Hungarian Oscar entry White God (although not nominated) will undoubtedly be one of the biggest surprises of 2015. Having stormed Cannes and won the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the competition, a wider release has been secured by Metrodome Distribution. With its tale of a young girl who loses her faithful dog, Hagen, to some seriously barbaric new owners, it has just the right mix of horror, heartache and gut-churning violence to crossover from art house cinemas to the multiplexes.
White God garnered outstanding reviews when screened at the London Film Festival, including our own 10/10 review at STARBURST. Meeting up with director Kornél Mundruczó and writer Kata Wéber at the Mayfair Hotel during the LFF, we talked Oscar chances, subtext, and what horror movies inspired the epic ending of the film.
STARBURST: They say never work with kids or animals: what were you thinking when you decided to work with both?
Kornél Mundruczó: I decided to work with a dog. That was my idea. And after that I asked Kata to work on this topic together with me. I was in a dog pound and what I felt was just incredible. It was such a shame. I felt a lot of responsibility for why they were in the dog pound. I felt this topic is totally contemporary; there are dogs in pounds, but there are also refugee camps that are full and also it reminded men how we deal with our minorities and so on. But Kata thought that for her it’s not enough. You need something which you use as a mirror for the story and then she proposed: ‘What if a little girl is inside and looking at a dog?’ I said ok, let’s make a movie which starts with that scene. You’re just watching from outside a car and you don’t know who and why they kicked out the dog. The car is leaving and we stay with that dog as a first shot. After that, we follow the dog; the last bit is in the dog pound and is his death. That’s my movie. She was like, ‘Noooo! That’s so sad, I don’t want to watch that movie!’ So afterwards, we decided to build it up with the little girl and then the revenge story is coming. I was quite clear with what I wanted to do which is mostly at the middle of the film, but the first act and the last act is totally by her.
Kata Wéber: But mostly it comes from his idea that it is a metaphor for society. We don’t use a dog as Lassie of course, but we can joke around it. In some scenes, you feel it’s a family movie but mostly it’s a very strong metaphor on society and then because it’s a metaphor, it also works as a parable so it’s easy to put it into a fairy tale with a child in the centre.
KM: It was not a decision from the very beginning, but if life is going to be difficult let’s make it very difficult by working with the children and the dogs.
Was the script inspired by the incident of the far-right Hungarian politician who took a genome test to prove his racial purity?
KW: The far right politician who understood he was a Jew? Actually, we were talking about if we could make something out of this. This story comes from another story.
KM: The far right want to propose a law against mixed breed dogs. So there would be higher tax for mixed breed dogs, lower tax for pure breeds and zero tax for the Hungarian breeds. This is like the Second World War, so come on! It’s just one more step... what if we do this to the Jews? The law didn’t come in, but it was enough for a starting point. When this dogcatcher is coming and saying that this sort of law exists, that’s not true. It was a great starting point for talking about the treatment of minorities and social problems. The second biggest power in our society is the far right and the main party also push in that direction. I can imagine that it is not easy to live as a minority. I think this is a Hungarian problem, but more and more across Europe with Marie Le Pen and the BNP. We’re always repeating history. It’s so strange and sad that nobody’s facing the moral crises after such a huge economic crisis. This infinite fear is really coming up daily. I’m sure we have no answers if we do not face the problem and recognise the symptoms.
The dog fighting scenes were brutal. How do you feel about the scenes? Did you go as far as you could?
KM: Almost the opposite. For me that was the most important drive for the story, just to show how much violence and abuse it takes these dogs to become fighters. And how it’s humans that create these wild animals. But the system I worked with was really hard and of course, that was the most difficult scene for us. So we trained them to play together for two months and we shot that scene over six days. Then we just have one and a half minutes to believe that they are really fighting each other but they were actually really happy all days just playing and playing and playing. And we are just shooting and shooting and shooting and then I can cut it to make it look like they are fighting and that was a really interesting process for me. They are just playing as actors, but we shot a documentary out of it, so we have a half hour documentary film about how you can work with trainers and dogs to do a scene like this. When you see the dogs and just the legs of the humans, the legs were the trainers. Then we shot the actors, and there were no dogs there. It’s really cheating through editing, but that’s film, the illusion! For me it was so important that you understand that it’s the humans that make the animals go back to being wild. The humans are infinitely violent, not the animals. That was the meaning I would really like to load. Then you feel that the dog has become violent and gone out of his mind.
How did you achieve the sharpened teeth on the dog?
KM: A dummy face. A complete dummy face. You can’t imagine how much it was! It was really, really, really expensive, but we needed it for that shot and we had a dummy body for the injection scene and some other scenes, like when you have dead bodies in the tunnel.
KW: But the idea of sharpening the teeth, it comes from an earlier documentary. It’s really brutal. They really do this.
