Right now Kriv Stenders is one of Australia's most prolific filmmakers. In a local market where Australian movies are not exactly first choice, where financing a picture is a tortuous maze of hope and, frankly, low expectations, simply getting a movie before the cameras is considered a victory. These factors make Stenders' CV a remarkable thing to behold; not only has he kept up an exhausting pace, but each film is fascinating. Since 2004, he has shot five feature films, including The Illustrated Family Doctor (2005), Blacktown (2006), Boxing Day (2007) and Lucky Country (2009). Uncommonly serious, adventurous, and very well made, these films impressed critics but never quite found the audience they deserved. Alas, this is the destiny of so many ambitious films but that fact is not exactly a surprise, least of all to Stenders. The director is the first to admit that as a group, these pictures are dark, dark, dark.
So his latest film seems like a striking change of direction: a family film, based on the best selling 2001 children's novel Red Dog by Louis de Bernières (author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin), which debuted in Berlin this week. Sweet, charming, perhaps even sentimental, the critically acclaimed book is the story of a 'heroic' mutt trailing the desert and towns of Western Australia in search of its 'master'; meanwhile Red Dog aka Tally Ho, changes the lives of everyone he encounters. Producer Nelson Woss approached Sydney-based Stenders' about Red Dog, following a screening of the director's low-budget digital film (shot in a series of lengthy takes), Boxing Day, via his agent. Stenders admits that he didn't seen an obvious connection between Boxing Day and its extraordinary emotional violence, and US screenwriter Daniel Taplitz's very touching script of Red Dog.
“I suppose Nelson thought I was resourceful or something,” Stenders laughs. “Ironically, I had been thinking about doing a children's film for a while,” he says. In particular, Stenders says he was interested in doing what he calls “an old fashioned 'animal picture,'” in the tradition of say, Lassie, where the animal 'hero' remains an animal. He had even considered a remake of the Australian classic kids' movie Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976), about a kid who has a special mateship with a pelican. Stenders says what he liked about Red Dog was the fact it was a human and humane story that didn't rely on the 'cute' gimmicks of CGI-enhanced behaviour, or talking animals.
“We actually made a joke [when planning the film] that when the family goes to see Red Dog, the kids will point at the screen and say, 'Hey Mum, a dog that can't talk'.” But Red Dog is no super-dog. “He's just very charismatic. What I loved about the script wasn't so much what Red Dog did; it's what he made humans do.”
Shot on location in Dampier and Adelaide over eight weeks last year, Red Dog stars American Josh Lucas as John, Red Dog's owner, Rachel Taylor and a large cast of supporting players (including Noah Taylor, Luke Ford, and Keisha Castle-Hughes).
Koko plays the title character, and casting him was not that different, Stenders says, to casting any (human) star. Some dogs have the look but not the magic; some have the personality but aren't good on camera. “Well, the dog needed to be a great actor in the same way any actor has to be great; the viewer watches what's happening in his eyes.” Stenders found his leading, ah, dog, in Bendigo. In the end, they used two other animals for the part; including Koko's brother. (By coincidence, Stenders had used him Lucky Country.)
Stenders explains that the usual CGI enhancement of Koko's scenes was prohibitively expensive for Red Dog's $8 million budget, so the filmmakers opted for 'old-fashioned' in-camera effects. “That's where you have the animal just following a command; what looks like seamless choreography is actually editing.”
Still, Stenders says CGI was used throughout the film: “We used it, where it's at its best,” he says, “and that's when it's invisible.” In the days before CGI filmmakers were restricted with animal action; angles had to disguise the fact that a trainer was just off screen, for instance. In Red Dog, the trainer was often in shot for the take: “We used CGI to paint them out!”
But Red Dog, Stenders says, isn't quite an action story (though there's enough rough and tumble to amuse kids and charm adults, he promises). “It's really a story about stories, an Australian folk tale, I suppose, about how this amazing dog helped to bring a community together.”
De Bernières' book is, in effect, something of an 'imagined' biography of a real dog, which became a legend in the Pilbara region of WA throughout the '70s. Called Tally Ho, there's a statue of him, a red kelpie, in Dampier. “The real Red Dog was known for hitching rides on planes, trains and automobiles, while searching for his master,” Stenders says, and everyone had a story about him. In Dampier, a remote place full of 'outsiders' – itinerant workers, travellers and migrants – from all over the world, Red Dog was something they could all share in. It's a tradition of a certain kind of children's film to incorporate a political or social subtext aimed to 'correct' an unwholesome truism or advance a message of say, anti-racism, or pro-ecology. Sometimes such a message is overt or carefully sublimated. But Stenders explains that while the specifics are local, the point of Red Dog was universal, inclusive and not political.
Stenders says the film has no obvious political agenda but adds, “The movie is about celebrating what we have in common and what brings us together and that's love, friendship, having respect for yourself and the place where you live.”
Stenders does admit that there's something of a message in how the screen story develops: “Well, Red Dog can't judge people, he's loved by all and that makes him the common shared friendship equal to all.”
As sweet, funny and gentle as his previous pictures are complex and feverish, Stenders says it was Red Dog in its way that was his most challenging film. “I learnt a lot on the last few and that prepared me for this and in a funny kind of way I don't think I could have made this film before,” he explains.
“It takes a certain amount of confidence to make something this mainstream. It's not that easy to make something that's pure, especially a comedy. There's something really delightful about doing something you can show your son.”