A contemporary story of love, rejection and triumph as a young girl fights to fulfil her destiny, WHALE RIDER is directed by NIKI CARO (Memory and Desire) who adapted it for the screen from the novel by award-winning New Zealand writer WITI IHIMAERA (The Matriarch, Tangi).
Ihimaera was inspired to write WHALE RIDER in 1985 while living in an apartment in New York overlooking the Hudson River. "I heard helicopters whirling around and the ships in the river using all their sirens - a whale had come up the Hudson River and was spouting," he recalls. "It made me think of my home town, Whangara and the whale mythology of that area."
New Zealand's indigenous Maori say that their ancestors came to New Zealand on a canoe. The people in Whangara and the East Coast believe their ancestor, Paikea, came on the back of a whale. The whale rescued him when his canoe over-turned.
Ihimaera had taken his daughters to a number of action movies, and they had asked him why in all of those movies the boy was the hero and the girl was the one who was helpless. "So I decided to write a novel in which the girl is the hero and I finished WHALE RIDER in three weeks."
When Producer JOHN BARNETT read the book he was struck by the universality of the story when he first read it 10 years ago. "I think one of the most exciting things about WHALE RIDER is its international resonance - the themes are relevant in all sorts of societies and cultures throughout the world," he says. "
The rights to the novel were optioned, but it wasn't until 1995, when he re-optioned it at SOUTH PACIFIC PICTURES that WHALE RIDER went into development.
He says finding the crucial combination of right director and script took time, as did finding the money for what is essentially a very expensive film for New Zealand.
"We were looking for someone who could make a film which would capture the magic. We wanted go with a New Zealand director, and we approached NIKI CARO. She'd made one feature film prior to that, some quite outstanding short films and she'd also done a lot of television work with South Pacific Pictures.
"When we approached her we asked her to do a script pass to show her vision for the film and it was really quite startling. What she did was so fantastic we resolved to stay with her and offered her the opportunity to direct the film."
"Niki created a marvellous transformation," agrees Witi Ihimaera. "And she updated the story so that it is very relevant beyond the year 2002. It's not just about a community that is faced with a particular problem of ancestry and succession, it's also about women and how they need to find and make their own way in society. Pai has become this iconic young girl who is desperately trying to seek her own sovereignty and her own destiny in a male-orientated world."
"I approached the adaptation from the point of view of somebody who was once a 12-year-old girl," Caro explains. "I asked a lot of questions of the story culturally and was very, very open to not imposing my will on it. I felt I needed to serve the story and that's been my ethic throughout the filmmaking process. I talked and talked and talked and listened and listened and listened and when I didn't understand something I had people I could go and speak to, which was lucky."
BAFTA winning Producer TIM SANDERS (Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring) came on board in 2000. "Tim's had a long experience in the film industry in production and from his work on Lord of the Rings he knew a lot about special effects and the logistics of big pictures, so he's been a very valuable member of the team," says Barnett.
WHALE RIDER is the first film to be produced with investment from the New Zealand Film Production Fund, established by the New Zealand Government in 2000 to support the production of New Zealand films on a larger scale.
"This is an expensive project by New Zealand standards and is an amalgam of local and foreign funding," explains Barnett. "Executive Producer, BILL GAVIN, had dealt with PANDORA before and was able to bring them into the project. Their enthusiasm was key to raising the finance, and bringing APOLLOMEDIA onboard. In addition to the Film Fund, the NEW ZEALAND FILM COMMISSION and NZ ON AIR also contributed."
The next enormous task was to cast the lead role of Pai. "I didn't want a child actor, I wanted a real child," recalls director Niki Caro. "I knew that I was looking not for 'a' girl that could do it, I was looking for 'the' girl. She didn't have to look a certain way, she didn't have to be a certain age, although she needed to be pre-pubescent, but we were looking for a special child. DIANA ROWAN was the casting director and one of the most important people on this film. She has established a reputation for casting children which is without peer, Anna Paquin ("The Piano") being the obvious example. "
Rowan saw 10,000 children from numerous schools before narrowing it down to twelve. "We then brought them into a workshop situation," says Caro. "KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES just shone. She's an astonishing actor. She's the heart of our film and she's a gift. I can't imagine trying to make it with anybody other than her."
"The whole cast is terrific," adds Barnett. "RAWIRI PARATENE (Koro) and VICKY HAUGHTON (Flowers) have done fantastic jobs. They are both very experienced actors within the New Zealand film and television industry."
The production was also thrilled to secure internationally-acclaimed actor CLIFF CURTIS (Collateral Damage, Training Day, Three Kings, Blow) for the role of Porourangi. "During the whole time I'd been involved in the picture I'd seen Cliff Curtis as Porourangi," says Barnett. "He's recently been playing a lot of non-Maori roles so I think he was excited at this opportunity."
"There's not a single actor on this film that has held back and that's the way this film had to be," says Caro. "That's what makes for some very rare and compelling performances."
"I needed to understand what leadership is," says Caro. "And as the leader of this film, as the director, I understand that leadership is not about shouting and screaming. It's about being the person that serves the rest and creates an environment in which people feel encouraged to do their best work."
This applied not just to the cast, but also the crew. "The creative team that have been working on the picture are really quite outstanding," says Barnett. "It's fantastic when you get a group of people together who have the experience, the passion and the ability to turn something like this into the picture that it is. NIKI CARO, then LEON NARBEY [The Price of Milk] as Director of Photography, GRANT MAJOR (nominated for an Oscar for his art direction on Lord of the Rings] as Production Designer, DAVID COULSON [Broken English] as Editor and LISA GERRARD, who won a Golden Globe for her work on Gladiator and was a Golden Globe nominee for her work on Ali, and The Insider, as composer.
The final hurdle was deciding where to shoot the film. "This novel was set in Whangara and it would almost have been heresy to shoot anywhere else," says Producer John Barnett. "There are physical things that are described in the book - the sweep of the bay, the island that looks like a whale, the meeting houses, and of course, the people whose legend we were telling. If we'd gone somewhere else and tried to manufacture the surroundings and the ambience, then I think it would have been noticeable in the picture."
"Our key concern was naturalism," explains Narbey. "We wanted it to look almost unlit. But that can never be - you need light, you need big reflectors and dealing with the darker complexion of the Maori people, you need even more light."
Although very little needed to be done to the township, one of the design team's biggest challenges was to build a 60-foot waka (canoe).
"I think it took about 12 weeks from the time we first started until the time it got down here," says Major. "We had to build it in two halves in order to transport it from Auckland!"
"When we finished the film we gifted the waka to Whangara because for a long time they were building a canoe there and for all sorts of reasons it didn't happen," explains John Barnett. "It's a living memory of what we were doing there, what their story is and how they participated."
"Working at Whangara has had a whole lot of benefits including the ability to use the local people in our background cast and extras," adds Sanders. "Many of the people in smaller roles and our extras are actually locals - untrained, but of course very familiar with the Paikea legend and with their surroundings here."