North Country: Interview with Niki Caro

One of the extraordinary aspects of Niki Caro’s Whale Rider was that it explored the culture of an indigenous society that was not her own with true empathy.

Niki’s first film, Memory and Desire, also delved into an unfamiliar culture and told an intricate and tragic love story with wonderful clarity and heart. When I met with her about North Country, she had a remarkable passion for it. She was immediately as connected and committed to it as I was. Niki’s ability to convey complex emotional stories in a way that is never melodramatic. Her tone is always genuine, very organic.

On Josie Aimes (Lead Character, played by Charlize Theron)

When Josey Aimes takes a stand against the mining company where she works, she isn’t looking to become a leader or make a statement. She just wants what every parent wants, to make a decent life for herself and her family. It starts out just that basic and personal. She doesn’t realize she is launching herself into the battle of her life.

In part because of Josey’s own personal history, some of which will come to light in the course of event, you begin to understand why she acts as she does, why it is so important for her to fight this case and why it’s just not an option for her to put up with the abuse as some of the other women choose to do.

Josey has a difficult relationship with her father. His initial rancor towards her and then his gradual comprehension of what things are like from her side; Josey’s struggle as a single mother, and in particular with her teenage son who suffers the fallout of her lawsuit from the other kids at school; her friendship with the other women and their growing opposition to her once she decides to take on the establishment; and the tense interplay between Josey and Bobby Sharp. There’s a lot of electrical current that passes between these people.

Sexual Harassment

In the movie, there’s a steady stream of insults, innuendo, vulgar remarks and pranks that tread and often push the line between locker-room humor and out-and-out harassment. The mine is like a free zone for them, where they can say and do things they might not say or do in town. The way they see it, these women have invaded their territory. If they don’t like it, they can quit.

Gray Area

The story investigates a gray area of male/female interaction and the gradations between the innocuous and the offensive. While North Country is fictional, it is inspired by real-life experiences. It isn’t a black-and-white scenario or reverentially politically correct. What happens to Josey and her colleagues has a cumulative effect and North Country explores that from many angles. It’s not simple. These are issues of actions and responses that are part of human nature. A man tells a dirty joke, a woman tells a dirtier one, then there is an explicit remark or maybe something physical. At what point does this do damage Where do you draw the line

Female Camaraderie

The harshest thing that happens to Josey is not the treatment she receives from the rogue element at the mine, but the moment when she turns to the other female miners for help and they turn away. This isn’t a story in which all the men are evil and all the women are good because I know that’s not the case; that would be a huge disservice to the complexities of human relationships. There are instances here in which both men and women behave appallingly and others in which they show great compassion. This is one of the reasons why I found the project so interesting and honest.

Non-Linear Narrative

The kinetic, non-linear structure of Michael Seitzman’s script illustrates how things that have happened in the past, especially in a small community like this, are inevitably brought to bear upon the present. The story opens with a brief courtroom scene to anchor the action before reaching back to reveal key episodes leading up to it, “the courtroom serves as an engine for the story, helping to navigate us through Josey’s life, as well as reinforcing the ways in which the events of her past shape not only Josey’s story but also the stories of those closest to her.

It offers a look into life on the Iron Range, and the personal battles waged by some of the workers against the management and against one another, North Country also touches upon the connections between Josey and the residents of this tightly knit community, offering insights into what sustains them and what keeps them together. The dynamics of the characters really drive the story, with conflicts that play out against the backdrop of the mines.

Uplifting Story

What is ultimately so uplifting about the story, is Josey’s instinct and courage to challenge the mine and bring these experiences to light even when she has no support. It’s her willingness to take it all the way that draws us to her side.

Stellar Cast

We have three Oscar-winning women working together: Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand and Sissy Spacek. Equally important, she says, is the subtle poignancy that Michelle Monaghan brings to the spirited character of Sherry and the range of male roles brought to life by Sean Bean, Richard Jenkins, Jeremy Renner and Woody Harrelson. Although some of the men in this story behave horribly, there are many good ones and we have these first-class actors who brilliantly bring out their flaws and their virtues.

