Niki Caro, the New Zealander director behind the upcoming Holocaust drama The Zookeeper’s Wife (in theaters this Friday), burst onto the scene back in 2002 with her debut Whale Rider, which landed Keisha Castle-Hughes a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. Since then she directed Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand to Oscar nominations in the 2005 film North Country. Now she is back in the spotlight with her fifth film, which stars Jessica Chastain as Antonina Zabinski, the Polish animal lover who helped rescue 300 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto by hiding them in her exotic animal zoo.
Caro joined us on EW Radio to talk about the challenges of working on this historical drama, the joys of discovering Chastain’s costar Johan Heldenberg and her excitement over her next project, the live-action adaptation of Disney’s Mulan, which will make her the fourth female director to helm a project with a budget north of $100 million. Highlights of the conversation are below. To hear the full interview tune into EW Radio on Sirius XM Radio, Channel 105 on Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it about The Zookeeper’s Wife that drew you into the project?
NIKI CARO: I was so compelled by the courage and compassion of this woman. She was so feminine and yet, so strong. And her instinct to care for animals translated so fluidly to care for her human refugees. It seemed like a way to tell a Holocaust story that was really different, that was ultimately about hope.
You faced a number of challenges, from working with children and animals, to filming a period piece on a limited budget. What was the most daunting?
First and foremost, the responsibility to that time, and those events and to honor the millions that lost their lives in the Holocaust was my biggest challenge — to make something that honored them while celebrating the 300 that were saved. There was an equal responsibility recreating the Warsaw ghetto, building our own zoo, working not only with animals but exotic animals. I couldn’t conceive of making an authentic and specific and truthful movie from this material and using fake animals. I just couldn’t do it.
Why was Jessica that right actress to play Antonina?
She was our very first choice. Jessica is my favorite kind of actor which is to say if you look at any of her roles from The Help to Zero Dark Thirty to The Martian, name any of them, it’s like you are looking at different actresses. As if different actresses played those roles. And then she reinvented herself profoundly for The Zookeeper’s Wife. She opened up a side of herself that is very soft.
Jessica seemed to have connected genuinely to the animals. Was there one in particular that she related to the most?
Jessica is a genuine animal whisperer and you see it in the film with all the animals. But she really connected to the elephant, named Lily. We spent time with Lily in pre-production and she took instantly to Jessica. We shot [a night scene where an elephant needs help after a traumatic birth] overnight for two nights in the freezing cold. Jessica was barefoot, on her knees, in a tiny cocktail dress, on concrete, underneath the feet of an elephant. And the rest of us were wearing four pairs of pants, millions of ski jackets. And Lily’s trunk was all over Jessica, searching for apples that Jessica had concealed under her skirt. All of the animal work was all completely natural. I never wanted an animal to have to do a particular trick or action.
Tell me about casting Johan Heldenberg, who plays Jessica’s husband in the film — the actual Zookeeper. I’ve never seen him before.
Jessica called me and said I think we should consider this actor Johan Heldenberg. At the time we were under a lot of pressure to cast a name actor — a lot of pressure. She said the name Johan Heldenberg and I like everyone else in the world said, “Sorry. Who?” She said go see the film Broken Circle Breakdown, he’s the lead in it and he also wrote the play for which the film was adapted. It’s extraordinary and he’s extraordinary. I met him and I loved him and I knew he would be absolutely right for us. We contorted ourselves to get everybody on board with Johan. I’m so happy we did. I’m amazed by him and thrilled that I can introduce him to the world. For me he’s like an old style movie star. He’s so masculine. A total man and yet he’s completely emotionally open and fearless as an actor and a great and equal partner to Jessica.
And I have to ask you about Mulan. Why was this the right match for you?
I wanted to direct Mulan because she’s the most kick-ass of all the princesses. I can’t tell you much about it because I haven’t begun but I’m so excited to flex my filmmaking muscles on a movie of that size.