Red Dog – Louis de Bernieres interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ACCLAIMED author Louis de Bernieres talks exclusively to IndieLondon about bringing his novella Red Dog to the big screen, separating the fact from the myth surrounding the real-life canine and the things he’s most proud of in the film.
He also talks about his passion for dogs, his feelings about former novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and its movie transition and what he’s got coming up next.
Q. You first heard about Red Dog in 1998 when you first went to Australia…
Louis de Bernieres: Was it that long ago? I suppose it was, yes.
Q. What grabbed you about the story that made you want to turn it into a novella?
Louis de Bernieres: Well, when people started telling me the stories about the dog they were so entertaining that I thought… for a long time my agent had been telling me: “Why don’t you try and write a children’s book?” I was like: “Get lost!” But then when I heard these stories I thought: “Here’s my children’s book and it’ll be a doddle to write.” In fact, it was great fun to write because I just went there with a computer and an Australian girlfriend and had a wonderful time writing it in a couple of weeks.
Q. And people were all too happy to talk about the legend of Red Dog?
Louis de Bernieres: Yeah, yeah… and the local library also kept all the press cuttings because the dog was famous in his own time. So, they kept the press cuttings in the library.
Q. What was your favourite story?
Louis de Bernieres: It’s not in the film but it’s in the book. It’s when he turned up at a posh dog show and just disrupted it. I think he pee’d on the judges’ bench and tried to get off with the girls and just caused chaos. It didn’t get into the film because Nelson [Woss], the producer, couldn’t find enough dogs locally [laughs]. So…
Q. What was the most far-fetched story? You don;’ think he got all the way to Perth do you?
Louis de Bernieres: Oh no I do. I think he got to Perth. In the film he gets to Japan but I don’t think he got to Japan. They put that in as a joke, obviously. And he didn’t save anyone from a shark attack either. But Aussies love shark stories so it’s kind of compulsory in an Aussie film to have a shark story I think. There was a man who used to fish for sharks off that beach. He had a tractor with a long chain on the back and on the end of the chain was a hook with a kangaroo leg. He used to fish for sharks like that! The shark would take the kangaroo leg and he’d haul it in with the tractor! It shows you how crazy the place was.
Q. I wondered when seeing the Japan ‘joke’ whether that was a nod towards Hachi?
Louis de Bernieres: Yeah. I suspect it was… and the dog dying on the grave at the end… Red Dog didn’t do that but there are dog stories where that happens, such as Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh. He followed his master’s coffin to the grave and then wouldn’t go. So, he eventually died on his master’s grave and there’s a little statue of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, at the grave-yard, so I think that’s why it was included, with those stories in mind.
Q. That’s what got me at the end… I cried!
Louis de Bernieres: My little girl, who is four, she wasn’t at all upset. She said: “He comes back as a puppy!” Sophie thought it was a film about reincarnation.
Q. I gather you have a fondness for dogs from an early age?
Louis de Bernieres: Yeah. We had golden retrievers in my family. They’re generally sweet-natured dogs and they’re very patient. They understand… or most animals do but they respect extreme youth. Do you know what I mean? An older cat won’t ever beat up a kitten. So, they respect youth. This dog was a sweet thing. It actually taught me to walk. I used to shuffle around the house holding onto his neck and he just plodded around while I held onto him. And if I couldn’t sleep at night I slept in his basket with him until I got too big. But it’s nice sleeping with a dog. Now that I don’t have a dog I realise how smelly they are! If you live with a dog, you actually stop noticing the smell, don’t you [laughs]?
Q. I gather you liked the idea that this was going to be shot in Australia with Kriv Stenders?
Louis de Bernieres: Nelson was determined to film it in Australia, yes. And what Kriv wanted to do was make a family film because prior to that he had made these rather dark movies for grown-ups [Blacktown, Boxing Day]. He had a child himself and decided that he wanted to make a family film, so everything just fell together perfectly. The right director, the right producer… Nelson had approached me many, many years ago but he couldn’t make the film for a long time simply because he couldn’t get the money together. He’s a successful producer but he just couldn’t get people interested. But then suddenly… for example, the Rio Tinto Zinc [company] were really generous about allowing people onto the exact places where Red Dog used to be. And after all those years of knocking on doors and trying to get it made it suddenly all fell together quite easily. But then the right director also came along as well… an established director who wanted to make a family film.
Q. How closely did you work with Kriv?
Louis de Bernieres: Not very… I mean I wasn’t involved in the film much. I just turned up for a week and they gave me a little bit part in it. I play a dirty miner. So, it was really down to Nelson and Kriv.
Q. How was that experience of being on film?
Louis de Bernieres: I loved it! If I ever sell another book to film I want a bigger role next time!
Q. How did this experience of giving your work over to film compare with that on Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?
Louis de Bernieres: I was initially a bit worried because they never showed me the script. I thought, well if they’re not showing me the script, what are they up to? It turned out that the script was better than anything I could have done, so it was a good experience. With Corelli, they did offer me the chance to write the script but I was, at the time, working on my next novel and I didn’t want to go back over old ground. I now actually regret that decision because I would have liked to have done the script. It’s a similar story and you just have to keep your fingers crossed.
Q. Is that hard to let them go?
Louis de Bernieres: It is a bit hard. You’re naturally very curious about what they’re up to but you don’t really have the right to intervene.
Q. And yet there are authors who have worked very closely with the directors, such as Michael Morpurgo recently on War Horse…
Louis de Bernieres: Yes, and I think JK Rowling was very involved with the Harry Potter films and I think that is probably the reason they’re so good. And Laura Esquivel I think wrote the script for Like Water For Chocolate, which is different from the book but just as good. So, it can happen and possibly it’ll happen more in the future. It seems to work very well.
