There’s no doubt that Kriv Stenders is a multi-talented writer, director and cinematographer. His films include Lucky Country, Boxing Day, Blacktown, The Illustrated Family Doctor and award winning short film Two/Out. What these films have in common is a certain bleak intensity, a combination of powerhouse performances, tight scripting and the inventive use of micro-budgets. So how did Kriv Stenders come to direct Red Dog, a sunny upbeat crowd-pleaser with a cute doggie, an energetic soundtrack and heartwarming plot? “It’s very, very different from anything I’ve done before,” agrees Stenders, on the phone from Jakarta, where he’s shooting a television commercial, “but I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while. You come to a certain point as a filmmaker, where you want to reach as large an audience as you can, and this was a chance to work on a really broad canvas, and I took it on as a challenge.”
Based on the 2002 short novel by UK author Louis de Bernières (Captain Correlli’s Mandolin), Red Dog is based on the true story of a famous wandering kelpie, who was adopted by the new mining community established by Hamersley Iron in West Australia’s Dampier in the 1960s. The cast of Red Dog is headed up by a pair of bright and sparkly stars – US leading man Josh Lucas, and our own Rachael Taylor as his love interest. A supporting cast of Australian talent includes Noah Taylor, Loene Carmen, John Batchelor, Luke Ford, Arthur Angel and Rohan Nichol. Produced by Nelson Woss (Ned Kelly) and Julie Ryan (Ten Canoes) and written by US screenwriter Dan Taplitz (Breakin’ all the Rules), Red Dog also boasts Geoffrey Hall as director of photography, Jill Bilcock as editor, and Ian Gracie as production designer.
In the interview below, we chat to Stenders about making his first ‘family film’, about collaborating with a giant mining company, shooting on the Red camera, and learning to trust his filmmaking team.
AFI: Congratulations on Red Dog. This is the first film you’ve made that you could take your kids to see. Would you call it a children’s film?
Kriv Stenders: I wouldn’t say it’s a children’s film at all. I’d really say it’s more of a family film. So it’s for everyone – children, parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, everyone! We wanted to make a film that was as broad in its audience appeal as possible. You can do that with a central character who is a dog, because people’s relationships with dogs are very special.
AFI: Are you a dog lover?
Kriv Stenders: I’m a cat and a dog lover. I’m AC/DC!
AFI: You talk about wanting to reach a broad audience. That’s not something that’s evident with your previous films, so why this change in approach?
Kriv Stenders: The whole industry, the whole market has changed so radically over the last ten years. Now you really have to know why you’re making your film and who it’s for, and you have to realise that audiences are finite.
AFI: Do you feel like you weren’t making a film for audiences with your previous films?
Kriv Stenders: I was making films for a niche audience. But niche audiences used to be a lot healthier than they are now. When you make edgy material these days, it’s just harder for it to get seen. It’s harder to find that audience, especially in Australia, because there are so many more films out there competing for attention. DVDs and Internet – all of that has spread people’s interest now, whereas before, niche films found it easier, I think, to gain an audience. So it’s just the basic mathematics and the basic hard realities of the film market.
AFI: This is certainly a larger budget than you’re used to working with isn’t it? [Widely reported to be around $8 million]
Kriv Stenders: Sure, yeah. But I think you never ever have enough money! For the scale of the film we were making it was really tight, and we really pushed the envelope a lot on what we could achieve with the money that we had. But again, we had a great crew, an amazing team who just pulled off miracles. In a way, every film should be like that. You should always be working hard to put every dollar on screen. And that focus is what you’ve got to maintain throughout.
AFI: This film has close ties to the mining industry in Dampier, where it is set and partly shot. Rio Tinto is one of the investors?
Kriv Stenders: They basically gave facilities investment. They gave us incredible, extraordinary access to the sites and also provided us with things like accommodation. With that accommodation came food. So it was a substantial fiscal investment – not a monetary one but a fiscal one.
AFI: What would you say to critics who might argue that this film is a massive public relations exercise for mining in Australia?
