How 200 Dogs Were Trained to Act in 'WHITE GOD'

Talking to Teresa Ann Miller, the main animal trainer behind Kornél Mundruczó's award-winning film, 'WHITE GOD.'

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Apr 15 2015, 10:00pm

Zsófia Psotta in WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

[This post contains spoilers for Kornél Mundruczó's WHITE GOD.]

A 12-year-old on a bicycle, and two hundred wild dogs chasing after her, running full speed through the streets of Budapest. So begins Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó's film WHITE GOD (Magnolia Pictures), winner of the Un Certain Regard prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, now in theaters in the US. This visually-arresting sequence represents an uprising—a marginalized species against their so-called masters, all intended by the director to serve as a metaphor for current sociopolitical tensions in Europe. The allegory is upheld by the cutting performances delivered by the dogs in the film, Mundruczó allowing them to stand as characters worthy of recognition; strong and complex beasts that we have dominated and devalued, reclaiming the world for themselves: 200 creatures eclipsing the "White God" on her bicycle and knocking her to the ground.

Teresa Ann Miller is the animal trainer responsible for finding, training, and coaching the two dogs who played White God’s lead character, Hagen, through their performances; Luke and Bodie, two mixed-breed brothers from Arizona realized the part of Hagen, under the careful and specialized direction of Ms. Miller. She first trained under the tutelage of her father, animal trainer Karl Lee Miller, who worked readying domestic animals for the camera for 40 years before her. Mr. Miller is well known for animal-centric films including Babe, Beethoven, and Cujo, and, like his daughter, specializes in eliciting unique and realistic performances from domesticated animals. We called Ms. Miller to talk about filming WHITE GOD, her training process, and the realities of animal performance.

A scene from WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

The Creators Project: What goes into training an acting dog, versus a performing dog? Would you qualify all 200-225 dogs in WHITE GOD as acting dogs?

Teresa Ann Miller: The coordinator that I worked with in Budapest was in charge of putting together all the street dogs and pack dogs. He hooked up with the animal shelter to bring those dogs to his ranch a few times a week and give them a chance to mingle with each other and run A to B, and what have you. They didn’t necessarily get any acting training or coaching; they were just taught to run from A to B.

How was the style of training for Luke and Bodie different from that of the rest of the dogs?

Marlene [the canine supporting character] and Hagen had specific characters to play in the movie, and so they got more specialty training, which concentrates more on having the animal appear to be natural and like an untrained animal. The difference is that a lot of performing animals—trick animals, or dogs that do tricks—they’re taught a routine, and they’re taught to perform that routine, which is very impressive. What we do in a film environment is very different because we have so many distractions—all the cameras, the crew, the equipment, and everything else—but our dogs are also taught to relate and work with absolute strangers. That’s the kind of thing that we focus on is teaching our animals to act with human actors or other animals in the film, and not just performing random tricks.

Zsófia Psotta and Bodie in WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Hagen and Marlene are such crucial characters in the story, and their complex emotional journeys are expressed solely through their physical body language—yet the dogs’ expressions are so familiar, even human-like, that it’s easy to follow their drama. I’m curious as to how much of your own self went into these roles, or how much of the parts did you have to take on in order to pull these performances out of these dogs?

Everything that they do and every reaction they have is a reflection of my persona at the time. If it calls for the dog to be happy and peppy and running around, then I’m going to be happy. And then if it calls for the dog to be more serious, I’m going to change my demeanor, I’m gonna bring it down and say, “I need you to come here and I need you to slow down and stay, and I need you to put your head down,” and they reflect that. They reflect the tone and my body language, and it is very personal. It’s very much so a reflection off the emotion that I’m giving off at the time.

A scene from WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

What was the relationship between the two dogs like?

They’re very funny. They are brothers, and you can tell they have almost a "twins" relationship. They have the same responses and the same little mannerisms and such. Out in the yard they’ll lay next to each other in the same way, or they’ll sit next to each other in the same way and watch the birds around them. It’s very interesting to see that link. But, personality-wise, they couldn’t be more different. One is very reserved, very stoic. He’s the thinker—and that’s Bodie. And then his brother [Luke] is the absolute nut. Everything he does is overpronounced. But that’s what really enriched the character of Hagen; I had both dogs, and both personalities, to enrich that one character’s card.