Q. What went wrong with Captain Corelli, do you think?
Louis de Bernieres: I think it might have been a mistake to go for Nicolas Cage to play the main role because although he’s a great actor, he wasn’t really anyone’s idea of Captain Corelli. The idea was to get American box office and they didn’t really put that one off. I would have found a nice, lively, charming Italian rather than an American pretending to be an Italian. But having said that he did a perfectly good job and he even learned to play the mandolin, which a lot of actors wouldn’t have done.
There were a couple of things that also annoyed me, like a pointless sex scene in the middle. The sad thing about the book is that they don’t become lovers when they’re young. But in the film they have sex in an olive grove and then he buggers off for a while. In the first place, it’s out of character and in the second place I don’t think it would have happened to those kinds of people. The only excuse for it, I thought, was maybe the director wanted to see Penelope [Cruz] with no clothes on, which I can understand! But it didn’t serve any artistic purpose.
Q. It did provide John Hurt with another strong role…
Louis de Bernieres: He was great! And so was David Morrissey. He’s a really, really good actor.
Q. What are the things, conversely, that you’re most proud of Red Dog for achieving?
Louis de Bernieres: I think the way it brought the characters to life… the way that Australia was back in the ‘70s – a sort of rowdy, rough and ready pioneering place where they didn’t give a toss about health and safety. Australia now is, as they say, ‘pansified’. You can’t go out without a crash helmet on. It’s pathetic! But Australia back then was a much more rumbustious place – and that’s one of the things that I think Australians loved about the film it took them back to how they used to be. So, I’m proud of that. And I also think the soundtrack of the film is just marvellous. Nelson gave me a CD and I’ve been playing it in my car. It’s just brilliant.
Q. How was meeting Koko, the actor who plays Red Dog?
Louis de Bernieres: Well, he’s a cool dog. He’s had so much attention but he’s learnt to put up with it patiently without really enjoying it. He’s polite and I don’t think you’d get to know him unless you spent a few days with him or whatever. He’s become a polite dog. But he adores Nelson and he loves the trainer who trained him. He still remembers the person who bred him. The breeder occasionally visits him and he’s always delighted to see her. But with everyone else he’s just very polite and formal.
Q. Nelson adopted him afterwards…
Louis de Bernieres: Yeah.
Q. That’s incredible, isn’t it? How come he was up for adoption?
Louis de Bernieres: He wasn’t up for adoption. The breeder doesn’t part with her show dogs and she never sells them as a matter of principal. So, I think Red Dog’s brother, Dustin, had been in a film and I can’t remember exactly how they found this dog. But anyway the breeder was really only saying I’ll lend him to you and you’ve got to give him back. But by the time filming had ended, Nelson and the dog [Koko] had got on so well and bonded so well that the breeder didn’t really have the heart to take him back. So, she said: “Well, you can have him – but I’m not selling him.” So, she didn’t take any money. Of course, she’s retained visiting rights.
Q. I gather Koko had to train to be choosy about who he gave his affections to?
Louis de Bernieres: Well, because Koko was a show dog he hadn’t even been trained to sit. When you’re showing a dog, you want it to be in nice poses with its tail in the right place. You don’t want it to sit down. So, Koko hadn’t been trained to sit and so it started with teaching him to sit basically. I think the thing the trainer had the hardest time with was training Koko to push Nancy [Rachael Taylor] off the seat. I can’t remember the details of that but he had to do it in several stages. Koko doesn’t have that much patience, either. He loses interest after about a quarter of an hour. So, he has to be repeatedly bribed with tiny bits of steak. Well, it would work on me [laughs]! But he’s a natural actor. Rachael, who plays Nancy [the love interest] said that he always knew the correct emotional response to whatever you were saying or doing. So, his acting was correct, whereas the other dogs were confused and just didn’t know how they were supposed to react. And Koko’s brother, Dustin, was one of them, so they used the other dogs just as stand-ins or for long-shots, simple things…
Q. Did you have much interaction with Josh Lucas while you were there? I think he’s said Red Dog is one of the few films he’s genuinely been proud to be a part of…
Louis de Bernieres: He’s very proud of it. He was very whole-hearted about everything. He actually drove up to Western Australia because he wanted to get a feel for the country. So, he didn’t fly. He hired a car and drove. And he fell in love with the dog. He’s a very charming, charismatic person. I had a long phone call with him recently and he’s about to become a father. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the thing he’s very proud of because you could see when he was there that he was really enjoying himself.
Q. What are you up to now? Can we expect another novel from you soon?
Louis de Bernieres: Not soon because I’m working on two and I’m writing an opera and I’m hoping to publish poetry this year.
Q. So very busy…
Louis de Bernieres: Not as busy as it sounds [smiles].
Q. How far off do you think they all are?
Louis de Bernieres: I don’t know. I’m probably halfway through the huge novel, and about a quarter of the way through the little one. The poetry is all ready to go, I’ve just got to find a publisher. The opera is nearly finished but we’ve got to do the orchestration.
Q. Will that open in London?
Louis de Bernieres: I’ve no idea! I think… we’re hoping the Welsh National Opera will do it because it’s set in Hay-on-Wye. But I haven’t heard from the other composer for a long time, so I hope nothing’s happened [smiles].
Q. Of the two novels, can you see them being adapted for screenplays at any time? Do you write them with that in mind now?
Louis de Bernieres: No I don’t. You can’t do that. It’s like you can’t deliberately write a book to win the Booker Prize. It’s just not do-able. I think any book can be filmed, actually, so there’s no point in trying to write a film as a book.
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- Louis de Bernieres interview (exclusive)
- Red Dog Photo Gallery
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