Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The original interview ran on VeryAware.com
Co-Writer-Director Kornél Mundruczó has done something incredibly bold, daring and unique with WHITE GOD. He’s managed to turn two global crisis’ (homeless dogs and Eastern European cultural tensions) into a layered fairy tale. In the film, young Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is forced to abandon her four-legged best friend Hagen (played by twin mutts, Luke and Bodie) on the cruel city streets of Budapest. As she begins her quest for reunification, poor Hagen comes face to face with the worst of humanity. It’s brutal but it’s also brilliant. Plus, like any work of genius, it will haunt you for weeks.
Recently, I spoke to Mundruczó about the thriller that’s being compared to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
How did the idea first come to you?
I read a book by a South African writer, [J.M.] Coetzee, a Nobel prize winning novel called Disgrace. I staged it and worked on it in the theater. In the book, there’s a line that happens in a dog park. I told the ensemble, ‘Let’s go and check the Hungarian situation.’ So we went together in a shelter house in Budapest and I was completely freaked out. I was under the shock for weeks – I was totally touched. I felt such a shame that this can happen. Immediately I decided I wanted to shoot a movie about a dog in the streets of Budapest. I went to my script writer, Kata Wéber, and told the idea to her. She said, ‘That’s very good but you need something more. Then we thought up the little girl, Lili, and we decided to use the ride up to the revolution. It became a fairy tale, at the end of the day, but it was really cut from our contemporary reality.
What’s so great about this is there’s a “dog vs. nature/ man” aspect to the story, but there’s this nice balance with Lili’s coming of age. Was that a challenge to find that balance?
It was really difficult actually for the whole movie to harmonize all the genres. We really would like to melt the genres together. Because we all felt our realities completely changed in the last five years. Eastern Europe is not the Eastern Europe of before. It’s not timeless – not melancholy. We are not living behind the iron curtain any more. We are sent this extreme, aggressive life sometimes in a much more rude society, especially after the economic crisis. It follows a moral crisis and society is living in a lot of fear. We tried to find a new cinematic language for that mood or for that imagination.
Playing off of what you’re saying, there’s lots of layers here. It’s not just the surface level story – it’s a metaphor for cultural tensions. Do you think that takes form during the writing process or in the editing room? Or is it a symphony of both?
It was from the script writing. We really felt like it’s a metaphor. We can talk about our anger against our society and why sometimes our society is so blind, so intolerant, so racist, so chauvinistic. Of course we all know this story is about the dog, but it’s not just about a dog. It’s also about our majority. A movie is not just entertaining – it’s to create statements and also for the audience to use their brain.
This is such a brilliant movie, but it’s also really hard to watch because of the brutality that, as an artist, you simply can’t shy away from the reality. Not everyone though will be able to stomach this. Were there any fears with using man’s best friend to tell this story because that might limit your audience?
I understand that, but of course if you aren’t facing any kind of problems then it’ll grow and grow – it’s a diagnosis as well. The movie is against abuse, but you can show abuse if you are against it. If you would like to live blind and not face violence which is every day surrounding, you can not fight against it if you aren’t facing it. Of course, I would like to tell the truth and face the problem – as real art always does. If I lose some audience, I lose some audience but I told the truth so maybe the film will have longer life later than not. At the same time, I felt, in the middle part, where the human is the most rude – where the human trains the dog to be violent – that’s the tough part. Of course, to watch it is difficult to watch it also for me. Without that, you don’t believe any kind of revolution. You don’t believe they would rise up. You don’t believe they have more morals than the humans have. The structure needs that. You can imagine from Stanley Kubrick without any violence or Francis Ford Coppola – of course you need it if you want to create something true.
Listen, I’d have a hard time if this was an all human cast. It’s nice to see this was done for a purpose – that humans are really the filthy animals. It’s not the dogs.
Exactly. And at the same time you know it’s the dogs with the most positive morals. They are not the unknown enemy – like in the Hitchcock movie [THE BIRDS] or JURASSIC PARK, with the dinos, by Spielberg. It’s really like they have the morals. They know what they are angry about – what’s human creating, what’s human do with them. I believe if we are all equal, we can talk about that. Humans easily forget we share the world – with the animals and with the plants.
The animal acting in this is incredible. Much of the film hinges on Hagen and Lili’s relationship. How did find trainer Teresa Ann Miller and find the twin dogs, Luke and Bodie.
Exactly. They created the character together. Teresa been working in Europe for the last ten years. Talking with her and my conception – no CGI and just newcomer dogs – she said, ‘Yeah. Maybe we can create that.’ She started a huge casting process. We looked for three months and found the twins – Bodie and Luke in Arizona in a van camp just before their owner was going to take them to the shelter. We appreciated that. When I first watched the casting video, I immediately decided they are the ones for sure. Teresa created a new kind of method with the dogs, how they can show their emotions. To shoot the film was really positive. It was really like they are the heroes and they make the rules and they write the script sometimes.
Really! Because their faces are so expressive and you can see what’s going on. When you work with animals like this is it sort of like working with kids? Could you only film for a certain amount of time?
Exactly. You give them patience and curiosity and lots of freedom. If you make those circumstances, they give lots of energy back. If you wanted to tell them what they must do, it would never work.
Dogs can be stubborn.
They are part of the human family and they are like 4-5-6-year-old children. They have their own personalities. Of course, it was really a lesson for me as well to deal with a multitude of animals for half a year.
Hagen and Lili have a bond. What were the actors’ rehearsals like?
Of course they became best friends. They have 3 months to rehearse before we started shooting. They met with each other almost daily. They built a relationship. During the process was quite easy actually; if you cast well, the children and animals as well, then they do… They can not lie. They can do what they can do and they can not do what they can not do. If you ask what they can, then they give 100% to you. There were lots of rehearsals but the shooting was not difficult.
What was the most challenging sequence to shoot?
I don’t know. There’s three types of thinking: what was the most big type action scene? There was a limited time to shoot because blocking the streets was not for long and cars and city life and the animals are coming together. Yeah, that was really difficult. But on the other hand, sometimes a very simple thing was very difficult – for example, the doggies walking on the street without the trainer. Without any curiosities, you know to meet other dogs or sometimes that was also very difficult. In the editing room, the fighting scene was very difficult. It took a lot of time to edit those scenes.
I noticed too that you don’t actually show the dog getting hit, but the human brain fills in the gaps, tricking you into thinking you did. Like what Hitchcock did in PSYCHO. Was that something you storyboarded out in advance?
Absolutely. We watched a lot of Hitchcock and we used absolute logic. Many, many things is in fantasy only. If you watched this movie two, three times everything is manipulation.
That’s how you have to do this movie.
Exactly. If somebody thought, “Oh. That was very, very scary,” I’m happy.
In the end credits, it read all the dogs were adopted after the making of this film. I thought that was so wonderful.
Because of the concept, we started to use shelter dogs. We all thought if we give them positive lives and because they happily worked with us on this movie, then we don’t want to give them to the shelter house. So we made an adoption program where we do a site where you can adopt those film star dogs. That was really successfully made. All of the 200, almost all were adopted by the end of shooting. We all know that’s just a drop in the ocean. After the movie, we’re all supporting shelter houses and adoption programs. I personally try to support. This movie is really about the belief of equality in every sense.
WHITE GOD is now playing. For a list of theaters, go here.