Animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller is used to working with furry performers, but she says the Hungarian film White God was especially challenging. "This wasn't necessarily a film with an animal in it," Miller tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It was a dog leading the film and telling the story."
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, White God tells the story of a mixed-breed dog, Hagen, who is abandoned alongside a highway and who then bands together with other discarded dogs to get revenge against the people who have mistreated them.
Miller helped cast and train the two dogs who shared the role of Hagen. She says that casting was particularly difficult: "Kornél [Mundruczó] ... was very clear that this one lead dog had to be different than the other 250 dogs around him, mixed breeds. So there's a challenge right there to find that one-in-a-million dog; however, he needed to have a photo double just for the amount of work that was scripted ... so it was a two-in-a-million dog that we were looking for."
Miller's father, Karl Miller, was an animal trainer who worked on films like Beethoven and Cujo, and who frequently brought animals home with him. "It was such an experience growing up to be surrounded by so many critters," she says. "We had chickens one day, a little raccoon the next day. We even had a seal in our bathtub one time overnight because my dad was working with the seal the next day."
On casting the lead dog in White God
It was actually first based on his appearance, which sometimes it is here — that's kind of Hollywood, right? ... It was appearance first, and, of course, we wanted to be sure he was great with kids. And this dog had grown up in a family with small children and what have you, so we knew he would be good with kids. And from then on the challenge was exposing him to everything. He had never been out of his front yard. He lived in a very small town in Arizona, hadn't seen very many things, hadn't seen cars in traffic. And it actually added to our experience in Budapest and added to [his] experience on film, seeing things for the first time.
On how a trainer uses body language and voice to affect dog behavior
Everything that the dog does is a reflection of either my body language or my tone of voice. ... In a lot of your obedience ... work you give very, very direct cues ... one-word and one-syllable commands to the dog. And you get a quick reaction to what you're asking him to do, ultimately. So you would tell him to sit, stay, come, what have you.
When you're working with animals in film, what we do is we use a much more relaxed attitude, a much more relaxed and loose personality in ourselves. So I might say, "Hey, get over there and stay. No, stay, look ..." and that keeps him looking and keeps him guessing and gives him a little bit more range to be able to see what's going on around him, and yet I can keep his attention at the same time.
On how she gets a dog to look sad
To look sad and lost, what I do is just talk very slow. "Put your head down and leave it and just watch," and they might sulk their head down a little bit and sulk their ears down. ... I'll just talk to him in that tone and then I'll tell him to "speak real easy" and he might give a little bit of a cry. ... He'll just react off my voice and off my body language and the kind of looks that I want him to get. I might have my assistant co-trainer just shuffle feet a little bit on the ground and get him to look to the left and to look to the right. Everything done very low-key, very sad, very slow tone. ...
It's all part of the training that we do, really. It takes a good couple of months to get where we're in tune that way and he knows to kind of mirror my voice and my body language.
On the scene in White God where 250 dogs run through the streets of Budapest
It was important to [director Kornél Mundruczó] that he didn't have a human's perception of what a pack of running dogs should look like. He wanted it as true and as real as possible. Originally they were happy to get 100 dogs running together, and then [trainer] Árpád Halász said, "What about 150?" And 150 looked so good that he says, "What about 200?" And each time Árpád learned, as he acquired the dogs and introduced other dogs into the pack, that it was possible. ...
They had four months to prepare it. Árpád Halász has a beautiful dog school there outside of Budapest where he teaches fly ball and obedience and all your dog sports, and so he has a lot of contacts to a lot of dog owners besides his own dogs that he trains for local movies. ... What pushed the endeavor another step was the fact that production and he made contact with the local animal shelter and actually incorporated animals from the shelter into that running pack as well. And that was amazing to see; that was fascinating. I've never seen it done. I've never seen such a large pack of dogs run together. And, quite honestly, I don't think we'd ever do it here [in the U.S.] just for the time that it takes. It's so much easier just to CGI it, but the director didn't want that effect at all.
