Director Niki Caro has been making movies for 25 years, going back to her native New Zealand-based drama Whale Rider, which continues to find new audiences to this day.
Since then, Caro has worked steadily in Hollywood, and in different genres as well, working with Oscar-winning actresses such as Charlize Theron (North Country) and Jessica Chastain (The Zookeeper’s Wife). She now adds Jennifer Lopez to that list of leading ladies, having directed Netflix’s emotional action movie The Mother.
Lopez plays an unnamed Army sniper who gave up her daughter due to her dangerous line of work, hoping to give her a normal life. Years later, the girl (played by Lucy Paez) is kidnapped, sending the mother she’s never met on a mission to get her back — at all costs. Her mission pits her against Joseph Fiennes and Gael García Bernal, who are also joined in the film by Omari Hardwick, Oscar nominee Paul Raci, and Emmy winner Edie Falco.
Despite its fairly innocuous title, The Mother is a gritty action thriller that shows the lengths to which a woman will go to protect her child, and it’s a major change of pace for Caro, who is coming off of Disney’s live-action Mulan movie.
Above the Line recently hopped on Zoom with Niki Caro for the following conversation in which she discussed working with J-Lo and the rest of the cast, as well as the film’s approach to violence.
ATL: I have to admit that when I first heard about The Mother, I had absolutely no idea what the movie was about and thought it might be something in the vein of The Father or The Son, so I wasn’t expecting something so violent and full of action. Was this just a script that Jennifer Lopez’s producing partner sent your way?
Niki Caro: Yes, she did. It was [during] the pandemic, it was 2020, and I got sent the script with no title page. It was an astonishing read. It was wall-to-wall action — almost no dialogue — and I was crazy about it. I knew two things: I knew Jennifer was the only actress that could play the Mother, and I knew that I was going to make damn sure that it would be me [who] would direct it. I had a very, very strong instinct for this material.
ATL: Were you already looking at the script and thinking about the project while waiting for Mulan to come out?
Caro: It was 2020 the first time I read this script, and of course, it’s a very big, complex movie. Setting up a movie of this scale, in so many locations around the world during a pandemic, was no small thing. We had an amazing team of people to put it together, and we managed to set it up and shoot it in the pandemic years. That’s one of the things I’m quietly quite proud of. I hope it’s never that difficult [again, laughing].
ATL: Where did you end up shooting it? There are so many different locations, as you say.
Caro: It’s all in-camera. It’s unusual for a movie of this scale to be shot on location. Because the locations are really diverse, we needed the desert for Afghanistan, we needed the tropics for Cuba, we needed the snow for Alaska, and we needed to shoot it all in a very short timeframe, according to Jennifer’s schedule, so we ended up shooting in British Columbia, Canada, and in the Canary Islands, which is off the West Coast of Africa.
ATL: Did you find they had decent infrastructure in places or did you have to bring in a lot of people?
Caro: Yes, it’s a good question. Of course, [there’s a] very good infrastructure in Canada, and Canaria now has quite a lot of production, so we were pretty well-resourced there, too.
ATL: Jen has done action before, but not necessarily on this scale. I think the last time was that Jason Statham movie, Parker, but was she all gung-ho to do as much as possible herself, and what did she have to do in preparation for this role?
Caro: [There was a] decent amount of preparation. Obviously, she’s already very fit, and she brings her legendary skill and precision as a dancer and as a performer to the action sequences. [There was a] significant fight training, gun training. Everything else, she sort of intuits very naturally, very innately. She’s an incredible physical performer, but she’s also an incredibly emotional performer. She’s a great dramatic actress, too. Those two things, in that particular package… it’s just a knockout.
ATL: It’s interesting you mention the dancing because I’m a big Wuxia fan, the martial art seen in Mulan, and that’s almost akin to dancing, where this is just really gritty, and violent, and pulls no punches — it’s just very different.
Caro: But you watch her learn the fight choreography, and it’s like learning [dance] choreography to her. She has such incredible muscle memory that you can teach her something. She only needs to do it once, and her body remembers. It’s remarkable, really.
ATL: Did you bring any of the stunt team from Mulan over to this, or was it all new people?
