There’s just something about dog movies. No matter who you are, what you’ve been through, or how thick a slab of stone you have in place of a beating heart, all you have to do is watch any movie about a faithful canine pledging love to a misguided human, and you’ve got a guaranteed supply of waterworks. The comedy/drama Red Dog upholds this tradition, inspiring tearful eyes and quivering chins with its story about the “most famous dog in Australia.” Josh Lucas stars in the picture as an American truck driver who, while looking for work in the Australian outback, takes up an unexpected friendship with the titular canine — a Kelpie who made his home among the laborers of the Dampier Port, and then traveled across the continent in search of his owner when he goes missing. And believe it or not, this fantastic tale is a true story.
“They know the dog literally went all over Australia,” Lucas tells Hollywood.com. “They have photographs as far down as Perth, and all the way to Sidney and Melbourne. Really, all over the map … [Red Dog writer Daniel Taplitz] said that the only thing that he knows is not precisely true was that they don’t actually have any proof that the dog made it all the way to Japan [which he does in the film]. I was like, ‘Really? That’s it?’”
It’s not only the trek to which the film stays true, but the spirit of the dog himself. Lucas recounts meeting with some of the older laborers who knew the real Red Dog, and hearing stories about his presence in their community. “I kept finding these people that would show me a photograph of Red Dog with a cigarette in his mouth and a beer in his paw, passed out asleep in their beds … They’d say, ‘You’d be pissed off because you’d come home and Red Dog would be in your bed.’ You’d be like, ‘Well, why didn’t you just kick him out?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, no. You’d never kick Red Dog out.’” Lucas laughed about this kingship the dog seemed to hold.
“Anytime Red Dog paid you a visit,” he continues, “he was the honorary king. You had to give him all your food, and he slept in your bed, and had terrible gas. But everyone loved him so much, and everyone had their own special feeling that they were special to him as well. I thought that that was the most beautiful of it all.”
That was one of Lucas’ favorite elements of the movie. “[The movie] captures how people kind of yearn to be ‘the special one’ for the dog as well. That’s kind of the fun of this movie, too.” So why was it, that with all these people out to win him over, Red Dog took specifically to Lucas’ character John Grant (based on the real life John Stazzonelli)?
“[John] had come to that part of the Northwest territory,” Lucas explains, “and felt like an outsider for quite a while. Australia — particularly in that time, and particularly in some of those outback communities — it would be a little bit forbidding and tough if you were not from that part of the world. There was a real… not fear of outsiders, but there was a real community-based thing. ‘We are Australians.’ … And when John showed up on his motorcycle, it took him been quite a while. Red Dog was the one who broke the ice for him. And no one knows why he chose John.”
But Lucas has his theories: “Everything I understand about Red Dog is that he was mysterious in ways. He was always the life of the party, but he also had this odd sensitivity to him … He seemed to understand when people were in pain or hurting. He would sort of be there for them … When John showed up, he was really a loner. He was really a guy on his own … [He and Red Dog] definitely were bonded from the second that they met.”
It is appropriate that Lucas would take on the role of John, the only man to whom the free spirited Red Dog pledges undying loyalty, as the actor himself is a devoted dog lover. “I really understood that love that so many people have for their animals,” Lucas tells Hollywood.com, referring to his experience reading the script. “And how an animal can really impact a family or a community in such a way … The movie really captured what I feel is that truly special connection that between an animal and a person. And in this case, a whole community…. I’ve had a couple of dogs in my life. All rescues. I’ve really always had that love, wild love, for the dogs.”
Lucas even proved his devotion to the canine species with a sweet story from his childhood: “My mom was reminding me when she saw this movie, the first dog we found, he was abandoned at a ferry terminal in Washington State. And he and I slept outside for a year straight — every single night for a year, when I was fourteen years old.”
The Red Dog star continues to share his life with a canine companion: “I have this fantastic relationship with my dog, who I’d rescued from a shelter in Harlem a number of years ago … My dog now, he’s just a deep soul. He’s a very profound guy. Looks you right in the eye and seems to connect with everybody who he meets. In a way, a little bit like Red Dog.”
So what it is about dogs that Lucas thinks is so magical? “Dogs have no ulterior motives,” he says. “That’s it. There’s nothing about a dog other than loyalty and love. All they want is to be treated right, scratched, and fed a little bit, and they’ll die for you. I think that’s what people connect to. Their dogs are never doing anything for selfish reasons. There’s just something about dogs that people have, sometimes, the best relationships of their lives — more than their own children or their own families.”
However, as much as Lucas loves dogs and was enamored by his Red Dog costar Koko, he has to admit that Koko was not quite cut out for show business. “Koko was incredibly difficult to work with because he hated acting. He hated it!” Lucas says. “His whole thing was, he would do it right once, and then, ‘Why would I want to do it again, man? I already did it!’ Then he would take off running. He would just bolt running. Obviously, it’s a movie; you have to do it over and over and over again. He was just like, ‘Nope. Done.’ And go run as hard as he could back to his cage. They retired Koko from acting the minute the movie was finished, and he’ll never act again.”
But it was the dog’s audition tape (which you can watch below) that helped to convince Lucas to sign on for the film in the first place. “I had gotten a phone call from my agent, saying, ‘There’s a chance that an actor is falling out of this project in Australia. And if you like the movie, you might have to go tomorrow,'” Lucas recalls. “I was like, ‘Really? Tomorrow? Australia? That’s a little bit much.’” But the script, and the involvement of Koko, were enough to bring him on board. “I read, honestly, the first 20 pages, and I liked it so much … After 20 pages, I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ And then I saw — I don’t know if you’ve seen this thing on YouTube, you can look it up — the audition of Koko. The dog who plays Red Dog. And it’s great. It made me instantly fall in love with the dog.”
The setting also contributed to Lucas’ interest. “they showed these images of the place where they were going to film. Out in way remote Australia, where the movie takes place. I had been lucky and traveled through sections of Australia over the years; I’ve known so few people who have ever been to this place out in the middle of nowhere. It looked so beautiful. And knowing that no movie had ever been made there before, and that they were going to tackle this difficult land. Because the land, really, is forbidden. You only go there if you’re part of the mines. There’s no water. The land is literally made of metal. Truly incredible place.”
And clearly, it all paid off: “So, all of it kind of came together. I was literally on an airplane the next day. I had one of the best experiences I’ve had making a movie out there.”
Red Dog is now available on Blu-ray/DVD in the United States.
[Photo Credit: Roadshow Film Distributors]