On her father bringing dogs used in famous films home with him
[We had the Beethoven] Saint Bernards at the house, Great Danes at the house growing up. Even stranger than that, my father did Cujo as well ... and [in the film] he gets rabies, terrorizes this whole little Western coast or what have you. ... I knew the dogs as pets and never had any qualms ... and it wasn't until I saw the movie — I was honest-to-God terrified of these dogs after seeing the movie. I just couldn't believe it. It was then scary to go in the backyard at night and see one standing there looking at you. ... That was my dad's specialty, doing the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde kind of characters.
On how working with cats and other animals differs from working with dogs
A dog is the only animal that genuinely wants your attention and your affection and praise. Working with the other animals is typically working with food reward. And it doesn't mean starve the animal; it just means, when the animal is in training, that he's learning while he's getting his breakfast, lunch and dinner. So he's not being deprived in any way, it's just that while ... he's learning he's getting his regular meals.
The difference also, being on a project where I might have one or two dogs to play the role of the lead character; with a cat, you probably have four or five cats because, again, you don't have that food drive for very long. Once they get a little full, now they're not interested in working anymore ... so you bring in the second cat to try to continue your day and work out for the rest of the scene. It is quite different working with them, but you still can teach them how to retrieve, how to go from point A to point B, how to go and rub up on an actor. You've seen it in all your cat commercials or what have you, so there's quite a bit you can still teach them to do.
On how animal training has changed over the years
They say, years before, if they used to do a film and the horses were running and they needed them to fall, they'd put a cable there and trip them and simply have them fall. And horses broke their legs, they broke their necks ... but it was just a horse — in their thinking, it's just a piece of livestock. ... None of that is acceptable anymore. Now they train horses to fall. It's beautiful. They train horses to fall, and the ground is soft and they have it padded and we know exactly where and when it's going to happen, and nobody is going to get hurt.
Science journalist Anil Ananthaswamy thinks a lot about "self" – not necessarily himself, but the role the brain plays in our notions of self and existence.
In his new book, The Man Who Wasn't There, Ananthaswamy examines the ways people think of themselves. And how those perceptions can be distorted by brain conditions, such as Alzheimer's disease, Cotard's syndrome and Body Integrity Identity Disorder, a psychological condition in which a patient perceives that a body part is not his own.
Ananthaswamy tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about a patient with BIID who became so convinced that a healthy leg wasn't his own that he eventually underwent an amputation of the limb.
"Within 12 hours, this patient that I saw, he was sitting up and there was no regret. He really seemed fine with having given up his leg," Ananthaswamy says.
Ultimately, Ananthaswamy says, our sense of self is a layered one, which pulls information from varying parts of the brain to create a sense of narrative self, bodily self and spiritual self: "What it comes down to is this sense we have of being someone or something to which things are happening. It's there when we wake up in the morning, it kind of disappears when we go to sleep, it reappears in our dreams, and it's also this sense we have of being an entity that spans time."
On how to define "self"
When you ask someone, "Who are you?" You're most likely to get a kind of narrative answer, "I am so-and-so, I'm a father, I'm son." They are going to tell you a kind of story they have in their heads about themselves, the story that they tell to themselves and to others, and in some sense that's what can be called the narrative self. ...
There are also other ways of thinking about the self. For instance, you and I right now are probably sitting on our chairs, and we have a sense of being a body that is in one place and we can feel sensations in our body. ...
We can think back to our earliest memories, we can imagine ourselves in the future, and whatever perceptions arise when we remember or when we imagine, whatever emotions arise, they again feel like they're happening to the same person. So all of these things put together, in some sense, can be called our sense of self.
