About Features Reviews Community Screenings Archives Studios Home
October 2005
North Country: An Interview with Director Niki Caro

North Country: An Interview with Director Niki Caro

By Wilson Morales

Having directed the critically acclaimed independent film, "Whale Rider", in which child star Keisha Castle Hughes received an Academy nomination for Best Actress, New Zealand director Niki Caro's next film is not only with a major studio but stars Oscar winner Charlize Theron. "North Country" is the story of a woman who challenges the company she works at for sexual harassment. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Caro spoke about working with Theron and the issue of sexual harassment.

This film didn't have a title for what seemed like ages.

Niki Caro: I know it was humiliating. It was the untitled Niki Caro project for forever. We just couldn't find a title for it.

You couldn't use "Class Action"?

NC: No. we couldn't that's right and then finally North Country seemed really appropriate because o f the Bob Dylan song girl from the North Country and also it was shot in the town of Duluth where Bob Dylan is from.

You got all the rights from him?

NC: Yes we did.

Has he seen the movie?

NC: Yes he has. I took the film to him while he was traveling. I flew from Auckland, New Zealand all the way to New Jersey in like 2 days. I went all the way there I got there and had a meeting. With him about the film it was great.

Can you talk about Gustavo Santaolalla's music?

NC: We used some of his music and it just worked so incredibly well. There were some really big name composers that wanted to do the music for it. I think it worked so well because he is not a film composer. He is a musician and a producer in his own right. I think he is the biggest producer of Latin music in the world. So he writes as an artist. Some of the composers look at the film and say, "We need a little bit of music there to fill in that gap" He never thinks that way. Because he is an artist first, he is very sensitive to what is going on onscreen and he writs music to compliment the emotion and doesn't over explain it.

I hate to make this a gender issue this and I hope I'm not being sexist, but could a man have directed this movie?

NC: Yes. I think so. Look what I know about directing; is it goes beyond gender. You might see some qualities that are inherently female in the great male directors. I think about things like the ability to communicate a vision, strength to create an environment where the actors fell very safe and where they can maybe they can work without e protecting themselves they can really stretch. These qualities are neither male nor female.

Did you have to separate Woman Niki from Director Niki? Some of the content is pretty intense.

NC: No. Look I'm a very simple girl. I'm from New Zealand and we are very simple folk. I take a very straightforward and instinctive approach o my filmmaking. I'm pretty bright, I guess because you have to have a certain level of intelligence to deal with the mechanics of making a film. There is a lot going on and it's like being on the inside of a Rubik's cube. But when I'm actually what I do best which is working with actors and telling a story. It's like I'm not in my head, I'm in my heart. I just instinctively know that it's right. I know, I know, I know when it's really right. I know it in my heart. Because I feel it not because I intellectualize it

With your previous film, "Whale Rider", are you primarily interested in examining women's issues?

NC: No. I'm primarily interested in examining human issues.

How is it coincidentally that your first two films have explored women's issues?

NC: Because they are the fresh stories now. The female experience is totally under explored in contemporary cinema. And in both of these films saw something that had never been committed to film before.

But one can point to the similarities of a female going up against a male dominated world.

NC: Yes that's true. The both of them deal with deep and profound resistance to being themselves and to fulfilling their own destinies. Paikea in "Whale Rider" and to take a leadership role, and for Josey of "North Country" to work with dignity both stories that needed to be told, not because they are female stories but because they are human stories.

I think that Sexual harassment is both a male and female issue so I don't draw gender lines in that regard. But 1989 doesn't feel that far away and to know that kind of blatant sexual harassment existed you appear to be very young to me, when did you learn of this and how did it make you feel?

NC: Thanks for saying I look young! I'll be 40 in two days!

But you were 26 then, still relatively youngŠ

NC: I come from a place that is very politically sophisticated and progressive. New Zealand was the first place to give women the right to vote. The only place in the world where the 3 highest positions are held by women. We've had a female Prime Minister for 8 years. She just got in again, yesterday at least I hope so but it was close and they'll have to form a coalition government, but I think she'll be alright. So I've never had a moment in my life where I felt it wasn't an advantage to be female. Now it is very confronting for me to tell a story like this because it forces me to recognize just how fortunate I am and makes me feel a real responsibility to those not so fortunate and the fact that these events happened so recently even firstly, there wasn't even a name for this until Anita Hill that is why we cloistered the film around those events. It wasn't until the Anita Hill hearings that the words "sexual" and Harrassment" got conjoined. Before then, there was no name for a phenomenon that everyone knew existed. It wasn't until 1993 that this case was settled. So it wasn't until 12 years ago that corporate America acknowledged that there was a problem. And they didn't do it for social responsibility they did so because they didn't want to be sued this is America. I just felt that it was a bracing reminder of sexual inequality that's still out there and a good story tell least we forget what it's like out there some time.

Speaking of 1989 how do you recreate that time with it reference to pop culture etc without getting so nostalgic that it becomes "The Wedding Singer"?

