Screenplay by Niki Caro (Director)
Studio: Newmarket ( released June 6)
Source material: “Whale Rider,” a novel by Witi Ihimaera
Storyline: In a New Zealand village, where the Maori people are descended from Paikea, the Whale Rider, the chief’s male heir automatically becomes the tribe’s next leader. Since the current chief has no male heir, his granddaughter, Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes), fights generations of tradition in an attempt to succeed him, an honor for which she believes she is destined.
About the script: Caro has taken a coming-of-age tale with magical realist elements and endowed it with poignant humanity, largely by breaking from the book to tell the story from the p.o.v. of Pai, a girl with the innocence and vulnerability of a child — and enough drive to kick any grown man’s butt. “What I try not to change is the spirit of the book,” Caro says. “Because I’m an avid reader, I want the cinemagoing audience to have the same feeling when they see the film as when they read the book.”
Biggest challenge: “Being entrusted with a story of huge cultural significance for the Maori without dumbing it down. To get that spirituality on the screen, so that an international audience of any culture can find reference there but also appreciate the Maori culture for all its incredible exoticism. It’s not easy to do without being preachy or didactic or sentimental.”
Breakthrough idea: “You’re writing somebody who is a great leader in the body and heart and mind of a little girl. I thought a lot about the Dalai Lama. Pai’s compassion is enormous for her grandfather, the person who most strenuously opposes her. She’s the only person who won’t criticize him, because she has an appreciation of the burden he’s carrying and instinctively knows she’ll carry it herself. It’s amazing as a writer to make those links and work outside of your 11-year-old girl stereotypes.”
A favorite scene: Pai’s speech at school: “There wasn’t (a dry eye) when we shot it. I’ll never have another filmmaking experience like that. You don’t dare to hope that it could be that good, and I just saw in that moment all the work Keisha and I had done, and all the feeling in the writing just is there, so unlabored, and she’s perfect.”
Lines we love: Pai about her grandfather: “Why doesn’t he want me?” An old woman responding to Pai saying smoking will ruin the women’s childbearing properties: “They’d have to be smoking in a pretty funny place to wreck your childbearing properties.”
Writer’s bio: After making two shorts, “Sure to Rise,” which screened at Cannes in 1994, and “Footage,” at Venice in 1996, and a TV drama, “The Summer the Queen Came,” which was nominated for screenplay and director at the 1994 New Zealand Film and Television Awards, Caro made her first feature, “Memory and Desire.” It won best film at the 1999 New Zealand Film Awards.