"A guy walks into a room, puts on a cape, and stuff happens."
This is what sells American movies, said screenwriter Daniel Taplitz--playing the detached Hollywood cool guy in front of a suburban audience at Menlo Atherton High School last night.
But few were buying the detachment, as many were wiping tears, having just seen his film Red Dog--an Australian blockbuster (www.reddogmovie.com) based on the true story of a scrappy red Australian kelpie dog who wandered into a remote outback iron mining town--helping to create a community where there was none. Everybody helps to take care of the Red Dog and he has no owner....until one day......
The film was screened as part of the three day Windrider Film Forum Bay Area (www.windriderbayarea.org). The tagline for Windrider is: "Cinema in Conversation"--and it is an offshoot of the Sundance Film Festival. The "conversation" after the film was with Taplitz, and lead actor, Josh Lucas, an American, who won the 2011 Australian equivalent of an Academy Award. The panel was moderated by writer, producer Ralph Winter, who has worked on X-Men and Fantastic Four.
My husband George and I loved the movie and I hope that it is not the kiss of death to call Red Dog great family entertainment.
Red Dog brings a couple together, saves a suicidal miner from a shark and even joins the miner's union. In real life, Taplitz told us that Red Dog would sleep in miner's beds--forcing at least one man returned to his trailer after a pub bender to sleep on the floor, rather than awaken and anger the dog.
I also hope that my plot points here, don't make you think that this is the Australian Lassie.
As Taplitz pointed out, most dog movies have kids in them. In the parched mining town of Dampier, two thousand miles wests of Perth, there were few kids to be seen.
I also hope that you will see it, even if you are not crazy about dogs--because first and foremost this film is storytelling at its best. The story begins in the local (and only) pub, where Red Dog lies in a back room, having ingested strychnine poison. As the locals at the pub--Australians, Poles, a homesick Italian and a newly arrived American-- wait for the vet to arrive, the storytelling and flashbacks begin. Most are in Dampier for the money, some are in Dampier to escape their pasts--but no one is there on vacation. Before the dog arrived, the townspeople had no real connections other than bar brawls.
I got to see the film so close to home, because some of the Windrider Forum/Bay Area founders are based in Menlo Park. The executive director is Menlo Park resident Merritt Sawyer, a board member of Fuller Theological Seminary, which has a Northern California branch on the campus of my employer, St Patrick's Seminary. Dr. Curt Longacre is a colleague who is the Director of Fuller Seminary Northern California. Both were inspired by the original Windrider Forum started in 2005 at Sundance in Park City, Utah by Fuller students and staff.
"The Windrider team's goal is to bring...powerful stories to an audience that is intelligent, caring and intentional in their efforts to make a contribution to their world," Windrider Bay Area Terri Bullock, told the Menlo Park Almanac. "I believe the Bay Area is the perfect place for this type of film forum."
George and I were unsure of what type of conversation or forum we were going to get when we made the five minute drive over to the high school.
My pitch in getting him to attend was something like this:
"Hey George, any chance you will sit through an Australian movie about a dog at Menlo Atherton High School? Tickets are fifteen bucks each and the screenwriter and one of the actors are doing a Q & A after. Some people I know from Fuller are involved. I don't think there's a religious angle any more than the Jewish Film Festival has a religious angle, but if it get too preachy and they call us all sinners, we can leave."
It did not get preachy and no one called us sinners. There was one audience question about whether the dog was a Christ-like figure, and bemused screenwriter Taplitz said that was not his intention. But George and I agreed that you could interpret it that way--especially since (plot spoiler)--at the end of the movie, when the townspeople go to the backroom of the bar to check on the dying dog that has brought the community together--he has disappeared. On the other hand, Red Dog makes very few sacrifices --he usually gets his way.
A lot of the audience questions were about film making--and they were great questions. One kid asked about the history of the shark, who threatened the suicidal miner. Was there really such a shark and was he really called Lord Nelson?
No, answered Taplitz.
The producer of the film was named Nelson.
And Red Dog never saved anyone from a shark.
But Australians are often attacked by them--but still seeem to be fearless about surfing and swimming in shark infested waters. It's part of the national character.
We also enjoyed some "insider" Russell Crowe stories, told by lead actor Lucas, who had worked with him in A Beautiful Mind. He compared and contrasted working with the difficult but genious Crowe, to working with the difficult red kelpie dog, whose real name is Coco.
It was unclear how soon Windrider is coming back to Northern California, but I hope it gets more funding and that the festival continues. Menlo Park Atherton High School's new state-of-the-art Performing Arts Center was a great venue. And the Silicon Valley audience, always asks great questions.
In any event, when Red Dog comes out in the U.S. take the family to see it.
Causes Lauren John Supports
Keplers Bookstore Circle of Friends (Menlo Park)
Friends of the Menlo Park Public Library
Book Group Expo
Marin Agricultural Land Trust...