White God Director Kornel Mundruczo on His Less Family-Friendly Dog Movie

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There have been many great foreign genre movies over the past decade and Hungary has offered a couple of them, including Nimrod Antal’s Kontrol, which helped kickstart his career in Hollywood. 

Kontrol is now joined by Kornel Mundruczo’s White God, which starts out as a simple tale of a girl named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen and turns into something far more sinister after the girl’s father abandons Hagen into the wild and the dog is caught and trained to fight other dogs. Dog lovers need not be worried (much), because Hagen rallies the other dogs to revolt against the humans as he tries to make his way back to Lili.

It’s like Homeward Bound where bad humans get ripped apart by angry dogs, and it’s the kind of movie where you often wonder how the filmmaker accomplished some of the scenes. Unfortunately, like so many foreign films, it’s a harder sell because there are no name actors in the cast, but check out the clip below and you’ll see one of the many amazing sequences featuring the 250-dog cast that Mundruczo assembled. 

Like other movies that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, White God has been running the festival gauntlet, playing nearly every festival around the globe, but ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with the Hungarian filmmaker a few weeks back to talk about his distinctive movie that often leaves one wondering, “How the heck did they do that?” (Note: English is not Mundruczo’s first language, obviously, and we had to do a little bit of paraphrasing here and there so that this interview would read better.)

whitegoddirector1ComingSoon.net: I’m curious about the origins of this movie. I have to be honest that I haven’t seen some of your earlier films, although I think only one of them was released here other than at film festivals. I was wondering if Sam Fuller’s “White Dog,” which came out in the early ‘80s, was an influence on it – very few people saw it because it was so controversial.

Kornel Mundruczo: Actually, it was really a coincidence, but at the same time, we have lots of connections. One, the topic is really connected to each other and on another hand, my lead trainer, Teresa Ann Miller, her father was Carl Miller who did the Samuel Fuller movie, so it’s a huge connection and it was really meaningful for me as well. So I watched the movie after editing mine because it was released in France and was a success, and I thought it was a really strong movie. I’m very proud that we have this connection with the title.

CS: Did you know about that movie before you started yours?

Mundruczo: No, absolutely nothing, and Teresa told me, “My father did the Samuel Fuller movie. If you have time, watch it,” and I had time just a year later. (laughs)

CS: Was your movie always going to be called “White God” from the beginning?

Mundruczo: Exactly, because the idea is coming from the Noble prize winning book, Coetzee’s “Disgrace,” a South African book, and there is a philosophy about the White God as we are from the perspective of a dog who is watching us as God and loves us more than we love ourselves. Actually, Coetzee was one of the literatures that really changed my thoughts about how to be human. The whole topic is really connected to him.

CS: When you decided to have one of the main characters be a dog while you were writing, did you wonder how you might do some of the scenes or did you just write knowing that you can figure that out later?

Mundruczo: No, it was lots of rehearsals, really a lot, and training time. So we’d do a totally special method for this movie because I told the trainers before starting that I just saw very bad animal movies. Most of the time, animals are dead and they just do the orders, so I really needed live characters. I really need that kind of spirit and freedom inside them. We did four months or a half-year of training before starting, two times we rewrote the script together…

CS: So you had a script and then you worked with the trainer and then you rewrote the script?

Mundruczo: Absolutely and then we started to shoot. We shot for one week and then we’d rehearse or train for one week and it follows (so it’s like that). Without that you can’t do it. If you’re without any rehearsal, and you go to the closed part of Budapest for six hours only and then it’s a mess. We have a place in the countryside where we do a lot of training and rehearse with the dogs, but it was really enjoyable and nice and they started to give us lots of energy. In this movie, that comes out more them than I expected ever.

CS: America has an interesting history with animal movies, especially dogs. “White Dog” is an exception, since it was never meant to be a Disney dog movie. We have Benji, we have Lassie… and there’s a certain part of your movie that’s in that vein but then it goes in a different direction.

Mundruczo: Actually, I saw all of these movies like “Beethoven” and “My Dog Skip” and I really wanted to start the movie in a Disney way, as innocent as we can, and then when you love those characters and then you can follow them and then you can understand their decisions and also their uprising. Yeah, I really would like to tell the story of a dog but at the end, it’s not just a dog movie, of course, it’s much more. It’s like a metaphor that I am living and “What is the reality surrounding me in Budapest?” This is my most Hungarian movie actually because I have real anger towards the system of where I’m living, and that became the most international one.

