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Niki Caro

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Caro in 2017
Nikola Jean Caro

(1966-09-20) 20 September 1966 (age 56)
Wellington, New Zealand
Alma mater University of Auckland
Swinburne University of Technology
Years active 1984–present
Notable work
Whale Rider
North Country
The Vintner's Luck
McFarland, USA
The Zookeeper's Wife
Spouse(s) Andrew Lister
Children 2

Nikola Jean Caro MNZM (born 20 September 1966) is a New Zealand film director and screenwriter. Her 2002 film Whale Rider was critically praised and won a number of awards at international film festivals. She directed the 2020 live action version of Disney's Mulan, making her the second female and the second New Zealand director hired by Disney to direct a film budgeted at over $100 million.

Early life

Caro was born in Wellington, New Zealand. She attended Kadimah College, Auckland, then Diocesan School for Girls, where she received an alumni award. Caro graduated with a BFA from the Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland in 1988 and received a Postgraduate Diploma in Film from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.


Early career

Caro first found interest in working with metal sculptures, but later turned her interests toward film. She did not receive any formal training in the field, but instead began by reading narrative film books and writing rough drafts for scripts. Caro's mother would type her handwritten drafts after she finished writing each one.

Caro's first experience in directing was when she was hired to create commercials for different companies such as the New Zealand Land Transport Safety Authority, Nike and Tower Insurance, but it was only after being signed by a production company to write and direct for the television series, Another Country that she had her first breakthrough. She did not have any experience in directing, but it felt it was instinctual once she started working with the actors.

Memory & Desire

Caro's first feature film, Memory & Desire, was meant to be a showcase of New Zealand's culture and lifestyle (aligning with the start of the 100% Pure New Zealand tourism campaign by the New Zealand tourism section of the government), but it fell short; seeing disappointing results at the box office and mixed international reviews. This was especially true in Japan, where the film was deemed to have not captured the essence of Japanese culture, despite its attempts to evoke money and consult from possible Japanese investors. The film is meant to use landscapes to juxtapose the characters and their origins. The calm and relaxed outdoor setting of New Zealand is meant to oppose the hustle and bustle of the big, busy city of Tokyo. It works twofold because the contrast also works for the comparison of the "civilized" parts of New Zealand against the wild outdoors, showing off the two different sections of the country in an effort to advertise to multiple groups of people considering visiting the country. The tourism board looked to use landscapes as the most enticing factor in a tourist's eyes, along with people, adventure and culture. The film shows evidence of this by implying that Keiji and Sayo are unable to consummate their marriage anywhere but in the outdoors due to Keiji being unable to achieve an erection in an urban setting, emphasizing the "natural" state of humanism of being connected to the surrounding landscapes. Along the couple's trip they encounter different New Zealand tourist hotspots such as; the Museum of Technology and Rotorua's spa pools on the West Coast Beach. It is also in contrast of the bland hotel rooms that the couple stay in; as if to say that the only time they are truly free is when they are outside in nature, specifically New Zealand's nature.

It was chosen for Critics' Week at Cannes week in 1998. In 1999 the film was voted best new film at the New Zealand Film Awards.

Whale Rider

Caro went on to write and direct Whale Rider, which is about a Māori girl that has to stand up against the other men and her grandfather in the tribe to show she can be as much of a leader as the boys who were being trained to be leaders. Caro argues that Whale Rider is more about leadership than sexism because the Māori are also profoundly matriarchal. Caro says there is a Māori saying that "women lead from behind". She directed thirteen-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes to a performance nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. The film had a budget of $2 million, which is considered small for a major film, but it was still considered to be a good interpretation of the indigenous story that it was trying to interpret and demonstrate. Whale Rider would also go on to become New Zealand's most financially successful film and either the film, or Caro herself, would win or be nominated for over 50 different awards by different, international film festivals.

