Film Notes: Training Dogs for the film “White God”

Animal trainer Teresa Miller’s canine cast is Oscar-worthy
By Cameron Woo, Devon Ashby, July 2015, Updated September 2015

White God, the latest film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, is a tale of politics, class and society. The movie tells the story of a group of unruly canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-conservatism, to construct a fast- paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.

The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it. Though the film has a fairy tale quality, it is strictly adult fare and not suitable for children. There are scenes of violence and inhumanity that may prove upsetting to any animal lover.

Still, White God is a cinematic triumph—all of the filming is live action using real dogs—hundreds of them. Atypical for this day and age, the filmmakers avoided computer generated imagery (CGI). That choice lends the film a level of reality and surrealness unlike any film before it. The complexity of the crowd scenes and action sequences has to be seen to be believed, made all the more incredible when you know the task the film’s animal trainers were faced with. The trainer for White God’ is Teresa Miller, she and the director, Kornél Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film. Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film.

TRAINER: TERESA MILLER

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To cast the right dog to play Hagen, I literally researched hundreds of dogs that were available to be adopted. I started locally in California and branched further West, as Kornél had not yet seen “Hagen” in my pictures. It was important to not only find that unique dog that would stand out in a pack of 200 dogs but also a dog that had a photo double. The amount of work that the dog had to do in this film would have been nearly impossible without the help of a double. After two months of searching I finally found “Luke” and “Bodie,” two brothers that were in need of a new home. They were very young—nine months old—and had a lot of energy and playfulness which was essential to accomplish this project. We began training in December of 2012 and in February 2013, traveled to Budapest to begin working with the pack dogs, trained by Arpad Halasz. The “Hagen” dogs were 13 months old when we started filming.

I have been training animals for the film industry since 1983. I worked very closely and learned most of my trade by working with my father, Karl Lewis Miller, for more than 20 years. He is responsible for many successful animal films such as Beethoven, Babe, K-9 and the infamous dog Cujo and the white Shepherd from Samuel Fuller’s film White Dog, to name a few. He was a master at training acting dogs, not just dogs that performed.

While preparing the dogs for the film White God, many training techniques were used to safely portray the level of violence that is depicted in the film. At no time was any animal treated badly or hurt in any manner. For example: The “Hagen” dogs were always wagging their tail and they looked too sweet, so I taught them to put their tail down. I also taught them to hang their head down to look sad or mean. We used an artificial dog for the scenes of medical and dental work. I also taught him to snarl and growl at me—not because he was angry, but because I asked him to respond to me that way.

DIRECTOR: KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ

It was a therapeutic experience. It was like coming into contact with Mother Nature herself or even a bit of the Universe: It was the big picture. It was a shooting process where we had to adjust to them, and not the other way around. The film is an outstanding example of the singular cooperation between two species. It was also an uplifting experience because each dog that appeared in the film came to us from shelters, and after the shooting ended, they were all adopted and found new homes.

While cooperating with the dogs, we adhered to the instructions of the U.S. Guide to Animal Treatment in all cases. Each scene had to be playful and painless for the animals. In a sense, the dogs became actors and the actors became dogs.

 

Cameron Woo is The Bark's co-founder and publisher.