pastoral to mining,” says Woss.
“The first movie is about communities coming together. This is about families coming together, and what it means to be part of a family, whatever that means. Historically, there was a lot going on there: land rights and indigenous movements, and that's all represented in the film. We're not taking sides, but those stories are told in an organic way because it was part of what was going on.”
Stenders is proud that the Red Dog films are family entertainments that also deal with Australian history.
“Red Dog was about the first wave of the mining boom in the late 60’s and 70’s and this film is very much about this huge seismic change that happened in Australia in '68 with equal pay and with that part of the Pilbara being transformed by iron ore mining. And the old industries, like the cattle and grazing industries, ending because of mining.”
The filmmaker calls Karratha “our Monument Valley: this iconic Pilbara landscape all within a stone's throw from the main unit, and this cattle station that they haven't changed since the 30’s.”
While the production shot for two weeks in a studio in Perth, most of the shoot took place on the station, making it what Stenders calls “a one-location film”: “It was one of the reasons we could get so much bang for our buck.”
The crew lived in mining facilities on the outskirts of Karratha, in a place called The Searipple Inn, for around three months.
“We were like miners going out to work except we didn't have to mine anything – we had to mine a movie,” says Stenders.
The shoot ran into an unexpected logistical challenge: rain.
“I never ever thought that you'd get rain up there in the Pilbara but we did,” says the director, “and when it rains up there everything turns to mud.”
“We had a great first [AD], Charles Rotherham, who had to manage the work the schedule around the weather. We were able to use the weather to help tell the story.”
“So that was one challenge. The other is just working with kids and animals. You need lots of light: you always need to shoot so many hours for the kid and the dogs are always tricky. Some days they're working and some days they're not and you've got to be flexible and think on your feet any time of the day.”
Stenders was able to make use of technology that has come of age in the five years since the original film – namely drones.
“The drones were great because we could really cherry pick our locations and spend our time getting the crafting shots. [With] the helicopters, you're on the clock. You're [also] on the clock with drones but you have much more freedom and much more room to experiment with drones.”
“We were shooting digital. The first one was shot digitally and digital with this kind of film is great because, with the dog, you can shoot lots of takes and you don't have to worry about [reloading]. We shot on an ALEXA this time. The first film was shot on Red cameras. This one I shot on old anamorphic lenses, which lends it a very particular look.”
“Digital makes you more flexible and you have much more control. We were able to build makeshift cranes and do massive crane shots in the middle of these desert landscapes where you couldn't get normal video crane technology. So the fact that a lot of these camera systems have become smaller and lighter is also quite revolutionary. We use a thing called MoviCAM quite a lot instead of Steadicam, and we built these kind of jerry-rigged cranes out of scaff tubes.”
Roadshow and Woss’ Good Dog Distribution are jointly releasing the film on Boxing Day.
“We work really closely on elements, we're a team,” says Woss. “Roadshow have an enormous wealth of experience and talent within the distribution world. We think we've got a film that is interesting because it's iconically Australian, it celebrates what it means to be Australian and what it means to be part of an Australian family, and we think it's emotional.”
True Blue is hoping to tap into the Aussie family film resurgence that began with the original film, a vein that Woss sees as tapping into something basic: “people want to go out and share an experience with their kids.”
“There are so many different distractions: you can play video games, you can download, stream, whatever. So you're only really going to go out to something special: a big studio blockbuster with comic-book superheroes or a known book franchise or [something with] incredible visual effects you haven't seen before.”
“As a producer from Perth that runs an office with three people, I can't compete against that. All I can do is try to make an event movie that is about emotion and what it means to be Australian that is set in unique parts of Australia that not everybody gets to see. We try and keep it authentic and real, no bullshit, and just make the movies that move people.”
Stenders for his part is hopeful but “anxious” too.
“I think everyone knows in this game you can't take anything for granted and that anything can happen and it's a brutal, brutal business. I am by no means cocky. Anything can happen between now and Boxing Day and anything can happen on Boxing Day. It's a very, very volatile market.”
“But I know I've made a really good film, I'm really proud of this film and my job is to make the film. I think what companies like Roadshow do really well is release this kind of product wide.”
Stenders is currently gearing up to shoot the Wake in Fright mini, set for a first-quarter 2017 start in Broken Hill.
From Red Dog to Wake in Fright is, the director admits, quite the jump.
“Ironically when I first pitched Red Dog and whenever I was talking to crew I'd say, 'Red Dog is Pixar meets Wake In Fright' (laughs). There are a lot of Easter egg references to Wake In Fright in Red Dog. Even John Grant, the lead character in Red Dog, is named after the main character in Wake In Fright…”