Charlize Theron

I was impressed with her body of work (The Cider House Rules, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, The Italian Job) as well as the power of Theron’s widely acclaimed performance in the 2003 crime biography Monster, which earned her an Oscar Award. A lot of attention was given to her physical transformation in that film, but it was what she was doing emotionally that most impressed and moved me. It was truly no contest: I wanted Charlize in this role. She proved to be a real collaborator, completely invested in telling the story.

Frances McDormand

Frances McDormand was the clear choice for Glory, a characterization that begins in one way and transforms into something different as the strong and self-sufficient woman is diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and begins to fight, then slowly succumb to her progressive illness while trying to hold onto her job and position in the community. Everything about Fran was right for the part. I wanted an actress who was uncompromising and unsentimental, who could really make that journey without any fuss.

Sean Bean

Kyle is introduced in the film as a stay-at-home spouse, sidelined some time earlier by a mining injury at the same company where Glory now “drives truck.” In a traditional role reversal that a less confident man might not have been able to accept, Kyle maintains their home and keeps a low profile as well as taking the occasional potshots from his former crewmates with grace while Glory gains momentum at the mine. Then, as Glory develops ALS and starts to lose control over elements of her life, their roles shift again and Kyle takes charge.

Sean has such sensitivity as an actor. Im surprised that he’s played so many bad guys on screen. His Kyle is tireless and genuine, every woman’s dream; a confident man who is also incredibly gentle. His story is entirely subtextual but vital and very moving. The relationship between Kyle and Glory is one of love and romance. Sean brings a powerful humanity to the character and his situation.

Richard Jenkins

Another character experiencing significant change is Josey’s taciturn, hard-line traditionalist father, Hank, played by Richard Jenkins. (HBO’s Feet Under). A mining veteran and committed union man his entire adult life, Hank is loyal to a fault but seemingly to his buddies and co-workers first. For a man like Hank to see his daughter come to work in an environment that he has dominated for 30 years is very unsettling. You see how difficult it is for him to accept her there and then even more difficult to see her treated badly by his fellow miners. In theory, he may share their point of view but, when it happens to one of his own it’s very hard. She’s still his daughter. Eventually he has to step up and start looking at things differently, but at first only because his wife pressures him. It’s a crisis that makes both parents examine their relationship to each other, their daughter and their community before taking a stand.

Sissy Spacek

Sissy plays Hank’s soft-spoken but surprisingly strong-willed wife Alice. Sissy is iconic. Alice is torn between love and loyalty to her husband and her daughter and has to make some very difficult decisions. Hank and Alice are both very reserved people and Alice is accustomed to deferring to her husband on most things. But through the course of this story Alice discovers a quiet courage and strong sense of honor. Sissy sensed those same qualities in the personalities of many people she met in the Northern Minnesota community prior to filming. Like many of her cast-mates, she found that time spent in the community helped her find her way into the character. Meeting and spending time with some of the women whose husbands work in the mines was very inspiring and had a profound effect on me. They were very helpful and extremely openand they taught me how to make a mean strudel. Sissy had a deep dedication to getting the accent and the mannerisms right. Alice is not a woman accustomed to expressing herself or talking much, so there was much Sissy needed to convey with her tone and expression.

Jeremy Renner

Bobby Sharp is Josey’s former high school classmate and now a supervisor at the mine. Like many of his crew, Bobby is opposed to women taking mining jobs but his animosity and aggression towards Josey in particular is not only a product of his environment and economic concerns it’s very personal, rooted in a traumatic incident from their youthful past that neither will openly acknowledge. Although Josey appears to have moved on, it’s clear that Bobby has not and Josey’s sudden re-appearance in his daily life ignites in him long-dormant feelings of anger, confusion and shame.

Jeremy’s role as Bobby Sharp is a good example of the range of issues this story brings out. On the surface he behaves despicably. In a lesser actor, someone unwilling to explore the psychological depth of such a man, it could be one-dimensional. But in Jeremy’s hands he’s not a mustache-twirling villain, he’s a very conflicted man. We worked very hard, together, at understanding Bobby now and the boy that he once was. His motives and his actions are complicated and Jeremy brings all of that to the fore. He was an absolute joy to work with.