Subsequent projects

With the success of Whale Rider under her belt, Caro was chosen to direct her first Hollywood film, North Country (2005), starring Charlize Theron. It was later nominated for Best Actress for lead and supporting role at the Oscars, and also was nominated for a Golden Globe.

After doing North Country, Caro went back to New Zealand to write and direct the feature film The Vintner's Luck (2009), which is about a peasant winemaker who sets out to make the perfect vintage wine. The film reunited her with her Whale Rider star Keisha Castle-Hughes.

In 2013, Caro planned to direct the film adaptation of The Zookeeper's Wife, based on Diane Ackerman's non-fiction book. It was released in 2017 and received generally mixed to positive reviews. In an interview with FF2 Media, Caro states that "female ... from a female's point of view is rather under-explored in cinema" and so felt it necessary to include such a perspective in her film.

Caro directed McFarland, USA starring Kevin Costner. It was released in February 2015 and has received a critical success.

Caro will also be writing and directing the biographical film Callas, about the famous opera singer Maria Callas and her relationship with billionaire Aristotle Onassis.

In February 2017, Caro was hired to direct Disney's live-action adaptation of Mulan, which was released in 2020, to mixed reviews. Mulan was nominated by the 46th Saturn Award for Best Director. She is the second woman at the studio to direct a film budgeted at over $100 million, after Ava DuVernay (2018's A Wrinkle in Time), and the second New Zealander, after Taika Waititi (2017's Thor: Ragnarok).

On 18 November 2019, Caro will direct Amazon TV series Daisy Jones and the Six which is based on novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid and produced by Reese Witherspoon.

Personal life

Caro is married to architect Andrew Lister, and they have two daughters, Tui and Pearl. Their first daughter was born shortly after the success of Whale Rider. Because Caro was pregnant, she was unable to attend any of the premieres for the film. Caro said she was sad, but at the same time thought it may not be such a bad thing because success in America is so radical.



Year Title Credited as
Director Writer Producer
1998 Memory & Desire Yes Yes No
2002 Whale Rider Yes Yes No
2005 North Country Yes No No
2009 The Vintner's Luck Yes Yes Yes
2015 McFarland, USA Yes No No
2017 The Zookeeper's Wife Yes No No
2020 Mulan Yes No No
2023 The Mother Yes No No


Year Title Credited as Notes
Director Writer
2001–2002 Mercy Peak Yes Yes 5 episodes
2017 Anne with an E Yes No 1 episode

Music videos

Year Title Artist Note
2020 "Loyal Brave True" Christina Aguilera
"El Mejor Guerrero"
  • For Walt Disney Pictures' live-action feature film, Mulan
  • Spanish-language version of "Loyal Brave True"
  • For Walt Disney Pictures' live-action feature film, Mulan
"Wierna, odważna i prawa" Zuza Jabłońska
  • For Walt Disney Pictures' live-action feature film, Mulan
  • Polish-language version of "Loyal Brave True"

Awards and recognition

  • Caro was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the film industry in the 2004 New Year Honours.
  • Caro was one of the honorees for Ms. Magazine's 10 women of the year in 2003
  • Whale Rider received Best Feature Film for British Academy Children's Awards
  • Whale Rider received People's Choice Award for Toronto International Film Festival(TIFF) in 2002.
  • Caro's film Memory & Desire was nominated for Best Film and Best Screenplay Adaptation at the Nokia New Zealand Film Awards,1999.
  • Her film, Memory & Desire won a Special Jury Prize at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards
  • The television series Jackson's Wharf received the Best Drama Script award for at the TV Guide Television Awards, 1999.
  • Caro's film Memory & Desire was selected for Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival, 1998
  • Caro's television documentary Footage was selected for the Venice Film Festival, 1996
  • Caro's short for Sure to Rise was nominated for the Palme d'Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival, 1994
  • Caro was nominated for Best Director and Best Writer at the NZ Film and Television Awards (1994) for The Summer the Queen Came
  • Won Best Video at NZ Music Awards (1990) for Bad Note for a Heart

See also

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