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A Feral Fairytale: Dir. Kornél Mundruczó on His Cannes-Winning Film “White God“

A Feral Fairytale: Kornél Mundruczó on His Cannes-Winning Film “White God“

In the culminant moments of Kornél Mundruczó’s latest feature, an army made up of hundreds of angry mixed-breed dogs haunt the streets of Budapest deliberately
targeting their human tormentors. Such visually riveting and thematically provocative sequence makes of “White God” one of the most daring revenge films in
recent memory. Yet, Mundruczó’s audacious perspective goes beyond simply showing us what a group of oppressed creatures could be capable of doing if given
the chance. His film touches on real social threats like xenophobia and people’s indifference to the suffering of others, whether humans or animals.

Crafted like a brutally visceral dark fairytale, “White God” showcases topnotch cinematic technique with strong social commentary in the
form of powerful metaphors. The story centers on Lili (Zsófia Psotta), a teenage girl searching for her lost dog Hagen after her father abandons the animal fearful of a
law that taxes people who own mixed-breed dogs. From that moment on the film juxtaposes Lili’s struggle to fit in the complex world of adolescent
relationships and Hagen’s terrifying transformation into a savage killer. Not surprisingly the film won the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes earlier this
year for it’s very unique point of view.

White God” is Hungary’s official submission for the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It will be released theatrically by Magnolia Pictures early next year. “White God” will also screen at the Sundance Film Festival 2015 in the Spotlight section.

Director Kornél Mundruczó was in L.A. recently and talked to us about his ferociously beautiful film.

Carlos Aguilar: This is an incredibly powerful film both in its imagery and in the themes it touches on. Particularly, it seems to me that it’s a
metaphor for the power struggle between the people and the system. Those who have been marginalized suddenly rebel. Does this reflect your perception
of Hungarian society and the issues the country faces?

Kornél Mundruczó:
Freedom is too difficult for our nation sometimes. Politicians are usually the ones who have the power. Certainly living as part of a minority in Hungary
is not easy. I tried to make this my most “Hungarian” film and to clearly criticize the society I live in. Then I recognized that at the same this is the
most internationally appealing film I’ve made as well. Maybe this means that our fear is a common thing nowadays. It’s a contemporary fear. After the
economic crisis there was an unfounded fear of all these different segments of the population, minorities, and refugees not only in Hungary but also all
over Europe.

I fervently believe in equality. I believe we all share the world. We share the entire planet not only with humans but also with animals. We share the
entire planet with them and humans easily forget that. Similarly, society and politicians easily forget that there should be equality amongst everyone.
That’s very scary, but that’s why I’d like to use such unique characters for the film. This movie is a fairytale. It’s not about realism at all. It looks
realistic but it’s much more about my personal view of the reality I’m living in. This movie is much closer to a David Lynch movie than to realism. 

Aguilar: The film has a very unique cinematic language. It changes in tone and focus throughout the story. Where you inspired by any cinematic style or
genre in particular?

Kornél Mundruczó:
Eastern Europe has completely changed in the last 5 to 10 years. It’s not slowly paced or filled with melancholy, we are not behind the Iron Curtain
anymore. Now it’s the complete opposite. It’s fast, aggressive, and extreme. Of course, when I recognized this about Eastern Europe today I tried to find a
new cinematic language. “White God” is a horror movie, a political satire, a fantasy, and a melodrama. All the post-Soviet ideas came
together [Laughs]. That’s what I wanted to use as a cinematic language for this film. There are lots of twists and turns. It starts as a Disney movie or as
Spielberg’s “E.T,” then it turns into a social drama and a coming-of-age story, then it’s a thriller, and the very end is like a horror film.

Aguilar: Certainly your film is very layered and deals with numerous complex ideas. There is Lili’s story, which is the human perspective, and there is
Hagen’s point of view, the dog’s story. Can you tell me about the writing process of merging these two sides to create something that shows how
connected both worlds are?

Kornél Mundruczó:
I decided to make this film because I was very moved by something I experienced while working on a stage project from a novel called Disgrace by a
South African author named Coetzee. In the novel there is a woman who works in a dog shelter. I told the actors, “Let’s go to a dog shelter and see how it
looks.” We went and I was standing there looking at the dog’s eyes. I felt such shame and I asked myself, “How can this happen? I’m also part of this
system.” I felt like I had the responsibility to do something against this. That’s why I started working on this film.

