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Scottish Writer, Director and Actor Peter Mullan

His new feature film, The Magdalene Sisters, is based on the real-life laundries run by the Sisters of the Magdalene Order in Ireland near the end of the 19th century. Girls considered wayward or unruly were sent there as punishment for their sins and forced to do labor under sweat-shop conditions. The last of the laundries was shut down in 1996. Mullan's film follows the lives of four young women and takes place from 1964 to 1969. Before writing and directing, Mullan was best known for his acting and starred in The Big Man, Riff-Raff, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. He won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Ken Loach's film My Name is Joe.


Other segments from the episode on August 12, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 12, 2003: Interview with Peter Mullan; Interview with Niki Caro.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Peter Mullan discusses his movie "The Magdalene Sisters"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

It's rare that a film so provokes the Vatican that it actively condemns it,
but that's what happened with the new film "The Magdalene Sisters." The movie
is about a shameful chapter in the not-so-distant history of the Irish church
when so-called wayward girls were confined in asylums named after Mary
Magdalene to do penance for their sins. Once there they were forced to work
without pay in convent laundries. The film focuses on three girls. One is a
rape victim, one an unwed mother, and one is simply deemed too attractive and
too flirtatious. The movie won the Golden Lion for best film at last year's
Venice Film Festival.

My guest Peter Mullan wrote and directed "The Magdalene Sisters." Mullan is
best known as an actor. He won acclaim for his starring role in Ken Loach's
movie "My Name is Joe." His other credits include "Trainspotting," "Shallow
Grave," "Braveheart" and "Ordinary Decent Criminals."

I asked him to describe the daily regimen in a Magdalene asylum.

Mr. PETER MULLAN ("The Magdalene Sisters"): Daily routine would be up around
6, 6:30, then there would be prayers, breakfast and you'd be working by about
8. And they would finish around anywhere between half past 6 and half past 8
in the evening, depending on how much work there was to be done. And they
would normally launder or they would service hospitals, prisons, restaurants,
as well as the whole domestic market, for want of a better word. And after
work would finish, it would be prayers and, if they were lucky, some edible
dinner and then bed. And then the same routine seven days a week.

BOGAEV: One of the many disturbing things in your film is that the girls
aren't allowed to talk while they're working. What were they supposed to be
doing, praying?

Mr. MULLAN: It depends. It changes from Magdalene to Magdalene, and the one
that I decided to use in the film was based mainly between Galway and Cork,
where no conversations were allowed between the girls. And I'm told in other
Magdalenes they had to say prayers all day long or prayers were said to which
they had to join in. But in this particular, if you like, the one that I
chose for the film, there was to be no conversations between the girls
primarily because friendships of any description were not allowed. They were
actively discouraged.

BOGAEV: So friendship would be a diversion or a distraction or just simply
too much comfort?

Mr. MULLAN: You know, it's hard to know, actually, really where that
particular philosophy came from, whether it was just a means of keeping the
work efficient or whether it was, as you suggest, something more punitive.
But conversation and any personal relationships were to be discouraged as part
of the penitence. And it's hard to tell actually because the ones who are
best informed in regards to that are the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of
the Good Shepherd, who actually ran these organizations.

BOGAEV: And they didn't talk.

Mr. MULLAN: They've spoke out a couple of times. They tend to suggest that
society was to blame, and there's a thing going on just now where the church
blames the state, the state now blames the church. The truth is at that time
the church was the state. For them now to suggest there was some kind of
secular differential is absurd because basically it was a theocracy at that

BOGAEV: Well, what did you base your film on then? What research did you do
or what reliable information did you have since so many of the girls who were
Magdalenes, it sounds as if they were probably too ashamed to talk about their

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: ...if they survived, if they got out.

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah. There's still a large number of women who are too ashamed
to come forward and speak. Initially I wrote the script from video testimony
that I saw in the documentary "Sex in a Cold Climate," which introduced me to
the whole subject. So I wanted to write something first, so it was a personal
reaction to what happened to these women. And then I wanted to show it to

So I wrote the script first and showed it to two survivors. One was a former
nun at a Magdalene asylum, and one was a survivor. And I asked them to read
the script and if they felt it was true, then I would go ahead, and if they
felt it wasn't, then I wouldn't go ahead. And I made them that promise. And
they read the script and they came back and they said yes, it was true.

