Director Kornél Mundruczó on his dog horror film

Actor/director/writer Kornel Mundruczo and dog Hagen of "White God". Picture: Getty

Actor/director/writer Kornel Mundruczo and dog Hagen of "White God". Picture: Getty

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THE apocalyptic White God, where dogs rise up against humans, is one part horror to one part allegory about intolerance, director Kornél Mundruczó tells Alistair Harkness. Lassie it ain’t

Never work with children or animals opined WC Fields. He meant it as piece of advice for actors worried about being upstaged by precocious kids or adorable pets, but he could equally have been referring to the technical challenges facing a filmmaker intent on, say, making a realistic apocalyptic drama in which dogs revolt against their human masters, Planet of the Apes-style.

Just such a challenge faced Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, whose stunning new film, the Cannes- and Sundance-wowing White God revolves around a mixed-breed dog called Hagen, whose abuse at the hands of a society hostile to mongrels results in him leading a 250-strong canine cast in a pooch uprising on the streets of Budapest. Marley & Me this most definitely isn’t.

“It was really difficult,” confirms Mundruczó when we meet after White God’s London Film Festival premiere. “We shot for 45 days and I think we did 40 with the dogs and only 15 with the human cast. And of course, I’m normally a control freak as a director, but not this time. It was like making a nature documentary: I was always waiting, waiting, waiting – and maybe something would happen, maybe it wouldn’t.”

With the twin dogs cast as Hagen, Luke and Body, called upon to convey a complex range of emotions that ran the gamut from love and joy to fear, confusion, anger and vengeance, he was effectively at the mercy of the dogs and their trainers. Luckily, he says he had two geniuses in Teresa Ann Miller and Árpád Halász – the latter looking after the main pack and the former tending to the movie’s two star performers. “Their technique was really interesting. They’d never punish the dogs, never get angry with them; they just worked in a playful manner. All I heard was ‘Good boy, good boy’ tonnes of times every 
day, even when nothing was happening. But the results always came and sometimes we modified the script just to make it more harmonious.”

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The key to getting a convincing dog performance, he discovered, was deploying the trainers to essentially act opposite their charges off-camera. “I remember once we were doing a scene where the dogs escape the pound. Hagen is watching the old lady who owns the dog pound and I really needed this shot where you sense he’s baying for blood and looking at her as a killer. But all the time I’m watching him I’m thinking, ‘It’s not good, he not in the mood’. Then Teresa, the trainer, decided to cry in front of him and suddenly the dog was like, ‘Huh? What’s happening.’ That’s how he worked himself up and that was the point where I understood how they worked together.”

“They are like humans,” he continues. “They have no image of themselves as dogs. When we were filming Hagan’s first run with the pack, he’d look around as if to say, ‘What are these dogs doing here? I don’t know why you would surround me with so many animals. I’m human.’ That was the mood and I think audiences forget they’re animals. As did I.”

That’s certainly a feeling that will resonate with many dog owners – as will the trauma experienced when watching some of the trials that befall Hagen after the father of his loving 13-year-old owner, Lily (Zsófia Psotta), casts him out on the street. Beaten, exploited, incarcerated and shot at, Hagen is put through the wringer by a succession of pitiless men and women conditioned against viewing dogs as our collective best friends.

It can certainly be a tough watch, but the human qualities of the four-legged cast and the simulated punishment meted out to them on screen is not just another instance of a movie lazily using our built-in empathy for dogs to up the emotional stakes. Mundruczó saw the allegorical potential of canines to sincerely address Europe’s increasingly hard-line approach to immigration and minorities.

Contriving a backstory in which new legislation cracks down on mongrel dogs by imposing severe taxes on the owners of mixed breeds but not pedigrees, the film is essentially about a rising underclass whose mistreatment will ultimately foster violent revolt against an arrogant elite. It’s a cautionary tale in other words, with additional wagging.

Mundruczó says the attitude towards immigration in Hungary is “becoming more and more extreme so I wanted to talk about this topic and at the same time say that this kind of thing could happen. History teaches us this.” He didn’t want to do a didactic arthouse movie about minorities though, hence the intentional parallels with the Planet of the Apes franchise, which since its inception in the 1960s has used its sci-fi conceit to mirror the political turmoil of the day – although Mundruczó first hit upon the idea of using dogs while working on a theatre adaptation of JM Coetzee’s Booker-winning novel Disgrace. “There’s a huge part involving a dog so I thought I should go to a dog shelter in Hungary so I at least know what I’m talking about.” Standing in front of rows of caged animals he realised he was part of a system that had brought this situation into being – and from there the idea for the film began to grow. “The main idea was that Hagen would become a metaphor for minorities and that was how the whole project took shape.”

Although his previous films – such as Johanna and Tender Son – attracted attention on the festival circuit for their experimental, almost avant-garde qualities, Mundruczó readily embraced the genre elements of White God, partly because they synched with his own teenage love of movies such as The Terminator, Blade Runner and Alien, but also because he came of age in a small town near Budapest at a time when Communist rule ended and Hungary readily embraced western traditions. “I think all of Europe has changed, so you can’t use the same old cinematic language to talk about the contemporary mood or contemporary fears.”

Would he like to have a crack at a Hollywood movie then? It doesn’t seem like a stretch to imagine some enterprising producer seeing White God and tapping him for a future installment of the new Planet of the Apes saga. Mundruczó laughs. “I would like to make movies with a bigger scope, but I’d like to keep my personality. I have a lot of colleagues who are back in Europe having lost ten years in Los Angeles.”

As for his canine cast, he’s delighted that they collectively won the Palm Dog, the unofficial prize awarded each year at the Cannes Film Festival for the best canine performance (previous recipients include Uggie from The Artist). Somewhat inevitably the trophy turned out to be ceremonial dog bowl. “It was really funny, but the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated it because it rewards performance, so kind of recognises equality as well.” Which seems fitting given the theme of the film. It also begs the question: have Body and Luke been fielding big offers since their sterling work as Hagen? “You know I think my dog was in a Hollywood movie. It was a Happy Birthday scene. He was eating the cake.” He mock sighs. “This is the most common scene for a dog.”

White God screens at Glasgow Film Festival on 22 and 23 February, and opens in selected cinemas nationwide from 28 February, {http://www.glasgowfilm.org/glasgowfilm.orglLink to article}

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