CS: I feel like there are a lot of political layers to the movie that non-Hungarians might not get, but then again, it’s also common to feel like an outcast.

Mundruczo: That’s what I felt also at Cannes that people really are coming from all of the world saying “This is my story” from Colombia to Greece to Sweden. You can adapt easily to your society, which surprised me because I felt we were the most extreme country in the world, but we’re not as far from others.

whitegoddirector2CS: What’s interesting about the structure of the movie is that after the “girl and her dog” opening, the movie splits its time between following Hagen the dog and watching his journey and then seeing what’s happening with her before they’re reunited. When you’re telling two arcs like that, do you end up shooting all of the dog scenes first or were you going back and forth?

Mundruczo: Going back and forth, quite parallel, but with different timings. For the human scenes, it’s like a low-budget movie. We do like four scenes in a day, almost no crew behind me, and there are super-big crews for the dogs and it takes time and time and time to shoot. While in the editing room, I recognized that the human part is (shot as written) and the animal part is overloaded with footage. It was a huge job for the editor because they have lots of materials to find the right ones and the good moments. It’s not shot like a fiction movie, it’s closer to a nature movie sometimes. Just give them freedom and we’re up close, because they know who we are and shoot.

CS: Did you generally have the same dogs for the entire movie?

Mundruczo: Yeah, it was a huge crew, it was 250.

CS: Is that including the dogs or just the people?

Mundruczo: Just dogs. They are our crew. 250 and that was the main characters and there was 50 that was the elite group and there was 200, which followed the elite. (laughs)

CS: I want to ask about a few specific scenes in the movie, like the opening where you have that bridge in Budapest, completely vacant and you have this scene of dogs running loose. How do you close down Budapest? There must be times when it’s quieter, but it’s a pretty busy city.

Mundruczo: Yeah, it’s a busy town but money talks, bullsh*t walks, something like that. But it’s a very short time, so for the bridge it was 20 minutes and the tunnel was a few hours and the two big streets was six hours and not more, so we had to work very fast. Load there, shoot and leave. But it was really supported by the town, so they understand our concept and they understand we needed empty streets because you never see the city like that, so they can immediately understand the fear.

CS: In Hungary and Budapest, you must work with the city to get permits to do that sort of thing, so do you have to give them the script to read, and when they read it do they understand the political implications or do they think “Oh, it’s just a nice movie about dogs, let’s let them shoot it.”

Mundruczo: It’s more like, “We understand it and maybe it’s not a good image of us, but we are still in a free country, so you can criticize us.”

CS: The country’s come a long way then. I also was curious about the dog fighting scenes where Hagen is trained to fight other dogs. I know you have to be really careful with the animals, but how do you get them to be in those scenes and fight without injuring each other?

Mundruczo: It was very difficult, especially in the editing room because for the fighting, they were really trained for months to love each other and then when they see each other, they started to play together as children. Then in the editing room, we find the good moments and then I reshoot some moments when I can shoot separately without the others, when he’s just lying down and just the close-ups. But it was really important for me to create a believable scene because that’s the rudest and most evil thing, how you can fight with animals, especially dogs because they are humans somehow. I cannot say it’s amazingly popular, but there are parts in the North of Hungary where they are doing this.

CS: I’m sure that’s going on in parts of America as well.

Mundruczo: Absolutely and I’m talking with documentary makers who are following those elements and they showed me images that you couldn’t believe. And of course, there’s not any kind of animals harmed (in the movie), the dogs were always happy. We also did a very nice “making of” on the movie where you can watch how it happens. 

CS: Is that online or will it be on the DVD?

Mundruczo: Ask them (points to Magnolia offices).

CS: I’m sure you’ve heard the saying in Hollywood about not working with kids and animals when making a movie, and in this case, you worked with both and did something spectacular.

Mundruczo: Absolutely. I felt the same, because it’s a huge risk and I can’t believe I took that risk, but at the same time, if you use a different method and you understand they are not adults and they are not human adults, you can then work with them. You need to be patient and concentrate and be open for cooperating with another race. Also, for children, as a father, I have that feeling. Of course, it’s difficult from a perspective if you want to control everything. If you lose that then it’s a joy.