Did you have different dogs play scenes with different emotional charge? Did one take the lead more often than the other?

Each one is trained pretty much on the same level, and what happens in training is you discover which way each dog does that behavior. If we wanted it to be a little sillier, we would use Luke. If we wanted it to be more focused and more stoic, we’d use Bodie. But interestingly enough, in the scenes where the dog is snarling and showing his teeth at peak level, that’s actually Luke. And he just happens to be better at it than Bodie, because Bodie doesn’t show any teeth. It’s really a beautiful balance between the dogs.

Bodie in WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I know you worked with these dogs in the most humane way possible, but you did have to teach them to emulate violent behaviors, even if they weren’t enacting violence? I was wondering what kind of triggers you used to train them, and if you had to resocialize them at all after filming was complete?

These animals are my work and my job, but they’re also my pets. They’re with me 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we’re close. Besides making sure of their safety, I have a responsibility as a pet owner to ensure stable mental health. What we really do is make it 100% safe to have them on a set. And remember, they’re working with this 12-year-old girl, so there’s nothing that I would personally do to make them an unfit dog or unfit stable mental character, but part of the training that we do is to simulate it. 

A scene from WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

What went into training two dogs to act together, as in the simulated dogfight?

We had two months to train for that. We worked for a month in Los Angeles with the rottweiler and his specialty trainer. That’s Alvin Mears, and that’s his specialty—simulating dogfights. Again it was Luke, the silly dog, who actually was best at that because [the two dogs] liked to play and wrestle so much. And that was a matter of introducing them and letting them have playdates, but then the only time that they could play together was there in the arena. Once we went over to Budapest, they built the set a month in advance so that now, after traveling and being in a new location, we could get the dogs used to that being their new playpen. And the set dresser would gradually age it and dress it and bring in all the other cages and distractions, so that at the playdates, there was never anything drastically different that would distract the dogs. We taught them over a month’s time to be comfortable and playful in having their wrestling matches.

A scene from WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

How long did it take to shoot that scene?

When it came to filming, we were shooting in and around that location for a week and we actually shot the [dogfight scene] over a five-day period, because you know, after two or three minutes, they don’t want to play anymore, they’re done, and now they want to sniff, and now they want to go look for the wild ducks and cats in the back. And so over five days we would do two matches a day, and let them play in the morning because it was fresh and cool, and when it was clear that they were done, we’d go on and shoot the rest of our day. And when it was time, we’d come back and do an evening session, just because they hadn’t seen each other all day, to let them play. And that went on for five days of filming, with a total of five weeks of training before we were filming.

A scene from WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Such a painstaking process…

Yes it is. It takes a lot of time.

It is a lot of time, although I have to say I was surprised at how short a time you had known the dogs for before filming, because of the intimate performances that you elicited. You only had them for a few months before filming began.

In the big picture, it is very short. I acquired them in October, and they were 10 months old, and we started filming in February, so yes, four months of socialization and training. Really, their naiveté and their youth, and the fact that they had never traveled—I found them in a small neighborhood in Arizona—a lot of them seeing the world for the first time, like Hagen, was expressed in the film. You could see some of his reactions to a boat on the water, hearing a horn honk, and really part of the training and work that we do with the animals is allowing them to also incorporate their natural behaviors into what we’re asking them to do, and that’s how you get the best, natural performance from an animal.

Animal trainer Teresa Miller with director Kornél Mundruczó on the set of WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Is there anything else you’d like to say about your experience with these dogs, working on the film?

I guess the main thing, in working with that many street dogs and shelter dogs is that originally these were unwanted animals living in a shelter, and in the process of working with them and taking them to the ranch and running them every day, they just became such different dogs. I mean, they were dogs with a purpose now. I think that’s really what made them so adoptable, and from what I understand, 98% of them were adopted after working with us on the film, and it’s just from the socialization and handling, and the teaching them to walk on a leash that the Hungarian trainers gave them. So I’m pretty proud of that point, and of being a part of that. It’s very cool.

Director Kornél Mundruczó on the set of WHITE GOD, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

For more inspiring stories of fearless filmmaking, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema:

WHITE GOD is now playing in theaters. 

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