Niki Caro seemed to have come from nowhere when her Whale Rider won standing ovations at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals. Taking her time to select her next directorial project, Caro selected North Country a sometimes dark but hopeful account of a woman’s uncompromising stand against intense sexual discrimination in the mining industry. Already once again winning raves, Caro is happy to take her success one step at a time. She spoke to Garth Franklin.
Question: After the success of “Whale Rider,” were you selective about your next project? Was Hollywood too irresistible?
Niki Caro: It wasn’t too irresistible at all, I resisted doing anything because I’ve been the go-to director after “Whale Rider,” but I had a baby simultaneously, so I was just at home in New Zealand being a new mother and not thinking about making another movie at all. But I was sent a lot of stuff as you can imagine, and I didn’t like anything except this. I could not put this one down.
Question: What made this one so interesting?
Niki Caro: It was better than anything else. I couldn’t believe that these events had happened in such recent history. I was shocked that a studio was making this film and very impressed. I just couldn’t let it go really. It was a film that deserved to be made.
Question: Talk about the soundtrack …
Niki Caro: (happily) Oh, I’m the producer of that. It thrills me to the core.
Question: There’s Bob Dylan from Minnesota, but is there another aspect of him that made him appropriate for this film?
Niki Caro: Good question. When you’re cutting the film, you put a lot of music in the picture to see what works. I’m a big Dylan fan, but I’m an equally big Springsteen fan. I tried some of Springsteen’s stuff in the movie and it just wouldn’t work. When I thought about it, when I really stopped to think about his music: It’s very narrative, but it’s almost exclusively from the point of view of the young American male and the working class world. Then everything of Dylan’s I put in the picture worked just like a charm. So we went to him to see if he’d write an original song for us. I went to meet him. I went from Auckland, New Zealand to Camden, New Jersey, which is a long trip just for a day to join him briefly on his tour and discuss the movie with him. It was great. And then I just put more and more Dylan songs.
Question: Was Charlize Theron on board when you joined, or both of you at the same time?
Niki Caro: We were stalking one another. We were running circles around each other at that time because our films were being distributed by that guy. And we love him, and we’re both the spawn of Bob Birney. So when we met, we had so much in common. We both loved the story and we had very, very similar ideas of what the film should be. It’s like a really great first date.
Question: Describe the atmosphere on set. Charlize didn’t go into detail about the jokes, etc.
Niki Caro: So she didn’t tell you then that she was sexually harassing everybody, all the time. I was a willing accomplice. For a film that carries a great deal of psychological weight, and for a film that has such great actors, giving us such great performances, it was a very un- working environment. The actresses were very playful, shall we say. I can’t tell you what they did or what they said because it’s obscene. One thing I will tell you because it’s my last, you get to hear it. I’ve done 50 television interview back-to-back yesterday, and nobody knows this. You guys know what a white dog is? It’s a drink in a shot glass made up of whiskey and Jillian Armenante’s (who plays Peg) breast milk.) It’s delicious. Because Gillian was breastfeeding at the time, because when we went out, she had to pump, and she couldn’t be drinking and giving milk to the baby, she would make these drinks and hand them around. You probably shouldn’t mention that, it’s for your own edification. But there’s something really satisfying about, that’s really making a girl’s movie. That’s really hard core. There’s nothing chick flick about that.
Question: With women the majority of the population, why are Hollywood movies for women (chick flicks, etc) so condescending?
Niki Caro: I can’t speak with any authority about Hollywood because I’m not from here. I’m a tourist. I’ve made one film and I made it completely on my own terms. I think Hollywood is going to open up to the female experience, not because it’s socially conscious, but out of necessity. And because those are the stories now that are going be rare and unusual and just material that hasn’t been overmined, to use a mining analogy. Those just seem to be the fresh stories now. And if a film like this can be successful, then hopefully we can see a lot more films of this kind of nature.
Question: As a tourist, how do you approach this very regional story?
Niki Caro: The same way I approached “Whale Rider.” Even though it’s a New Zealand story, I’m a total tourist in the Maori world. And so I approach it with humility, respect and I go into those communities asking for their collaboration and never expect it. I’ve always got it in the end. I love making films that way.