White God,Kornél Mundruczó’s riveting film about a courageous young girl (Lili/Zsófia Psotta) and her beloved dog, Hagen, is both a cautionary tale about our presumed superiority over lesser beasts and a powerful metaphor for the increasingly acrimonious cultural and political tensions in Europe today over immigration and identity. When Hagen is abandoned on the streets of Budapest because his mixed breed makes him an undesirable pet, his perilous journey incites a revolution. One of contemporary Hungarian cinema’s most original voices, Mundruczó plays with genre and tone in fascinating ways and elicits strong performances from his unique cast of human and canine actors.
In an exclusive interview, Mundruczó revealed why the film was very personal, how he wanted Lili’s relationship with Hagen and Hagen’s betrayal to act as a mirror reflecting societal pressure and the inequity between majorities and minorities, the connections between his film and Samuel Fuller’s White Dog, Psotta’s remarkable performance, the challenge of staging the film’s amazing action sequences involving hundreds of dogs without the use of CGI, his collaboration with DOP Marcel Rév, composer Asher Goldschmidt, and lead dog trainer Teresa Ann Miller, which filmmakers have inspired him, and plans to do more genre-bending films with radical themes. Check it all out in the interview below:
Collider: How did this project first emerge? This is definitely a departure from your earlier work. What was it about this story that really resonated with you and made you say I’ve got to make this film?
KORNEL MUNDRUCZO: It was really personal because of different reasons. I had just gone to a dog pound in Budapest and what I found there really touched me. I was in shock for two weeks. I felt so ashamed that the dogs were behind fences and they were just waiting for their own death. I felt I really would like to shoot a movie about this. I found a strong theme in that, and then I started writing the script which went really fast. I wrote the script in one month because I was so moved.
For me, the first decision was to create a movie about one dog, but afterwards I felt I really would like it to mirror something if I could find the right actor to play the young daughter, a teenage girl that’s thirteen. I chose a female character for that role because I felt it’s much more difficult for her to keep her innocence under the pressure of society. And then, for me, it was mirroring the two things together. This movie is much more about the majority than the minority and much more about the question of majorities and not to be a minority. I viewed the dogs as the all-time minorities. That was what really touched me, because on the one hand, of course, I cannot say a specific minority was symbolized by the dogs because they symbolize themselves as dogs. But we all know if you kick them out from the family, then they are the minority. It’s really an interesting effect inside this movie, but also inside my thoughts it was very interesting.
It’s a powerful political and cultural metaphor for what’s happening in Europe today. How hard was it to get a script with this kind of complex premise to the place to make all this happen?
MUNDRUCZO: That’s a good question. Of course, I’m living in a very extreme country today and the power of the politics is stronger and stronger. To be an independent artist in Hungary is not an easy role somehow. But at the same time, for the film, there is a breath of freedom still. I wrote the script. We got the money for this script. Also, we got money from Germany and Sweden because this was a co-production. So, I didn’t change anything because I know the political system and they know my art. It’s not as easy for everybody. In the theater world or the fine arts, it’s much more difficult.
Was your film about dogs vs. human oppressors intended as a nod to Samuel Fuller’s White Dog which was a race relations allegory about class struggle?
MUNDRUCZO: Actually, I wasn’t familiar with that movie beforehand. It was only after making mine. My lead animal trainer, Teresa Ann Miller, told my father to send me the Fuller movie, and that there was a connection. I talked to Teresa and said, “I would like to watch that movie.” When I watched it and recognized that there were many connections between the two movies, I was very proud. I felt like this was really a stronger, more ancient image of the same problem. I’m simply proud of the connection.
Why were these the best actors to tell your story? What did they bring to your film?
MUNDRUCZO: Zsófia (Psotta) was really an amazing support for the movie, because working with dogs and working with children is always very difficult, but if you find the right one, then it makes it very easy. And, that was her. To attract her and get her to come and do this movie was much more difficult than to work with her. When we started to work together, it was smooth and easy. I told her what kind of emotion I would like to watch on the screen and she created it without any kind of problems. She did it easily so it was really amazing. Without her, this movie would be very different. Of course, the rest of the cast is independent artists. Not everyone is an actor. For example, the father (Sándor Zsótér) is a theater director, but many others are working more like independent artists in an independent scenario in Budapest and not like part of an official theater system.