Kriv Stenders: [Rio Tinto] really are Dampier. Hamersley Iron set up the town and was bought out by Rio, but historically they were the company we were making a film about. So it just makes sense that we were able to connect to their systems, their infrastructure and their history. What we tried to do with the film is actually make Australians aware of the history of the place and of the industry. And people can criticise it all they want. I mean the film isn’t really about that. It’s about the formation of a community, and an incredible part of our history. It’s an extraordinary part of the world and it’s not going to go away. The more knowledge we have about it, the better. We’re simply providing people with more of a context.
AFI: Working with animals is notoriously tricky, You used a number of dogs, with the now famous ‘Koko’ as the main player?
Kriv Stenders: Koko is the star, he’s the actor. He did all the close-ups, he did the hard work. We had to have some other dogs for things like long shots and for other pragmatic reasons, but Koko is really the dog. We spent about six months casting the film, and we looked all over Australia. We found him at a breeder’s place in Bendigo. You cast dogs exactly like you do actors. They’ve got to have that fire going on behind their eyes. They’ve got to have that ‘X factor’, and they’ve got to know what they’re doing.
AFI: You’ve talked about using editing to craft the dog’s performance, and using very limited CGI to do things like erase the dog trainer from the frame. Can you talk a little about working with editor Jill Billcock? Was it a new experience for her to be working with an animal performance?
Kriv Stenders: Yes, it was. And she did an extraordinary job. It was such an honour to work with her, she’s an extraordinary filmmaker in her own rights, a really amazing and creative person. Although Koko certainly had a personality and was delivering something, Jill was really able to sculpt it, refine it and focus it in a way that I could never have imagined. I think that a lot of the emotional impact and emotional power of the film is basically the result of Jill’s incredible work.
AFI: You have a background as a cinematographer and a reputation for working well in intimate spaces on low budgets. Yet this film is very big and open, showcasing the wide landscape. Can you talk about working with your DP (director of photography) Geoffrey Hall?
Kriv Stenders: I’ve known Geoff for about 30 years and we’ve worked together on commercials, so we have a lot of history, which helps. This is the first film that we’ve made together. Geoff is one of this country’s finest DPs. He’s incredibly experienced and talented. We wanted to really create something classical, like a lot of those great Australian Outback films before, like Wake in Fright and the Mad Max movies. We wanted to acknowledge those, but at the same time make something that was unique to the world and unique to the story. We shot on the Red [digital] cameras, but Geoff made the Red look extraordinary. In fact, people who’ve seen the film couldn’t believe we shot it on Red and said they’ve never seen Red look so good. It looks as if we shot on 70mm.
AFI: Was it always the intention to shoot it on Red?
Kriv Stenders: Yes, because we couldn’t have shot it any other way. I mean with the dog as the central performer, and needing to have extra coverage, shooting in digital obviously gives you so much more freedom and liberty to shoot without having worry about film stock. And it allowed us to shoot with more than one camera. With our budget, if we shot it on film we wouldn’t have been able to do that. So the Red was the perfect system for us. With the Red, the 4K resolution that you get is actually still better than even the Alexa camera, despite what people say. Technically the Red is probably still the best digital camera around in the marketplace.
AFI: As a filmmaker, what is the biggest thing you learnt on this project?
Kriv Stenders: I think the biggest thing I learnt was to really, really trust my team and be open to as much collaboration as possible because every day, everyone has a good idea. That includes the cast and everyone. It was just great fun relaxing a little bit and finally being just in the director’s chair! On my other films, I’ve always been standing up or operating the camera or trying to do lots of other things as well. I really learnt to trust my team here, which is really a major part of the filmmaking process.
AFI: One last question. While you were shooting in Dampier, did you encounter real life stories about this famous dog?
Kriv Stenders: Funnily enough a lot of people we bumped into hated the dog! There were people who would say to us, ‘I can’t believe you’re making a film about that mongrel! He was a nasty, horrible dog.’ But he was also loved. The film is about storytelling and it’s as much about the myth as it is about the real. Thirty years later people still talk about this dog. He’s still bringing people together. And that’s extraordinary.
AFI: Thanks for talking with us, and best wishes with the film.
Red Dog releases nationally 4 August. Watch the trailer below.