The Dogs of War: Unprecedented Animal Realism in Kornél Mundruczó’s White God

“This one has heart.”

That’s the scariest line from White God, Kornél Mundruczó’s poignant, profound film. Why? Because it’s a vow to bleed that canine heart of all its purity. Midway through the movie, a ruthless dogfight trainer turns the sad-eyed, mixed-breed Hagen from cuddly mutt into ferocious Frankenstein. Later, Hagen rises up against these tormentors to search for his loving adolescent owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta), leading an army of vengeful dogs to wreak havoc across Budapest, Hungary.

White God echoes Rise of the Planet of the Apes and other films from the animals-gone-wild genre, but with a crucial difference. By employing no CG, opting instead to use 250 genuine dogs to enact its canine rampage, White God feels startlingly fresh. It’s as if we’ve been so sledgehammered by computer imagery that “real” effects seem excitingly novel.

Lili (Zsófia Psotta) outpedals a dog pound army on the streets of Budapest

Lili (Zsófia Psotta) outpedals a dog pound army on the streets of Budapest in White God

White God also offers astonishing performances by its four-legged thespians. After winning a brutal dogfight, his snout coated with blood, Hagen sniffs the opponent’s dead body. His viciousness melts away, replaced with both a sad realization of the monster he’s become, and a burning anger towards those who caused this transformation. It’s an amazingly nuanced scene, and perhaps the best animal acting ever put onscreen. We asked Mundruczó how and why he captured it.

KJ Doughton, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): White God reflects your obvious passion for animals, and your anger about how they are treated by humans. What inspired the film?

Kornél Mundruczó (KM): I visited a dog pound in Budapest and was really touched. I stood in front of the fences, watching the eyes of the dogs, and felt shame. I was also inspired by the Jean-Luc Godard movie Goodbye to Language. There’s a line from the film that goes, “We as humans do not love ourselves as much as our dogs love us.” These were real eyes, real skin, real bodies and real souls.

Everybody said, “You cannot do this movie,” with no CG and no trained, purebred dogs, trying to build up this whole world from zero. I was quite depressed after hearing this. But it just was not working for me with CG. There is no equality between the dogs and humans, using CG. We appear higher than the animals. It’s not equal, somehow. I wanted to show real dogs, and to be with them during production.

Bodie, one of the twin dogs that played protagonist Hagen

Bodie, one of the twin dogs that played protagonist Hagen

MM: In the scenes where the dogs finally act out a rebellion and take over the streets, White God becomes both suspenseful and emotionally compelling. Many films use CG to create similar effects, but it can end up looking silly and artificial. People are becoming numbed by CG and surprised when it isn’t used in action scenes.

KM: If you’re creating something that’s unreal, like fantasy, CG can make it look beautiful. But it’s really difficult if you’re in a normal setting, putting in CG animals. It simply looks stupid. You need real artists behind CG. You need it to work like a character or second actor. Several films, Gravity for example, use CG quite creatively. Several others just look cheap and stupid. Why do you use it? It’s senseless. Of course, it’s much more comfortable to sit in a hotel on a couch and create things from there. But CG [is less effective] if you need a mixture of real and unreal elements.

MM: Describe the dogs and trainers that worked on your film.

KM: I found two geniuses. One was Teresa Miller, from America, who trained the lead dogs, Bodie and Luke. Her father was a really great trainer as well, who did a lot of dog movies in Hollywood. The other was a Hungarian guy called Árpád Halász, who trained the larger bunch of dogs. They did fantastic work—all of the ideas that were inside me, and more. It was much more than I expected.

We found Bodie and Luke in Arizona before their family was going to send them to a shelter. Teresa started to train them from zero. As for the larger bunch, they came from the different dog pounds of Budapest. The dogs were really depressed inside the dog pounds, and became happy dogs after the movie. And that’s why you can feel their energy. Of course, it’s this sense of emotion that is the biggest strength of the movie. It’s more important than the story. In some ways, it’s more like a documentary than a fiction film. I’m very proud that the producers and trainers said yes to the project. They took a lot of risks.

Miller and Mundruczó on the Budapest set of White God

Miller and Mundruczó on the Budapest set of White God

MM: There’s a surreal moment in which Lili rides into Budapest on her bicycle, with the dog pack in hot pursuit. Otherwise, the streets are empty. It looks like a zombie apocalypse. Can you describe how the scene was developed?

KM: I wanted an ancient image burned into your mind—the image of dogs from a pound attacking the city, while humans retreat to their houses. The houses and other classical Budapest scenery, contrasting with that anger, that uprising and rage, was my vision. I made drawings of the kind of emotions that I wanted to shoot. Then I added the streets, then the character, the bicycle, the background, and the music.

MM: There are many unsympathetic characters in White God, like Lili’s father and the dog trainer. Even so, we understand their motives.

KM: They are from a tough society. There’s a poverty inside, and that poverty makes brutality. You can lose your morality. The film is partly about the pressure of society on these characters, who are lost souls. The father was a professor at a university, and now he works at a butcher house. The trainer is in debt. If you understand that, you have more empathy.

MM: One scene in White God shows authorities asking Lili’s father to pay a fine for owning a mixed-breed dog. Does this law actually exist in Hungary?

KM: No, luckily not. An extreme party proposed it to Parliament, but luckily they said no to that proposal. I read about it in the paper and said, “Oh God, man—this is surreal.” It has not happened, but we were quite close to it. With this movie, we tried to talk about animal rights topics, and all 250 of the dogs we used were adopted by families. We’ve tried to support other adoption programs with funding. On one hand, this is about the animals. But on another hand, it’s about society. I think that when an animal has rights, that society is of a higher quality than one where the animal has no rights.

"It took five months of training to create a pack of dogs that could run together without any dominance problems," says Teresa Miller

“It took five months of training to create a pack of dogs that could run together without any dominance problems,” says Teresa Miller

MM: We see Hagen being beaten, having his teeth filed, and fighting another dog to the death. But I understand that the dogs were treated with decency and respect.

KM: The dogfight was the most difficult part to film. The dogs trained for two months just for that. It was important that the two dogs liked each other and loved to play. We shot for six days—two times every day for 20 minutes. They would play, because they missed each other, like two friends. We used lots of sounds to make it scary, created by humans and not dogs. It was very difficult to make it look believable. I watched a lot of documentaries and researched a lot. It was really tough to witness illegal dogfighting. But if you don’t, you cannot solve those problems. If you have no diagnosis, then you cannot be cured. And you need those dark spots in the film, in order to have catharsis at the end. MM

Tech Box

Camera: Arri Alexa M

Lenses: Optimo Zoom Lenses, Certified 40 and Certified 80

Lighting: Natural lighting for exteriors; gentle lighting for interiors for the sake of the animals

Color Grading: “Warm colors that could be melancholic and romantic in an unsentimental way” – K.M.

DP Marcell Rév and focus puller Zsolt Fehér shoot Rocky, who belongs to trainer Alvin Mears and plays a vicious attack dog. Photograph by Sándor Fegyverneki

DP Marcell Rév and focus puller Zsolt Fehér shoot Rocky, who belongs to trainer Alvin Mears and plays a vicious attack dog. Photograph by Sándor Fegyverneki

White God opens in select theaters on March 27, 2015, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. A version of this interview appears, alongside an article by White God dog trainer Teresa Miller, in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2015 issue, on newsstands late April.

 

 

 

 

 

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