Working on an ambitious society-spanning drama set in his native Hungary, Kornel Mundruczo had visited a shelter for dogs, inspired somewhat by the specter of a piece of legislation being floated that would tax owners of dogs with mixed pedigrees more than those of pure breeds.
“I read this proposal for the first time, and it’s surrealistic,” says Mundruczo. “How you can separate for races and the breeds? It’s so sick.”
The measure didn’t pass, but the surreal nature of the whole experience stuck with the director, who set aside the project he was working on, thinking he could make something smaller about the plight of a single dog. Yet he eventually wound up with “White God,” an even trickier undertaking than anything he had ever conjured up before. On paper, “White God” can be described quite simply as the story of a young girl named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her dog Hagen who become separated once her mother drops her off in the care of her father, a man who doesn’t take kindly to the mixed labrador, shepherd and shar-pei and dismisses the mutt to fend for himself. However, as a cinematic experience, it is something else entirely, as Hagen finds other discarded dogs in the streets and help foment a revolt that’s signaled from the film’s very first frame, a visually haunting prologue that sees nearly 250 dogs let loose on the deserted streets of Budapest.
For Mundruczo, “White God” doesn’t only depict a revolution, but would seem to be the first shot fired in igniting one for himself, if not the rest of cinema. After years of quiet, small-scale dramas meant to touch on the human experience, the director drew on the energy of a younger crew and a more culturally specific narrative to make his boldest film to date, one that has traveled the world over since its electrifying debut at Cannes last year. During a brief respite in Los Angeles recently, he spoke about the unlikely journey of “White God” and how it grew beyond his wildest dreams, both during the production and afterward, as well as how he went back to some of most classical methodology in music and moviemaking to create something unmistakably of the moment.
Were you already thinking about some of these things before finding a story for it?
Actually, it really started in a pound. When I went there, I was really personally touched by what I found there. But almost in the same moment, I thought that this is really a metaphor of our society. I really reflected on my time in Budapest and criticizing myself as well – I felt such shame. I am also part of the business, even if I’ve never faced these problems as a majority.
I decided to shoot a movie about one dog and I went to my screenwriter [Kata Wéber] and asked her, “Can you imagine creating a movie about one dog?” And she’s thinking and she said, “One dog? You need something else as well. How can you mirror him?” And she found the little girl Lili and the [idea of the] revolution for the third act. I realized this is a fairy tale, a metaphor and not a documentary. There wouldn’t be lot of realism, but it would be something which is overrealistic. That’s why we decided to use a lot of genres and melt the genres together.
You’ve said you were actually trying to make something simple and easy to get off the ground since another project had fallen through, yet this is such an ambitious undertaking. Did the scale of this surprise you?
I went to my producer, an amazing woman named Viktoria Petranyi, and I told her, “Let’s do a real partisan movie, a real low budget movie. I’m fed up for waiting for years and years for a project.” Then this movie started to grow. We decided it wouldn’t be just one dog, but 250. [laughs] The action scenes and all those elements really made it feel bigger, but it’s really a low-budget movie. It was around $2 million [in US dollars], which for such scale is really a small amount, but I think there is still a soul of the movie inside – you feel the partisan attitude still, so even though it became bigger, but it still feels like we’re singing our song of protest directly somehow.
Was there a different energy you felt while making this than previous films?
Yes, it’s a little bit like a first movie because we really started to work on a path where nobody had gone before. We all knew that risk in this movie – the dogs, the children, [the mixing of] genres – so sometimes we were on the set thinking, “What are we doing here?” We took lots of risks and also the producers who financed it took a lot of risks, but we did it with the huge trust and belief that the contemporary world needs contemporary answers to moral and cinematic questions. We all agreed that the pure genres are dead. It’s like you can repeat [genre tropes] in a way, but it’s still boring. Where is the freedom anymore? For the filmmaker, but also for the audience – from which perspective do they watch movies like we did in our childhood? Where are the new waves [of thought] like [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and Lars von Trier and Wong Kar Wai, coming with a totally new thinking. The last 10 years in my mind was quite conservative. It was lots of entertaining only and no belief of the seventh art and the power of cinema. So this was my most risky movie somehow and when we were in Cannes, then we felt why did we have so much fear? The audience was really able to follow the movie and enjoy it, so it was really fantastic to feel that.
