Niki Caro is the New Zealand-based writer and director of Whale Rider, the mythic story of a little Maori girl who could ride whales, which nabbed an Oscar nomination for its 12-year-old star. Caro's new film, North Country, starring Charlize Theron, which opens this Friday, tackles sexual harassment in the workplace. It is based loosely on the book Class Action: The Story of Lois Jenson and the Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler. The book recounts the 25-year legal ordeal behind Jenson v. Eveleth, the first successful sexual-harassment class-action lawsuit, in which Lois Jenson, a female iron miner, battled misogyny in the northern Minnesota iron mines. Caro was in Los Angeles when we spoke by phone.
Slate: Have you ever had to deal with sexual harassment or sexual discrimination in the workplace?
Caro: Only at a very minor level. I've worked in all kinds of jobs and in environments in which crude things have been said on the job, and I've been embarrassed. But nothing at the level of what was in this film.
Slate: Why did the movie stray so far from the real events surrounding the landmark case, Jenson v. Eveleth, as depicted in the book, Class Action? Was it for legal reasons?
Caro: The movie doesn't stray far from the case at all. The real court case was incredibly convoluted and took over 20 years. With a good dramatic script, you don't need 20 years to tell this story. So I stuck to the 1989 to 1991 period when the Anita Hill testimony was going on.
Slate: You didn't write North Country yourself. I've heard you say there was one scene you added that you fought over with screenwriter Michael Seitzman. What scene was it, and why was it so important to you?
Caro: Most of what I did was character work. For a film that is so much about men in the workplace and in society, I didn't think you could tell the story without talking about the men in [lead character Josey Aimes'] life—particularly her son and her father. To me, it was really important to show the scene at the union hall where her father finally speaks up.
Slate: For a story in which so many men behaved so horribly, did you feel you needed to show a few "good men" in order to balance things out?
Caro: Definitely. One of the things that attracted me to this story was that the other women who worked in the mines testified in the trial, but they testified against her. The most abusive moment in the story is not when Josey is physically attacked, but afterwards, when she steps towards the women for their help and they turn away from her.
Slate: Both Whale Rider and North Country are stories about female empowerment. Do you worry about being marginalized as a woman director of films for women?