There’s the old adage that filmmakers should never work with dogs or children. For Hungary’s Kornél Mundruczó, he’s boldly defying that claim with his latest feature, White God. Premiering at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (where it won the Prize Un Certain Regard Award), it’s been touring the festival circuit and finally arrives on U.S. shores this week.
Hungary’s Oscar entry this year, it tells the story of a canine and its owner attempting to reunite, and we got to speak with the director during Sundance this year to discuss the ambitious project one-on-one We spoke about his inspirations, the tonal mix, self-criticism, leaving out character details, use of music, dog training (of which no CG was used), and much, much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: I saw the film last night and I thought it was amazing. What was your initial inspiration?
Kornél Mundruczó: I had two different inspirations. One was the South African [J.M.] Coetzee’s book Disgrace, and that was a huge inspiration for me. In that time, I read the book and I did a staging of it. In the book, there is a time that happens in a dog pound. With the ensemble we thought, “Okay, let’s go to a dog pound in Hungary and let’s watch the Hungarian situation.” We went to a dog pound, and what I found there really crushed my soul. It was really bad. The trip became all about my intolerance and my society, and I how I had never thought about this topic. I felt I would really like to do a movie about this subject. The second inspiration was I felt quite in trouble. Before then, I felt my reality was good for my cinematic language. About six or seven years ago, Eastern Europe was completely different, so I really tried to find a new cinematic language and theme that was good for that language. I couldn’t imagine myself doing a purely “arthouse” movie or purely “action” movie. I thought that just doesn’t exist anymore. With all these questions in my mind, I found that the answer was the dog pound. I thought, “Okay, with the story of just one dog and a little girl in Budapest, I can meld all those different genres together.” That would be my two different inspirations.
I definitely noticed all the different genres in the film. It felt part coming-of-age story mixed with horror. The audience last night seemed to really respond to all the horror towards the end of the movie. The pound that you went to, did that inspire the pound setting in White God?
Yes, but we dramatized it a little more. I really wanted it to have a kind of historical memory, so it’s like a camp in the second World War, which it was also inspired by. The set was constructed. It was not a real one because then they [the Hungarian pounds] would have to deal with people asking questions. The pound system was a prison. It was a ghetto. On one hand we have people working in them who are very human, they would like to do everything for the dogs. But the dogs just keep coming and coming and coming.
Almost overwhelmingly so?
I noticed with the silo in the pound setting and the lake that divided it from the entrance that it definitely had the feel of a WWII ghetto. So where did the title “White God” come from?
It’s also from the Coetzee book. It was his idea and the perspective that we are the white gods for the dogs. The idea that we are colonizing the whole world without taking on all the responsibilities. I felt it was a self-criticism as well. I stood there and I was also a part of the system.
The fact you decided to make mixed breed dogs the ones that were persecuted against in the story the movie made it very relevant to things going on in America, with all the current issues and discussions about race.
You know what’s funny? There is a party in Budapest that really gave that law to the Parliament. It was very surrealistic, to make that kind of separation in dogs. There is mixed bred, Hungarian bred, pure bred, and each have different taxes on them. It was amazing how close to reality we were. The movie is a fairy tale, which we shot in a very realistic way.
I also noticed that you didn’t give us a lot of background on Hagen or Lili and her family. I was wondering why you chose to leave out those details and jump right into the characters’ current situations?
Really, I needed a lot of secrets in the beginning. I think it’s good, as long as you are not frustrated and free enough emotionally, to use those secrets. You, the audience, have your own imaginations and your own families, so you have lots of space to be free inside the movie. If you’re always answering the small details, then it’s easy to become a TV drama. But, of course, if you have not satisfied [the audience] then it becomes very frustrating. So it’s always a hard balance between how much information you give and how less. For me, it was really important just to tell that Lili had one family, and that family is Hagen. And Hagen’s family is Lili. So their separation is the crashing of their family, because Lili has no mother or father in the beginning. She feels they are the ones who created me, but they don’t love each other or me.
Speaking of Hagen, what was it like finding the right dogs? I know there was Body and Luke, and they’re brothers. How did you go about looking for dogs and how did you know they were the right pair for the job?
It was a long process, but when I watched a small video of them for the first time, I immediately knew that they were the boys I was looking for. They looked very family friendly, like they have a playful spirit. They could create a Jekyll and Hyde affect when they transform into the wild Hagen. I’m more than satisfied with them. They gave it lots of emotion.
I was surprised by how much emotional range they had.
