Niki Caro Talks Making of 'Mulan,' "Horrific" Prejudice Female Directors Still Face in Hollywood

Courtesy of the New Zealand Film Commission
Niki Caro at New Zealand Power of Inclusion Summit

Speaking at the New Zealand Power of Inclusion Summit, Caro also discussed the deliberations that went into Disney's decision to hire a director of Western descent rather than a Chinese filmmaker for the upcoming live-action 'Mulan.'

New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro, director of Disney's upcoming live-action Mulan, says the enduring lack of leadership opportunities made available to women in Hollywood is simply "horrific."

Caro appeared Thursday at New Zealand's inaugural Power of Inclusion Summit, a two-day event held in Auckland to stimulate change in the international screen industry.

When Caro was first tapped by Disney to direct Mulan in early 2017, she was one of just two women filmmakers ever hired to helm a film with a budget of more than $100 million. Two years later, the total has grown to just four.

"When I directed North Country in 2005, only four percent of directors were women," she said. "Fifteen years on, that hasn't changed." 

Caro says she was drawn to the Mulan project because of thematic similarities to her 2002 breakthrough film The Whale Rider — which follows a twelve-year-old Māori girl whose ambition is to become the chief of her traditionally male-lead tribe — as well as a burning desire to "play in the big sandpit" of a Disney tentpole production. The budget for the film is estimated at $200 million-plus. 

"The process of directing is the same — it's about telling a good story — but it's also filmmaking on steroids," Caro said.

"I absolutely loved it," she added.

Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, as well as Disney's own 1998 animated film of the same name, Mulan tells the story of a young village woman who secretly steps in to take the place of her ailing father when the Chinese Imperial Army demands that every family contribute one member to join an epic battle. Disguised as a man, as her family has no able-bodied men, Mulan is "tested every step of the way and must harness her innermost strength and embrace her true potential."

Caro said that the action in Mulan is distinct from what viewers have come to expect from Disney's superhero titles, in that "the action in this film really had to come from character."

"Essentially, it's about a young woman who comes to understand, appreciate and respect her own power," Caro explained. "So the action needed to be grounded in some kind of [realistic] physics ... But that action also was so beautiful to create, because it all came out of martial arts, riding a horse, wielding a sword."

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).

"[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."

Caro said the film crews she has worked with around the world have not always seemed entirely welcoming of having women in charge: "They receive me with anything on a sliding scale, sort of, from suspicion through fear, to resentment."

"It takes a little while to convince everybody that there is nothing to be afraid of," she said.

"As far as the film industry goes, it occurs to me that 50 percent of the people are holding 100 percent of the power, and they are not necessarily willing to give that up easily, Caro surmised. "I also think that there's something very disturbing at some primal level about giving women power, and to be a director is to hold a lot of power."

One moment of slight tension came to Caro's otherwise overwhelmingly empowering discussion on stage in New Zealand when she was asked by an audience member how she "reconcile[d] taking the amazing and deserved opportunity to direct Mulan with the critique that perhaps the story should have been directed by someone of Chinese origin?"

Caro acknowledged the legitimacy of the question and said that Disney initially did begin its director search by only considering Chinese filmmakers. But she said it actually was Hong Kong super producer Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero; Monster Hunt), who suggested the studio consider filmmakers outside of China. Kong, a legend of the Chinese industry, is an executive producer on Mulan, and served as something of a "godfather of all cultural advice" for the project, according to Caro.

She explained: "It was Bill who said to Disney that, 'Actually, this is a Disney film.' It's certainly about Chinese culture and a terribly old and important story there ... But the other culture to contend with is the culture of Disney. It's a very strong culture in the world that reaches many, many people. And so, between them, it was determined that they would widely search for directors that weren't solely Chinese."

Mulan has generated controversy within China for a completely different reason. Crystal Liu, the star of the live-action film, has publicly come out in support of the Hong Kong police and their often violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters who, for months now, have been demonstrating in the autonomous region. The subject of Hong Kong was conspicuously avoided in Caro's talk.

The studio was determined to hire a female director, however. And Caro's prior film for Disney, McFarland, USA — set amongst the Mexican communities of California's Central Valley — convinced the studio that she could handle the cultural material with sensitivity and care.

Earlier in her career, Caro bristled at constantly being labeled as a "female director," given that male filmmakers are never identified by their gender. "When it comes to the art and craft of directing films, gender doesn't apply," she said. "Humanity applies, but gender doesn't."

"As I've gotten older and thought about things more though," she said, "I will say that I bring my femaleness to my directing. I bring to it the fact that I'm a parent, and I bring to it my New Zealand-ness."

"Those things, which may have been considered impediments to directing, are actually my strengths," she added.

She also mentioned some of the difficult moments in her climb through the industry, such as the period immediately following the success of The Whale Rider, even though it should have been her big break (the film received a best actress Oscar nomination for its young star Keisha Castle-Hughes). Caro had just given birth to her first daughter, and was unable to participate in the film's accolades overseas. Instead, she had to immediately seek out another job in order to support her young family.

"So, I swear I did kilometers of walking around the kitchen table while I was on conference calls with L.A. from New Zealand, trying to figure out whose voice was whose, but also trying to keep the baby quiet," she remembered. "One thing Hollywood doesn't particularly like is a baby in the mix. In fact, I went to meet the producer of a film for the first time, and he said, 'You're not lugging a whole bunch of kids around the world while you try to make films, are you?' And I said, 'No.'"

"I was pregnant at the time," she added, "but he obviously couldn't tell."

When asked by the moderator whether she felt additional pressure for her films to be a success because of her role as a rare and highly visible woman working at the highest level of the industry, Caro said indeed she did, and that she often occasionally succumbs to something like "survivor's guilt."

"Even acknowledging how hard I've worked to get here," she explained, "the survival guilt [comes from wondering], 'Why am I here and all these brilliant women are not?' So, my mission now with my work is to make it successful, so that I can shove my shoulder into that door, and get as many of the rest of the women through."

Oct. 4, 9:56 am PST Updated to correct that Mulan's budget is estimated at $200 million-plus.