Picturing yourself as a successful movie director -- then getting there -- is notoriously tough for a woman in the U.S., the epicenter of the movie industry. For a young woman in New Zealand -- certainly in the days of LOTR -- it must have seemed an even bigger reach.
But it’s an ambition that gripped a teenage Niki Caro when she saw a picture called An Angel at My Table and learned that its director (Jane Campion) was a woman, and a New Zealander.
Not long after, an inspired Caro signed up for a master class in filmmaking taught by Campion.
Caro made a poor initial impression.
“She told me off,” Caro said, speaking by phone recently in advance of Friday's release of her latest movie, The Zookeeper’s Wife, starring Jessica Chastain.
“I showed up late for class, and she really let me have it. She demanded to know where I’d been, and I told the truth," Caro said. "I’d just locked my first film."
Campion backed off, having identified Caro right away as a fellow striver.
“She’s said some incredibly kind things about me since then,” said Caro, now 49, “and that’s been a great source of inspiration to me.”
Caro had an acclaimed debut with Whale Rider, which won the audience award at the Toronto Fiim Festival in 2002 and tells a story close to Caro’s heart -- that of a young New Zealand girl who defies gender roles to become a leader.
That brought Caro to Hollywood, where she made another story about a strong woman -- North Country with Charlize Theron. (Two years ago, Caro made McFarland USA, with Kevin Costner and Philadelphia’s Maria Bello.)
Her latest again reflects her affinity for stories about formidable women, this one based on the Diane Ackerman nonfiction book about Antonia Zabinski, who co-managed the Warsaw Zoo during the brutal Nazi occupation of WWII, and who worked with husband Jan to protect and rescue hundred of Jews.
Caro knew everything would ride on finding the right actress for the role, and she had a list of acceptable candidates.
There was one name on it.
"I was only thinking of her. And I knew that Jessica is everybody’s first choice for just about everything," Caro said. "I was so happy when she said yes.”
Chastain has built her career on an image of steely confidence, and there are elements of that in The Zookeeper's Wife. Antonia manages the sprawling operation of the Warsaw Zoo, then the dangerous and complex mission of saving Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, hiding them in her home, shipping them off to safety.
All under the nose of a fearsome Nazi officer, played by Daniel Bruhl, who is using the zoo’s livestock in a rather daft attempt to recreate (this is also drawn from history) an extinct species of German ox.
Caro said the role called for Chastain to display a new side to her persona.
“She is showing us another side of her complex gifts as an actress. You experience a shade of Jessica that is so soft, so feminine," Caro said, "and that’s really an important part of the film, and consciously so. It’s a totally feminine movie, in every respect, and proudly so.”
The female point of view especially informs the tricky triangle formed by her Antonia, Jan, and the German, who is attracted to Antonia. She walks a tricky line -- knowing that being tactically solicitous of the German will help her save lives, even as it strains her marriage.
“She never manipulates. She protects. It’s her primary instinct. She protects the animals in the zoo. She protects people hiding in her house. She protects her child and, in her own way, her husband," the director said.
“Femininity is too often equated with weakness, and Antonia shows us in this movie that you can be very soft and very strong at the same time. These are not, by the way, unusual qualities in women. You just don’t see it in movies very often."
Chastain's other essential qualification: "She loves animals. And she's good with them, and that's critical. We don't use CG animals. It's the real thing. When you see Jessica with the animals, you know that it's all real, and that was so important to the movie."
Caro said The Zookeeper's Wife has turned out to be well-timed, given reports of a rise in hate crimes, including some rooted in anti-Semitism. Told of local incidents -- vandalism to Jewish cemeteries, threats to Jewish community centers -- she was dismayed but not surprised and noted the rise of similar incidents in Europe.
“When I started making this movie, I viewed it as mainly historical. I now realize how important it is to bring a story about this kind of compassion to the world, where this perspective is so sorely needed.”