CS: Zsófia was a great find to play Lili, so do you think she’ll continue acting after this? This was her first thing ever, right?

Mundruczo: This is her first and she was quite a rebel character inside her school, and I thought that was good. “Let’s try to push her to be part of it.” And she was quite against that, and I went to the mother and bought her cakes and flowers and tried to push it through, so then she (took the role) and to work with her was very easy. She was more professional than anyone I worked with. You asked her and she did it and it was good.

whitegoddirector3CS: I understand from directors I’ve spoken to that kids are often more professional than adults.

Mundruczo: Yeah, they cannot lie. 

CS: I spoke to the director of “Let the Right One In,” the Swedish movie and those kids are amazing and he just said, “Do this, do that” and it works.

Mundruczo: Yes, if you have a good cast, then it works.

CS: I know you’ve done genre movies in the past, so did you see this as a genre movie or did it start to go that way as you were making it? I feel like it will appeal to genre fans but it also has an arthouse pedigree.

Mundruczo: The main thing is that in this movie, how can I mix genres together? How can I meld them? I really would like to use this apocalyptic ‘80s kind of movies and that mood as a thriller and the melodrama between the characters, social criticism, and the risk was on how I could meld them together. I felt like my reality where I’m living in Budapest is like this, so if you’re walking on the streets of Budapest from one block to another, you can easily pick up social drama and horror and thriller and the political satire just in a very short period. I think this is our post-Soviet ruins somehow.

CS: Do you think a movie like this would work if it was set in the United States or any of the other places you visited or do you think it’s too topical to Budapest?

Mundruczo: I don’t know. It’s much more than I expected because I thought it was so radical and just for gourmets, the cinephiles, but then it’s more popular than any of my other movies. Yeah, people who watch it, if they enjoy the freedom and the ride, then I think they’ll like it, so sometimes, I’m very surprised and very happy. It’s not age. Sometimes very old people are crying, and I heard everything: “It’s too simple,” “It’s too difficult” because they always want to catch it because it’s a new melding and visually (different), so you must find your position behind (it) and then if somebody enjoyed meeting something new and trying to find him or herself in this circle then they enjoy it. As an audience I always enjoy movies like this which gives me that freedom and “Okay, it’s not like the same food. And very good one or not as good and the same,” so I quite enjoy those experiences.

CS: When you go into writing your next film, do you take in mind that new international audience you have now or do you want to shut that out and stay focused on your own surroundings? It’s hard to do when a small movie does better than expected.

Mundruczo: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the caravan goes, that’s what we say. Of course, I’m working in the same way that I work and of course, some things are successful and some things are not. You cannot count. If you started to count on this than you immediately have a failure, but what I know is that this movie has opened a door inside my soul and I would like to follow in this way, just to try to melt things together and to find radical topics.

CS: What’s the film industry like in Hungary these days? I’ve known Nimrod Antal for a long time and I know Ridley Scott shot his new movie there. Is there a community where you guys know each other?

Mundruczo: Yeah, yeah, Nimrod is in my generation and he’s a close friend of mine, and some others of the same generation. I think we are the zero generation who can start to work after the communist time without any knowing of the communist time of filmmaking. Nowadays, the politics are not easy but still, to be a filmmaker is quite a free position, much better than other artists, like theater makers or fine artists. We have not sought much and high pressure by the power on our shoulder and there’s a tax rebate system, and that’s why lots of service production is coming. Big Hollywood productions—lots of English-speaking, lots of Scandinavian movies are coming to shoot in Budapest. Budapest is traditionally a film city from the very beginning so you can shoot easily there which is very good for the economics, and we have good professionals. To be a Hungarian filmmaker, to shoot Hungarian movies, today, it’s good. To live in Budapest, that’s another reason. 

CS: It’s always good when people in government like movies because then you know you’ll have support since they want to see more good movies made.

Mundruczo: But also the whole head of the foundation is Andrew Vajna, who did The Terminator and those movies, so he’s a Hollywood producer, and it’s really difficult to understand why he’s dealing with our extremist government, but he has a spirit to make movies. (laughs) Lots of contradictions and as an Eastern European, you must handle contradictions.

White God opens in select cities, including New York, and Canada on Friday, March 27. You can read the full list of where the movie is playing on the official site.