Mulan Director Niki Caro & Star Yifei Liu on Women Leading a Man’s Army
She’s a girl worth streaming for! Mulan drops on Disney+ this week! In anticipation for the film, ComingSoon.net attended (in the pre-COVID times) a screening with director Niki Caro and star Yifei Liu who shared in a special Q&A their excitement for the film’s release. It’s the first Disney legacy film directed by a woman, and bringing it to gorgeous life was no easy feat but an incredible work of collaborative genius led by Caro. While the film was originally slated for a theatrical run, discover more about the making of the film before you catch it streaming on Disney+!
ComingSoon.net: This is the largest live-action film ever filmed by a female filmmaker. Was there any intimidation coming with that or did you look at it with excitement?
Niki Caro: The intimidating thing was my responsibility in telling the story, to the studio, and to the audience. With every film, I’ve made I had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed and so this time to be able to have a budget equal to the vision in my head was just really satisfying. For me, Mulan was a journey from village girl to male soldier to warrior and hero that felt like it spoke for all of us. It was a story that didn’t, in fact, originate with the 1998 animation but it was about 1500 years old and has resonating and relevant for centuries and never more so now than ever. We tried to mine everything that we could from the ballad and also just to be inspired by it.
CS: Obviously this movie isn’t going to work unless you have the perfect Mulan. Yifei I’m curious when did you hear when they were making this movie and what attracted you to play such an iconic character?
Yifei Liu: I heard that so many people auditioned and so I ask myself if I wanted to go up (for it) what can I bring? Obviously this is a role everyone wants to play because it’s so meaningful, as a human being to really be that brave to become who she wants to be. And I ask myself this question. I want to bring me, so I need to really get through, meditate and calm myself. I was with this beautiful director and just do my audition. I actually heard it was after 2 hours after audition and I’m relieved kind of cuz I think I did an ok job. And Niki said “so we gonna send you to this physical trainer to see and I said ok– I’m on my next step. So that means something. The actual training process really test your limits. It was fun. Every movie, it’s brand new. I did act on movies with martial art element but obviously not a professional but I’m so glad I have this whole team to prepare and some of the flexibility help with that. I learned tai chi and chi gong movements. Because Mulan, her chi is the connection of her spirit, not ego, but her true self.
CS: In addition to the wonderful women on screen, and I love the addition of the Gong Li character, how did you start rounding it out with getting ppl like Jet Li and Gong Li to participate?
Caro: They all wanted to be part of this and I think it’s a testament to obviously Mulan herself and the nature of this character and Chinese culture and also the legacy of Disney.
CS: You also had some fantastic women behind the stage. You had a female cinematographer for starters.
Caro: yeah I think it’s the only movie of this scale and genre where all the voices, all the people running it are women so: me Mandy Walker cinematographer, Liz Tom 1st AD and producer, costumer designer, makeup designer, and the only female lead. Very well prepared we were. Communicated very effectively brought it on time and slightly under budget because that’s just how we roll.
CS: There’s been a lot of talk of things we hope are improving for female filmmakers, do you see any improvement?
Caro: Yeah I am, but I would say there’s room for more.
CS: Niki for you what ended up being the biggest challenge?
Caro: The biggest challenge for me was how to tell a story about two armies going to war, a young woman going to war, without being able to show any fighting really or blood under the Disney brand. Game of thrones really changed the battle game for shooting those sort of sequences and they couldn’t be there so I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts – wushu – and being inherently beautiful but also what unlocked it for me was that figured out I could set that battle sequence in a geothermal valley and so that the smoke and steam could reveal and obscure violence and it could suggest and could also be very beautiful and very cinematic and I’m proud of that I’m proud that the battle sequences feel visceral and robust but never gratuitous.
CS: What were the creative choices that felt choosing from the animated and the ballad, like what were some sequences where you were like “this would work” and how is working with china affected the animated as well to bring it in?
Caro: I wanted to honor it by bringing through sequences that felt iconic so the matchmaker sequence the avalanche felt like something. It wasn’t in the script when I came on so I brought it back because I felt like that was a way we could really flex our cinematic masses and visual effects and to really spectacular avalanche but the trick there was to try to understand how she could be so strategic enough to bring the avalanche down because in the animation it’s quite cute because it’s Mushu, it’s a little rocket, and it comes out of that kind of comedy but the thing I love about Mulan the most is that how super smart she is and strategic and so we spent quite a bit of time as we tried to figure out the avalanche sequence how would she make it happen?
CS: What did you learn about yourselves as artists and people and how were you transformed when making this movie?
Caro: For me, it’s not lost on my, that there’s a line in the movie gong li’s character says to Mulan “impossible, a woman leading a man’s army” and that’s what I did. The film organism is even despite my best efforts is still a man’s army and when I first started out I didn’t think it was possible. I used to think–so embarrassingly now–that I would somehow have to disguise myself so the fact that I’m making a movie about this very thing and the fact that I was able to tell the story in such a way, and this is so this is a critical difference from what we did and what the animation did cuz the animation has Mulan disguised as a man to find herself and our version Mulan learns that she can never be powerful unless she loses that disguise and that big moment in the movie that you hear the iconic reflection sound she lets her hair down and battles as a woman is truly powerful and then goes off to save china. That’s what I’m the most proud of and what is the most meaningful thing to me to send that message out there.
Stream Mulan on September 4th exclusively on Disney+ with Premier Access (Disney+ subscription and additional fee required).