How Dogs Helped Kornél Mundruczó Find a New Cinematic Language in ‘White God’
Kornél Mundruczó is a Hungarian art-house director who’s been under-the-radar since the beginning of the century, and who finally hit his international stride with White God. A canine story unlike any you’ve ever seen, the film entered Cannes’ Un Certain Regard slot last year, winning top honors in its category, including a Palme Dog for Bodie and Luke, the two dogs who both portray the story’s four-legged protagonist Hagen. It’s a morality tale about a little girl, Lily (played by newcomer Zsofia Psotta), who is forced to abandon Hagen due to Hungarian regulations affecting mixed breed dogs. The film splits into two narratives, one following the adventures of Hagen as he goes from one cruel owner to the next, and the other following Lily and her quest to reunite with her pet.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Mundruczó over the phone recently, and get a better understanding of what inspired his story, why he chose to mix various genres and twists, and what some of his biggest artistic influences were. Hope you enjoy!
How did you come up with the concept of White God, and what made you choose dogs to tell your story?
I was doing a lot of research for a new film which reflects my concept of reality as an Eastern European and Hungarian, and then one day I went to a dog pound. I was really shocked and touched by what I found there. It’s such a shame, and I’m part of the system of why [the dogs] are so defenseless without even realizing it, so at that moment I decided that I really wanted to create a movie out of it and tell a story of a dog from Budapest. At first the concept was just one dog, and then it became 250. [Laughs]
You’ve mentioned in other interviews how White God marks a turn into “adult” filmmaking for you; what makes this movie more adult as opposed to your previous, “teenage,” films?
Actually my reality is completely changed, and I said I must a find a new cinematic language of that kind of new reality because Budapest, Hungary actually, is not timeless and melancholic anymore, it’s much more wide and extreme. So it was highly important for me to try to find a new language for that, and [at the same time] reflect on the post-Soviet ruins surrounding my whole society. Society is really loaded by lots of fear, and fear is the best decision maker.
Following up on that, can you talk a little bit about the socio-political aspects, and what message you’d like the audience to leave with?
Yeah. Actually, in my eyes after the economic crisis comes the moral crisis, so I tried to create a moral drama, a fairytale. Of course it’s very political in a way because I criticize my society, and myself as a citizen. But it’s really important to understand that those [negative] elements are created by the majority always, and the scale of the little girl and the dog symbolize minorities, in my eyes. So, by reflecting the anger of my society, [White God] is actually my most Hungarian movie. Then it became my most international one, which surprised me and made me proud at the same time.
You’ve mentioned the girl and dog, so let’s talk about the cast a little. I’ve read how Teresa Miller (animal trainer) showed you a picture of a Ridgeback, and you said that it wasn’t Hagen. What specific look did you have in mind for him?
I needed a family dog, that was my vision. A family dog who can become wild, so we needed a type of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hide kind of identity. And, yeah, once we found Bodie and Luke they, together, created a great Hagen. And I got so much more from them than I expected which really surprised me, [this concept of] controlling an animals’ emotions. It really wasn’t expected because everyone told me ” oh, they can’t follow direction, let’s use CGI and create their emotions through a generated image.” And I said “no, no!” I mean, that’s really far from my conception and my philosophy in equality between humans and animals.
They do an amazing job. Tell me a little bit about Zsofia Psotta, she makes her screen debut here as Lily. How did you find her? She has a very arresting screen presence.
Absolutely. It was a very simple process, we went to high schools and asked girls who we could imagine in the movie, and she was just a girlfriend from one of the girls who wanted to be in the movie. And I said “OK, and your friend too?” and she said “no, no!” and that was Zsofie [Laughs]. Then I tried to make a video with her, and she was amazing. When I saw that video I immediately decided: that’s her. She’s got an innocence, but at the same time she’s a rebel, and she’s a girl of course which in Eastern Europe has different [implications]; it’s more revolutionary if you have a female character with such a rebellious attitude.
And I had to push Zsofie because in the beginning she said she didn’t want to play in any movie. I went to her mother with flowers and cakes [Laughs] and asked her to please help me, and then Zsofia decided to be part of it. To work with her was simple and amazing, she always did the right thing without asking, and she had the [exact] emotions I wanted her to follow. It was just easy.
