Woof Pack: Kornél Mundruczó’s ‘White God’ chronicles a canine uprising

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From Fritz Lang’s silent-era classic Metropolis to the contemporary young-adult series The Hunger Games, class conflicts, the overbearing sense of entitlement of the powerful, and the uprisings of the oppressed have long provided plentiful source material for dystopian cinema. As depicted in many post-apocalyptic films, including the various iterations of the Planet of the Apes franchise, man’s arrogance is a double-edged sword that presumes superiority not only over marginalized segments of the human population, but also over other species.

Loosely inspired by J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace and the winner of the Un Certain Regard and conceptually adorable “Palm Dog” Awards at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, director Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which he co-wrote with Viktória Petrányi and Kata Wéber, is founded on a similar duality as the recent Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes films. On the surface, Magnolia Pictures’ March 27 release operates as a harrowing tale of a doomed friendship between a child and her mixed-breed dog (canines, as the film suggests in many scenes, unjustly feared and treated in some circles of Hungarian society, just like in the U.S.). But as the film goes on to establish its deeper themes, it slowly reveals a second tale that nests just beneath the surface: a story of injustice and a fable of retaliation through the symbolism of flawed man vs. exploited beast, with some very harsh, graphic imagery.

The plot takes shape when 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta in a marvelous debut), the owner of the mixed-breed dog Hagen and a trumpet player in a children’s orchestra in Budapest, gets separated from Hagen, after her dad’s prejudiced neighbor reports their “illegal” pet to authorities. The devastated Lili sets off to search for Hagen, while Hagen’s survival-driven path crosses with a similarly unfortunate pack of dogs, abusive and dismissive animal shelter workers, cruel loners and, even worse, a dogfight participant who rigorously trains him to force aggression out of him. (A word of warning here: If the dogfight scenes in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros were harsh on your eyeballs, practice caution with certain portions of White God.) As Hagen’s survival instincts strengthen, he breaks free and inspires a broad uprising among his species, against the humans who’ve thus far pushed them to sidelines.

At the recent 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where White God screened as part of the festival’s Spotlight program, I sat down with Mundruczó, dog trainer Teresa Miller, and even Bodie, one of the two canine stars that plays Hagen in the film, to talk about the thematic layers of the story and how they pulled off many impossible-looking sequences (some involving nearly 200 dogs).

Mundruczó, who says he became more active about animal rights after working on the project, explains that the idea for the film came when he visited a dog pound in Budapest and felt an immediate shame and sadness he wanted to convey through a movie. “I went to Kata Wéber and asked her, 'Can you imagine a movie with one dog as a lead?’” She said, “Yes, but we really need somebody else as well. You really need the mirroring affection for the story, because it is much more about…society and intolerance than only one dog. And then we went for it. It was three weeks of scriptwriting only. The most difficult part was to find partners, because everybody who read the book was like: ‘I can’t imagine shooting a movie out of it.’ Then some producers trusted us. I met [dog trainers] Teresa [Miller] and Árpád [Halász], who made the whole thing happen. So many of the trainers [before them] said, ‘No. It’s impossible.’ And that was it.”

Mundruczó observes that the themes and social issues depicted in White God aren’t necessarily nonspecific, but instead partly aimed at Hungary—his own society—as well as the prejudicial crisis in the Western world as he witnesses it. “I tried to criticize my society as much as I can. I really [conceived the film] by my own reality and how Hungary is more and more extreme these days,” he notes. “We are facing lots of intolerance, even chauvinism. It’s really not comfortable to be an intellectual. After the economic crisis of 2008 [came] a hard moral crisis. The society is really loaded [with] lots of existential fear. That’s why we are against so many things in Europe.”

For the emotional impact of the story to really sink in, the audience first has to witness Hagen’s abandonment and extreme hardship. Which is why White God spends time following Lili as she slowly gives up on finding Hagen and disengages from the idea of having another dog. Asked about Lili’s change of heart, Mundruczó explains that the relationship of Lili and Hagen is founded on innocence, so its initial loss and eventual recovery needed to play a role in the story. “Her innocence was, for me, the most important driver. And of course, you have huge pressure from society to lose your innocence. So she tells her father, ‘I don’t want any more dogs.’ She almost understands the rules. And then when the dogs are back and make a sign to her, she’s back to her innocence. Our childhood [is] always an innocent [phase] of our soul.”

