Spring 2016

Powerful People

Niki Caro’s films—from Whale Rider to the upcoming Nazi-era drama The Zookeeper’s Wife— have dealt with strong women testing their courage and strength. She should know.

By F.X. Feeney

Director Niki Caro (Photo: Howard Wise)

"Elephants are fascinating," says director Niki Caro. "They get really bored, because they’re super-smart. They can only work for an hour and a half—and then they need to go and have a little break." Caro laughs as she recalls one of the directorial problems she had to solve in the making of her upcoming film, The Zookeeper’s Wife.

Best known for her international hit Whale Rider (2002), the New Zealand-born Caro has also directed North Country (2005), a fictionalized account of the first successful sexual harassment suit in the United States; The Vintner’s Luck (2009), a poetic fusion of the earthy and supernatural; and McFarland, USA (2015), a well-woven sports drama. Most of her films are intimate epics of a woman finding her place in the world, and Zookeeper represents a return to the thematic power of Whale Rider, as a female protagonist again tests her courage and strength. And up next is a biopic about another strong woman, opera singer Maria Callas, which Caro hopes to shoot in the fall with Noomi Rapace in the lead role.

Realism is the guiding principle in each of Caro’s films, even if the main action involves something as mythic as a little girl riding a whale. "I have a commitment to real worlds on screen. I like working in real communities. I like telling real stories," says Caro. Even when there is an element of overt fantasy, she is adamant that the illusion be solid. Thus beached whales in Whale Rider were artfully sculpted, ultra-realistic puppets, as was the enormous mammal the heroine straddles at the story’s climax. And before Caro would agree to direct The Zookeeper’s Wife, she insisted on one condition: "No CG animals. This was a vision for the project so old school as to be exotic, but I wanted nothing I couldn’t film in-camera."

Caro’s attraction to the concrete is not surprising given her background. She entered art school in Auckland in her teens, studying sculpture. "I was always stealing 40-gallon drums off the road at night, bringing them back to the workshop and cutting them up with a gas axe because I loved to weld. I would make creatures out of these old metal drums. I had one exhibition; about 100 people came. I found it sad—and pretty unfulfilling—that my sculpture didn’t communicate in a more meaningful way. Everyone was standing around, drinking wine, having a good time, while I’m out in back of the place gnashing my teeth, going: ‘This isn’t quite the way I want it to be!’"

Make a narrative film, Caro thought, and nobody would mill about the room. From early girlhood, she had loved movies. "Being from New Zealand," she recalls, "my diet was incredible European cinema, [and] the rise of American independent movies was happening just as I began to want to make films. But I never saw my own world on screen until I saw [Jane Campion’s] Sweetie." Campion’s breakout 1989 drama about the turbulent bond between sisters, one of whom is mentally ill, appealed to Caro deeply. "I loved its familiar accent, the weird way it was framed, and that it had female protagonists. It was revelatory to me that you could do this."

Her art school supported her switch to filmmaking, but its facilities "embryonic. It wasn’t really a film department. My friends and I did our best with the equipment available, but I learned to make films by figuring it out." She remains essentially self-taught. Her mother typed up her scripts, and a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission funded her first short. "That got me into film school in Australia for a year," says Caro. "After that I went back to New Zealand, waitressed for 10 years, assisted on music videos or whatever was in production—small films, you name it."

Strength of Character:  Caro was drawn to Keisha Castle-Hughes’ stubborn, skeptical spirit when she was casting Whale Rider. (Photo: Kristy Cameron)

Caro’s apprenticeship included extensive work writing and directing for New Zealand television, as well as a first feature, Memory & Desire (1998). She then set her sights on Whale Rider, Witi Ihimaera’s novel about a Maori girl with a powerful destiny, as the basis for her second feature.

