Welcome to World Builders, our ongoing series of conversations with the most productive and thoughtful creatives in the industry. In this entry, we interview director Niki Caro about her live-action remake of Mulan.
Niki Caro has made a career directing underdog stories that highlight underseen perspectives. The New Zealand filmmaker came to international attention with her critically acclaimed sophomore 2002 feature, Whale Rider, in which a young Māori girl strives to become the first female leader of her tribe.
After gaining experience working under the Disney banner with the family-friendly sports drama McFarland, USA, Caro was tapped for the live-action reimagining of the studio’s 1998 animated feature Mulan. With the gig, she became only the third woman filmmaker ever hired by Disney to helm a film budgeted at over $100 million, after Frozen co-director Jennifer Lee and A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay.
In February of 2020, before COVID-19 delayed the release of Caro’s version of Mulan, I had the opportunity to speak with her about the pressure of taking on a story that’s not just a beloved Disney tale but also an ancient legend — the Ballad of Mulan, which was first transcribed over a millennium ago. We also discussed the ins and outs of responsible filmmaking, fight choreography, and the joy of being able to fully realize a creative vision when given the budget to match.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Could you tell me a little about how you became involved with this project and what drew you to Mulan?
What drew me to the story was, I think, Mulan herself, and this journey from village girl to male soldier to a warrior and a hero. I feel like it represents all of us.
Mulan is such an ancient story, so what’s the balance between thinking of the original and making it a contemporary tale?
I think it is as relevant and inspiring today as it was when it was first written over thirteen-hundred years ago. I mean, the fact that it has been told countless times and in so many different ways is a testament to that. Making it in live-action for such a huge audience, and making it both thrilling in its action components but also emotional for this audience, felt significant to me. So, it wasn’t really so much about a balance as a commitment to a bold new vision and version of this story for a contemporary audience.
Kind of on that subject, there’s the 1998 animated version and the folk song and so many other versions in betwee. What was consulted for this film?
We didn’t exactly consult other versions of this story. We went all the way back to the Ballad of Mulan and were inspired by that. It was certainly very important to me to bring iconic elements from the beloved animation to the live-action, but what we’re trying to do here is make something very new not just new in terms of the Mulan story but new in terms of the Disney story.
For me, the critical thing was making it real. You know, when you make something in live-action, you make it real. And when you are inspired by and determined to honor the original — the most original version of the Mulan story — then you have to acknowledge that this is a story about a young woman who disguises herself as a man and goes to war. Making it live-action meant that I could really tell that story, in a very kind of real, epic, and visceral way. And I saw the opportunity to do something not really done, at least at this scale, which is, you know, explosive and thrilling action but also emotion[ally compelling].
On the subject of scale, how did the making of Mulan compare to previous films you’ve done? Was there anything about the experience of working at that scale that surprised you or was different than you anticipated?
Fundamentally, the way I work is exactly the same whether I’m making Whale Rider or Mulan. And those two stories are somewhat similar. They have interesting parallels, and it felt like I’d really come full circle, back to a story of leadership. In filmmaking of this scale, the fundamentals are exactly the same. The way I work with actors is the same, the way I deal with crew, the environment on set, the way I prepare, the deep research that I do.
The biggest difference is that it’s just on steroids. I had a budget, this time, equal to the vision, and that was glorious because I could stretch my filmmaking in a way that I had never had the opportunity to do before, and it was nothing but a joy. I loved every second of it.
Talking about the visuals, the film has some incredible fight choreography. So how did you approach that?
I was really fortunate that the first action movie I was able to do had a basis in martial arts, in terms of its fighting language. Martial arts are inherently both incredibly impressive and incredibly beautiful. And that’s my female nature, maybe, and my instinct, to make things beautiful.
I had this amazing martial arts language and an incredible stunt choreographer in Ben Cooke, and we worked with a team of kung fu masters. So Ben would sketch up choreography for fight sequences based on what we had developed in the scrip. Then, Ben and I would get in there and I had the opportunity to have a voice in this choreography, edit it, and make sure that it was really representing the characters and the emotions correctly, which is maybe unusual for stunt language. And then we articulated those.
[Cinematographer] Mandy Walker and I really loved applying the camera. That’s the next step, the way you shoot it. Of course, we had amazing resources at our disposal to shoot these sequences a little bit different to the way have been ordinarily been shot. The whole thing was an amazing journey for me, and one that I sort of fell into pretty easily and instinctively. I loved it.
So, in dealing with experts — kung fu masters, or, say, experts in Chinese history — were there any times you would go to them, and their responses would change, or, say, influence, the way things were approached?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, all the time. I mean, what you have to understand is that I’m relentless about this sort of thing. I do tremendous amounts of research because it’s incredibly important in this film that Chinese culture was respectfully and authentically represented. It has been that way for me throughout my career, from Whale Rider to McFarland, USA, which was set in the Mexican-American fieldworker community.
I take particular care in authenticity and specificity when working in cultures not my own. Every aspect of the filmmaking here was meticulously researched, and not just by me but across every department. We studied Chinese cinema, ancient Chinese art, historical accounts of war. In fact, we have a Tang dynasty military expert we flew into Los Angeles to consult with me and my team as we were designing sequences so that we got them right.
We were doing [research] voraciously in the development of the movie and in the pre-production stages, but also, that process never stops. We keep researching and keep asking questions and keep checking it all through pre-production and production and even through post-production because we can never assume that [we are] right. We must always check. So when my instinct was to do something, and somebody with genuine authority, and particularly Chinese authority, questioned it — it reminded me that I always wanted to learn, and I always wanted to make it right.
With the ongoing push for more diverse representation both on-screen and behind the camera, there’s also this related debate over who can–or who should–tell certain stories. On the one hand, there’s creative freedom, on the other hand, there are concerns about authenticity and generating opportunities for specific demographic groups.
You’ve spoken in other interviews to your particular situation and directing Mulan as someone who’s not Chinese, but could you speak to your thoughts on that debate more generally? Like, what do you think is the balance between not putting people in boxes and being, kind of, very responsible as a filmmaker?
Yeah. It’s a very important conversation to be having, and I support it taking place as often as possible. For me, it comes down to two things. Firstly, I resist the idea that you tell somebody who can tell what story. That sounds a little bit like censorship to me. An artist will express themselves, and the burden of responsibility is on the art. That will be judged — and should be judged.
The other side of it is that more diverse people need to be allowed to tell stories. That’s what it comes down to. The people who are hired for all kinds of stories need to be more diverse. It can’t just be white people being hired to make movies, no matter what the subject matter is. Our culture is going to be richer for the more diversity there is, and the art, the movies, the television, it will be better. The more this conversation is being had, the more that diverse artists are given opportunities.
You’ve been in the industry and involved in these conversations for a while now — Whale Rider is a film that I grew up with. How has this conversation evolved since then, from your perspective? Have you noticed a change in the sort of questions you’ve been asked, stances held by the industry, or responses you’ve seen from audiences?
I think the fact that we’re having the conversation articulates that there is change. And I hope the subject keeps being discussed in a very robust way.
Mulan premieres on Disney+ on September 4th.