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‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Director Niki Caro Has a Plan for Fighting Hollywood’s Gender Gap

"The Zookeeper's Wife" and "Mulan" filmmaker is in a rarefied position in the industry – and she's prepared to use it for good.

4101_D006_02496_R(ctr l-r) Jessica Chastain and director Niki Caro work out a scene on the set of THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release.Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

Jessica Chastain and Niki Caro

Anne Marie Fox

Get used to hearing Niki Caro’s name. As the only female director to have not just one, but two studio pictures hitting the big screen over the next two years, including Disney’s much-hyped live-action remake of “Mulan,” the filmmaker is about to be catapulted to a rarefied position in an industry that is not always friendly to placing women behind the camera. That doesn’t mean she’s entirely happy about it.

“That just depresses me,” Caro told IndieWire when asked about her unique upcoming slate. “It’s wonderful for me, but God, I have survivor guilt over this. The fact that I’m working is great and I feel very fortunate, but the fact that so many highly skilled, gifted women are not, it’s shameful.”

But Caro has a plan to combat Hollywood’s gender imbalance behind the camera, and it’s one she’s already putting into action.

Before she sets about “Mulan,” Caro is stumping for her Focus Features-backed “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a fact-based war story starring Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinksi, a Warsaw zookeeper who helped hide and liberate over 300 Jews during World War II. Based on Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name and with a script by “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” scribe Angela Workman, the project was imbued with female energy from the start. Caro took that even further.

READ MORE: ‘The Zookeeper’s Wife’ Review: Jessica Chastain Shines In a Solid, Unexpectedly Sweet Holocaust Drama

Along with Caro, Workman and Ackerman, “The Zookeeper’s Wife” features a slew of female producers (Diane Levin, Kim Zubick and Katie McNeill), a female camera operator (Rachael Levine), a female stunt coordinator (Antje “Angie” Rau), a female production designer (Suzie Davies), a female set decorator (Charlotte Watts) and that’s just the start.

“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,” Caro said. “I hire the best people for the job, it just so happened that many of them were female.”

Chastain was so moved by the female-friendly set that she penned a personal essay for The Hollywood Reporter back in December about her experiences making the film – and why Caro’s set was such a welcome outlier from many of her previous experiences. It was accompanied by a photo of the women of “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” a sprawling tableau that you don’t typically see on Hollywood productions.

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The women of “The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Anne Marie Fox

“I had no idea that there were that many of us, I wasn’t conscious at all,” Caro said. “When that photograph was taken, we [had] just wrapped and Jessica and I were sitting there and I looked around. ‘Jesus Christ, there are so many of us.'”

Still, she admits that having so many women around to help create the final film only made sense when it came to the story at hand.

“To have a lot of women around is very normal, and very healthy,” she said. “It’s a very, very consciously feminine movie.”

Even in her earliest productions – including her breakthrough 2002 drama “Whale Rider” – Caro says she was vigilantly hands-on when it came to picking the people who would work beside her, and she’s held fast to that while rising in the ranks.

“I think it’s critical particularly because I’m a female director, so it’s very important for me to have people around me and around the camera that are temperamentally suited to working in a certain way, which is to absolutely support the cast and the story,” she said. “There’ll be no bullshit on the set. Nobody raises their voice.”

Initially bent towards the fine arts – the New Zealand native first attended the University of Auckland with the intention of focusing on metal sculpture – her life-long love of movies eventually led her to pursue it as her primary creative medium. Her first forays into filmmaking were mostly self-taught, though she eventually received a Postgraduate Diploma in Film from Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology.

Caro’s early film work was on the commercial side, and her feature film debut – the 1998 drama “Memory & Desire” – was part of the government-sponsored 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign. A love of her country also fueled her breakout hit, “Whale Rider,” which bowed at TIFF in 2002, where both Caro’s direction and Castle-Hughes’ star-making performance were roundly hailed.

A hit on the festival circuit, the film picked up the Toronto International Film Festival’s Peoples Choice Award (its primary accolade), the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance and the Canal Plus Award at Rotterdam. Castle-Hughes also earned an Oscar nod – at the time, she was the youngest nominee for Best Actress – and Caro’s commitment to her craft and her actors garnered the fledgling director a lot of attention.

What Caro remembers best from the rocket-ship experience of “Whale Rider” happened before all of that, though, and it’s stuck with her over the intervening years. The filmmaker fondly recalls the film’s very first, slightly terrifying screening at TIFF – “I was having kittens,” she said with a laugh – and the surprising thing that happened after.

“There was supposed to be a Q&A, but there wasn’t any time, but they said there’s time for one question,” Caro explained. “This woman stood up and she said, ‘I don’t have a question, but I just want to say that this movie has made me a better person.'”

That changed her, and set the course for the rest of her career.

“For that to be the first thing you ever hear about the first, one of the first significant pieces of work you’ve made, it’s a total game-changer,” she said. “There’s so many movies, they’re just like fast food you consume them and you can’t even remember what you just ate. I don’t want to make those kinds of movies. I want to make the slow food of movies.”

4101_D009_03963_RJessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski in director Niki Caro's THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Focus Features

“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Anne Marie Fox

Caro will next turn those intentions to Disney’s big screen reimagining of Mulan, another classic princess tale reworked for a live-action audience. Caro was already a big fan of the young Chinese warrior.

“She’s my favorite princess,” Caro said. “Mulan kicks ass.”

Despite the large scale of the film – it’s expected to cost north of $100 million to make, a major step up for Caro, who normally traffics in mid-budget fare, including “Zookeeper’s Wife” and her previous Disney effort, the sports drama “McFarland, USA” – Caro sounded undaunted.

“It has a lot of similarities to ‘Whale Rider,’ which is this very, very important part of my life,” she said. “I feel like I’m revisiting territory that I already kind have an in my DNA, but I get to flex the filmmaker muscle in a really big way. I think I’ve always had a really big vision.”

READ MORE: ‘Mulan’ Live Action Remake Will Feature All Chinese Leads, Avoid Whitewashing Accusations

Given her unique place in an industry that doesn’t always happily welcome female filmmakers into the big budget fold, that big vision will have to extend to other women in the industry. While Caro admits that there’s only so much she can do when it comes to creating jobs for female filmmakers – “It’s a question for studio executives” – but she has aligned herself with Disney, whose next two major films are directed by women, including Ava DuVernay with her “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Caro is ready for her next step, and she’s hopeful that her successes will only help pave the way for more women.

“If I can kick that door open with a big movie, then by God I will kick it open,” Caro said. “I’ll smash it down so others can come through it.”

“The Zookeeper’s Wife” opens in theaters on Friday, March 31. 

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