On Cotard's syndrome, in which a person believes he or she is already dead
Cotard's Syndrome was something that was first identified by a French doctor in the late 1800s, his name was Jules Cotard and it's named after him. It's a constellation of symptoms ... and the most characteristic symptom is the situation where people say that they don't exist. This is a perception that they have, and you cannot rationalize, you cannot really give them evidence to the contrary and expect them to change their mind. It is a complete conviction that they have that they don't exist. ... It's very, very paradoxical. It poses a great philosophical challenge to people who are trying to understand what it means to say "I exist" or "I don't exist." It also makes you wonder about all the other things that we are certain about, like you and I probably are very certain that we exist, well, these people are just as certain that they don't. So it makes you question about perceptions that arise in the brain and somehow, in this case, the delusion is so complete and so convincing that you really cannot shake their conviction that they are dead.
On what brain imaging of a patient with Cotard's syndrome shows us
What seems to be happening is that there is a network in the brain that is responsible for internal awareness, awareness of our own body, awareness of our emotions, awareness of our self-related thoughts and in Cotard's, it seems like that particular network is tamped down. In some sense, their own experience of their body, in all its vividness, in experience of their own emotions in all its vividness, that's compromised very severely. In some sense they're not feeling themselves vividly. It's as simple as that. But, then there's something else that's happening in the brain. It seems like parts of the brain that are responsible for rational thought are also damaged. First of all, what might be happening is a perception that arises in their brain saying that they are dead because they're not literally perceiving their own body and body states and emotions vividly and then that perception — irrational though it is — is not being shot down.
On Body Integrity Identity Disorder, which causes a person to believe that a body part is not his or her own
It really is a very disturbing condition in the sense that it's not something you would normally ever experience. ... If you look at your hand, there is no doubt in your mind that it is your hand. Now imagine you looked at your hand and it didn't feel like yours and it didn't feel like yours for 20, 30 years, it could be a very debilitating thing. It seems to be like that for people experiencing or suffering from BIID. They do take extreme measures. It's basically a mismatch between the internal perception they have of their own body and the physical body and what's intriguing and interesting in terms of the self is that what is most important for our sense of self, our bodily self, is the internal perception of it. You can look at your body and you can see your hand or leg that is fully functional, and yet if it doesn't feel like yours. The feeling is the much more important part of one's self, not the fact that you can see it and you can function with this leg.
On a patient with BIID who got his leg amputated
I talked to him a few times before the operation trying to find out what it was really that he was suffering from and he really felt like this leg, part of his leg, was not his, it was really something he didn't want. He would try a whole range of things to make it seem as if he didn't have it. He would fold his leg and pretend it wasn't there, he would push it to one side, it really seemed to ruin his life. I remember asking him once, "So what does it exactly feel like?" he says, "It feels like my soul doesn't extend into that part of my leg." ...
One way to kind of understand might be happening in BIID is actually to look at the converse problem. Most people by now will be really well aware of this phenomenon called Phantom limbs [syndrome] where you actually have an amputation because of some unfortunate accident or infection and you lose an arm or a leg. Many people continue to feel that the limb still exists and some people even feel pain in that imaginary limb. What that's telling you is what you are perceiving as your limb is actually some representation of the limb in your brain, not the physical limb.
On how Alzheimer's disease affects the narrative self
Alzheimer's disease ... unfortunately literally erases a very important part of our sense of self, which is the narrative that we have in our heads about who we are. This narrative is something that the brain constructs and we're not even aware that it's actually a constructed thing. When we just think of ourselves we have this expansive narrative inside us about who we are and what Alzheimer's unfortunately does is it puts a stop to the narrative forming. So because short-term memory formation is impaired it becomes harder and harder for a person with Alzheimer's to start having new memories, and once you stop having or forming new memories, these memories don't get incorporated into your narrative. So, in some sense, your narrative stops forming. As the disease progresses it starts eating away at the existing narrative. It starts basically destroying a whole range of memories that go toward constituting the person that you are. ...
In terms of talking about the self, what this is telling you is that the self is multilayered. There's a narrative component to it, and what Alzheimer's seems to be doing is destroying the narrative component to the point that the person really cannot recognize anyone. ... We really don't know what the situation is from the perspective of the person suffering from Alzheimer's, especially late stage Alzheimer's.