Girl Power: New Zealand Writer/Director Niki Caro Talks About “Whale Rider”
by Ryan Mottesheard
“The Maoris have a very high bullshit detector,” Niki Caro says of New Zealand’s indigenous people, though it’s quickly apparent that Caro, the writer/director of “Whale Rider,” does as well. That may be why she was able to convince the Ngati Konohi tribe that she should be the one to adapt the beloved Maori book to the screen, despite the fact that she’s a “pakeha” (a New Zealander of European descent).
As it turns out, “Whale Rider” is less an anthropological study of the Maori people than a universal story of female empowerment. Indeed, the book’s author, Witi Ihimaera, says he wrote “Whale Rider” — a modern retelling of a Maori legend — in response to his daughter’s complaining about the boy always being the hero. At its center is Pai (wonderful novice thespian Keisha Castle-Hughes), a Maori girl of 13 who senses that her destiny is to become the leader of her Maori tribe. But in a patriarchal society steeped in tradition, no one suspects that this leader will be a girl, least of all Pai’s grandfather, who has taken it upon himself to find their “whale rider.” Like John Sayles’ “The Secret of Roan Inish,” Ms. Caro’s “Whale Rider” is ultimately a family film that might not be seen by nearly enough families. Not because it is too smart or complicated for kids — it isn’t — but because it may be too smart for their parents who would rather (lazily) take the fam to the latest Eddie Murphy with tykes flick than search out something that both would enjoy a bit more. But then again, with the people who made hits out of “Memento” and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” behind the “Whale Rider” push, perhaps Caro’s film can infiltrate the mainstream here as it did its native New Zealand where it topped the box office for 13 weeks.
indieWIRE spoke with Niki Caro about working with children, kids’ films, and who should tell indigenous stories.
indieWIRE: The film is a huge hit in New Zealand. Why do you think that is?
Niki Caro: It’s a number of things. New Zealanders are really ready to see this film. The other best-known film about the Maori culture, “Once Were Warriors” (Lee Tamahori), is a very accurate portrayal of the small percentage of Maoris in an urban environment and makes a pretty significant statement on what it means for the Maori people to be separated from their land and roots. A film like “Whale Rider” is equally truthful, perhaps more so, to the Maori experience; Maori people respond to “Whale Rider” because it’s a world that they understand. For European people or “pakeha” people like myself, it gives them an opportunity to understand the Maori world, which is something they don’t often get an opportunity to do.
iW: Do you feel that as a “pakeha,” you were able to look at this story differently than a Maori filmmaker would have?
Caro: That’s a really complex question because I can ONLY look at it differently. Because I’m not inside the culture. This has potentially significant drawbacks to it and there was some resistance to my directing the story because I’m not Maori. However, none of that resistance came from the Maori community itself. And as holders of the whale rider legend, they were the only people I had to answer to. And I got nothing but incredible love and support from them.
I believe that the debate of “Who should tell indigenous stories?” is very important. It’s something that should be talked about. I’m totally up for that and if my work can be part of that debate, I’m thrilled. But in my experience in making this film, is that it’s not about what my culture is or about what color my skin is as much as it’s about the process of telling these stories. I was not prepared to make this unless it was made completely collaboratively, with the Maori community. All my work was looked at very carefully by the elders of the community and blessed before we started work. I had a Maori advisor from the tribe with me at all times. And I think they felt very satisfied that the film, their film, was in the hands of a filmmaker, somebody who could actually get it up on the screen. Somebody who was absolutely there to serve their story.
iW: How did you ingratiate yourself to the Maori people? Was there an initiation period when you had to pass muster with them?
Caro: First I started to learn the language. Even though I knew I couldn’t conquer the language in the year that I studied, I could at least pronounce things correctly. And so when I went to address them for the first time, I did so in their language. I told them what my position was in telling the story and what a privilege I thought it to be. They were very surprised, actually; these people are very sophisticated and have a VERY high bullshit detector. You can’t go in and dazzle them with flashy “movie stuff.” It’s totally inappropriate. It’s completely inappropriate, anyway, to present yourself as anything but honest and committed to the story you want to tell. And that’s all I did. The Maori culture is different than our culture where we’re most likely to introduce ourselves by email or fax and we conduct a lot of business in an impersonal way, whereas for Maori, the only way to do it is to make the pilgrimage and sit down face-to-face and have some tea.
iW: There’s a straightforward simplicity to the images and the story that is almost like a children’s story. How much of a children’s movie did you want it to be?
Caro: Not much of a children’s movie. I wanted it to be a film that children could go to and get a lot out of. But equally I wanted adults to be able to go and experience it on a different level. The problem for me, with most movies for children, is that the filmmakers make the mistake of making it too simplistic. Where a child’s world can be very complex, emotionally. And I hope this is what we see and hear with Pai.
iW: There seems to be a much darker version of “Whale Rider” that could’ve been made. Something that might have dwelt on the negative aspects of Pai’s childhood? How were you able to strike this balance between realism and optimism?
Caro: The entire movie — from the way the story was told to the look of it — was inspired by those people and that place. If you’re realistic at all, you have to acknowledge that there are problems (for the modern Maori communities) but there is so much magic and spirituality in that place that it didn’t warrant that treatment. Pai experiences very strenuous situations where she gets very hurt emotionally, yet even as a child, she is a leader. And that is hopeful.
iW: How did you find Keisha Castle-Hughes (who plays Pai)?
Caro: We did an exhaustive search of schools. Our casting director went to the schools and saw a lot of kids but we only took a few of those. She would go into a classroom and maybe find two girls who looked right. Then she’d talk to them to ascertain where they’re at, whether or not they’re bright kids. And then we’d send them home with a note to their parents inviting them to a series of workshops where we began our process of elimination. So we might begin with 100 girls and by the time they get to me, there’ll be about 20 or 30 left and that’s when work starts.
iW: How long was this process?
Caro: About eight weeks. And then I worked about four weeks just with Keisha and the rest of the cast. I do a full four weeks’ of rehearsal as a rule.
iW: Can you explain your working process with her?
Caro: Keisha’s a very urban girl. Very girly. And I really needed this kid to “be” from this place, feel like she came from that ground. So the first thing I did was get rid of her shoes. No shoes. And I don’t think she wore shoes for like six months after we shot the film! I did lots of work with her to help her understand the feelings that this child went through and help her understand her real feelings but also be able to step out of them as well. So I didn’t get her to a point where she was so upset that she didn’t come back from that. She’s very very smart and very emotionally available. A great actor.
iW: How much did she inform your working process?
Caro: I had never worked with children before and it suits me. I like how direct they are. I like the economy of language that you need to have when working with kids. You have to be very clear with them. The film I made before was about a Japanese couple and I worked with actors whose first language was Japanese. And that’s where I started to learn a directing process that works for me, which is getting an economy of words that someone who isn’t as agile in the language can understand. Working with children is very similar.
iW: Now that the film is opening around the world, have you had a chance to think about what’s next?
Caro: Well, I have this baby project I’m working on. (She moves back from the table to reveal the figure she was hiding under a hooded sweatshirt.) I’m seven-and-a-half months pregnant. But besides that, I’m working on another amazing New Zealand novel that I’ll be adapting. [Editor’s note: at press time, Caro was still awaiting the baby’s arrival.]