One benefit of Caro’s long years of self-reliance on exceedingly low budgets is that she attracts and is attracted to fellow do-it-yourselfers for whatever team she organizes. She was drawn to the 11-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ stubborn, skeptical spirit as she met hundreds of schoolchildren in casting Whale Rider. When Charlize Theron won an Academy Award for Monster in 2004, she was stunned by the excellence of Castle-Hughes’ also-nominated performance and began "secretly stalking" Caro, she joked in an interview in the Guardian. This led to their collaboration on North Country. Jessica Chastain’s avowed devotion to animals led her to pursue the lead in The Zookeeper’s Wife, and the actor’s passion became a key factor in the picture’s authenticity, says Caro. "There is no animal she will not get up close and personal with. This was fortunate, as we have a big sequence in the beginning of the movie where she is helping an elephant give birth. We shot that over two nights in an actual enclosure, with two real elephants. I try to cast actors willing to believe in the world of the movie, who can make an emotional investment in the world we are creating."

Caro starts from a place of loving her actors and can invite strong input because she already has her own strong vision. "I don’t have a lot of apparatus at the day’s start. I keep all lights off the set and block in a completely free environment, so I can see how they’re going to respond naturally." In that way she promotes discovery from her cast.

"I’m not at my house storyboarding, and telling them they need to move from A to B, ‘Move here and then there.’ Never, ever! I used to storyboard when I was much less experienced," says Caro. "Now I put faith in the actors" abilities to respond to their surroundings and my ability to record that faithfully."

For instance, the first scene she filmed on North Country was an explosive meeting in which Theron’s character, who had experienced sexual harassment in the iron mines of Minnesota, must face down the men in her union, some of whom have abused her. Caro filled the room with 300 men who worked in the mines and had hostile views of the real-life harassment case. No lines were scripted; three cameras rolled and, per her strategy with cinematographer Chris Menges, no lights were in evidence.

Dunking Theron into the hardest confrontation of the film was a baptism by fire that built mutual confidence and served another practical purpose. It was also designed to send a message to the executives viewing dailies back in Los Angeles. Being a young director on her first American movie, Caro took care to shoot dynamic scenes in the first week "so the studio could see the spine of the film" and be confident enough to stay off her back for the duration of the shoot.

"A lot is instinct as to what an actor needs," says Caro. "I treat every actor differently, trying to assess how I can best support them. ‘What, in this moment, do they need me to say to allow them to flourish?’" On Whale Rider, she simply told the city-born, "girly" Castle-Hughes to go barefoot: Wearing no shoes throughout the picture helped turn her into a country tomboy.

Caro does have an emotional beat list in mind that guides her through shooting, but usually she keeps it to herself. "I know the emotional temperature," she says. "How does it need to feel here, or there? I don’t tend to share that in advance. Thinking a film through emotionally is my overarching work."

She made an exception for Chastain on Zookeeper so that the actor wouldn’t feel lost in the maze of the story and the breathless pace. Caro devised a map of emotional beats for Chastain. "We called it ‘Jessica’s map,’ and charted her journey through the movie, emotionally." Still, Caro aims for economy: "The more I work—because I’m learning all the time—the more I appreciate that brevity is grace. The less you say, the more potent what you give them [becomes]—that’s where I strive to get to."

Based on Diane Ackerman’s 2007 bestseller, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Antonina Zabinska and her husband Jan, peace-loving operators of the Warsaw Zoo who are radicalized and join the resistance as they defend themselves, their son, and animals in their care from the brutality of Hitler’s invaders. Continuing to live in their villa on the zoo property, they elaborately hide hundreds of Jews in the basement under various cages, along with stores of explosives for what will become the Warsaw uprising.

Feeling It: (top) Caro built mutual confidence with Charlize Theron on North Country; (bottom) Caro devised "Jessica’s map" to guide Jessica Chastain through the maze of emotions in The Zookeeper’s Wife. (Photos: (top) Everett; (bottom) Anne Marie Fox/Focus Features)

The first order of business was finding a location to re-create the zoo. Caro sent production designer Suzie Davies ahead to scout Prague. "She took us to this hilly, neglected park—there was nothing there—and she said, ‘I think we can build a zoo here; we can re-create the villa there, and have this enormous set.’ I could completely see it. Credit to the producers, who maybe couldn’t see it quite the way Suzie and I could; they allowed us to make a real belle epoque zoo."