So it was after that then, and it was over a year before I could raise the
money for the film, and I met several survivors and I also asked them to read
the script and tell me if they felt it was authentic. And the thing you
notice about a lot of the survivors is just how damaged they still are. They
can't move forward. They can't quite get it out of their heads what happened
to them. And that's very tragic, especially when you consider what they've
been through.

One or two, Mary Norris in Cork especially, has been a wonderful kind of
spokesperson for the Magdalene survivors, and she's managed to move forward.
But it takes its toll. It's very, very difficult when you've been the victim
of that kind of injustice to move on and for it not to dominate the rest of
your life.

BOGAEV: Well, the depiction of the nuns in the Magdalene asylums is
particularly brutal. In your film, Sister Bridget is the head of the asylum,
and she, among other things, revels in the money that the laundering operation
brings in.

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: The first we see of her in your film are her fingers. She's wearing
a bank teller's rubber thimble for counting bills...

Mr. MULLAN: Yes.

BOGAEV: ...which is what she's doing.

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: Let's listen to a clip of that scene. Here, Sister Bridget is
meeting the three girls whose stories the film tracks, Margaret, Bernadette
and Rose, for the first time and she's laying down the rules of the house.
Sister Bridget is played by Geraldine McEwan.

(Soundbite of "The Magdalene Sisters")

Ms. GERALDINE McEWAN (As Sister Bridget): Breakfast is at 6, prayers at half
past 6. Work begins at 7. Lunch is at...

"Ms. MARGARET McGWYER": Excuse me, Sister, I think I should go. You see, my
father was very up...

Ms. McEWAN: Don't ever interrupt me, girl. Did no one ever tell you it is
bad manners to interrupt or were you too busy whoring with boys to listen? Is
that what it was?

Ms. McGWYER: No, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: And are you simple-minded? Is that what it is? Are you a
simpleton? I decide whether you're allowed to leave, and I think I can safely
say it could be quite some time. What's your name?

Ms. McGWYER: Margaret, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: Margaret what?

Ms. McGWYER: McGwyer.

Ms. McEWAN: Yours?

"Ms. ROSE DUNN": Rose Dunn.

Ms. McEWAN: We have a Rose. What's your middle name?

Ms. DUNN: I don't have one, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: Well, perhaps not on your birth certificate. I'm sure your
parents would have thought of one or two names for you now. What's your
confirmation name?

Ms. DUNN: Patricia.

Ms. McEWAN: Then you may call yourself Patricia. Thank you, Sister.

Ms. DUNN: Thank you, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: And you?

"Ms. BERNADETTE DUFFY: Bernadette Duffy.

Ms. McEWAN: From St. Atractus.

Ms. DUFFY: Yes, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: Now how would I know that?

Ms. DUFFY: I don't know, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: Is it that Principal McCrachten is a very good friend of mine
and has told me all about you? Or is it after many years in charge of this
convent I know a little temptress when I see one?

Ms. DUFFY: I don't know, Sister.

Ms. McEWAN: Well, Blessed Mary, two simpletons in one day. Well, I'm sure
we'll find out in the course of time, won't we?

BOGAEV: One of the most disturbing things about this scene is that gentle
voice combined with the vicious sarcasm, and something you can't see on the
radio, the little smile that plays around Geraldine McEwan's mouth the whole
time. How much direction did you give McEwan in this scene?

Mr. MULLAN: The only thing that I asked Geraldine to do was to smile as much
as she could in the course of the whole film. And Sister Bridget is based
pretty firmly upon a nun that I worked for when I was 17 in London. And she
was without doubt one of the strangest and cruelest people I'd ever met in my
life. And she knew how to hurt women in a way that I was too young really to
know exactly what she was doing. But always, always she was smiling. And
that was the only thing I said to Geraldine was to keep smiling because within
that smile laid the real essence of Sister Bridget.

And I think what it is about Sister Bridget especially and Geraldine's
portrayal that I love so much is you do get a sense of someone who has no
doubt about what they do. It's not that she's a trained sadist or--it's just
that's how it manifests itself because she has absolutely no doubts about
she's doing the right thing, including making money for the church, because
the Magdalene laundries made extraordinary amounts of money in the 1960s and
the early-1970s, and in fact the proof of that is when they ceased to make
money is when the church began to wind them down. There was no great
spiritual enlightenment, unfortunately, within the church. It was these
suddenly became economic loss makers, as it were. They weren't--by them
ceasing to be profitable was the primary means for which to wind them down.

