Movies

Kiwi director Niki Caro on tackling Hollywood and cracking the glass ceiling

The Wellington native dishes on her journey to Hollywood.

By: Ellen Mackenzie

ollywood actresses have been very vocal in their battle for equality – and the world is taking notice. But when it comes to women behind the camera, it’s a whole different story, with the number of female directors recently dropping to just seven percent in 2016.

It’s a shameful showbiz statistic, but strong-headed Kiwi filmmaker Niki Caro is one of the few to crack the glass ceiling, having made a name for herself among Tinseltown’s top directors.

The Wellington talent burst on to the scene in 2002 with her widely loved, award-winning local film Whale Rider, which garnered a Best Actress nomination at the Oscars for its star Keisha Castle-Hughes.

Since then, Niki has packed up her family and moved to the US for her career. And she was recently named as the director of the highly anticipated live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, making her only the fourth woman ever to solo-direct a movie with a budget over $145 million.

“So many women are denied these opportunities in filmmaking and that feels incredibly depressing,” the 50-year-old tells Woman’s Day.

“If joining this club with three other women means I can kick that door open for more women to come through, then that’s what I’m going to do. It’s my only option to make a meaningful change as a female director.”

Taking out Best Foreign Film with Keisha at the Spirit Awards in 2003.
Niki with her girls Pearl (left) and Tui.

True heroine

Niki’s latest movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring The Help’s Jessica Chastain, is based on the real-life story of Antonina Zabinski, a woman who saved the lives of 300 Jews by hiding them in a Polish zoo in World War II.

Now in cinemas, the film has a distinctive Niki stamp on it. She explains, “We know many war films are from mostly a male point of view, but at the end of the day, it also is something that happened to women.”

But it’s not just the story that’s very female-centric – behind the scenes, Niki worked with an all-woman production crew too. Though she insists, “I wish I could tell you that it was just a great big conspiracy of women, but it wasn’t. That’s never my intention. I hire the best people for the job – it just so happened that many of them were female.”

Niki laughs as she explains that some people find her intense focus on her films strange. She says, “It doesn’t matter if I’m doing a short film, a commercial or a feature film, I’m literally 100% in.”

Niki has the support of husband Andrew.
Niki and Jessica Chastain take to the streets in Poland to march for women's rights.

But she adds that her two daughters – Tui, 13, and Pearl, nine, who she has with her architect husband Andrew Lister – are never far from her mind. “I have to be really careful with the stories that
I take on. They do take years and they do take my family along for the ride.”

Fortunately, Niki says Oscar-nominee Jessica has a similar work ethic. “She’s such a skilled, brilliant actor,” she raves. “She was thoroughly prepared. She’s like me in that she’s all in and there’s nothing casual about her process.”

The pair bonded while filming and ended up walking together in the worldwide Women’s March in Warsaw earlier this year. “We were all over the Polish news,” remembers Niki. “Jessica’s a remarkable person to work with. To see her marching in solidarity – with not just Polish women but women all over – was quite something.”

Jessica Chastain in character on the set of The Zookeeper's Wife.

Final act

But for Niki, the real highlight of her time in Poland came earlier this year when she showed the finished film for the first time. “It was just an extraordinary experience,” she tells. “The only thing that compares was when I took Whale Rider back to Gisborne and screened it there.

“I always take these movies home to where they come from and this one really was the story of Poland. They were just so appreciative that we had told it.”

Now with the world buzzing about Niki working her movie magic on the Mulan reboot, she’s the director everyone in the industry wants to work with. But the humble Kiwi talent isn’t taking anything for granted.

Asked if she ever imagined living in Los Angeles and working with Hollywood’s top stars, she replies without hesitation, “Only in my wildest dreams. Not even in the wild ones sometimes!”

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