Niki Caro hit the big time with her second feature in 2002, Whale Rider. Now, after the well-received North Country (earning two Oscar nominations), Caro’s talking about her fourth film The Vintner’s Luck – an adaption of Elizabeth Knox’s novel that re-unites the director with Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes. Flicks.co.nz and Caro had a chinwag about the massive challenge of Vintner’s, juggling being a mum and a filmmaker, New Zealand filmmaking and being shut out of her own VIP party.
FLICKS: I wanted to quickly start with North Country. I watched it again just before I saw Vintner’s Luck and wondered what that experience was like? With that amazing cast [including Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sissy Spacek], the Bob Dylan soundtrack…
NIKI CARO: The thing that surprised me, and I think would surprise a lot of people particularly here, is that the step from say Whale Rider to North Country in practical terms was really seamless. Even though we’re a tiny little industry and technically we make independent films, we make films the way studios make films. An independent film in America is like a student film here.
I mean, it was very freaky making that big leap. But the idea of it was actually more intimidating than the work itself. And those actors were so great. I mean, they are more iconic than us and certainly more charismatic, but I enjoyed them all very much and they were very generous with me. I had very strong collaborative partnerships with all of them, individually, collectively, and I think it’s a very good kind of performance film for that reason.
Your previous two films are centered around female lead characters, set against oppressive male communities. Vintner’s Luck is obviously a departure from that. What was it about Elizabeth Knox’s story that struck you?
Look, it’s so bold. The story is so audacious and I think I was feeling sort of fatigued by everybody saying “Oh, you make films about girls in male dominated environments” and really I don’t. I make films about human beings and it’s easy for me to make them about women because I am one. But I wanted to broaden what I talked about, I wanted something really, really different and technically challenging – although I didn’t realize quite how challenging. I think Elizabeth’s story had some pretty great elements, talking about being human, basically.
There are clear through lines in your work. What strikes me is the use of landscape – you present the characters as very much part of an environment. Is that quite a conscious thing?
It’s more just, I think that there isn’t anything in human nature or mother nature that I don’t find really friggin’ interesting. Certainly visually the landscapes really compel me. The sense of place, in the films that I make, is really important. I think it’s from being a New Zealander, from being fairly overwhelmed by the landscape all my life here. So I like to go places that have a sort of an epic nature.
Prior to the Vintner’s screening you mentioned that it was a really personal film. It what sense?
Well, if you take on a story about an angel you have to do it in such a way that makes sense to you, you know. So in that way I couldn’t do what Elizabeth did in the book and depict Hell, the Devil or Heaven. I just found that it was completely beyond my capabilities because in fact I don’t believe in those things.
And so it follows my own personal belief system, which is non-religious obviously. But I also have to accept that when people see the film, it may not compare with their belief system, and this is very personal for people. People don’t talk about it, they don’t discuss it. I think as people get older these beliefs become very dear to them and very entrenched and so people are going to respond to the film in a personal way.
I haven’t read the novel and didn’t realise it depicted Heaven and Hell. Which is interesting because your film is so earthy – there’s a strong nature motif as well as lots of shots of soil and planting…
A lot of people have responded to that. Earth on screen seems to be quite uncommon. Certainly in this story, there’s more than just a symbolic relationship with the earth, it’s everything.
Considering the difficult subject matter – immortality, the afterlife – how did you approach that in the making of the film?
A lot of it was in fact dictated by budget because this film was made for $12.50, relatively, you know. I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of money, I knew that I wouldn’t have a lot of time. The other thing was I didn’t want to make it much like a period film, which tends to be rather stately – you know the big train shot, coming to the carriage and then we track with the the carriage and then people get out of the carriage and into the estate – I wanted it to feel a bit more rock and roll than that. The amount of hits we took financially were so extreme, right to the fact that two weeks out of principal photography my schedule got cut down. It was scheduled at eleven and half weeks and had to shoot it in eight. Even then we had to somehow find an extra million Euros just to do that.
So we were really, really up against it. We shot the film handheld, we shot it like a fast-turnaround TV schedule, and worked like that with babies and children, animals, all the [period] costumes and everything. We had very little time.
So it was pretty exhilarating. Quite a freaky way to make a film like this though.
All your films have such wonderful performances from kids, obviously Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider, also the two siblings in North Country, and again here with Vintner’s. Have you got a special skill?
