Niki Caro's career is littered with awards and major name film festivals, but her career really went international thanks to a single project: her 2002 adaptation of Witi Ihimaera novel Whale Rider, which won fans in cinemas across the globe, and rave reviews to match.
Caro graduated from Auckland's Elam School of Fine Arts in 1988, then got a diploma at Melbourne's Swinburne Film and Television School. Returning to New Zealand, she wrote and directed several short films and TV dramas.
In 1992 producer Owen Hughes invited her to contribute to a trilogy of half-hour TV dramas, which were intended to bridge a gap for directors between short films and features. Caro's contribution was The Summer the Queen Came, an affectionate look at the small, twisted details of a family in suburbia. The film earned the self-described "writer/director/waitress" three nominations at the 1994 NZ Film and Television Awards.
The same year, Caro's short Sure To Rise was selected to compete at the Cannes Film Festival in France (as was another New Zealand film, Lemming Aid). One of only eight films chosen from roughly 300 entries, Sure to Rise tells a moody, near wordless story of a woman who discovers an injured airman.
Caro's work was growing more ambitious. Plain Tastes, her acclaimed drama for the Montana Sunday Theatre slot, was an hour-long piece about a middle class woman (Meryl Main) trying to find happiness and love. It was nominated for Best Television Drama and Best Writer at the 1996 New Zealand Film and Television Awards.
There was also rare excursions into documentary — although documentary that seemed at times to have been infected by fiction — with short film Old Bastards (1994) and Footage (1996). Made for the Work of Art series, Footage was an offbeat documentary about the cult of the shoe. It managed to win invitation to the Venice Film Festival.
At one point Caro was hoping to make her feature debut with a project based on the Parker-Hulme murder. Instead her first movie was Memory and Desire, which was selected for Critics Week at Cannes in 1998. Based on a short story by Peter Wells, the drama follows the unraveling relationship of a Japanese couple as they travel New Zealand. Voted Best Film at the 1999 NZ Film Awards, Memory and Desire won a Special Jury Prize for Caro's work as writer and director.
But it was follow-up feature Whale Rider that brought Caro to a large international audience. The film had been in development for many years when Caro's take on the script got her the job of directing. The film, she said, was "essentially about leadership and the fact that leadership presents itself in the form of a young girl". Whale Rider scooped almost 30 awards and impressive international box office — including audience awards for favourite film at the Toronto, Sundance and Rotterdam film festivals, and Best Film and Director in Seattle. Twelve-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes was Oscar-nominated in her first screen role, as the young East Coast Māori girl struggling to establish her place in her community.
Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan singled Caro out for particular praise, arguing that she brought to the film "a willingness to let this story tell itself in its own time and the ability to create emotion that is intense without being cloying or dishonest. She is also able, and this is critical, to leave the mundane behind and steer the film to a higher level when the story demands to go there".
Caro followed Whale Rider with her Hollywood debut North Country, another story of a female being told what she can't do because of her gender. Inspired by a landmark American court case, the film stars Charlize Theron as a woman in a remote mining town who dares to stand up to sexual harassment in the workplace. Caro argued that despite being warned about the challenges of working with a Hollywood studio, funders Warner Brothers "couldn't have been more respectful of my creative choices". Theron and fellow cast member Frances McDormand were both nominated for Oscar, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild awards for their work.
Caro's next production, The Vintner's Luck (aka A Heavenly Vintage) was released in New Zealand in November 2009, after debuting at the Toronto Film Festival. Mixing fantasy and the passing of the seasons, the tale of angels, friendships and winemaking was adapted from an acclaimed Elizabeth Knox novel, and shot in France, Belgium and Aotearoa. The multinational cast included Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes.
Caro went on to spend time in a Mexican-American community, while developing small town drama McFarland USA(2015). Inspired by a true story, the film stars Kevin Costner (JFK) as a coach at a Latino-heavy high school who leads the cross country running team to success.
From there, Caro's career got increasingly busy. Aside from continuing to develop her biopic about legendary opera singer Maria Callas, she directed The Zookeeper's Wife (2017). It was based on the true story of a couple who used Warsaw Zoo to hide hundreds of Jews from the Nazis after the 1939 German-Soviet invasion of Poland. Starring were Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) and German Daniel Brühl (Good Bye Lenin!).
Press reports put Caro in the running to direct superhero movie Captain Marvel, but in February 2017 The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that she would be directing a live action adaptation of 1998 animated hit Mulan. The film is inspired by her "favourite princess": the Chinese legend of warrior woman Hua Mulan. Shot in China and New Zealand, Mulan premiered in March 2020. Thanks to extended cinema closures due to the coronavirus, it ultimately debuted in most countries via new streaming service Disney+.
In 2018 the Directors Guild of America presented Caro with an award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement on a Children's Programe, for the first episode of Anne of Green Gables series Anne with an E. Her next project is directing multiple episodes of Amazon series Daisy Jones and the Six, about a woman who becomes a rock star in the 1970s.
Caro's work also includes short films, an award-nominated episode of Kiwi TV series Jackson's Wharf, and a number of music videos — including an award-winning interpretation of Straitjacket Fits single 'Bad Note for a Heart'. She was named a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit back in 2004, and an Arts Foundation Arts Laureate in 2017.
Profile updated on 13 September 2020
Kate Erbland, ''The Zookeeper's Wife' Director Has a Plan for Fighting Hollywood's Gender Gap' (Interview) IndieWire website. Loaded 29 March 2017. Accessed 20 November 2018
Wilson Morales, 'North Country: An Interview with Director Niki Caro' Blackfilm.com website. Loaded October 2005. Accessed 20 November 2018
Rebecca Sun, 'Disney's Live-Action 'Mulan' Finds Director (Exclusive)' - The Hollywood Reporter, 14 February 2017
Kenneth Turan, 'Riding high -- and low' (Review of Whale Rider) - The Los Angeles Times, 6 June 2003
'Whale Rider' South Pacific Pictures website. Accessed 20 November 2018
The Vintner's Luck press kit. Accessed 20 November 2018