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Koko: Red Dog of Oz

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Koko: Red Dog of Oz Empty Koko: Red Dog of Oz

Post  eddie Mon Feb 20, 2012 12:34 am

Red Dog: an audience with Australia's best friend

A box-office hit in its native Australia, Red Dog is the tale of the legendary pooch who embodied the country's outback spirit – and has a made a star of its canine lead, Koko

Patrick Barkham, Thursday 9 February 2012 20.00 GMT

Koko: Red Dog of Oz Koko-stares-the-camera-ou-007
Koko stares the camera out in Red Dog. Photograph: Organic Marketing

Australia's hottest movie star fixes me with his soulful brown eyes and greets me with a firm lick on the hand. Then, with a clack-clack of claws on the wooden floor of his airy home, Koko shows me through to the kitchen. For the next 20 minutes, the six-year-old star of Red Dog embarks on an impressive charm offensive, gazing up charismatically and fixing a gimlet eye on the bowl of cashew nuts placed before us.

Red Dog
Production year: 2011
Countries: Australia, Rest of the world
Cert (UK): PG
Runtime: 88 mins
Directors: Kriv Stenders
Cast: Bill Hunter, Josh Lucas, Keisha Castle-Hughes, Noah Taylor, Rachael Taylor

Koko, a red cloud kelpie, has been the surprise breakout talent of 2011 in Australia. The underdog project to adapt Louis de Bernières's book about a real dog that breathed life into a desolate mining town, took $21.3m (£13.4m) at the Australian box office last year, putting Red Dog among the 10 highest grossing Australian films of all time alongside Moulin Rouge and Strictly Ballroom. As with Uggie, the Jack Russell star of The Artist, and the equine heroes of War Horse, the canine lead in Red Dog does not suffer the indignity of having his features contorted by CGI. Red Dog may not talk but he and his film make an eloquent statement about the power of stories.

"It is about this outback community that was brought together by a dog," says Nelson Woss, Red Dog's producer. "And we were this film crew in a remote location that was brought together by the same dog." In fact, Woss enjoyed working with his leading man so much that he adopted him. When not trotting down red carpets together, the pair now reside in Perth, Western Australia. Koko enjoys frequent walks in the park, where the only concession to his stardom is a special ramp that enables him to easily disembark from Woss's 4x4.

The against-the-odds making of Red Dog began when Woss read a review of de Bernières's book on a flight back from LA, where Woss produced films including Ned Kelly, the retelling of another popular Australian legend. Woss beat off interest from DreamWorks to get the film rights to Red Dog, with de Bernières apparently persuaded by the producer's vision of a local film shot in the Pilbara, the remote north-west corner of Australia where the real Red Dog lived.

Kriv Stenders, the director, describes it as "a story about stories, a folk tale celebrating that very Australian tradition of the yarn". Like Waltzing Matilda and other outback tales, Red Dog also features tragedy. As de Bernières's deceptively simple novella showed, Red Dog became a powerful founding story for the tough towns that grew up around the hardscrabble mines of the 1970s. Red Dog was simply a dog without a particular home who was adopted by the miners. He earned the nickname "the Pilbara wanderer" because he would hitch rides with truckers for hundreds of miles but always return to his favourite seat on the miners' bus. He became a member of local clubs and was even given his own bank account. Like many miners, the dog was gregarious but also self-sufficient and solitary. He appeared to be searching for something, although no one quite knew what.

The making of Red Dog was an unorthodox undertaking from the very beginning. Woss started with a dog, buying Koko from a breeder two and a half years before filming began, and getting him trained by Luke Hura, a protege of Karl Miller, the legendary Hollywood animal trainer who worked with the stars of Babe. The film's American lead, Josh Lucas, drove himself through the outback for five days to get to the shoot, where Woss, in "guerrilla fashion", managed to cadge several helicopters and a mile-long train from a mining company for a week. "That's a big toy to play with," smiles Woss, who is described by Stenders as the kind of producer who "could sell snow to the Eskimos and finds money under a rock".

