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?
Caro: Yeah, I do, because that's not what I do. I don't see myself as a crusading feminist filmmaker. Not at all. I have the luxury of coming from New Zealand and I've had moments in my life where being female is considered to be a tremendous advantage— emotionally, career-wise. Personally, I have nothing to prove. But I'm tremendously curious about human nature. Female life is so incredibly underexplored in cinema, so these stories feel very exotic.
Slate: Was it that element of risk that attracted you to both stories?
Caro: Yes, very much so. When I take on something, there's always an element that I don't think has been done before that I want to explore. With North Country, I was so shocked that these events had happened in such recent history. I was very intrigued by the fact that every person in every industry I've talked to has heard of sexual harassment. And yet, in a cinematic culture that damages and demoralizes female characters with embarrassing regularity, making a film about sexual harassment seemed like a bold act. Nobody's made this film before.
Slate: Michelle Monaghan, one of the actresses in the film, referred to North Country as a "chick flick." Do you see it that way?
Caro: No, I don't. Not at all. It surprises me that she said that. I mean, maybe she said it because of the way the women were on the set—all the shenanigans that went on.
Slate: What shenanigans?
Caro: Well, I have to say, for a movie that's about a subject like sexual harassment, it was the least politically correct set ever. These actresses were sexually harassing everyone.
Slate: You've said before that you would never consider taking on violent material. And yet there are scenes in North Country that are incredibly violent towards women.
Caro: Well, look. Violence that has basis in fact and truth is different for me. If you look at the way something like the rape scene is shot, it doesn't shrink from the emotional and physical horror of it, but it doesn't exploit the woman involved. I have no problem telling a story that involves violence. But I draw the line at exploiting it or in any way sensationalizing it.
Slate: It seems a tough market for female directors. Kimberly Peirce hasn't made a film since Boys Don't Cry. Jane Campion hasn't made a film since 2003's critical disappointment, In the Cut.
Caro: I can't speak for any of them. Jane has elected to take some time off for family. If it's a hard time out there for women directors, well, we shall see what it will be like for me. But I think it's tough for any director.
Slate: In the DVD commentary for Whale Rider, you said that Maori women "lead from behind." Would you say the same for New Zealander women?
Caro: It's not at all the same for New Zealander women. We lead from in front!
Slate: Is "leading from behind" really a position of strength? I mean, looking at what happened in North Country, it seems impossible for a woman like Josey Aimes to have gotten anywhere by "leading from behind."
Caro: It can be a position of strength. The Maori culture is highly specific and stems from 2,000 years of tribal behavior, so I don't think you can make a comparison at all. Those women have it tough, but they're tough themselves.
Slate: You've referred to a "colonial mentality" in New Zealand in which talent fights for recognition amid fierce competition. How have you experienced this in your own career?
Caro: I've experienced this. But it's not any different for women. It's difficult for any creative person in New Zealand. The New Zealand culture and nature is such that we find it very difficult to celebrate creative achievement. In order to get New Zealanders' respect you have to dominate the world like Peter Jackson has done. He is absolutely revered.
Slate: Is that something you would like to achieve?
Caro: It's not a goal that I set up for myself.
Slate: Have you had a mentor?
Caro: I never had a mentor. God, it would have been nice, but I just didn't. I look up to Jane Campion. And my most favorite director Lynne Ramsay [Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar].
Slate: Recently in the New York Times, the critic Caryn James included North Country in what she called "a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates." She wrote, "It seems to be a film with a cause [because] it refights a battle that took place long ago." How would you respond to this?
Caro: Yeah, I read that story. I don't know that's it a watertight argument for North Country. How is North Country relevant today? It's relevant because this case was resolved only six years ago. And there's female suffering—human suffering—going on right now. People talk to me all the time about sexual harassment. This sort of behavior did not only happen in the past. And it's not in just the working class. It's in every industry. It's in the military. It's in politics.