BOGAEV: My guest is writer, director and actor Peter Mullan. His new film,
which he wrote and directed, is "The Magdalene Sisters." It's about the
Magdalene asylums for wayward girls in Ireland in the '50s and '60s.

We're going to take a break now, and then we're going to talk some more. This

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back with Scottish actor, writer and director Peter Mullan. He's
appeared in the films "Braveheart," "Trainspotting," "Ordinary Decent
Criminal" and "My Name is Joe." He directed and wrote the new film "Magdalene

Once a girl landed in the asylum, how did she get out?

Mr. MULLAN: There was only three ways, I reckon, you could get out. One
would be the obvious one, which is to escape, to kick down doors and climb
walls. Another would be any male member of your family and sometimes female
member of your family could come and get you out if they persevered and if
they had the courage to challenge the authority of the church, which given the
context of the time was unusual, to say the least. People generally didn't
challenge the authority of the church because they effectively controlled, or
they believed they controlled, their immortal souls. So they weren't about to
challenge them. And the third way to get out would be at the behest of the
mother superior. She had soul discretion as to whether you could or could not

BOGAEV: Did the family always know where the girls were?

Mr. MULLAN: No. No, a lot of families, particularly brothers and sisters
and cousins and stuff, extended family--no, oftentimes the girls would simply
be taken away. And because many of them had their names changed, if a family
did try and find them, then no girl of that name technically was actually
there. As an example, one man tells his story of how it took him nine years
to find his sister. And they kept saying that she wasn't there, and so he
would look elsewhere and keep returning to the same place, which, as it
transpired, was only three miles from where he actually lived. And it took
him nine years to finally say to the nuns, `I really do suspect my sister is
there, and if you don't verify that so I can come and get her out of there,
then I'm going to take legal action.' And, finally, the nuns relinquished and
said that his sister was there, but they obviously, as I said, changed her
name. And when he finally got her, she was not in a good state. She'd become
very ill, mentally and physically.

But it's a classic example of it took a man nine years before he would even
consider legal action, and I think that's one of the hardest things for us to
understand--is the why on earth would it take you that length of time before
you would consider, you know, getting a lawyer onto it. And, again, the truth
of the matter is no law created by man is of any use to you whatsoever when it
comes to the church because, there, they have your immortal soul, quite
simply. They decide that you're going to go to heaven or you're going to go
to hell.

BOGAEV: I think one of the most depressing scenes in the movie, a girl finds
a door open in the garden of the Magdalene, and she sneaks through it into the
lane outside. She's free. After people have tried to get out, they've been
caught. It's been years she's been in prison, and all she's thought about is
getting out. And once she's out, she gets scared and goes back in, as if she
were imprisoned as much by her own mind and, also...

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: the culture beyond the gates of the asylum as she is by the
walls and the doors.

Mr. MULLAN: That is one of the most tragic features about it--is that the
girls effectively became their own captors. And it's an incredibly efficient
prison that doesn't need a great deal of prison guards, and it doesn't need
barbed wire and it doesn't need shark-infested waters. All it needs is for
someone to put the fear of God into the prisoners, if you like, for them, even
when the door is open, to not actually step out of it. And that's one of the
most intriguing parts of that regime, from a writer and director's point of
view--was that here was a prison that was not technically difficult to get out
of. I mean, it wasn't easy, but it wasn't impossible, by any means.

There's a terrible example of five women who escaped from the asylum in
Galway, and they escaped by putting their washing baskets up against a wall
and using them as kind of stepladders. So, again, it demonstrates that it
wasn't technically that difficult to get out of these places. Within a day
four of them had come back--only one had stayed outside--because there was
simply nothing there for them. You know, they had no family by that time, and
there was no prospects of work. And they had become, unbeknownst to
themselves, institutionalized. And when you're institutionalized, in that
sense, then 'tis better the devil you know than the devil you don't.

BOGAEV: Now when I first heard about the Magdalene laundries, I assumed that
the last ones closed sometime in the '60s or the '70s. Actually the last one
shut down in 1996.