Woody Harrelson

Josey’s first real ally, albeit reluctantly, is hometown attorney Bill White. Woody worked at a great depth in this part and he was simply amazing; he cannot do a single thing wrong on screen. He has the strength in his own character to truly explore Bill White’s vulnerabilities and that helps to avoid the whole black-and-white polarization, which is of paramount importance to a story like this. Bill’s vulnerability is based in part on his own profound self-doubts, both as a lawyer and a person. Initially, the prospect of trying Josey’s case is as daunting for him as it is for her.

Commitment to Authenticity

Production began in Northern Minnesota, to capture the region’s unique geography and legendary frigid, icy winter. The Iron Range had only recently weathered record-breaking cold, but when cast and crew arrived, temperatures had mercifully risen to about 19 degrees, a veritable heat wave for the locals but still cold enough to freeze sensitive camera equipment, requiring special heater units on the set. I felt strongly about filming in the towns of Eveleth, Virginia, Hibbing and Chrisholm, regarding the story’s location almost as another character. Since were working in a very specific landscape and part of the world, I wanted that landscape to have its own strong interplay with the performances of the actors. My intention is to be honest to the place where the story occurs and that requires as much location shooting as we can possibly accomplish, who was on board for the cross-country maneuvers.

I take this approach with all my films. I immersed myself into the Minnesota communities as she was about exploring the Maori culture in Whale Rider. Im endlessly inspired by real people and real landscapes. In addition to the essential Minnesota locations, our production secured a number of practical sites in Silver City, New Mexico, where they had access to the Phelps-Dodge Company’s Cobre and Chino copper mines. Cobre, conveniently, was a closed mine and so easily became a movie set, while the fully functioning Chino facility provided not only camera-ready trucks and equipment but safety and technical support for the production personnel.

Capturing the Look

It was always my intention to make a very beautiful film from this material but also to present it realistically and that was the challenge. I didn’t want it to become too gritty. I wanted to convey the beauty, not in a plastic, Hollywood sense, but in the true sense of what this place and these people offer and all the complexities of life in this world, in this astonishingly rich landscape.

Chris Menges

Chris is an acclaimed cinematographer (Oscar winner for The Mission and The Killing Fields and an Oscar nominee for Michael Collins). He photographs settings and characters with great integrity and heart. There’s an undeniable beauty and honesty to his work, dramatically evident in shots of North Country’s vast expanses of snow-covered hills under stark open skies, and in the dark and light contrast of snow with the black ore and dim interiors of the mine.

I liked Chris’ ability to provide her with a set almost entirely free of movie lights. For North Country, he gravitated toward natural lighting whenever possible. Only when that wasn’t feasible would he create an artificial source through inventive use of bounces, a light-board known as MEL (“Million Eye Lights” for its multitude of bulbs) and tiny lights wrapped in plastic and attached to a panel all blended seamlessly with natural light. He cleared the set for Caro by hiding lights above sets or pre-rigging locations so that illumination poured in from windows or seemed to emanate from actual, practical lights in the scenes themselves, often set with dimmers so they could be discretely and rapidly adjusted.

Of all the stellar DPs I met, Chris was the one who spoke the plainest and promised to get all the lights off the floor so that the actors and I would be free to move anywhere. Typically, when you remove lighting from the floor you can get a very flat effect but Chris’ photography is so insightful there was no concern about that.

Shooting in Super 35 Widescreen

To capture the spacious Minnesota landscapes and accommodate as many of the cast as possible in a frame in certain scenes, we shot in Super 35mm Widescreen. That broad canvas allowed the actors to explore their positions in the frame with greater latitude. I will not commit to camera positions and movement until Ive seen the scene’s focus and emotion and know how to best serve it with the camera. The important thing about Chris is that his operation is so sensitive. A lot of the filming was done with hand-held cameras and that provides an immediate response to the actors so that we can really breathe with them and capture all the subtle moments in their performances.