That environment freed Caro as a director. She and DP Andrij Parekh (Blue Valentine, Madame Bovary) devised a strategy for each staging area so they could move quickly from setup to setup without changing the lights. "On a huge set like this," says Caro, "a lot of the daytime light is available light. For big night exteriors, Andrij had banks of lights built, and they were up on cranes, so we basically had a 360-degree lit set, which was how we shot our huge elephant sequence over two nights. We had to factor in elephant fatigue and boredom, yet Andrij’s very fast, and I’m very fast," she says, mimicking a small machete: "Hack, hack," she says, laughing. "We’d still be there if we had to light every setup."

Making such a complex film on an unforgiving 46-day schedule required tight teamwork. Phil Booth, "a great 1st AD," was essential to maintaining a working tempo day to day that well served the rhythmic groove Caro set in motion.

Still, how did Caro create such a complex piece of history, realistically, without resorting to CGI? Part of it comes from her training, which taught her how to imply a large surrounding world in the space of a few well-chosen shots. "That," says Caro, "comes of a background in low-budget filmmaking—having no money, ever—and that habit of asking, ‘What can you do that expresses something big, without the enormous cannon or visual effects, without huge studio budgets?’"

Caro offered two scenes from Zookeeper as an example of how she works. The film’s opening scene, a summer morning at the zoo in 1939, was shot in early, magic-hour light under warm skies as Antonina (Chastain) makes her rounds of the cages, checks a wide assortment of animals, and ends by kicking off her shoes to help her husband (Johan Heldenbergh) bale a truckload of straw. Despite this rustic chore, her clothes are silky, her hairdo elegant. "Warsaw before the war was very cosmopolitan," says Caro"We wanted to express that good life right at the beginning of the movie, through the zoo." The feeling as the scene unfolds is of a single, continuous shot, though there are many delicate cuts and close-ups.

Caro shot the first crucial air-raid scene that will change everyone’s life, 30 minutes into the film, from Antonina’s viewpoint. "You don’t need a lot of CG planes," says Caro. So rather than show bombers filling the sky, she and editor David Coulson, with whom she’s worked since Whale Rider, focused on the animals in close-up as they become extremely agitated at the rumble of the approaching air raid. In reality their reaction was to some innocuous everyday noise, artfully cut together to look like peaks of distress, but the terror they communicate is honest and real. "It’s just cinema," Caro says of such conjuring, but for her there is moral value in appealing to a viewer’s gut reactions: "You’re in it; it’s right now," without computer tricks. "I feel strongly the responsibility of representing that time in history. We are rightly held to a higher standard of accountability with a film set against the Holocaust than one set along Sunset Boulevard."

Away from the chaos of the set, Caro seems calm as she prepares her director’s cut. "I love knowing the Directors Guild has my back," she says of the DGA’s protection of her creative rights. "But I don’t take a defensive approach. Contractually, we’’re obliged to deliver a movie two hours in length. However, the studio said, ‘Don’t worry about that now. Our agenda is the best movie.’ I was grateful to hear that. I don’t particularly enjoy really long movies. I don’t want to make long movies. Although my vision is very, very strong—that’s the starting place—I want a movie to reach an audience. Our first assemblage was three and a half hours. We spent weeks getting it down to two and a half. We then screened it for different people—the studio [Universal]; Focus [Features], the distributor; and the producers—and asked: ‘How long is this movie?’ They all said, ‘Two hours,’ even though it was actually two and a half. Nobody called it. That told us we don’t have any pace problems. Sometimes, paradoxically, you can take a lot out and it will feel like a longer movie."

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