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Jessica Chastain stars in The Zookeeper’s Wife as Antonina Zabinski, the World War II heroine who secretly sheltered hundreds of displaced Warsaw ghetto residents when Poland was invaded by the Nazis.
The historical drama, which Focus Features releases on Friday, is directed by Niki Caro, who broke through with 2002’s Whale Rider and will next direct Disney’s live-action Mulan, making her the second woman at the studio to direct a movie budgeted at over $100 million.
Caro tells The Hollywood Reporter of helming a timely WWII film, staffing a gender-inclusive set and stressing cultural authenticity in Disney’s retelling of Mulan.
What was your priority in telling this story?
Like most of the world, I hadn’t heard the name Antonina Zabinski before. But this woman’s experience of war is so interesting: While her husband was out fighting the Resistance — the kind of activity we normally associate with war — she was fighting her own war by providing sanctuary for these people and allowing them to come through that period with their dignity intact. She was bringing kindness and compassion to that incredibly dark and evil time.
Are you surprised by its relevance to today’s refugee crisis?
Several years ago, I thought we were making a historical drama. We shot [in 2015] around Europe, while the migrant crisis was going on all around us, and it was really sobering. That’s when I started to see really strong parallels between the work that we were doing and the world around us. But none of us could have predicted where we would find ourselves in 2016. It’s not lost on any of us that we have made a very relevant movie for right now.
What was the toughest scene to shoot?
Anything involving the Warsaw ghetto was very, very important for me to get right. Even though the movie is way more focused on humanity and healing and that we were celebrating the 300 people who survived under extraordinary circumstances, it was still extremely important to honor the millions who died.
How did you manage shooting a movie with animals?
That was easy because of the way we worked with them: to really just respond to what they were giving us naturally. So many moments were captured very organically and observationally and required full engagement and love from Jessica Chastain, who is a great animal advocate. She’s an animal whisperer.
But the scene where Antonina is healing the elephant had a whole different set of logistics: How could we engage Lily, the elephant, without poking or prodding her? Because we didn’t do any of that. Jessica had this wonderful relationship with all of the animals, particularly the elephants, and she hid apples all around. Lily [seems] very distressed, but it’s really Lily just looking for apples. This movie is all really old-school filmmaking, and I’m very proud of that.
Chastain noted the unique prominence of women working on this production. Is that a priority for you when making a movie?
It looks like that was by design, but it absolutely wasn’t. It truly was no different from any of my other sets. In all cases, I will always hire the best person for the job, and it just so happens that many of those are women. Maybe that’s reason enough to just hire more women — the sun is still going to rise, it’s going to be fine, it’s not all going to fall apart. It’s just such an outrageous idea. Film sets are predominantly male, but exclusively male? Please.
After Zookeeper’s Wife, you have Disney’s live-action retelling of Mulan and a Maria Callas biopic starring Noomi Rapace. Do you gravitate toward stories about women?
I respond to the best stories. It so happens that the best stories right now are female, and I think that’s really cool.
You recently caused a stir for your comments about whether or not the animated movie’s music will be included in your Mulan. Do you feel pressure to live up to fans’ expectations?
No, not at all. I mean, I haven’t even started on the movie yet. I haven’t seen a single casting yet, and these are conversations that are all ongoing. The live-action is based on that inspirational Chinese ballad and on the animated Disney classic. We’re still exploring the role that music’s going to play in it, but for sure there will be music.
Disney is looking for a Chinese actress to play Mulan. Do you also plan to work with experts on Chinese history and culture for the movie?
Of course, of course. In all my work that is centered in cultures not my own, I hope that comes through, because that is incredibly important to me. When I made Whale Rider, I saw that to be specific and authentic is to be universal, and I’ve continued to work in an identical way ever since. As the projects get bigger, the more certain I am that cultural authenticity and specificity is the only way to approach my work.
Were you in the mix to direct Captain Marvel?
[Laughs.] I love Captain Marvel, and I enjoyed my conversations with the Marvel people very much. But I’m committed to Mulan, so that’s what I’ll be doing.
What advice would you give to those entering the industry today?
It’s a privilege to tell stories on film. It can be a great community to live a professional life. All of us that do this work should feel very grateful that we can. As far as people getting into the industry and creative roles as writers and directors, I would say that technology is on your side, and you can tell their stories very easily. You can start making films as a child. It’s become easier to find your groove as a filmmaker, and I’m extremely interested in those voices.
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