How did the actors react to working with the dogs?
MUNDRUCZO: Most of the time, everybody was very positive, especially Zsófia. They spent three months together before the shooting just to get to know each other, and that happened. Of course, there were very difficult scenes sometimes when you combine human and dog together, especially with the dog catchers because they don’t catch the dogs (laughs). Everything is manipulated and it’s about how you can make it in a believable way with the characters. The dogs needed a lot of training and lots of rehearsals also with the actors. It was kind of like therapy, because if you have a control freak attitude, then you will not have any results. But if you are curious and you have patience, then the results will come.
What were some of the challenges of staging the action for those impressive sequences where you have hundreds of dogs roaming the streets of Budapest? How did you collaborate with your creative team on that?
MUNDRUCZO: It was totally new for me as well. I’d never done large action scenes as we do in this movie, and it was especially challenging because we don’t use CGI. That was the conception, just to do everything in real time live action like in the 70’s and 80’s. My main creative partners throughout this process were my writers (Viktória Petrányi, Kata Wéber) and the DOP (Marcell Rév), who is 30-year-old and a very young DOP from the new generation. I mean I’m the next one. I’m ten years older than him. We planned everything together. We had a really good stunt crew behind us – stunt drivers and also everyone who is running on the streets. They are stunt performers. It was really a collaboration with all departments being headed by the writers and the DOP.
The dogs’ performances are awesome. What did your lead animal trainer, Teresa Ann Miller, bring to the project?
MUNDRUCZO: She’s amazing. Without her, this movie would not have happened, and also without her method, because her method is positive reinforcement. She said only positive things to her dogs. It was really a lesson also for me that came throughout the movie how she gave so much freedom to the animals every time. That’s why they’re alive. That’s why they give the emotions back because they are playing. This is her method. This is what we filmed and she was the only one [who thought it could be done]. She wanted to create this movie. Of course, I didn’t come to America to ask somebody. I asked the Hungarian trainers and later the European ones, and everybody said, “You can’t do this movie without CGI. You can’t do it with all these dogs. They’re very badly trained. They’re not a pure breed. You need to use CGI.” Teresa is the only one who said, “Well maybe we can do it.”
How did your composer Asher Goldschmidt become involved and how did the two of you work together?
MUNDRUCZO: I started to work with Asher almost five years ago, first in the theater, but he was studying composing in Jerusalem at the film school. I met him there while I was at a festival. I recognized he had Hungarian relatives. He spoke the language and we became friends. I asked him to work and he started composing the picture. This was his first feature. I really tried to change my crew for this movie. Just like with the DOP, this is his first feature movie. I would like to have the new generation come with me. He is amazingly talented, and his original score for the movie really works. I mean, you don’t feel this is a first-time composer.
This is a very ambitious project. How did the finished film compare to what you originally envisioned?
MUNDRUCZO: Actually it was visually quite close to what I was planning, but the dogs did more than I expected. They gave such an amount of strength to this movie. I was not counting on that as much, and I was really surprised and appreciated that they did it for us. This was really a special project because of the whole method we used even during the shooting period. We’d shoot one week and then we’d rehearse one week, and the entire year was really an interesting experience. They taught me a lot. You never know. With filmmaking, like George Cukor said, “It’s a caravan. It just goes. You never know which one will be a big success and which one will not.” But this one is quite close to the vision I had been planning for it.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited about?
MUNDRUCZO: I felt after White God that some doors were opening in my soul so I would like to follow in this way, this melting of genres together and the radical meanings. We’ll see. I’m working on two scripts now.
Which filmmakers have influenced you? Who are your inspirations?
MUNDRUCZO: My main inspiration from when I was a teenager was Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his social melodramas, which somehow have always stayed with me. Later, when I was a student and a filmmaker, there were also some like Robert Bresson and Akira Kurosawa, and also the late 80’s and beginning of the 90’s movies from Hollywood, these post-apocalyptic movies like Terminator and Blade Runner. They will live with me forever.
White God opens in New York on Friday, March 27th and Los Angeles on Friday, April 3rd with a national rollout to follow.