BOGAEV: How? Why do you think they lasted so long, and what did them away in
the end? Was it the technology made the laundries obsolete...

Mr. MULLAN: It was--yeah, yeah.

BOGAEV: ...or was it an investigation?

Mr. MULLAN: Well, no, unfortunately, it was no investigation. It was
technology and economics. And by the early 1980s, from what we can gather,
they'd ceased to make money. So, I'm almost positive, the church shut them
down at that time. They'd shut them down in the early 1980s because they were
loss-making. However, they had an enormous public relations problem on their
hands because they had thousands of women who, by that time, had become so
institutionalized that had they opened the doors, then these women would have
stepped outside not knowing how to use a telephone or get a job or find an
apartment or anything that we kind of take for granted.

So with that in mind, they gradually phased out the Magdalenes throughout the
'80s and the early 1990s because I think, to be fair a little bit to the
church at this point, there was an element of compassion there because they'd
realized what they'd created. So they became more, if you like, nursing
homes. But by 1985 they were still taking in young girls and taking their
babies from them, so they were still active in that regard. One of the
members, I remember, as a cast, who's in the film. She had her baby taken
from her when she was 15, in 1985. The difference then was she did get out
through the front door forcibly and then forcibly went and found the
information as to where her baby was and went to Dublin and got her baby back
and brought her baby up. And she did threaten them with going to lawyers and
to the newspapers and that kind of thing, so that's why they handed over the

So the church, by 1996, when they finally managed to close the last one, they
had also conveniently kept so many of these women behind closed doors so they
couldn't speak. But I think it's fair to say there was an element--and I
stress on that, an element--of compassion at that point. However, by that
time in Ireland, the growing numbers of people coming forward to talk about
abuse by the clergy was already beginning to happen. And by 1997 those
floodgates were starting to open because the more and more that people came
forward, the more that the church's stance, which was always that they were
lying, they were making all this up, with more and more people coming forward
talking about different cases of abuse be it by priests or by nuns, then it
became apparent to all a sundry that people simply couldn't all be lying in
these kinds of numbers, you know. And that's when attention was paid.

BOGAEV: Now that your film is out, what kind of reaction has the church had
to it?

Mr. MULLAN: Initially it's been bizarre. Initially when we opened in
Venice, the church came out with outright condemnation, and they took out a
now-famous headline where three times they said I was a liar. They just said,
`Liar, liar, liar is Mullan,' which was a pretty dumb thing to do because
immediately the Italian press then flew over to London, where they interviewed
eight women who had survived the Magdalenes and had neither seen the film nor
had ever met me. And to be honest, the women's stories were horrific and
makes the film look more like "Toy Story 2."

So the church, by the time we got to--we opened in Ireland after we'd opened
in Italy, where we went straight to number one there for about 10, 12
weeks--by the time we opened in Ireland, I was really surprised because the
church said nothing. I mean, the silence was deafening. Then, again, the
same thing happened in Ireland. Then it was a huge, popular success. And
this ...(unintelligible) this year, we opened in Scotland and in England, and
the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, and his spokesman on his
behalf, took out a half-page review of the film in Scotland's largest
newspaper and recommended that every Catholic in the country go and see the

So the Vatican's position, the church's position, has completely shifted. As
to why that is, I'm not sure. All I really care about is that the various
press statements that they've made, the apology that was given to me by the
Sisters of Mercy of Americas. If those apologies and the press statements--if
that translates into action, then I don't really care what the motivation is
behind it because the principal action the women are looking for, and
especially the babies of the women who were taken from them--what they want
more than anything is information. So, really, until the church opens its
doors and stops this regime of secrecy, until it opens its doors to those for
whom it is relevant, then, really, press statements and public apologies have
no use whatsoever.

BOGAEV: Peter Mullan, writer and director of the film "The Magdalene
Sisters." We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show.
I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Coming up, writer and director Peter Mullan tells us why he joined a
gang in Glasgow when he was growing up. His new movie is "The Magdalene
Sisters." And we meet director Niki Caro. Her new film, "Whale Rider," won
the audience awards at the Sundance, Toronto and Rotterdam film festivals.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Let's continue our interview with Peter Mullan. He wrote and directed the
film "The Magdalene Sisters." It's about the Magdalene laundries run by the
Catholic Church in Ireland, where girls were confined who were considered
promiscuous or wayward. Peter Mullan is best known as an actor in such films
as "My Name Is Joe," "Trainspotting," "Shallow Grave" and "Braveheart." He was
raised in Glasgow, Scotland.