The camerawork in the film is quite interesting in terms of how you use perspective – you often feel you’re looking through the dogs’ point of view. How did you want to differentiate between the different characters?
All of the dog scenes, we used their perspective, so we go really down low with the camera. We built some machines [specifically] so we could work with that and we used zoom lenses just to give them freedom. On one hand, they are watching our society or our life from there, but also, this perspective is quite an innocent one because maybe we don’t recognize it, but all we remember from our childhood are those images from when you are down [on the ground], when you are really facing with a dog. That’s one of the main conceptions. Then another conception for the human part was, because they’re action scenes, to watch from the perspective of a god, so the main iconic image is from up, like for example the last image [in the film] when you are above and you have distance.
You also seem really intent on directing the eye to specific things within the scene due to the way you light. How did that scheme come about?
Because it’s a silent movie, we tried to use that logic, so we watched lots of early Soviet movies like [Sergei] Eisenstein and [Lev] Kuleshov and also the early [German] UFA expressionist movies where the black and the white is really separating as a logic. The lighting, which is most [evident] in the night scenes, we used this “Metropolis”-type of noirish imagination for those scenes and for the action scenes, we really are [drawing influence from] lots of revolutionary movies from the Soviet era.
Recently, another director told me how she and her editor had to go through hours and hours of film to find the performance of the cat that was in her film. With so many dogs, would you know on the day what you had in terms of the performance or did you really craft the dogs’ performances in post-production?
We didn’t use any CG, so we shot lots of material. It was like 200 hours just with the dogs, so to make an order inside, it was really a task. The first round was made by my editor David Jansco and he did an amazing job to find the right takes and just create the first versions of the scene alone. We shot it like a nature movie and without his eyes, it just wouldn’t work. I may be here sitting with you, but without the support of all the crew members – the trainer, the editor, also the composer, this movie simply wouldn’t work. And it’s not obvious for every movie because I can edit as well, but not a movie like this.
You just mentioned the music. Even before you shot a frame of film, did you have an idea of what the score would sound like?
Every theme was written before we started shooting because I really needed those emotions. And the Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt [which is performed onscreen] was decided [early on] of course because we needed time for the orchestra to learn it and play it. The music is highly important to a movie like this for two reasons – one, it’s a silent movie. There is talking, but not with human language. Also, we really needed music that wasn’t illustrative, that’s only there for your emotions because the scene is not there. Most Hollywood movies, the scene isn’t there, so you pick up the emotion from what the music gives you. We were the opposite – we would like to contrast the image and the music.
You play a small but crucial role in the film as a restaurant owner who trades for Hagen. How did that come about?
That’s an accident that happened. [laugh] I asked a real Afghani guy to create that role, but then he cancelled because he could not learn the Hungarian text. I was quite upset and I wanted to cancel those days to find somebody else, but after the pressure of the producers who said, “No, you must shoot”… I actually started my studies as an actor and I did four years, so I just played it.
This film has actually traveled the world more than any other film you’ve made before. What’s that been like to experience?
That’s very, very interesting for me because on one hand, I was so happy that the film is growing, but also to recognize that my most Hungarian movie has become my most international one. I’ve noticed just one difference between the audiences – from which perspective they watch the movie, [whether they’re part of] a majority or a minority. So in Mexico or Greece, they watch this movie with the dogs. They can feel themselves. But in Germany and France and the UK, they understand, “okay, we have the responsibility,” so that was super interesting how the audience reacts from which perspective they watch this movie.
“White God” is currently playing in limited release and will expand throughout the country in April. A full schedule of theaters and dates can be found here.