'The Zookeeper's Wife': How Waiting Tables Can Make You a Better Director

Director Niki Caro shares her journey from New Zealand waiter to top Hollywood director.

In 2002, Niki Caro’s New Zealand-set indie hit Whale Rider, for which Keisha Castle-Hughes was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress, captured Hollywood’s attention. Since then, Caro has helmed North Country, McFarland, USA, the upcoming film The Zookeeper’s Wife with Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain, and the upcoming Callas, starring Noomi Rapace. 

In this exclusive video interview, Caro describes how she got started, what she learned along the way, and her advice for young female directors. She urges filmmakers to continue to spark the conversation about the lack gender parity among directors in Hollywood.

Work in the service industry

While Caro was learning to become a filmmaker, she spent 10 years working to support herself as a waiter. But for her, the job wasn’t simply to pay the bills—it was an opportunity to inform her craft. Every customer and every table presented a unique set of challenges in people, dynamics, wants, and needs. Over time, Caro honed her ability to pinpoint precisely what people were feeling and what they needed. Today, Caro still taps into that ability on set while working with actors, helping to create an environment where they can give the best performance possible.

While reading scripts and watching movies can be useful in developing your knowledge as a filmmaker, so can your job as a bartender, waiter, caterer, or host. 

Trust the feminine (or masculine) part of yourself

Caro credits her feminine instincts for her ability to communicate, multi-task, be compassionate, be empathetic, and be sensitive. Ultimately, says Caro, these qualities aren’t just feminine—they're qualities that all great directors share. The bottom line: trust your instincts. 

Never lose your edge

Filmmaking can be a delicate balance between the outward, confident lion and the inward, utterly terrified kitten. Caro describes that inward, terrified part of herself as her "edge," or the unconfident voice that keeps her on her toes and pushes her to do her absolute best on every project. She notes that it’s vital to keep your edge alive throughout your career, even as your confidence and leadership abilities grow.     

This interview was shot at the Technicolor at Paramount sound facility, where Caro completed sound post-production on 'The Zookeeper’s Wife.'

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