It’s incredible to see these animals there. They are there to die. When I talked to one of my writing partners, Kata Wéber, I told her, “I want to make a
very radical movie about one dog in Budapest. “ She said, “That’s not enough” and I asked her, “Why not?” She replied, “They are in these shelters because
of society, so we need to show the society behind this to mirror their experiences. This society is creating monsters. The animals are not monsters because
they want to be. “

It was Kata’s idea to make the main character an innocent girl. She is in a state in between. She is not a child but not yet an adult. We decided to create
a story about the friendship between the girl and the dog. In the real world these dogs’ stories end in a dog shelter were they are killed, no one comes to
rescue them. Once they are there they get two weeks to live and then they can be killed. That’s the law. Therefore, I thought, “OK, we have to “kill” the
dog at the end of the movie because that’s the reality.” Then Kata said, “No, we have to root for the dogs. Let’s do a revenge story from the dog’s
perspective. The dogs are the ones that have morals. Society has no morals. Let’s give the morals to the dogs.” Our two main were to build a story about
friendship and then make it into a huge dog revolution against society or against bad humans. This creates the dark fairytale tone.

Aguilar: The dogs represent freedom of all those oppressed whether it’s animals or human unjustly treated. Hagen becomes a symbol for humanity without
being human.

Kornél Mundruczó:
Absolutely. I wanted to use a good hero who had high morals and who makes good decisions. In a normal film such a character can easily become pathetic or
boring, but with a dog you can have an interesting hero. I felt that the dogs are more human than we are. This is why I was able to use a sort of classic
narrative structure. Hagen, our main dog, is like Humphrey Bogart [Laughs]. Today if you have a hero like Humphrey Bogart people would find him silly
because we are not as naïve anymore, but if it’s a dog I think it works.

Aguilar: I think it also works because the main human character is a young girl who is not cynical. She hasn’t been poisoned by the system yet.

Kornél Mundruczó:
Yes, she hasn’t lost her innocence. She is on the edge of losing it. She is on the border between adulthood and childhood. I know the film is thought of as
a “dog movie” and that might be the most interesting part, but for me the life of this little girl is absolutely important. She is like me. She is much
more me than the dog. I’m not as heroic as the dog. I’m just a human [Laughs].

Aguilar: We believe that animals need humans to fight for them, but in your film it’s different, the dogs fight for themselves. Was it important for
you to show the animals perspective prominently? In a sense you are giving them a voice.

Kornél Mundruczó:
Yes. We actually had two mandates while making the film: we only used mixed-breed dogs and we didn’t use any CGI. We chose to do this so we could see the
dogs’ own emotions. What you see in the film are their real emotions. I think that’s what blows people away. It’s different from a human illustrating the
image of an animal or manufacturing what an animal thinks or feels. For example, in the film “Life of Pi” by Ang Lee the tiger is the idea of a tiger
created by a human. It’s not better or worse than using a real animal, but it’s just totally different. I wanted to do the opposite and show what a dog’s
real emotions look like. If you look into their eyes you recognize something you know in a being that’s unknown to you and through this you become closer.

Aguilar: How exciting or frightening was to wok with the dogs, which I assume can be unpredictable actors? Was losing control to an extent difficult
for you?

Kornél Mundruczó:
I’m such a control freak that it was difficult at the beginning [Laughs]. I think in the end in turned into a sort of therapy. It made me better personally
because I learned a lot about me. Trust is better than control and I trusted the animals. We rotated between shooting one week and the following week we
would dedicate it exclusively to working with the dogs. We adapted the screenplay as we went on taking into account what the dogs were or were not able to
do. It was great to see that two species, humans and dogs, can cooperate in one project. [Laughs].

Aguilar: Tell me about those amazing sequences in which we see the dogs running while through the streets of Budapest. What where the challenges of
creating such impressive images?

