A talking dragon would not have fit into this “Mulan”! Our interview with director Niki Caro
After the critical hit “Whale Rider” and the Disney sports film “McFarland, USA”, Niki Caro took responsibility for one of the most anticipated and most expensive Hollywood films of the year. We met the “Mulan” director in London.
With a rumored budget of more than $ 200 million (some sources even speak of close to $ 300 million), “Mulan” would have been one of the most expensive films of the year. In the meantime, however, Disney has decided to publish the blockbuster directly on Disney * in many countries, including Germany, due to Corona – in order to recoup the mega budget with a new strategy despite the cinema restrictions.
When we met with director Niki Caro in London last January, the (cinema) world was still okay – and so we also talked about what has unfortunately often been a little short lately. Namely the film itself …
MOVIE STARTS: I think a lot of people expect Mulan to be a live-action remake of the Disney cartoon. Rather, your film is a new interpretation of the classic Chinese legend. How did the decision come about?
Niki Caro: We knew that from the start. Because the real film adaptation finally gave us the opportunity to be exactly that – real! We want to show what it really feels like for a woman to travel across China to go to war. We knew from the beginning where we were going with our film.
What about mushu?
: Was it ever up to you to bring Mushu back anyway? After all, the little dragon was the crowd favorite of the cartoon …
Niki Caro: No, that wasn’t an issue for us. That just wouldn’t have worked.
FILM STARTS: There are now other mystical beings in the film …
Niki Caro: Exactly, we have a magical creature that is female. This is also a small homage to Mushu: On the right side of the emperor sits a male dragon, while the phoenix on his left represents the female side. On the one hand, this character represents the influence of the ancestors in our film – but at the same time also the strong connection that Mulan has with her father.
MOVIE STARTS: Another difference to the cartoon is that Mulan now has a sister …
Niki Caro: Yes, exactly. That’s a really great role! It’s not that big, but it’s very, very important to the story nonetheless.
Adult than the cartoon
MOVIE STARTS: The origin of the ballad about Hua Mulan goes back to the 5th century. Later, however, a more modern version was developed that ends in a tragic suicide …
Niki Caro: Oh, yes. I know! But don’t worry, we won’t do that! We chose a more hopeful ending [laughs] – emotional, but more uplifting and not so devastating.
FILM STARTS: There are also no vocal parts in your film, but epic fight scenes. Is the film still for children at all?
Niki Caro: Yes, the film is actually for everyone. It is perhaps a little more demanding than the cartoon in a few respects, but otherwise just as suitable for everyone. We just gave the story a contemporary update.
: But how do you go about giving fights and battles the necessary force and conveying their often terrible consequences without actually showing the violence explicitly?
Niki Caro: It’s an unbelievable balancing act to show something that should look real and terrible without becoming too graphic. For me the martial arts was key because this type of fighting is just incredibly beautiful and elegant. And as for the battles, I see them like the natural spectacle when smoke rises from a volcano. Because that’s enough to know what’s going on inside. And so we show fights that have terrible consequences, but at the same time look beautiful from a distance.
Dare more China
FILM STARTS: Speaking of balancing acts: You are New Zealander and you are making an American film about a Chinese legend. The viewing habits between viewers from the USA and China in particular differ greatly in some cases. Was it difficult to meet the demands on both sides?
Niki Caro: You are absolutely right. Nonetheless, first and foremost, I always focus on the truth that lies in a story and the characters’ emotions. If a story is true from a human point of view, it is true for people in Germany, New Zealand or any other country. That’s the only thing that really matters.
FILM STARTS: So far, you are better known for small films. How did it come about that Disney saw you as the right director for “Mulan”?
Niki Caro: Well, I’ve worked with Disney before [editor’s note: on “City Of McFarland”]. But that’s still a very good question. Because it went something like this: They liked my idea that I had for the film and gave me a few months and a few people to show them what I was going to do with it. I knew I had to take this chance and convince them that I didn’t want to make a small, totally dark film. I just thought: “I’ll show you how big the vision is in my head.” And from then on we agreed in which direction “Mulan” should go.
The action: Spectacular, but down to earth
: How was it for you to shoot such elaborate action scenes for the first time?
Niki Caro: I had so much fun doing it! It’s just great to tell a story through action. The main thing for me was not to portray Mulan as some kind of superhero. So she’s not constantly flying around on some ropes. She is simply a woman who not only has a lot of strength in her body, but above all a strong mind.
: And she knows how to use the power. The action scenes are really tough …
Niki Caro: Yes, our stunt coordinator Ben Cooke did a really great job. He always planned the fight choreographies first and introduced them to me before we finally developed them further together. And then of course we were lucky enough to be able to fall back on some Chinese martial arts masters for the implementation. It’s really, really impressive what they’re capable of.
MOVIE STARTS: In addition to Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen and Jason Scott Lee, you also got the big Jet Li for your film. Was it difficult to win him over to “Mulan”? He doesn’t make as many films as he used to …
Niki Caro: That’s right – and that he is there, we actually have his daughter to thank for telling him that he absolutely had to accept the role. And what better reason could there be than to grant your daughter’s wish? [laughs]
Next stop: Marvel?
FILM STARTS: To what extent was it new territory for you to shoot such a big blockbuster? Was it the same in green, just a few sizes larger?
Niki Caro: The basic rules of storytelling remain the same. What changes is only the dimension and the effort. You just have to love your characters and tell your story well, that’s what it’s all about – always.
MOVIE STARTS: “Mulan” is one of the greatest (action) films Disney has ever produced. I would say that this gives you more than one foot in the door to maybe make more action films for the studio in the future. I am thinking of Marvel
Niki Caro: Why not! What is most important to me is the personal relationship to a story, a character. There just has to be a very special connection – and then I don’t care where the story takes place.
Women are conquering the blockbuster world
MOVIE STARTS: There have been several “Mulan” films, all directed by men. Do you think that as a woman you might bring a new perspective with you?
Niki Caro: I hope so, yes Gostream. I hope that my film will give this over 1,500 year old story a fresh and, above all, contemporary look.
FILM STARTS: What is striking at the moment: More and more women get the chance to shoot blockbusters, which then also revolve around women – from “Wonder Woman 2” and “Birds Of Prey” to “Black Widow” to “Mulan”. But it still feels like Hollywood isn’t ready to give a woman male heroes like James Bond. Do you think so too? Would that be the next step for you?
Niki Caro: I hope that this is the next step! Because it is precisely with these films that we prove that we are just as capable of making such films.
“Mulan” will air on September 4, 2020 on Disney.
“Mulan” will air on September 4, 2020 on Disney.
“Mulan”: That’s how much Disney customers in Germany have to pay for the film