The Mother Director Niki Caro On Jennifer Lopez As A 'Primal Protection Force' [Exclusive Interview]

This post contains spoilers for "The Mother."

New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro has been making hard-hitting, critically acclaimed motion pictures for decades. Her second feature, "Whale Rider," made Keisha Castle-Hughes the youngest Best Actress nominee in Academy Awards history at the time (although Quvenzhané Wallis eventually set a new record ten years later), and her harrowing sexual harassment drama "North Country" earned nominations for Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand for their roles as miners who embarked on a historic legal battle.

In recent years, Caro's films have become even more explosive. Her live-action remake of Disney's "Mulan" was expected to be one of the bigger hits of 2020, but its release was scuttled at the last minute due to the COVID-19 pandemic before eventually debuting on Disney+ with a premium surcharge. Now she's back with an action movie that was always intended for streaming: "The Mother," starring Jennifer Lopez as an ex-soldier who comes out of hiding to protect her daughter from two evil men who might be her father, played by Gael García Bernal and Joseph Fiennes.

We sat down with Niki Caro via Zoom to discuss Jennifer Lopez's action chops, the importance of wolves, the irony of characters using physical media for target practice in a Netflix Original, and the future of the entertainment industry in the midst of a WGA Strike.

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.)

'It feels satisfying to me ... to have an action movie that is driven by emotion'

I want to talk to you a little bit about this film's genre. It is part of an interesting action movie subgenre, about parents protecting their kids or their grandkids from bad guys. I feel as though this genre is about how all of our fears for our children are very real and only we can save them. It's almost like a fantasy. Do you think it's cathartic, or do you think it's extra harrowing?

I think it's primal. A primal instinct for a mother, an animal instinct to protect a child.

Yeah. I guess my question is, does presenting that cinematically, do you think there's something satisfying about that to the audience, or do you think that becomes something that activates more of our suspense and our fear?

Look, I think in this particular case, it's immensely satisfying for me as a filmmaker, but for audiences and mothers particularly, to see Jennifer in this role and to see a mother front and center as a primal protective force in a movie of this epic scale. Mothers in movies are frequently appendages to other more interesting characters. You think of locations you normally find mothers in movies. You find them in the kitchen, you find them in the car, you find them in the store. You don't find them driving action. And that feels fresh to me. It feels satisfying for me and I think, from what I'm gauging the responses of women, to be a long time coming, to have an action movie that is driven by emotion. Female emotion.

Is that why Jennifer Lopez's character doesn't have a name? To make her more of a universal figure?

It's really that she is the mother. She is the mother biologically. Being the mother is the most important and only thing in her life. That is her reason for being. And the only name she wants is the name of mom, you know?

'My vision was a bit bigger than she had anticipated'

It's interesting when you look at Jennifer Lopez's career, she hasn't headlined a lot of action movies. A lot of thrillers, maybe, but you don't get to see her kicking butt and shooting people as often. Does that seem strange to you? What made her the right choice to star in this movie?

Yeah. That's the surprising thing, that she wasn't an action movie star decades ago because she's so good at it. But she is equally a powerful, dramatic actress. It was having those two things that made her ideal for the role, I would say the only person in my mind that could have played the role, certainly with this intensity and conviction, because she's such a fierce mother herself. And she brings so much of that personal dedication to her own children to this movie.

Is that something you talked about when you were directing her and finding motivation for her character? Were you getting personal?

Oh, yeah. We talk about it all the time. We are similar only in age and the fact that we're both parents and mothers, and we both have teenage kids, so we had really an identical vision for the movie, except that my vision was a bit bigger than she had anticipated. I think now she sees that, yeah, of course, why not have this woman's story set up there in the same scale as a Bourne or a Bond?

One thing I love about this movie is that unlike a lot of Western literature, just in general, it's very pro-wolf.


We've spent so much time demonizing wolves, everything from our fairy tales to movies like "The Grey."


Why was that important to include here?

Yeah. Thank you. I love the wolves. It's important in the story to remind us of the animal nature of parenting, the primal nature of parenting, and the fact that we could express that so simply with the animals made me very happy. I think it's very nice to see the animal mother alongside the human mother and see that their journeys are not dissimilar.

