Whale Rider to Mulan – A Profile of Niki Caro
New Zealand-born Niki Caro caught the world’s attention in 2002 with her first major film, Whale Rider. The film tells the story of a Maori girl who defies her grandfather in her quest to become the next leader of her village, a role traditionally reserved for males. The film’s young star, Keisha Castle-Hughes, received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her role as Pai. She was the youngest person at that time to be nominated. Most recently, Caro directed Disney’s live-action version of Mulan. In this profile, we’ll learn about Niki Caro and the films she’s made.
Awards for Whale Rider
Whale Rider won many awards, including the Toronto International Film Festival’s AGF Peoples Choice award in September 2002 and the World Cinema Audience award at the January 2003 Sundance Film Festival in the United States. It also won the Canal Plus Award at the January 2003 Rotterdam Film Festival. It includes a wonderful music score by Lisa Gerrard. Gerrard co-founded the Australian band, Dead Can Dance.
From Sculpture to Film
Born in 1966 in Wellington, New Zealand, Niki Caro entered the film world indirectly. At first interested in metal sculpture as an art school student, film soon became her main interest. “A bunch of us taught ourselves,” she said in a 2009 interview. “I remember it taking months of trying to figure out how to do it from books. I was way too frightened to ring a filmmaker. But I’m a New Zealander, and I was going to figure it out.”
Caro has become an important director and part of the New Zealand film scene. Other female directors from New Zealand include Jane Campion (Portrait of a Lady, The Piano), Merata Mita (To Love A Maori) and Christine Jeffs (Rain, Sylvia), among others.
“Directing is the part of filmmaking I most love: that collaboration that’s different every time,” Caro said in a 2009 interview. However, she added, “The enduring lack of leadership opportunities made available to women in Hollywood is simply horrific.”
Strong female protagonists
From the girl who defies her grandfather and rides a whale in Whale Rider to the girl who defies her parents and becomes a warrior in Mulan, Caro’s films generally feature strong female protagonists. In fact, Mulan drew Caro because of the story’s similarities to Whale Rider. Mulan tells the story of a young village woman who secretly replaces her ailing father when the Chinese Imperial Army demands that every family contribute one member to join an epic battle.
Mulan: on time and under budget
When Disney first asked Caro to direct Mulan in early 2017, she was one of just two women filmmakers ever hired to run a film with a budget of more than $100 million. Two years later, the total has grown to just four.
“[Disney was] extremely happy because we brought the film in on time. I mean, only 84 days, which is really a tiny number of days for filming at this size and scale. And slightly under budget,” Caro said.
“They ask themselves why, and I tell them it’s because the film was run by women,” she went on. “Of course, you know, being women, we are extremely well prepared, and we were extremely communicative.”
A Landmark for Women Filmmakers
Caro pointed out that Mulan is a “landmark for representation not just for having a woman director, but also for having a female director of photography in Mandy Walker (Hidden Figures) and a female first assistant director, Liz Tan (Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Hobbit Trilogy).”