And so a meagre budget was able to produce a film with the sweep and zest of Danny Boyle. There were still some hitches, however. After a year of expert training, it appeared that Koko had learned very little. It took three weeks for the dog to master a short scene in which Red Dog pushes a woman off "his" seat on the miners' bus. Luckily, the dog (and his two doggy-doubles) came good during the eight-week shoot. Another problem was Stenders being allergic to dogs: the director had to struggle through the shoot with a lot of antihistamines and a no-touching policy for his leading canine.

True to the spirit of the 70s, when the film is set, Stenders resisted CGI and instead shot real dogs doing real things (with one exception, when Red Dog meets his nemesis, Red Cat). "We wanted to go back to the old-fashioned dog movie – Lassie and Benji," says Stenders. "Red Dog is just a dog. He doesn't do anything remarkable. The film is about people and the lives this dog changes. He's a very wise observer who sees the world in a very laconic way. He's a very Australian character." Stenders previously made grungy urban films such as Boxing Day, about a father who takes his family hostage. How did he direct a dog? "Just like you would an actor," he says. "They are personalities. They have their idiosyncrasies. You are dealing with a soul, a living, breathing thing."

Stenders was relieved they stuck with the decision to make it a period piece, complete with an excellent 70s soundtrack. "You can't fuck with the legend. There is an innocence about the 70s that is very evocative and unique." Woss likens Red Dog to feel-good Australian classics such as Muriel's Wedding and both he and Stenders were inspired by Wake in Fright, a cult and very unnerving film about the outback. Red Dog is rather more comforting in its nostalgic portrayal of the beginnings of the modern mining boom, the rarely seen industry upon which Australia's current economic success is based. With its dry wit, the film casts these vital but enormously destructive industries in an appealingly human light. Stenders admits it is a "celebration" of the birth of that industry. "When you are up there you realise that this is the heartbeat of Australia. It's very sobering to see the infrastructure and scale of it," he says. The film also showcases the lunar-like landscape of the Pilbara – usually completely overlooked by tourists – with its red rock and enormous cargo ships sitting in crystal clear turquoise water. "It's so starkly beautiful it's overwhelming," says Stenders. "You couldn't come up with anything as graphic as that with CGI. You can't help but make it look beautiful because it's stunning. You see man-made industry dwarfed by this amazing landscape."

Australians have good cause to celebrate the miners who have made them rich but another reason Red Dog has attained such mythical status is the dog's egalitarian qualities. Back in the 70s, there was a proposal to erect a statue of William Dampier, the English explorer who landed in north-west Australia in 1699. Dampier swiftly disappeared again after sniffily concluding there were "too many flies" and, as the film relays, the miners argue that Red Dog should be honoured instead. "We should have somebody who understands this place, who lives and breathes this vastness, this desolation. Somebody who has red dust up their nostrils. And their arsehole," says one of the miners in the film. Australians approve of Red Dog: "It doesn't matter where you are from in the world or what echelons of society you were born into, Red Dog got on with you the same," explains Woss, when we take Koko for a walk.

Woss sees a lot of Red Dog in Koko. "Love the one you're with, that's Koko, and to some extent that was the same with Red Dog too," he says. "He's a very smart, independent dog and he has a mind of his own." Dogs are supposed to be on leads in the park "but Koko doesn't like leads", waves Woss airily, as his leading man trots along, breaking into a desultory dash to see off a couple of crows.

Later that night, I meet Koko again at a screening of Red Dog in Perth. He looks perfectly relaxed when he is recognised in the street and yet, like the biggest Hollywood stars, there is a sheen of distance about him – he is perfectly polite, but floats above the fawning of those around him. Like a middle-aged heartthrob, Koko has a graceful grey grizzle around the mouth now, and Woss says his leading man will not take on any more films. "He quite likes his retirement," says Woss. "When he does promotional events, people want him to do tricks and that so isn't cool."

Red Dog is released on 24 February.
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