I’ll tell you, it’s a secret: don’t fuck with the children. Children are so honest and they’re so natural. I try not to use children that have done too much TV. Children who’ve done nothing are really good children for me. I try to create the circumstance where the actors can use as little artifice as possible – I try not to have lights in their way and shoot in such a way that it can work in with them and they don’t have to hit marks.
So when the kids are on set – apart from the fact that there’s a camera over there, which I’m always looking for ways to hide – they can just be themselves and that’s just perfect. I can’t really take so much credit for it, except for not getting in their way.
What do you hope audiences come away with from Vintner’s Luck?
What I notice is that firstly it seems to make them feel, and then it sneaks up and makes them think. I am very proud of that.
As well as, it’s the opportunity to surrender to the sensuality of the world if we can. And to see something that is, in fact, is really different from pretty much everything else out there at the moment.
Whale Rider, North Country and Vintner’s Luck have all premiered at Toronto.
Yeah, I know, it’s amazing. And when we were there [for Vintner's Luck] it was seven years to the day that Keisha and I had [first been there with Whale Rider].
And they’ve all been so different. Whale Rider was so tiny, we were in a tiny little cinema buried in the middle of the festival. North Country was so big because we had all the big, big, actors. So we were in the biggest venue and had a huge party in this warehouse. The party was so funny. I was wandering around and I just couldn’t find anybody I knew, I was a real Nigel-no-mates and eventually the publicist came and found me and I said, “Where is everybody?”, and she said, “Oh, they are in the VIP area”. So she took me over to the VIP area and the bouncer wouldn’t let me in. And she said, “No, you don’t understand, this is the director”, and he just wouldn’t believe her. He just thought no, I just didn’t look like, I don’t know, an old guy.
Once I got in it was really fun.
I’m sure they let you in this time?
Yeah. And this time was really interesting because it was like halfway between those two. It was an amazing screening – the Toronto audiences, they are so brilliant.
How does New Zealand produce so many great female directors? Yourself and Jane Campion, Christine Jeffs…
Well, I think a lot of it has to do with getting the vote first. And even before that I think it had a lot to do with being a colonised country. Women that came here had to be really strong. They were some shitty times, you had to be really tough and that helps in the film industry.
I think for me Jane Campion has a hell of a lot to do with it, you know? When I sawSweetie my whole way of looking at the world shifted. Because I had always loved movies, but I never thought “how would you do that?” But when I saw Sweetie, and I saw ourselves, I saw a way of making films that wasn’t Hollywood and was so compelled and inspired.
But I think it is a New Zealand in general thing. ‘Cos you can put Taika Waititi in there. You know, honorary girl. I hate that I said that. But I think he is certainly the most gifted New Zealander working right now. I am a mad fan of his. New Zealanders tend to punch above their weight in the world. I don’t know why. Helen Clark has probably a lot to do with it, too, being Minister of the Arts over that long period of time – I felt sort of affirmed in my artistic life by that.
Do you think New Zealand film makers need to be not only aware of a local audience but an international one?
It is wonderful when your films work in your own country, it’s amazing. But I don’t think we can only consider that anymore. Economically you just can’t. But on the other hand, I will say that in the past I have seen the Film Commission go through phases of only wanting to make generic, international films, [when] our voice is really unique and really appreciated. I think we must continue to be idiosyncratic in the world.
Who do you consider your influences? Filmmakers or otherwise.
Certainly Jane Campion. I am a mad fan of Vincent Ward’s and as a teenager I was obsessed with his films. Books, I read a lot. My children. I should actually bone up on my influences. But the truth is, I have a young family and there is nothing in my life except my little family and my work.
So I am very behind. I see what I can and I read what I can, but when you have children you just get sucked into a parallel universe that is very compelling and very exhausting. But the upside is that what I learn about how human beings are, from watching them form in front of my eyes, I take to the work. So they are my big influence right now.
My lack of time is a big influence right now, and I am just trying to make things that are substantial under those circumstances.
Do you see your future as making films in New Zealand or America or both?
I am sort of really conscious that if I make a film in New Zealand I take that resource away from another filmmaker, so probably now the next work is likely to be elsewhere.
But this is where I live and this is where I love, so I would like to somehow keep myself engaged and involved in the New Zealand film industry and the new filmmakers coming through.