Alongside its dual meanings, White God loudly advocates for animal rights through an unflinching display of human cruelty at its most severe. Dog trainer Miller, who has been coaching canines for films since the 1980s and captures a variety of different emotions from Bodie/Luke (the brothers playing Hagen) to bolster the film’s political statement, says White God was vastly different from any film she’s worked on. “Everything about it was a challenge. It was such an ambitious script and 200 dogs… I didn’t even consider it [at first] because I knew it wasn’t practical. Árpád in Budapest, with his experience and his contacts and his relationship with the shelter…he had rescued dogs from there before and made movie dogs of them. That was his huge accomplishment that I saw once we got there. But I had never seen it done and I never thought it would be done. I was really surprised.”

Miller notes that in order to make the canine behavior and emotions seem authentic, the trainers needed to give the dogs the freedom to experience things at their own pace, which resulted in natural-looking acting from both Bodie and Luke. “They have never been outside of the small trailer park in Arizona they were raised in. And everything from grass, to cars, to traffic…they had a big world to learn. We went to Budapest. On a plane. Like, ‘I’m just a country boy from Arizona. What are we doing?’ It was amazing and I think that really added to Hagen's character as well, because they really were seeing the world for the first time, as Hagen was a street dog. I don’t work in a strict way. And what we do is lighten the commands so we get a more relaxed result. He might stop and stretch first. Or he might yawn and then carry on, and then maybe sniff the cabinet and eventually lie down. And you really get the feeling that you are watching the natural behavior of the dog.”

Recalling the preparation and shooting of some of the film’s hardest scenes—which includes the meticulous choreography of a couple of hundred dogs—Miller credits the structural foundation and discipline of a set where everyone respected everyone else’s safety, both canines and humans. “Working with the stunt department, or the camera department, or with dollies and lights and equipment or what have you, there’s a certain standard from the beginning that while the dog is working, we don’t rush in and change a light. Let me collect the dog. Let me get him safely out. We don’t want equipment falling. But really, it was just a matter of good communication and good understanding. And even during the rehearsals, [we wanted to be] sure that the timing was right and that the stunt drivers really knew how we were going to approach this. We would do all these rehearsals and choreograph all these moves and everything till we knew it was all understood and safe for everybody, including the driving shots that we did with the dogs running past the driving car. The car was protected all the way around, so nobody went underneath or got run over. It was all done so cautiously. Everything was tested and tried.” Mundruczó jumps in, reinforcing the importance of rehearsals and training: “We had a system: one week shooting and one week training. It worked very well.”

The duo also point out that all aggressive or unhappy behavior displayed by the canines was taught and captured through consistent positive reinforcement; none of it was real. “It’s extreme timing, training, routine and consistency,” says Miller. “We taught him how to put his tail down, because he always had this happy tail. Everything is for toy or treats or play. He’s got to want to come back and do it again. If he’s not happy doing the work, he’s going to run off and hide. I can’t force him to do it.” Both Miller and Mundruczó fondly recall that the shelter dogs were in the end a happy group and lost their depression on set, an experience which transformed them into a group of adoptable dogs.

Indeed, all shelter dogs cast in the film were given homes in the end through a well-organized adoption program, which Mundruczó is proud of. “During the shooting, we started to promote the adoption program. And then a few months later, all of them had a family. But this is just a small thing, because afterwards we also supported and donated money to other programs. And also for myself, I focus on and talk about this topic,” he says, highlighting his belief that animal prosperity is a big part of societal health.

Mundruczó believes that accepting and understanding the challenges embedded within a society is the first step towards solving them. “Facing the problems is part of the diagnosis,” he says. Meanwhile, Bodie, not having been asked any questions during our 15-minute chat, continues to sit by us, quiet and patient. After we finish, he comes and grabs a couple of treats from my hand, gently but enthusiastically, like a good boy.