Nelson Woss, Red Dog & Matt Toomey

I recently had the chance to speak with Nelson Woss, producer of the new Australian film Red Dog.  It's being released on August 4 and is showing on more than 200 screens in this country (trust me, that's a lot for a locally made film).  You can listen to an extract of the interview in my special podcasts section by clicking hereHere's what Nelson had to say...


Matt:  We’ve got a story set in the 1970s where the central character is a dog who doesn’t talk that roams remote Australia and forms a bond with people.  It doesn’t scream out to me “Hollywood blockbuster” so I’m curious to know how you came across this story and why you thought it’d be suited to the big screen?


Nelson:  I grew up in Perth and I’d heard these amazing stories as a kid of the Red Dog who roamed all over the great state of Western Australia.  I was also working in Los Angeles and I heard that the famous author Louis De Bernieres (probably best known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) had travelled all the way to this remote region of Australia and had seen the Red Dog statue outside the front of Dampier.  He was so moved by the story that he wrote this book.  When I read Louis’s book, I thought it would be a terrific idea to do as a movie in Australia.


Matt:  The statue that you mentioned we get to see at the very end of the film.  Was that the real statue?


Nelson:  Yep.  If you go and visit Dampier today you will see that statue.   


Matt:  I’m sure Louis’s novel provided a wealth of material but did you and screenwriter Daniel Taplitz have to go beyond that, do your own research and speak with those who had a connection with the dog?


Nelson:  Yeah we did a lot of research.  I actually took Daniel Taplitz out to the Pilbara and we wandered around.  It was easy because so many people would come up to us and Red Dog had obviously intersected so many people’s lives.  Everyone up there who was there during the time had a Red Dog story.


I’d made a movie several years ago called Ned Kelly through a similar process.  We started doing the research and then people came to us saying that my great great grandfather or a relation or a friend of a relation knew Ned Kelly.  In some ways, it was a very similar thing with Red Dog.


Matt:  So these characters in the story like John, Nancy, Jack and Peeto – are they actually based on real people or have they been fictionalised?


Nelson:  All stories that are in the Red Dog film are loosely based on composites of stories that really happened.  There’s nothing we made up.  Everything came from either Louis De Bernieres’s research or our research.


Matt:  Was there really a John?  Someone who had a really strong connection with the dog?


Nelson:  There was definitely a guy named John Stazzonelli and he was one of those who formed a strong bond with Red Dog.


Matt:  We know the general process when it comes to actors but the lead character here is a dog.  How do you go about casting a dog?  What are you looking for and how did you find the right dog for this film?


Nelson:   We really needed to find a dog that was strong and independent but we also needed to find a dog who could act and emote on the screen.  It’s a bit like casting human actors really.  There are some great actors and there are some actors who are stars.  Our Koko is very much a star dog.  He just stood out amongst all the other dogs that we auditioned.


Matt:  I always think back to the Aussie film Babe and they had about 50 different pigs that played that leading role.  Is this the same dog, Koko, all the way through the film?


Nelson:  Koko was definitely our main dog but like Tom Cruise, Red Dog had stand-ins and stunt dogs.  We had a number of dogs that we used throughout the filming but that being said, whenever you see a dog on screen with say, Josh Lucas or Rachael Taylor, that was our Koko.


Matt:  So you actually had a stand-in for when Koko was off in his trailer or taking it easy?


Nelson:  Haha, yeah exactly. Dogs are like people and they have a certain time limit that they can concentrate for.  We’d have a stand-in dog that was put in position while the crew did all the set up and lighting and then when we were ready to go, we’d bring Koko and his trainer in and they’d do the part.  It worked really well but we had a fantastic team.


Matt:  How easy was it to get Koko to do all the things that were required in the film?  Was it tough at times or was he a well behaved dog?


Nelson:  Overall he was terrific but like all actors, he had his good days and his bad days.  Some days he didn’t want to come out of his trailer but at the end of the day, we got everything in the can.


Matt:  There’s a very small cameo in the film from the late Bill Hunter.  I know it’s not a really big role so I’m curious to know how he came to be in the film?


Nelson:  It was a really unique part.  Bill played the character of Jumbo Smelt, an old-timer from the region who had been attacked by a shark.  We thought about it and we wanted someone who had a lot of charisma and represented that “old style” Australian look and there was no one better than Bill Hunter.  It was a great pleasure to work with him and it was terribly sad when we heard he had passed on.  I’m sure people will remember his work for a long time.


Matt:  I believe you made a small cameo in the film yourself?


Nelson:  It wasn’t by design.  We were on such a low budget and whenever we needed extras or more people on the screen, we’d just drag ourselves into it.  There is a small scene when I’m on screen but it flashes by very quickly so it won’t spoil the film.


Matt:  The 70s setting for me was interesting, particularly some of the costumes.  Was it tricky to recreate the timeframe in terms of the costumes and sets?


Nelson:  We had a terrific production designer, Ian Gracie, who had worked with Baz Luhrmann and we had a great costume designer, Marriott Kerr.  They did the research and I think they delivered the quietly flamboyant costumes in this movie.


It’s funny that when we showed the film to some of the locals, they told us that it looked authentic and they really did wear that.  A challenge of making the movie is that when we went to the mine sites, they have very rigid safety laws now.  All the actors would be wearing hard hats and fluro gear and as soon as we started filming, they’d take that off and we’d shoot the scene wearing thongs and singlets (which is what they wore in the 70s).  As soon as the director yelled “cut”, we’d have to cover up them up again.  It was an interesting way to work.


Matt:  It’s not often we see the star of the film travelling around Australia to promote it but that’s exactly what Koko is doing at the moment.  How has he been going?  Has the stardom gone to his head?  What’s he been like on the road?


Nelson:  He’s great.  He loves people and loves meeting his fans.  I don’t know about you but I have a Facebook account and maybe I’m a bit old for it but I only have 43 friends.  Koko has 2,000 friends and they’re spread across Australia and the world.  It’s quite interesting because the Red Dog story was also about a dog who pulled a community together.


He’s a good traveller.  He flies in planes and he rides around in cabs with us.  I think he enjoys it. 


Matt:  Hopefully the film is a great success here in Australia.  Nelson, thank you for speaking with us.


Nelson:  It’s a special film about Australian spirit and Australians coming together.  It was a privilege to do it and hopefully people enjoy it.


You can read my review of Red Dog by clicking here.

Red Dog & Matt Toomey