There's a kind of strange story about your family, that financially your
father--he didn't make a lot of money, but you lived in a very grand house in
a pretty strongly middle-class neighborhood in Glasgow. It was something of a
manor house, which you rented, but you were told never to tell your friends
that it was rented, to give off as if you owned this house, to give off...

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah.

BOGAEV: What was that all about?

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah. Oh, that was that age-old sad working-class, you know,
`We're living up in the world. Don't tell anybody otherwise.' And it was a
doctor's house we lived in, and it was terribly grand--not so now--but it was
terribly grand then, especially to us kids. And we had no furniture. We had
no furniture inside, we had no TV, we had no refrigerator, we had no heating,
we had nothing. But because my father was respectable working class, he
eventually worked at Glasgow University as a lab technician, and he
specialized on the laser beam. And he had ideas, if you like, of middle class
kind of respectability. So he liked the outward showing of that even though
inside I'm afraid it was something completely different.

BOGAEV: It sounds as if your father never really fully recovered from the
war. He was abusive. What form did his abuse or did his anger take?

Mr. MULLAN: He was emotionally very, very distant, and he was very physically
violent to my mother until we were able to stop that, which we truly did as
soon as we were old enough. And...

BOGAEV: You and your brothers?

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, as soon as we were big enough
that ceased to be, because we made damn certain that he wouldn't do that. But
we grew up, unfortunately, having to witness various ongoing physical and
emotional violence and darkness basically. I mean, to be charitable, which I
really am with regard to him, I reckon he was substantially damaged during the
war. They were a generation of men who didn't come back to any kind of
therapy or counseling, and certainly didn't come back to any kind of economic

But he was a man who had eight kids and didn't want eight kids, quite simply,
and he didn't know how to deal with it. He didn't know how to deal with us,
and he certainly didn't know how to deal with my mother. And so for the first
17 years of my life the only thing I ever knew about was hatred and darkness
as my abiding memory. And fortunately, he died the year I started university,
which was very nice, because suddenly it was quite literally the sun came in
through the living room window. He died as I was ironing my shirt to go to
university. He was on the couch was when he died. He had cancer.

BOGAEV: Before you went to university, you had kind of a rough time in high
school, and you joined a Glasgow gang. What kind a gang is that? Is that
along the Clockwork Orange model?

Mr. MULLAN: Yeah. Yeah. We used to try and dress up with them, except we
couldn't afford the bowler hats and stuff, but we had the umbrellas and we had
the jockstraps and the one eyelash and the whole thing, 'cause most of us
hadn't actually seen the film. We were a bit too young. And it was a
teen-age thing. You were just desperate to be different and to take on
authority and all that. And the most obvious we had to...(unintelligible) in
Glasgow at that time, and sadly it remains a case to this day, is you joined a
gang and you fought with other gangs. And I did it for a year. I was 14.

And I left school, which was horrendous for my mother, 'cause up until then
I'd been the clever one that won all the prizes and did all the right things.
And then suddenly this window opened, and it was a window of exoticism and
violence and fighting and women, drinking and so on and cigarettes and all
that craziness, and at the time it seemed like the greatest place on Earth.
In retrospect, it was a very obvious reaction to what was happening at home;
in retrospect, but it doesn't feel that way at the time. At the time it feels
the most natural thing in the world.

BOGAEV: So why only a year? How did you get out of that?

Mr. MULLAN: The gang got rid of me. They decided that I was--'cause I was
really losing it. I was wanting to up the ante and to do more daring kind of
things, like really taking on the police force and all this kind of stuff.
And they decided that I was just a nut, and they were absolutely correct. And
thankfully, they said, `No, you're just too crazy for us.' And so I went
back to school and started studying again, and just slowly but surely kind of
walked out of my cesspool.

BOGAEV: How did you get into acting?