Yeah, exactly. You can see it in their eyes, and they are real actors. It was very strong for me to take a lot of risks. A movie like this does not exist, so there were no references. I also became very experimental with the dogs, and, unexpectedly, we were really given a lot from them. Also, the crowd of dogs was able to be very present. That’s the power of the movie. The close-up of Hagen at the end, that’s also the power of the movie. They are stars. You know it’s a movie about them, and they are the real heroes in a very classical way. They have a moral downfall. If I use a human hero like Hagen, you say as a critic, “Come on…come on…” These kind of guys do not exist anymore.
I think we tend to forgive Hagen for his actions because we see his journey and because he is a dog. If it was a human having their revenge story played out, I don’t think the audience would be able to love the character as much.
I think so too. The film is like Monte Cristo. It is a positive revenge, but with the contradiction of killing. Of course, you also know the topic of Cujo, but you know they [Hagen and the other dogs] are the good ones. They are not the unknown enemies. They are better than the humans. I quite liked that mixture.
The story did have a very Shakespearean “fall from grace.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Now Wagner seems to really have influenced the movie as well with the music from Tannhauser and then the name “Hagen” itself. Why did you choose Wagner specifically?
On one hand, it’s really a part of our culture; so many things are German based. And I also just really love it. Not only the music, but the stories of the Wagner operas. Hagen is one of my favorites of Wagner’s characters. He is the smurf who is kicked out and wants to return. And really, the family [in the movie] is an intellectual family, so they give the name of “Hagen” to the dog and not “puppy” or something like that. So those were the two reasons, and I’m also very happy if someone recognizes that this is Wagnerian.
The Wagnerian influence definitely lends itself to the feel of a more epic film, where Hagen encounters all kinds of characters who change and affect him.
What was it was like working on set with 200 dogs and how you and Teresa Ann Miller worked together? Where did her job as the trainer begin versus your job as the director?
Well, I quite enjoyed the action scenes, expectantly, because I was not sure if I would enjoy them before filming. It was interesting to find the small details where you could follow the character, but my “actor” was Teresa. I told everything to her; what I would like to feel from the boys, and she created those emotions. Actually, she creates them inside herself first as she is playing with the dogs. So it was very interesting for me. What was really beautiful was the first time Hagen kills the dogcatcher in the dog pound, he’s leaving, and he then watches the woman who is the pound’s owner. I really needed a close-up there where Hagen was saying “Sorry, I couldn’t do anything else but this.” I told Teresa this and she started to cry, to teach the dog to understand what I was looking for. The dog started watching her with concern like, “Why are you crying?” Then I had the shot. Their relationship would give me the situation I needed to film. So it was something like that. We would always rewrite the script to what they could do. I could not have a dog swimming in the Danube, but I could have a dogging waking up in a pond or create something like that. They were able to give me tons of creativity with the understanding of what the dogs could do.
And how did you find Teresa?
It was a long journey. Everybody was telling me “no” or that we could only use CG. In my last movie Tender Son, I shot the last part in Austria and I asked the Austrian production manger if she knew anybody good with dogs and she said, “There is only one person all over the Earth and that is Teresa Ann Miller. Nobody else can do it.”
She’s the only one.
Yes! And that was the truth. I called her and she was very positive, so she said, “Maybe.” [Laughs] So after a lot of no’s, that was really something.
So, one of my last questions was about the father/daughter relationship. The father begins the movie as a very dislikable character. With that being said, the longer Hagen is gone the better their relationship seemed to grow. At the end, it felt like you wanted us to root for the father instead of Hagen?
Yes, to me, as an adult, the closest character was the father. We forget our innocence. In the beginning, he cares about the order of things. “This is my order and if you deal with that, it’s good. If not, then you will.” That’s how he starts to build a relationship with his daughter, and later he’s more understanding of why he wasn’t a lovable person. And he tries to change. Of course, Lili doesn’t change much. She keeps her innocence, but he continues to change. So I felt his last line was very important. “Let’s give them time.” For me it was the idea that you can always get your innocence back if you want it and are open to it.
Definitely, and that showed very much show in his character. My last question for you is the film has received a lot of positive reviews in Europe and I was wondering what your perspective was on how differently American audiences are receiving it?
Actually quite differently from my perspective. I recognized here just how taboo it is working with animals. And that does not exist in Europe as much because nobody thinks we are abusing the animals. Nobody believes it is a film against abusers created by abusers. That is just a very strange logic for me. It’s a very strange film and it takes a lot of risks. Two days ago was the Salt Lake premiere for a normal audience and I was happy that they really got it. I felt it was very well received yesterday as well. But there will always be a very huge difference between cultures, and I often feel that we are living in different historical times. Hungary is going through a different historical time than France, which is going through a different time than the U.S. — just that questions and taboos vary across all different cultures in this movie. And it’s actually my most Hungarian movie. I really wanted to reflect and criticize my society, just my society.
White God hits theaters on Friday, March 27th.