White God represents a virtuoso blend of thriller and melodrama, peppered with a healthy dose of magic realism. For its creator, Kornél Mundruczó, it represents a change in direction; a daring excursion into exciting cinematic territory, influenced as much by La Haine as it is Homeward Bound. HeyUGuys chatted to Kornél about this great new movie, how he managed to control 250 dogs, and where it might lead him next.
Yeah, it was the plan from the very beginning actually. I had a problem with my previous movie called The Frankenstein Project, and I said, ‘it’s not really dealing with my reality, where I am living’. So I just recognised this whole layer of ideology and reality and where other realities comes together, so I can continue with that fusion in movies. So I said that I must find something that I can reflect to my reality, and it was difficult to find a topic behind this idea. Then I went to a dog pound and I found it – because I said I can tell, or re-tell, a story through an animal’s eyes which may not be easy to tell with humans. So of course, it was really planned, and still I cried so much over this topic! ..
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian described your film as Hitchcockian; like The Birds, but with dogs instead. Did you have any directors, like maybe Hitchcock in mind, when you were making the film?
Yeah, actually it was Hitchcock as well, because of his psychological substance, and also he would like to tell tales. I quite liked those ideas and images that he created, they’re really close to me. And several others, too; I quite like the movies by Werner Herzog for instance, especially the early period of films. And when I use 250 dogs, I start to see unique images like what he’s creating. So of course, it’s far – it’s not a one-by-one relation – but still, it’s really a relation. And also I like melodramas very much, so I felt it’s not very far as well, this movie, which is the connection between the little girl and the dog – it’s like in those Spielberg movies, like E.T. or classical melodramas. I would like it to be as innocent as we can, like in our childhood.
So you were thinking of Spielberg and Hitchcock. You’ve got a blend of mainstream, commercial movies and more high-brow, intelligent movie-making going on in the film. That brings me to my next question: I think my favourite sections of the film were when we were following Hagel (the dog) and seeing the world very much through his eyes. Those sequences kind of reminded me of silent cinema. Did you think of silent film when you were doing those sequences?
This is a silent film, actually. When I called the lead trainer and I told her, ‘oh, this is the script so please read it, I would like to do work with you’, her first question was, ‘are the animals talking?’ And I said, ‘no’. And she said, ‘then I would like to do it immediately’. Because most of the animals are talking in movies, and you know, that sort of thing. But the animals are not talking (in White God). So of course it’s closer to the logic of the silent cinema, So the consequences of being silent, of course, is that we use a lot of sound, and really created a good sound. The visuality of course, is very important, but 50% for the sound – believe me.
How much went into the sound design?
Very much. Of course, we almost have no realistic dog sounds in it, because the trainer’s always talking, and there were lots of other noise, of course during – for example – during the fighting. And those sounds we do not use. We do the foilies, actually in Sweden, with such an amazing group – four boys from the North of Sweden – and they do everything. So there is lots of human tone in it, same for the dogs as well. And that’s what makes it a really interesting process; how they’re creating all this stylised sounds which have imagination, much more than real sounds.
Going back to the very beginning of the film, the very first scene / shot we see is Lily riding her bike through a deserted street, and then the dogs appear. That really reminded me – because I didn’t know anything about the film going in – I actually thought it was a science-fiction film, because it reminded me of 28 Days Later. And then you see all these dogs run around the corner, and it becomes something else entirely. How was it working with so many dogs all at once? Did you leave it to other people, or did you have an exact plan for what you wanted them to do?
Actually, that first sequence was one of the most ancient images in my mind, the one I would really like to shoot, because that was somehow the one that most excited me. That was really somehow like a painting. It was really inside my mind; so of course, it was planned, but how it became was lots of creativity by the trainers as well, and of course we tried to close the city. In one hand, because of practical reasons, if you work with 250 dogs then you need to block the area. But at the same time, I think the image also helps a lot; it really tells you empty, empty, empty city, spells a lot of fear immediately, and this is also like an unknown image. So you say science-fiction, but you say so because it’s unknown; it’s like science-fiction, because the city is always crowded. So that was it. So it was a mixture of planning to do something, and also a lot of creativity by the crew and lots of practical things; but this is filmmaking, always, so if you’re working with real things. If you’re working with CGI you can plan more, but if you don’t use CGI, it’s totally real.
And it does look fantastic. You said that image was a really exciting one for you. Do you feel like with, not only White God, but your other films, that you have an image in your mind, and that’s what drives you to make the film?
Yeah, yeah, a lot. Always, I have some sentiment, somehow, somewhere when I shoot a movie – almost a whole movie. It’s also something which is like, always knowing the nature of the image that I would really like to create. In one hand, it is totally literature, of course, but in another hand, I think it’s more important somehow that it’s closer to dreams, and closer to music somehow – we can quite forget that, because we really are satisfied if the story is tricky and politically correct. But film, you know, just if you started to flow with the movie, and you don’t exactly what’s really happened in you, but this is a ride and this is also close also to the imagination of the dream and how these fairytales in your mind are working. I’m closer to that, to be honest, which is not in any way contempt; I am not very up to date. I’m from the ’90s, so I really grew up with those images, so I’m quite touched by that. That’s why I try to use, always, some sentiment.
I think that’s a great way of thinking about it, because at the end of the day, films are dreams – but made reality.
Yeah, absolutely. They make their own reality, and maybe change your reality later on. Of course. And if you are just inside the cinema, and you feel like you just read a book, then go home and read a book! (laughs) We need something else, which we are forgetting. Of course, we get so many comedies, and entertaining comedies, but still it’s closer to theatre – so it’s not cinema, and I really, really like cinema. I remember for the first time, I was really young like 15 or 14 years old, when I went to watch a Kurosawa movie with the samurais. It’s always burning through into my retinas, and I think, ‘this is cinema. This is something that you can tell without words. This is something that you can tell just on film.’ I think somewhere inside, like a seventh sense – you can follow those images and believe them.
In your director’s statement in the press release for White God, you mention that White God is the first instalment in a ‘genre experiment’. Is there more to come in this vein of film?
Hopefully. Let’s say that after 10 years of filmmaking, which is ending with my previous film The Frankenstein Project, I am finishing something. So this movie is kind of like a first movie for me, because we took a lot of risks, and we don’t know what comes out, even; it was fun to make such a mixture like this one. So of course, I would like to follow on with this type (of film) – I like taking risks, and trying to make those movies. And I think you can make art if you take risks. If not, then it’s something – but not very close to art.
White God is released in cinemas Friday 27th February. Read our review here.