Mr. MULLAN: Oh, I did a school pantomime. You don't know pantomime over
here. It's a Christmas show where there was variety--comedy, slapstick,
music--and there was a really nice good-looking group of majorettes or
cheerleaders, as you guys might call them. So, yeah, it was sexually driven,
I guess. It was a good way to meet the babes. And that then
(unintelligible) me when I was at university, I was very, very serious student
of economic and social history and English literature. So, yeah, the drama in
my second year and got to meet lots of girls and like-minded kind of guys and
stuff, bohemians. And I've stuck with that one ever since, really.

But I think in my final year of university I had a complete nervous breakdown,
just completely disintegrated. And to my amazement a year later they asked
me--by that time I was teaching at university--and they asked me to perform in
a play, because an actor had dropped out. And in this play this guy had a
complete nervous breakdown. And so I happen to be able to do it on stage, and
people applauded and even wrote things in the papers about it and stuff.

BOGAEV: What was the catalyst for your breakdown?

Mr. MULLAN: You know, to this day I don't know. I was working about 16 hours
a day for about three weeks as the final exams approached. And before the
final exams, I had been given a lot of prizes at university for coming to
talk to class and all that kind of nonsense. And I don't know. Something
happened when I just decided I was really stupid and I wasn't up for this
task, and I put the most ridiculous kind of pressure on myself and then just
couldn't take it, just absolutely just disintegrated. I couldn't--I was
about blind for about nine months. I couldn't read a road sign. It was just
meltdown, I guess. So it was a big--it was the worst and best thing that ever
happened to me, 'cause had I got what I had been looking for then I would have
become an academic and I would have gotten my PhD and I would have gotten my
professorship and I would have been a very unhappy academic. So it was the
best and worst.

BOGAEV: What did you do for those nine months then that you couldn't read and
you couldn't ...(unintelligible)?

Mr. MULLAN: I don't know. Wandered about at days most of the time trying to
pick up what I thought was left of what little reputation I may have had. But
within that nine months I started to do plays, I acted in some plays, and I
found acting very therapeutic, because I could be as vulnerable or as
invulnerable as I wanted on a stage in the sense that I was willing to expose
any of the inner workings to an audience as a means of trying to understand it
myself. And like I say, I probably still do that to this day.

BOGAEV: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking. I really enjoyed it.

Mr. MULLAN: Oh, my pleasure.

BOGAEV: Peter Mullan wrote and directed "The Magdalene Sisters."

Coming up, the making of "Whale Rider." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Niki Caro discusses her new movie "Whale Rider"

The new film "Whale Rider" is a modern re-telling of a thousand-year-old
creation myth of one of the Maori tribes in New Zealand. According to legend,
the tribe's ancestor, Paikea, arrived on their shores riding on the back of a
whale. The film is also the story of Pai, a young girl who challenges her
tribe's patriarchal traditions. Pai's twin brother died at birth. He was the
first-born son, destined to be the next leader of the tribe. Pai feels she's
meant to take his place.

In this scene, Pai, played by Keisha Castle-Hughes, comes to ask her
grandfather where their people came from. The grandfather, played by Rawiri
Paratene, is fixing the engine on a motorboat.

(Soundbite of "Whale Rider")

KEISHA CASTLE-HUGHES (As Pai) Kaka, at school we got to do a speech on where
we come from and ...(unintelligible). So anyway, you know how we all came on
a whale.

Mr. RAWIRI PARATENE: (As the grandfather) That's right.

CASTLE-HUGHES: But where does the whale come from?

Mr. PARATENE: From Hawiki.

CASTLE-HUGHES: Where's that?

Mr. PARATENE: It's where we lived before we came here, where the ancestors

CASTLE-HUGHES: So Paikea came from there.


CASTLE-HUGHES: How long ago?

Mr. PARATENE: A long time.

CASTLE-HUGHES: But how long?

Mr. PARATENE: See that there? Look at it closely. What do you see?

CASTLE-HUGHES: Lots of little bits of like, ...(unintelligible) stuck

Mr. PARATENE: That's right. (Foreign language spoken). Weave together the
threads of Paikea so that our line remains strong. Each one of those threads
is one of your ancestors all joined together and strong, all the way back to
that whale of yours.

BOGAEV: "Whale Rider" is based on a best-selling book of the same name by
Whiting Ihimaera.