Kornél Mundruczó:
Working with 280 dogs was very difficult. We tried to socialize them to avoid any fights, and they seemed to enjoy being together. They are just like
actors. We were very careful not to harm any of them. They were all trained. It was difficult because of all the fences and diverse elements in the scenes.
We had 50 trainers on set and 6 cameras. It was a huge set. We shot the film in 55 days, 40 with the dogs, and 15 for all of the human scenes. We had these
huge, expensive scenes with the dogs and the other scenes we shot them like you would in a very low budget film. Sometimes we would do 3 or 4 scenes a day
with the human actors like in a soap opera, just in a total hurry “ Come on, come on, let’s do it.” [Laughs]. All the money went to the dogs. They were the
starts. [Laughs] They had their own budget, they had their specific times to rest, and they were fed regularly. They were the real stars.

Aguilar: You mention this is your most “Hungarian” film, but how has it connected with audiences abroad in countries with similar issues?

Kornél Mundruczó:
The film has been very well received in Europe. Fear doesn’t only exist in Hungary, even if we are a very strange country and quiet extreme in terms of how
we react to social and economic problems. Our system is slowly becoming closer to the Putin system more than to the Western European system, which is very
strange. Still, everywhere in Europe and around the world people understand what this film is about. I was in Mexico recently for the Morelia Film
Festival, and people there also understood the film as I intended. Mexicans know about colonization, about being a minority, or being the underdog.
Regarding the U.S, I feel like the audience here is a little bit more naïve. “White God” is a emotionally strong film and I hope it can touch Americans as
well. I always wonder if people will stay in the theater for the entire film because it’s tough to watch at times. If the stay to see the whole film they
usually like it. I know some scenes in the film are hard to look at, but it’s important for me to tell the truth.

Aguilar: The violence in “White God” might be an issue for some people, but I feel it’s worse not to face it or to shy away from it.

Kornél Mundruczó:
Yes. It’s strange what people react to because if you watch the news on TV you are exposed to tons of hours of brutal images filled with violence. On the
other hand, all these issues are part of our lives and if you don’t face it you can’t solve it. Some people prefer to pretend they live in another world
where they don’t have to face any real problems. I hope violence is not a problem for American audiences to see the film. The audience in the U.K. liked
the film very much. Hopefully we have a similar reaction here.

Aguilar: In your film the dogs rebel against those humans that have hurt them, do you think film can be a tool to ignite social change? Not necessarily
to rebel but to create awareness and think about certain issues.

Kornél Mundruczó:
Absolutely. My film is about a rebel, which in this case the dog. I think this is a very simple moral story but it’s still important to retell these moral
stories. When it comes to art it is always very important to know from which perspective you are looking at something, It’s also interesting to see how a
society reacts to stories or films like this and what results from this reaction.

Aguilar: Films with social commentary sometimes have difficulties finding audiences because some moviegoers prefer to think of cinema as entertainment
rather than something more intellectually stimulating.

Kornél Mundruczó:
That’s true but can you imagine a Kubrick movie without the social commentary component, or Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” without the last
half hour? I love films by Fassbinder, Douglas Sirk, or Bergman, but they can really be brutal sometimes. They are absolute tragedies. We’ve been dealing
with tragedies since the Greeks, and tragedies make you think. That’s their function. I think I’m very classical in that sense in terms of my films.
Watching dramas one can have a catharsis because they help you understand all the contradictions in this world and you might think “This is how the world
is, but I would like to make it a better world.” When I was young and even know, I feel like I have a catharsis with certain films or novels and I think
“Now I understand more about my reality than I did yesterday because of this piece of art.” This is the miracle of great art and why it has worked since
the Greeks thousands of years ago.

Aguilar: You won the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes and “White God” is now representing Hungary at the Academy Awards. Tell about this journey with
the film.

Kornél Mundruczó:
All of this is always unexpected. I was so surprised and very proud after winning that prize in Cannes, but the most important thing for me was that the
audience came to see the film. They had two extra screenings at Cannes and they were both sold out as well. We also won four other awards at other
festivals, but I’m totally a virgin when it comes to the Oscars [Laughs]. None of my previous films had been selected by the Hungarian committee to
represent the country at the Oscars. I’m very happy that they have given me their trust to represent Hungary, but you just never know what’s going to
happen. In a sense is like being a first time filmmaker. It’s all very new.

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