A dog’s tale from Down Under

Nelson Woss, the producer of ‘Red Dog,’ which opens this week’s Australian Film Festival in Jerusalem, speaks to Hannah Brown about the joy of making the film and his eagerness for more Aussie stories to be told.

Red Dog 311 (photo credit: David Darcey)
Red Dog 311
(photo credit: David Darcey)
‘It’s a story about finding your home and about a community coming together,” says Nelson Woss, the producer of the film, Red Dog, which is the opening attraction at the 8th Australia-Israel Cultural Exchange Australian Film Festival. The festival opens tonight at the Jerusalem Cinematheque and will also play later at the Tel Aviv and Haifa Cinematheques.
Red Dog will be the opening-night film at all the venues.
Woss, who says he is excited to be visiting Israel for the first time to present the film, explains that Red Dog is both the story of a particular dog, and much more than that.
The film was shown at the Berlin Film Festival and won the Audience Award at the Vail Film Festival. It stars Josh Lucas, Noah Taylor and Keisha Castle-Hughes (the youngest woman to ever have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, for her performance in Whale Rider).
Woss divides his time between his hometown of Perth and Los Angeles and has produced such films as Ned Kelly starring Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom. His latest film is based on the true story of Red Dog, who was adopted by the rough mining town of Dampier in the Outback about 40 years ago and is based on a novel by Louis de Bernieres. Woss says, “I was excited when I came across the story because it’s set in my backyard, but it has universal themes and concepts.”
The film is set “in one of the most remote places in Oz,” says Woss. In the ’60s iron ore was discovered in this region, and towns had to be built very quickly to extract and export it.
“It was just a few thousand people at first and in 10 years it was five times that. It was just single men then and now it’s a thriving mini-city,” he says.
“People came in from all over. They were there to make money and get out.
But some people fell in love with it. It’s true Outback, one of the most beautiful places in Australia.”
“It was so tough you basically fit in or else, but there were a lot of people of very different backgrounds, pedigrees and jobs and a connection happened very quickly among them, no matter how different they were.”
“And then one day this charismatic dog walks into town,” says Woss.
“The dog didn’t care what you did, he loved you for who you were. The film is about a number of people whose lives intersected with the dog’s.”
THE TOWN actually erected a statue to the dog, which author Louis De Bernieres saw when he visited, “and he was fascinated with why a town would erect a statue of a dog instead of, say, an explorer.”
In order to tell this story, “We needed to find a dog who could act.”
It’s common in the movies to have several dogs playing a single canine character. Woss, who worked on the film, Beethoven’s Second, said, “In that film, we had 15 dogs. But on Red Dog, there were three.” One played an older version of the dog, “one was just hopeless,” and the third was Koko, a cattle-herding, or Kelpi, dog.
Koko trained for two years to portray the central figure in the film, and Woss has since adopted him. Now he’s getting used to being in his star’s shadow.
“I have about 30 friends on Facebook, and Koko has 1600. He’s like a rock star. But he’s not spoiled.”
Unfortunately, Koko won’t be joining him for the film’s Israeli premiere because of Australia’s strict laws. A dog that travels outside the country must undergo a long quarantine before he can return.
But you can check out Koko’s screen test on YouTube, where he shows off his acting chops with the film’s director, Kriv Stenders.
Both Woss and Stenders were influenced as children by the 1972 Israeli film, Azit, the Paratrooper’s Dog, directed by Boaz Davidson, which details the heroic exploits of the dog in question.
It was very popular in Australia, where cattle-herding dogs are “an important part of the culture.”
Asked whether his relationship with Koko might be characterized as an on-set romance, Woss laughs.
“On-set romances usually fizzle out after shooting.” But Woss and Koko are still going strong: “I travel around with him, I take him everywhere with me. He tags along to meetings. And he looks around at everything as if it’s a movie set.”