Niki Caro directed the film. She also adapted and wrote the screenplay.
She's a native New Zealander of European, not Maori, descent. I asked her
what the focus of the story was for her, whether it was on gender roles or

Ms. NIKI CARO (Film Director; Screenplay Writer): As a New Zealand woman,
I've grown up in a place which is extremely female-friendly. And you know, at
the moment our country enjoys the unusual situation of the three highest
positions in office here, which is the prime minister, the chief justice and
the ...(unintelligible) are all women. And so in my growing up and in my
early career I've never felt a disadvantage to be female; in fact, quite the

So this story, for me, although I know that it's the girl triumphing that is
going to meet a lot of needs in audiences around the world, for me telling the
story it was much more interesting to look at it as a story of leadership and
what makes an effective leader. Now the fact that this leadership is showing
up in an 11-year-old girl is incredibly exciting.

BOGAEV: Well, there's a very spiritual element certainly to this heroine,
this girl's understanding of her role as a leader in her tribe. And it's
interesting how the film moves somewhat effortlessly between the real and the
spiritual, when she's imagining an infinity that she has with the whales who
have great symbolic meaning in the history of her tribe.

Ms. CARO: That's right.

BOGAEV: What cinematic solutions did you work towards to make these kind of
transitions? Was that an effort?

Ms. CARO: Yeah, it always is. But, you know, to take a step back, the Maori
culture, which I'm consistently inspired by and certainly was while I was
making the film, this is very indicative of the culture that the real and the
unreal are in parallel all the time, the natural and the supernatural. And so
to be making this film within a tribe of people who have that deep
spirituality, particularly with nature, particularly with the sea, it made it
very easy for me to move between one and the other myself.

And so on a practical level it's incredibly difficult to put together things
like whale strandings, but we did so always mindful of the emotion of a scene
over and above how clever we could be in terms of our mechanics or our film

BOGAEV: Well, this is a pivotal part of the film, whales are stranded on a
beach. Now since the whale has such significance and even to the Maori people
and you were using people from the village in which you filmed, using them as
extras and they were playing roles in the scene, did that influence how you
decided to portray the whales, I mean the technical aspect? I mean, you
couldn't really with great respect use blue screening. I would think that
would be too Hollywood.

Ms. CARO: Well, I was actually under a little bit of pressure to do so in
the early stages of preproduction. My producer, Tim Sanders, set up the "Lord
of the Rings" projects, so he's worked a lot with Peter Jackson, and blue
screen is something he's very comfortable with. And I couldn't be least
comfortable with it. I hate it. And so I strenuously avoided using it,
because I don't understand it. And if I don't understand it well enough as a
filmmaker, how could I expect these beautiful people that I was working with
to deal with it? And, you know, for me, I think the success of those
sequences is, yes, of course, down to very great whale work, fantastic
cinematography, but really to the emotion of those people who were treating
these whales. And really these are literally latex and Fiberglas, and only
two of them were capable of movement. And these people were treating them
with such care and respect and love, as if they were--almost as if they were
looking after members of their family that were dying. And I was terribly
moved by that.

BOGAEV: In the scene in which the whales are stranded on the beach and the
tribespeople are trying to push them or heave or pull them back into the
oceans and save them, two of the whales, they do a little bit of thrashing
around; there's a sense of distress. Now these are models, so did you have
people inside of them?

Ms. CARO: Yes. We couldn't afford animatronics. So what we have is really
rather sweetly called `humanatronic' whales, which mean that two of those
whales each have two guys inside wriggling about. And these guys were really,
really proud of their work. And the whales that could move were capable of
quite extreme movement. And so I needed to really rein them in, because if
those guys had their way, those whales would have been doing somersaults up
the beach. But...

BOGAEV: So it wasn't quite the documentary feel that you wanted to establish.

Ms. CARO: Well, yeah, it was amazing because it just meant that the way the
film was directed, which is a very subtle way in terms of performance, really
had to go all the way through, even to the guys inside the latex suits,
because for me, the second that those creatures start behaving out of
character, the second the audience gets a whiff of the fact that they're not
real, we completely blow our gig in the most important scenes of the film.

BOGAEV: Now I'm going to go back a little bit in the story. You filmed the
movie in a traditional Maori community on the east coast of New Zealand's
North Island. It's the community in which the book "Whale Rider" was set.
Was there any concern that--you're not Maori; you're of European descent;
also, you're a woman. So was that a stumbling block?