NC: You do it very carefully. It's really funny. One of the female studio executives rang me up in a bit of a panic and said, "Look, it's not going to be all big hair and shoulder pads is it?" I assured her that it wouldn't be. When you talking about doing a period piece or a culturally specific film you have to go up there and figure out what it was like there then. In many ways it is so remote up there on the island that it's not like the 1989 you remember here in L.A. It was even if you go up there now, it's like things were a decade ago because things don't change much up there. And we talked to the women, the women who brought about the case and we followed their advice rigorously every important detail.

Being up there and shooting in the area where it happened and with the people who were involved in this, did you encounter any resistance?

NC: There was a lot of trepidation. There were a bit anxious. As well they should be these are some events from their recent past that they are not proud of. But just given the way I work and given the generosity and collaboration of the people I work with - and that fact the everyone was carefully chosen to be temperamentally suited to work with real people and in a real place. And once we got up there, everything was tot ally fine they were great and part of that had to do with a press conference we had really early on and I acknowledged their fears. I wouldn't promise to not deal with those issues because that's what the film was about. But I asked them to considered those events as something to be proud of. Rather than focus on the bad behavior. Rather it was their women who stood up for something which took more courage than any of us could fathom. They should be putting those girls up on the biggest pedestal they've got. The second thing I asked them to acknowledge is that their community changed too. Let's not be naïve; this was not something that was just happening on an iron ranch in northern Minnesota. This was going on all over the America and all over the world but it was their community who looked at itself and their community that changed and led the world. And with that as our state of intention and with this film made without a shred of cynicism. We then had the total collaboration of those communities. We had thousands of iron ranges in the movie and it was just beautiful.

Niki, you mentioned with Anita Hill had the advantage, if you can call it that, of having Academia to fall back on, unlike these women who felt isolated in that area with limited education and opportunity. Can you spend a little time on that? Did you talk to these women?

NC: Everyday. They were right from the word Go. One of the first things I did was go up there and find them and talked to them about the movie and I recognized when I sat down with them that they hadn't celebrated at all. They had done the most astonishing thing in the world and then because everyone works in the mines up there and they had exposed it for what it was then the book came out simultaneously; and one of them told me that she hadn't left the house for 2 years because she was so ashamed. And we showed it in the movie, what happened to the women in the real trail - all of their personal lives were exposed all of their histories were exposed in what they call a nuts and sluts defense. So it was tremendously difficult for them and presented that the movie might be a way to acknowledge what they'd done because they just didn't really know what the fuss was all about. Secondly celebrating what they had done because the film was going to celebrate them. So they came on as consultants. They spent a lot with actresses and with hair and makeup wardrobe and props all of the departments with production design so we got all of those details right. And what satisfied me the most in working with them is that they are some of the people who stand up in the courtroom at the end of the film. Two of the ladies in back have them so close with the real kick ass looks on their faces. Those were the real women it was them To have their support and have them so close when making the film kept it really emotional and really authentic and it is a wonderful way to work.

What was it like working with a big Hollywood studio?

NC: It was fantastic! I'm sorry to disappoint you. All my friends everyone who knows me knows that I'm a really independent filmmaker and they all tried to warned me and sat down with me to tell me what I needed to steel myself for. Proved them all wrong. Warner Bros. Couldn't have been more respectful of my creative choices. They left me completely alone. I made it slightly easy on myself, by shooting in Northern Minnesota in the middle of winter. No one wanted to come out there. And I got one call from the studio when we were half through. The head of the studio called me and said, "I don't know what you are doing, but for God sakes keep doing it and let us know if you need anything, but we won't bother you."

They were watching the dailies?

NC: Yes, everyday. They were watching them online. And I'm not stupid. I know that if the work hadn't been good, they would have been all over it. They loved this film from the script onward.

Do you think having Charlize by your side helped?

NC: I think it would have helped. She said from the beginning I'm you r ally. Use me, I will help you. We need to make this film together. And she can be very persuasive created force, of course. But thankfully I never had to call on her for that. It was exactly like Whale Rider, actually in that everyone was making the film- from the producers, to the studios, to the cast and crew. We were all making the same film and loving making it.

In working with Charlize, did you have trouble making her character different than her character in Monster?

NC: I didn't think about at all; just like I wasn't thinking about Whale Rider while I was making North Country. My commitment is to the story itself and to the characters themselves. That's all I think about.

You said that Charlize is very persuasive force on set. In a nutshell what kind of relationship were you able to build with her over the course of the movie?

NC: We're in love. I mean we had a great first date. It was really amazing to me meet someone like her; she's a goddess and she is living an extraordinary life. I met her two days before she won the Oscar. I was pleasantly surprised by how normal she is. She's really real. You'll see it when you talk to her. She's very unaffected and plugged real people and real life and it's rare because she is both a movie star and a great character actor and it was the character actor we needed for this film.

How was Charlize on set?

When the camera is rolling she is no longer Charlize. But when the camera stopped, she was horsing around and sexually harassing the entire crew. And they loved it. It was great. The material had such psychological weight and all of us felt a real responsibility to make the story really right and true, we didn't get dragged down by the material afterward. We had a very good time making this film.

What are you doing next?

I'm going to go home and play with my baby.


Terms of Use | Privacy Policy