With so much next-level CGI happening in movies these days, it’s easy to forget just how awe-inspiring real life can be when presented in new and audacious ways.
On its surface, the Hungarian genre-bender White God doesn’t seem like the kind of movie whose visceral impact rivals what Andy Serkis does in those Planet of the Apes films; set in Budapest, White God is the story of a mixed-breed dog named Hagen, left on the side by her twelve-year-old owner Lili’s (Zsófia Psotta) insensitive father and forced to fend for itself in the city’s mean streets. Hagen’s dark journey finds him under the newfound ownership of an abusive hustler who enters him into dogfighting competitions and then, once Hagen’s had enough while living in a canine shelter, leading an organized dog uprising, rallying hundreds of other neglected street dogs as they seek vengeance against humans. Thematically, it’s an allegory for Hungary’s oppressive classism; as an exercise in genre cinema, it’s fascinating and exciting, no doubt, but also nothing you haven’t seen before, right?
Think again. Unlike those Planet of the Apes movies, or, frankly, any other movies that have animals acting out human-like missions, there’s no computer-generated visual trickery in White God. Every dog you see is a living, breathing pooch, and when director/co-writer Kornél Mundruczó’s film climaxes into a nearly 300-dog assault, you’re left watching in awe as Mundruczó somehow gets 200-plus dogs to act. And that amazement comes after you’ve spent 90 minutes witnessing one of the best performances of the year so far from the two dogs who portray Hagen: Bodie and Luke, the former having already tasted celebrity’s glamorous side by walking the red carpet and stopping for paparazzi snapshots before White God’s 2014 Cannes Film Festival world premiere, where it won the prestigious Un Certain Regard award.
A thrilling argument for realism over special effects, White God is a singular film, one that’s often as in-your-face confrontational with violence against dogs as it is humane in its empathy towards the lower class, whether they have two legs or four. Here, Badass Digest speaks with Kornél Mundruczó about the difficulties with directing dogs, why the animals are the perfect conduit for his deeper ideas, and the negative responses to the film’s not exactly ASPCA-friendly moments.
White God addresses your feelings about societal imbalances and lower-class mistreatment in Hungary, but through the metaphor of a canine uprising. Were dogs always your planned metaphor, or did that happen while you were developing the concept?
Actually, the whole movie happened because of a very personal touch. Before I thought about making this movie, I went to a dog shelter in Budapest somewhat accidentally. It really shocked me. I felt such shame that I am part of the system that creates those places. When I stood in front of the fences and the dogs were standing behind the fences, looking at me, I decided to create a movie out of that. When we started to work on the script, the dog part of it became bigger and more and more important for me. I felt that really symbolized something about our Hungarian society, specifically how the top Hungarian society views the lower society.
It was very difficult to create this movie, and to finance this movie. Everybody thought it would be impossible to do it without CGI, but I knew from the conception of it that we wouldn’t use CGI. I knew that we would just use mixed-breed dogs from dog shelters. We found two amazing trainers to help us work with the dogs. Without them, this movie wouldn’t have happened.
And you didn’t just work with one or two real dogs—there are scenes where mobs of dogs charge through the streets of Budapest, attack people, and really have to act out emotions and reactions. It’s remarkable. How many dogs did you work with in total?
Altogether it was 280 dogs, and that number came from how many dogs are actually in the Budapest shelters. I counted them myself; there were about 280 of them in that one shelter. 200 of the dogs we used came from shelters. The last 80 were mixed-breeds we got from owners we knew and trusted. And we made sure all 200 of those dogs were adopted into families once we finished making the movie. That’s just a drop in the ocean, of course, but, still, it’s something.
By centering the film on dogs, you’re able to get your bigger message and heavier themes across to a much larger audience. Everyone has some kind of connection to a dog—they’re one of our world’s great unifiers, so your film about issues in Hungary has resonated with audiences worldwide now. Was that part of your thought process while conceptualizing White God?
At first, I just really wanted to make a film about dogs, after that experience I had at the dog shelter. I didn’t really think about the bigger connections at that time. This is actually my most Hungarian movie—I really wanted to reflect my feelings about my country’s extreme society, which has been getting more and more extreme over the last eight years. But then, strangely, this movie became my most international movie, and that’s been very interesting. I was very surprised in Cannes when I saw the reactions from people from Korea to Mexico to the United States and to Greece. They’d come up to me and say to me, “This is our story, too.”
That’s when I realized that everyone could relate to dogs. They are the closest animals to humans, not genetically but emotionally. We are socializing them and making them cooperate to our liking, and that’s been a part of our common human history. That’s why the whole movie is quite metaphorical, and why my critiques about my Hungarian society have affected people all around the world.
Together, Bodie and Luke, the two mixed-breeds who play “Hagen,” give an incredible performance. How did you find dogs with such great acting skills to lead the film? It’s almost as if Bodie and Luke were born to act.
[Laughs.] I knew I needed the Hagen character to be a real hero. Nowadays you can’t shoot a hero movie without cynicism, but with dogs, you don’t have to worry about that. To find our Hagen, I started searching for the right dog, and it became a long process—it took about three months. We needed a family-dog type that could also be strong and intimidating when we needed it to be, as well. It’s a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type of character, but with a dog.