Ms. CARO: Yeah, it's kind of the triple whammy, really. It was, not for the
community themselves, not for the author of the book at all. There was
strenuous criticism of me committing this legend to the screen from various
quarters of politicized Maori, particularly those with access to the media.
And it was very challenging and, I have to say, hurtful at the time for me.
And it was very difficult. However, two things happened. Firstly, I realized
that what I was going through as a filmmaker was exactly what this child was
going through in the film, and that the people that I needed their backing so
badly, I needed them to know that I wasn't doing a bad thing; in fact, I was
trying my very hardest to put something on the screen that Maori could be
really, really proud of, was exactly what this child goes through with her
grandfather, you know, that she needs his love and support more than anything,
or she gets sort of his strenuous opposition.

So there was that. And there was also the fact that the leader of that
people, Paunatumono, who's the chief, if you like, took the time to tell me
very straight that I was the one that they had chosen to tell the story, and
he said to me, `You have to be a chief about it,' which was really beautiful.
And I knew then that if I had his belief and made the story and my team and
the cooperation of his people, then we stood a very good chance of making a
very good film.

BOGAEV: Niki Caro directed and adapted the screenplay for the new film "Whale
Rider." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro. Her
new movie is "Whale Rider."

There's an interesting story about the actor who plays the grandfather in the
film. He's of Maori descent, and his character in the film, the grandfather,
is very strict, very forbidding. He has very strong feelings about
maintaining the traditions of his tribe. And I read that you insisted that he
remain in character around the children acting in the film, even when the
cameras were turned off.

Ms. CARO: Yes. It was very important for two reasons. The children are
real children; they're not actors. And Rawiri, when I was a child, he was a
children's television presenter, so he has a very easy way with kids. And I
felt it would be way too confusing for these children to have him clowning
around with them in between takes and then expect them to respond to him as a
fearsome elder because these children have those older men in their lives, and
they're terrified of them. And so for Rawiri, it was very, very difficult for
him because he's a very warm, very gentle soul. But as hard as it was for
him, I think it really strengthened his performance overall and, I mean, took
years off his life, poor man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BOGAEV: The actress who plays the lead in the film, she's a very young girl;
she's about 11 or 12. And she conveys the conviction and the strength of the
spirituality of this character so well. But I understand she's a city girl.
She's not been brought up in a traditional Maori culture. How did you coach
her acting to evoke this in her?

Ms. CARO: Yeah. Well, the very first thing I did was take away all her shoes
because she's a very urban kid. And she was tiny at the time and very light,
and I thought she was going to leave the ground at some stages. So I really
needed this child to feel like she'd really grown out of that place and was
really part of the earth. So she didn't wear shoes for about six months, and
I watched her change physically. We did lots of exercises with her to get her
more working in her body and a month of quite strenuous rehearsal, where we
just examined what was going on in each scene and how we all felt and to
really trust our emotions in each scene, keeping it very real all the time.

And, you know, Keisha is a very gifted actor. She's a lot like the character.
She's very strong for somebody so slight, and she's very willful. And it's
this will--she has a strong, strong will to do well. And it's something that
I share, and so it was very easy for me to push her because I knew that she
would respond; I knew that she would understand when I had to ask her to go
back in the water again and to continue to love the whale again, you know,
when she was cold and, you know, annoyed because it's really, really hard
work. And yet Keisha understood every second of that shoot why we needed to
do things again.

BOGAEV: There are a number of traditional ceremonies, also activities, that
are portrayed in the film. There's haka, ceremonial dancing, chanting, a kind
of martial art involving a long stick. These are all things that come up in
the context of the story. Did you offer training to the whole cast, Niki, to
get a handle on these practices?

Ms. CARO: Yeah, with all of those tikanga, or customs, we had the very best
people from that community to teach our actors. And in terms of what you see
is a long fighting stick, which is called the Taiaha, that is a very sacred
custom, and it is completely inappropriate for women to be part of that. So
we had to do karakia, or prayers, so that Keisha could learn, but it was not
something that I was ever allowed to be part of. So I had to send, you know,
my cast away with Sacheetah and trust that they were being taught by the best
but also know that that was not something that I could ever be part of
learning myself because it was outside of my gender and my role.

BOGAEV: Niki Caro directed and wrote the screenplay for the film "Whale

(Soundbite of music)


BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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