Caro: No, I didn’t. [It was a] completely different team. Mulan was very weighted in the martial arts world, which was wonderful. I loved it.
ATL: Lucy Paez was quite an amazing find, a Mexican actress who has done a few films down there, I believe.
Caro: She did a little bit of television that was cut short by the pandemic, but it was a significant search for us because we had to find the right Latina actress to play Jen’s daughter. We narrowed it down to about four, and Lucy came in, got delayed by COVID, went into quarantine, [and] made the best of two weeks in a hotel room with her mother, feeling like that was very apt preparation for her audition. She auditioned with Jennifer, the two of them together.
ATL: Although I love explosives and guns and that stuff, I have to admit that my favorite part of the movie was that section where it was just the two of them getting to know each other.
Caro: Me too.
ATL: What about the rest of the cast? I know Jennifer also produced this, so was she throwing out the names of people she had worked with before or who she wanted to work with, like Gael Garcia Bernal and Joseph Fiennes?
Caro: Yes, and no. Jennifer and the rest of the producing team really respected my choices. I’ve cast quite a lot of movies now, and casting is something I take very seriously and I enjoy very much. Our strongest instinct was that we find men in the three roles around Jennifer [who] were all very different, but were also strong enough — very strong actors in their own right — that they would go toe to toe with her in these three very different relationships.
ATL: I think Paul Raci was the nicest surprise, because he was so good, and I didn’t realize he was that great actor who got nominated for an Oscar for Sound of Metal. Had you seen him in that movie, because this role is very different…
Caro: I saw it and just relentlessly pursued him for the role of Jons, not knowing that he himself is a veteran, so he bought this incredible authenticity and heart and quiet to the role. He’s a magnificent actor.
ATL: The last person I asked this question, it didn’t go so great… [Note: It’s true. Check out our interview with Ben Mendelsohn soon.]
Caro: That’s a good way to lead in! [laughs]
ATL: … but there was another recent movie with a sniper, and it was a little jarring to see those scenes where people were being shot, just because we see so much of that in the real world these days. Did you and Jen have any concerns about how onscreen gun violence reflects the real world?
Caro: No, we were singularly focused, and the action is singularly focused on emotion and the emotion of a mother and the instinct of a mother. The mother in this movie is a primal protective force. The character of the mother in this movie is a skilled sniper and a combat veteran, so the violence in the movie is only the violence of that one character doing all she can to protect her daughter. It’s not motivated by anything else, and that keeps the movie and the character herself very authentic.
ATL: One of the things I’ve always admired about you as a filmmaker is that you’re not just cranking out one movie every year or jumping from one TV show to the next. You really seem to put a lot of time into developing the movies you direct…
Caro: I have a very strong and singular relationship with every movie that I make, and they become my whole life. They become like my third child. [chuckles] Like any mother, I protect them and try to nurture them, so that when I have the opportunity to make them, they can be the greatest that they can be — the best that I can do.
ATL: It’s odd asking this question during the Writers Strike, but you used to write a lot more of your own scripts, so are you still writing and do you have any scripts in development?
Caro: Yes, yes, I do. I wish I could tell you, because I’m very excited about it, but I can’t quite yet.
ATL: At one point, were you working on a Maria Callas biopic?
Caro: I did write that a long time ago, but I’m not going to be directing that.
ATL: That’s a shame. It would be a great role, and she has an amazing story.
Caro: It’s an incredible story. What an iconic woman.
ATL: Were you able to see Mulan at a premiere with an audience before the COVID pandemic hit?
Caro: Yes, there was, and it was marvelous — [a] great, wonderful, wonderful experience.
ATL: My biggest regret is never getting to see it in a theater, and that just hasn’t happened here in New York. One day, I hope someone will do a retrospective series here, and they’ll show some of your other movies like North Country in theaters. I’ve seen Whale Rider a few times in theaters over the years as well.
Caro: I guess that’s the thing about streaming is that we have access to all the movies all the time, right? It’s not the same as the big screen, says the filmmaker, but I am so happy that the work that I’ve done can be accessed by anybody anywhere.
Speaking of which, The Mother is now streaming on Netflix.