KM: All this training stuff is totally true. Of course, there is a foundation working for the fighting dogs. They pay around £8000 for one dog. When this foundation catches these kinds of dogs to care for them, they are totally in danger from the mafia because one of these dogs means £8000. They can deal with that and they do a fantastic job. You spot it easily when you are going into a dog pound. If there is something missing from the dogs’ ears or face, they have fought. It’s not just Hungary; it’s also in the US, Finland and other countries.
You’ve talked about how the film can be seen as a metaphor but surely it’s not just that. How important are animal rights to you?
KM: To be very frank, when I first started work on this movie, I was quite far off this topic. I was not doing it to support animal rights but after I did more and more, I found it so deep and meaningful; we decided to do a whole adoption programme for the 280 dogs in this movie and they all have families now. Afterwards, almost every third month we do an adoption day under the umbrella of White God and the success of the movie. It’s something I do with great happiness. I felt after this movie, something better happened with me than I expected. So I can’t say I’m a huge fighter of animal rights, but if I can, I like to help. Once I got to go to a mixed breed beauty race as a jury member. It was so interesting! All the dogs were adopted. There was a woman who had adopted an 11-year-old blind dog, and it was so touching, so meaningful because in our society there are people who think, ‘Oh just die, don’t feed them anymore’. We gave that dog the second prize even though she wasn’t beautiful at all. But inside that was the most beautiful story.
How did you find Zsófia Psotta who plays Lili?
KW: The casting was through all of Hungary, many schools...
KW: ...like really a lot. People were just taking pictures and she had that face. But then she never had any acting experience, so she was quite shy. Kornél mentions that she wanted to cancel the film two weeks before shooting so he was going with flowers and cakes to her mother! We were begging for her!
We were at the Cannes Film Festival screening when you guys were in the audience and she was there and she looked so shy then...
KW: Well, she’s only 13 now, but she was 12 when she shot the film.
KM: She’s very gifted. Sometimes I use amateurs for different movies, but I never think that they will become a good actor afterwards. They’re a good character for the movie, but no more. But she’s very gifted. So I think she can be an actress if she wants to. Maybe not, because this is a very fragile age. And she cancelled the job because she didn’t want to go out of her class and we were shooting during the school period. She was worried what her classmates would think about her, thinking that she is too selfish or something. She is a little rocker. She has this radical attitude inside I think.
How did you cast the dogs? Did they all come from pounds?
KM: Yeah all of them.
And you had two dogs to play the main character Hagen?
KM: Normally dog movies have six dogs for one character, so two is absolutely not much.
Some of the dog performances are incredible. Animal handler Teresa Ann Miller’s contribution must have been considerable: what was her process like?
KM: She’s a genius; really, really, really! The dogs don’t even recognise that they are dogs. So they think that we’re part of the family. They are always playing together and she never punishes them. She always just gives positive comments like, ‘Good boy, good boy’. We have a t-shirt for the crew that just said ‘good boy’ on it, because that was the sentence that we would hear a thousand times every day. Of course, the main thing is she makes her dogs human, like they are part of the family... totally. If you socialise them well, they will be like a four or five-year-old kid. So when you watch the main character, I’m sure that after 15 minutes, you don’t watch a dog, you watch a human which looks like a dog. And that’s what she can create. It’s amazing how she did it.
Did you study any horror/zombie or slasher films to get inspired for the third act?
KW: Of course, yeah. I’m not really into horror movies but The Birds, Jurassic Park... films we like. So it wasn’t really like studying something. More like, ‘You remember this movie?’
KM: I’m a huge fan of the post-apocalyptic, end of ‘80s, early ‘90s movies like Alien, Blade Runner, Terminator and the others. They’re really strong in my eyes, and I’m from that age, so I still have lots of child memories. Like the shadows coming...
KW: ...and when you only see the feet. It was mostly a joke for us. Because it’s a serious metaphor, you can let yourself joke around a bit and we all know these films...
KM: ...there’s a lot of homage in it. So from The Birds, when the woman is sitting inside the car and the dogs are jumping up, it’s totally like in the phone box and the birds are coming. We were laughing when we shot the legs of the dogs inside the old man’s place. It was like a shot from Jurassic Park with the dinosaurs. I mean, on the one hand, it’s the freedom of creativity just to use them as a collage but because the metaphor is so true somehow, then we have no fear to put the homage inside.
Aan earlier cut was 150 mins, will we ever get to see deleted scenes and what kind of things did you cut?
KM: Of course, it’s still inside my computer! It depends on the distributor. I would like to put some extras on the DVD. The documentary on the dogfighting scene I mentioned is really interesting. And I have some missing scenes, especially from the horror part. There is some more killing. Hopefully, there’ll be a director’s cut.
How would you feel about an American remake?
KM: Not with me.
How do you feel about the trailers giving away the post-apocalyptic aspects of the ending of the film?
KM: I’m fine with that. It’s promising a bit more action than maybe is in it. But that’s fine. Actually it’s really a crossover movie. We have lots of genre influences, but at the same time we have really deep arthouse influences as well. In my eyes, as an audience you will enjoy this ride... or not. I’m really looking forward to the reaction.
WHITE GOD is released in cinemas on February 27th 2015.