Let’s get back to the dogs; I’m so curious about the unpredictable nature of working with animals. How did they influence your initial vision and screenplay? Did you have to change things during the shoot because of the dogs?
I wrote the script first and then met the two main players with Teresa Miller, and then the crowd of dogs, and we started to work together to see what the dogs can do and what they cannot do. Just before starting the shoot, I had to [update] the script, to make [certain scenes] softer in order to get what I want from them. And during the shooting also, we used a special method where we would shoot for one week, then stop for week rehearsal or training time, and after we continue. So, in some weeks we had small updates, and always changing the script as well in order to exclude what they can’t do. So, it’s strange, but we wrote the film together.
It certainly feels that way, it’s very organic.
Because they have lots of freedom! I can’t say it’s a nature film, but the logistics of shooting was closer to a nature film than a fiction one.
Was there a particular shot that was very tough to pull off?
It was several shots, especially the big action scene and whenever we had traffic, humans, and dogs together – that was really, really, difficult. But, as for myself the director, the most difficult was the dog fight because they were always happy! Always playful, always playing, and after the editing room, I was just thinking “how can I do a brutal fight scene with these guys?!” [Laughs] We shot extra close ups, and things like that.
I was also thinking about how to make [these violent] scenes without any animal harm. It was a bit uncomfortable but it was also a really creative [process], so we did a kind of ‘awaiting of [violence]’ which I think is threatening for the audience as well.
There is a very striking twist in tone and genre that opens up the final act of the film; can you talk a little bit about how you approached that?
As I said, as a filmmaker I wanted to find a new cinematic language for that new reality surrounding me. And I thought I couldn’t use two genres but I knew I wanted to use realism — because the dog pound, putting dogs down by lethal injections etc., it’s all reality, but I wanted to give some hope and continue the story as a revolution. Then it became a fairytale, and of course there’s a lot of twists and turns, and I believe it’s easier to [classify] it now as a few genre movies in one. I don’t know what [other genre movies] say about contemporary life, but in this one you can start to list things together, and you’ll see that that’s how we are living.
One would think Sam Fuller’s White Dog is a major influence on your film, but was it? Were there others?
It was not really! I heard about it almost after shooting. I was almost ready with my movie, and I watched it and said, “wow I should’ve seen this one earlier!” I was very proud about the connections and similar topic; [White Dog] is a very strong movie. But as for influences, I saw lots of Kurosawa movies for the fight scenes, and those ‘post-apocalyptic’ end of ’80s/beginning of ’90s Hollywood stuff like Terminator, Blade Runner or even Jurassic Park. And, of course, some Robert Bresson, for example Au Hazard Balthazar. I saw several connections there, and it was good training for understanding Hagen as well. So, those movies strongly influenced me.
Now that you’ve successfully directed over 200 dogs without CGI, do you feel like you can literally direct anything and anyone for your next project?
Well, I mean, I’m not planning to direct snakes or spiders [Laughs], but, yeah, I believe in the uniqueness of images as part of the audience myself, and I always try to have new visions and experiences. Of course, I want to continue in that way, and of course it’s interesting for the audience, [this idea of] something new. It’s the way of auteur cinema, and I really believe in auteur cinema.
How did the movie play with audiences in Hungary?
It was very well. It was the most fragile territory for this movie of course, because it’s really mirroring our society, but the audience was really warm with their reaction. At first there was a bit of a political fight about the movie, but the audience kept coming and watching which gave us lots of hope.
Excellent. And do you have particular expectations or hopes about Western audience reaction?
Hmm, no! [Laughs]. It’s interesting actually because of the cultures and [moral] codes. Of course, watching this movie in Mexico is different than watching it in Germany, so from which perspective you watch this movie is a huge question. And, how do you follow it, do you feel yourself part of the majority or part of he minority? But, both is fine with me.
And just one last question: do you have any plans for your next project?
It’s very blurry right now. Some kind of door opened with White God, [with] this cinematic language I found there. I would like to continue in this way.
White God opens on Friday. Keep an eye out for our review in the next few days.