Interview with HUMANITAS Winner Niki Caro

Niki Caro is one of the more fascinating filmmakers working today. The New Zealand native made a splash, both literally and figuratively, with her breakout feature "Whale Rider," a tender fairy tale laced with subtext about female empowerment and the cultural subjugation of women the world over. She followed it up with a brassy Hollywood debut, with the "Norma Rae"-esque "North Country" (starring Charlize Theron), before returning to New Zealand to direct another small film.

Now she's back, with the tremendous "McFarland, USA," a Disney based-on-a-true-story sports movie starring Kevin Costner as Jim White, a coach who, in the late '80s, led a group of inexperienced Latino kids to become champion cross-country runners. It's a typical Disney sports movie -- full of grit and hardwork and determination, but with a wonderful cultural specificity and gorgeous (35 mm!) photography.

We sat down with Caro (who, it should be noted, was rocking some amazing rings) and talked about what brought her back to Hollywood, why this story was so important, whether or not the movie had more of a feminist bent before the final cut, and if her adaptation of "The Zookeeper's Wife," starring the lovely Jessica Chastain, is still next on her docket.

Moviefone: Why come back to Hollywood?

Niki Caro: Because I was inspired by this story. It's as simple as that. I'm not useful for a lot of Hollywood movies. My agent despairs, she says there's only about three percent of actual product in this industry that I am useful for. But this was one.

What about this story spoke to you?

Look, it would have been more than enough -- Jim White, that team, and what they achieved. And obviously that legacy that they have left and will endure. If that wasn't enough to inspire me to make a movie, it was, for me, personally, the people. I was profoundly unaware of what life is like for immigrant field workers and I am astonished, impressed, absolutely floored by their endurance, and I felt very privileged to be in that world for a little while and appreciate the contribution they make to this country, which is undeniable. When I wrote that speech for Kevin -- "You guys are superhuman..." They freakin' are! There is not a piece of lettuce in a burger that has not been picked by somebody there. Central Valley contributes seventy-five percent of the fresh food to this country. It's not picked by a machine, my friend! It's picked by people like you and me. But a lot tougher.

What was it like working with actors as seasoned as Costner alongside relative unknowns?

It's been mentioned to me a couple of times today that I've taken a big risk on kids who have never acted before. And I don't. I take casting very, very seriously and I take equally seriously my instinct for who can be great. I need no instinct to know that Costner or Maria [Bello] are going to be great but with these kids we had to cast unknowns because there's just not a deep enough pool of Mexican teenage boys that can act and run really fast. There's just not. There's one. And we had to teach him to run. So we did huge open calls, saw thousands of kids, and I knew when I had my seven -- and I had to fight for some of them -- that I had gold. I knew they had the goods, I knew I had the goods and I came to appreciate that Kevin Costner was not just going to be magnificent on screen, but off screen as well, supporting those boys and allowing them to have confidence to stand with him on set. It was perfect.

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UncategorizedJosh Neimark