'The art department thanks you for noticing'

Is it meaningful to you that in this Netflix original movie, the protagonists spend multiple scenes using physical media as target practice?

Oh. Yes, hilarious. Well, I like the idea of CDs as target practice, because they're really beautiful, I thought. And they're also old technology, so you can shoot them up. I just thought that image of the CDs dancing in the light and the light all refracting was really nice, pretty.

How did you go about picking which CDs you used?

Oh, we couldn't. No, we couldn't because of copyright issues. So I can't be just shooting up any old CDs that I don't like. We had to create fictional bands, put them on the CDs.

I think one of them was called "Flight of the Hearts?" I paused there.

Yes, yes, yes. Yes, you have eagle eyes.

Is that just something the production design team came up with?

Yes, the art department thanks you for noticing.

'A very important version of masculinity'

Gael García Bernal is a wonderful actor, and he gives a performance where he's clearly been on a journey from when we first see him in the movie to when we see him at the end — at the end of his story, anyway, when Jennifer Lopez confronts him. What did you talk about with him to take him to that place? Because he is giving a very fascinating performance, I think.

Yeah. Fascinating actor. Brilliant, brilliant actor. We just talked about the journey of getting into a hedonistic and dangerous business with really terrible people, and once you're ensnared in that, the toll that takes. So we thought about this thirteen years that has passed since she's betrayed them to the FBI and not being able to leave Cuba and the world getting smaller and smaller in this decaying mansion, and he himself decaying from the inside out through drug use and fantasies of revenge.

The men in this movie, with the exception of Jennifer Lopez's friend in Alaska, they seem to end pretty badly. We have two, either of them might be the father as far as we know, and they're villains. And then we have William, who's very heroic, but ultimately ineffectual, and he dies. Is that part of the overall theme of the film, or is that just raising stakes?

I would disagree with you that he's ineffectual. I don't understand that.

Well, I guess ... he dies trying to do something Jennifer Lopez's character can do, I guess is my point.

Well, yes [laughs], but that's mischaracterized as an...

I apologize if I said it wrong.

Yeah, because in fact, he is, as a character, a very important version of masculinity, which is somebody who is very strong and very loyal and very gentle, and the only person she trusts. It is tragic, of course, what happens to him, given what could have happened between them, yeah.

So his death is not meant so much to be a commentary as it is just adding to the tragedy of the film?

No, there's no political commentary there, unless you want to look at it through the lens of, if a man is in the frame with a woman, then by default, the man has to do all the stuff, when this is a movie called "The Mother" and it is on her to protect her child.

'I love the idea of a hybrid business'

The WGA strike has left a lot of us talking about how this industry is adjusting, or failing to adjust, to a lot of extreme paradigm shifts all at once. You've worked in theatrical, you've worked in streaming, you've seen the industry from a lot of angles. What does the future look like to you?

I just wouldn't even want to speculate. I love the idea of a hybrid business. I don't know if the economics support that. But an ideal future, as far as I'm concerned, is that everybody who does the work and contributes to the great success of this industry should be fairly compensated for the work, decent working conditions, and be able to not only sustain a career and a family, but also that we create an environment where new people can come up and be trained and more diverse people can come up through the ranks so that we keep getting better and better content.

Yeah. Well, that's great. I guess I would like to end on ... you've made a couple of action movies in a row. You made "Mulan," you made "The Mother." What, in your opinion is, if not the greatest action movie you've ever seen, what are the action movies that influence you as an action filmmaker? If you want to see where "The Mother" and maybe "Mulan" came from, what movies would you tell people to watch?

Well, I wouldn't, because when I work, it's quite singular. I just concentrate on the story I have to tell and to create it and express it in the way it wants to be told. But if you ask me what are the action movies that I really love...

I would love that.

I really love the Bonds, and I really love the Bournes. I really love them. [laughs]

Can you imagine yourself ever directing a James Bond movie? Do you have a vision in your head for what that would look like?

Oh yeah. For sure. Don't we all?

"The Mother" is now streaming on Netflix.