When it comes to films revolving around dogs, we’ve never seen anything onscreen quite as intense, thought-provoking—and, at times, downright disturbing—as White God, winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, the film is set in Hungary and depicts how society mistreats those deemed unworthy through the story of a 13-year-old girl named Lili (played by newcomer Zsófia Psotta) and her dog, Hagen.
A lovable and loyal pooch, Hagen is a mixed-breed, and when the government, which prefers people own pedigree and purebred dogs, demands that owners of dogs like Hagen register them and pay a fee to keep them, Lili’s father (Sándor Zsóstár) abandons the dog on the side of a highway. Hagen tries to find his way back home, and Lili does her best to reunite with her beloved friend. But he falls into the hands of a man who grooms him for dogfighting. Eventually, Hagen and other dogs all across the city rise up against the humans who have abused them.
Mundruczó, a native of Hungary, was inspired to make White God, which he wrote with Kata Wéber and Viktória Petrányi, after a visiting a dog pound. “I felt such shame because I am part of this system, and I immediately understood that I would like to deal with this topic of how the majority in society forgets the minorities. I enjoy the metaphor as well,” he says.
The director hired Teresa Miller, an American dog trainer who has worked on feature films like K-9 and Lethal Weapon 3, to be head dog trainer on the film, and she found two pups to play Hagen: brothers Luke and Body. “Having two dogs, you double the size of the character because you’re not limited to one dog’s personality and physical abilities,” she says. “You’ve got the combination of two, and that just enhances the character.”
Miller discovered Luke and Body in an online adoption ad in Arizona, and got them when they were only nine months old. They’re crossbred between a Labrador and shar-pei, and “who knows what else is in there,” Miller says. She visited the pups to check out their dispositions, saw how smart they were, and knew she could work with them.
Once Mundruczó approved the casting choice, Miller spent a few months training the Hagens. “A lot of the performance was enhanced by the dogs’ natural behavior,” says Miller, who learned the art of dog training by working with her dog trainer father Karl Lewis Miller, whose credits include Babe and Beethoven.
“I don’t give strict commands like ‘sit’ and ‘stay.’ If you do that, you don’t have a natural dog. You have a dog who is like a robot performing tricks,” Miller explains. Instead, she gives more general directions like, “‘Okay, Body, why don’t you go over there and sit down? Go lie down.’ And then I will leave him alone. He might sniff at the cabinets or scratch the rug before he lies down, but that’s how you develop natural reactions. That’s when they become actors—I allow them to be dogs while working in the scenes.”
Though trained to perform the same actions, the dogs didn’t do things exactly the same way, which benefited the production. Luke was better at showing his teeth, for example, so he was in the scenes in which Hagen had reached the height of his aggression while being trained to fight. “He was really good at raising his lips, and Body didn’t do that as much. Maybe it’s because Body has a little bit thicker lips—it’s hard to say,” Miller muses. “But for whatever reason, when we asked Body to do that particular behavior, he came out with a deep baritone growl and a serious look, but he didn’t show his teeth.”
It’s hard to watch the scenes in which Hagen is groomed to fight and later goes into the ring with another dog, but rest assured that the dogs were not harmed while shooting those scenes. Mundruczó, who spent almost six months researching dogfighting (watching documentaries and talking to people who rescue dogs from the blood “sport”), wanted to make the scenes look as real as possible, but everything was simulated. It’s really the sound that makes the dogfighting scene feel so real. “That’s why you believe that scene,” Mundruczó says, pointing out, “We created the sound. It is artificial sound.”
Just so you don’t think the entire movie is difficult to watch, do know that there is a glorious scene in White God in which more than 200 dogs run free through the streets of Budapest in a giant pack. It’s a truly breathtaking sight, and if you view the film in a theater, you will find yourself wishing you could hit a rewind button to watch it again. One might rightfully assume the scene was created with CGI, but amazingly, it really happened.
Another dog trainer who worked on the film, Árpád Halász, cast scores of canines, including dogs that belonged to his clients, dogs that came from dog clubs, and shelter dogs, too, and then trained them to perform the city run. “They would never take the time to do that in Hollywood—they would just simply CGI it,” Miller says.
There was a limited amount of runs the crew could do—no more than three or four runs in one day, and there was a two-week period in between the run days. “That’s because they were running on pavement,” Miller says. “We put some foot conditioner on them, and some of them naturally had tough paws, but when you’re doing that fast of a run that many times, it’s going to wear down their pads.”
It was all quite organized. The dogs would run from point A to point B, then they would be walked back to the start position to do it all over again. “The dogs were really into it, and to see the change in the shelter dogs, the confidence that was built, their composure—you could just see they had a purpose,” Miller says.
Some good news: Many of those shelter dogs were adopted after filming. Meanwhile, Luke and Body now live with Miller in Los Angeles, where they like to cuddle on the couch with her and her cat.
White Dog opens in New York, Toronto, and other cities on March 27 before going into wider release in April.