When we met Bodie and his brother, Luke, I immediately said, “Okay, they are the right dogs.” They had heart but they weren’t pushovers. When we started to do the movie, I realized very quickly that they were giving me so much more than I ever expected. They were really alive in front of the camera. I was surprised; initially I just thought, “Well, a dog is a dog, so I can’t expect too much,” but they were so much more than just dogs. All of the dogs in the movie were much more than just dogs, actually.
A film with the concept of “oppressed dogs rising up against the humans who’ve wronged them” could have gone into some unrealistic, and even fantastical, places, but none of the dogs scenes in White God veer far beyond reality. The dogs’ interactions with each other feel like what dogs would really do, and their responses to the humans also feel real. How important was it for you to keep all of the dog-heavy moments grounded in realism?
We intentionally gave the dogs a lot of freedom, and let them do everything naturally during the scenes where it’s just dogs. We could have, of course, tried to make them cooperate every step of the way, but that would have required so much patience. [Laughs.] But for me, the small details are often the most important parts of a movie, and that’s a small detail I knew we had to keep in the movie, in order to maintain the integrity and to make the story work better.
By doing it that way, Hagen became a believable character and not just some robotic dog. A lot of times in movies the animals seem like robots—you feel they have no space and no freedom, and they’re only allowed to do what the trainers have set for them. We used a totally different method. It was a sort of “positive connection” method, though I don’t know if I’d give it that specific name. It was really like working with actors; we just let them figure things out in the moment, and play. We didn’t want to restrict them in any ways. I told the trainers that we didn’t want our dogs to feel like the dogs you see in every other movie, where it’s clear that they’ve been trained and they’re just obeying commands the whole time, probably because they’re afraid. You can’t work with animals if you have any fear. We had no fear and lots of patience, and we really cooperated with them.
How long did it take to fully train all of the dogs?
It took four months for training, and I rewrote the script during that time as I started seeing what the dogs were capable of doing. The shooting process itself was also a new method for me; we’d shoot for one week, then we’d train for one week, and we’d repeat that throughout the entire filming. Altogether this movie took a year from my life, half-a-year shooting and half-a-year training. But I expected that much. To create scenes like when the dogs attack the city, you need a lot of rehearsal time and a lot of time to allow for any difficulties that may come from the dogs. And we couldn’t rehearse those scenes in an empty city, of course, so we’d have to go to the countryside to rehearse before shooting in the actual city.
White God’s story touches on familiar genre tropes, from action to horror, and directly mirrors the plot of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with Hagen as the story’s Caesar. How actively were you trying to manipulate and subvert genre conventions?
That was quite important for me, to be frank. Eastern Europe has changed so much, and if you’re walking through the streets of Budapest, you’ll feel like you’re in a horror movie, then like you’re in a political satire, and then a social drama and even a comedy, all at once. All of those feelings come together in Budapest, so I wanted the movie to reflect. We also watched a lot of movies before we started making this one to figure out how we could melt different genres together. We watched everything from Jurassic Park to Disney movies and Akira Kurosawa movies.
That was the most important issue for me because I’ve never mixed so many genres together before; I didn’t have any kind of recipe for that. I needed to watch as many different kinds of movies as possible and somehow let their influences dictate how I made this movie. I’m happy with how we’ve put all of that together. When audiences watch my movie, they aren’t able to pick just one genre or one influence, and that helps them focus more on the story and the messages I’m trying to get across.
We wanted to start the movie as innocently as we could. We all know the reality of what would happen in a situation like what Hagen faces in the movie: it would end with someone giving the dog and injection, killing it. That’s what happens to street dogs that get put in shelters and that don’t find homes. During the scriptwriting process, we knew that we didn’t want to stop the story that way. That’s the reality in Budapest but we wanted to tell a bigger story, so that’s where the idea of a revolution came from.
I knew that seeing a revolution would have an effect on audiences. If you don’t give rights to anyone, no matter who or what they are, they’ll develop a strong anger, and from that anger you get the story’s thriller and horror aspects. But on another hand, the killers in my movie have the morals, which, in my eyes, is a great contradiction.
Because of White God’s more extreme moments, it’s been polarizing for audiences, particularly people who’d call themselves “dog lovers.” Some watch it and feel a charge from seeing dogs fight back; others can’t handle the scenes where Hagen’s being physically abused and forced to participate in underground dogfights. A few people even walked out of a screening I attended.
That was definitely in our minds from the beginning, and it was a huge decision to make, to create the truth inside of this movie and to create equality between humans and animals. We decided to not shy away from the brutality of the situation. I can imagine some people won’t be able to watch certain scenes, but on the other hand, I felt that if I couldn’t show the violence and brutality that the humans create inside of the dogs, then the movie wouldn’t work at all. There wouldn’t be any importance to watching it.
Before this movie, I was not a huge animals rights fighter, but now I’m totally an animals rights fighter. That’s for two reasons: it’s because of the dogs I worked with and fell in love with, and it’s also because making this movie opened my eyes to how mistreated and oppressed so many dogs are. If I feel so much compassion and empathy for Hungarian people who aren’t treated fairly, why shouldn’t I feel the same for animals who endure the same injustices? I’m sure many people will have issues with the movie and how it shows abuse and violence, but I know many other people will understand why it’s important to see those things, because they really do happen. Dogs and animals are abused like that so much more than people would like to believe, but seeing is believing.