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Press Conference: Yifei Liu and Niki Caro Talk Bringing ‘Mulan’ to Life, the Casting Process & More

Although many people are just now getting the chance to see Mulan (as it was supposed to release in theaters before the current pandemic), I actually had the opportunity to attended a screening earlier this year before the lockdown hit.

Before my screening of the film, I attended a press conference that featured director Niki Caro and Mulan herself Yifei Liu, and moderated by Jenelle Riley from Variety

Yifei Liu and Niki Caro - Mulan pres conference
(Courtesy of Disney)

Riley started the conference by asking the two when they first discovered the animated Mulan – Liu said, “I couldn’t remember how old I was when I first watched the animated version, but it’s for sure in my memory and I loved it. In one of my auditions, I actually sang ‘Reflection'”.

Caro chimed in, “I missed it the first-time round. I think those were my nightclub days.  But then I had children, and I had girls and of course I watched it then, and I couldn’t believe it.  And I was so grateful that in a time of princesses, here was a warrior.”

This is one of the largest live-action film ever filmed by a female filmmaker. Riley asked Caro about that and if there was any intimidation coming with that. Caro responded with: “The intimidating thing is my responsibility to the story, to the studio and to the audience.  As far as budget goes, with every film I’ve made, ‘Whale Rider’ included, I had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed.  And so, this time to be able to have a budget equal to the very epic vision of my head, was just really satisfying.”

(Courtesy of Disney)

Caro went on to add why she wanted to bring the project to life: “Mulan herself. I love her. And I think for me it was her journey from village girl, to male soldier, to warrior and hero that felt like it spoke for all of us.  And it was a story that didn’t in fact originate with the 1998 animation, but is about 1300 years old.  And has been resonating and relevant for centuries, and never more so than now.  So, for all of those reasons.” 

When asked about what attracted her to the project, Yifei said, “My manager told me there’s this new Mulan, and asked me if I wanted to audition for it.  I’d heard that so many people were auditioned, and so I asked myself that if I go, what I can bring?  Because I know, obviously, this is a role that everyone wants to play because it’s just so meaningful as a woman, and as a human being, to really be that brave and loving and accept her imperfectness to become who she really wants to be. And I really asked myself a lot of questions because I know the audition process, and it is hard.  Because you need to go into a room and continuously run a few scenes that are from different sections of the script.  So then, on the other side, I’m super excited and nervous, but on another side I wanted to bring the best me. So, I needed to really get through, meditate and do things and just calm myself and just do my auditions.”  

(Courtesy of Disney)

Before casting Yifei in the role, Niki and the team saw over 1000 actresses for the role. Caro said, “We did a worldwide search. And we did a really deep search in China, because I think a lot of us in the casting process had this really romantic dream that we might find Mulan in a little village in China.  We found, honestly, beautiful actresses but when it really came down to it, we didn’t feel that we had found Mulan.  So, we started again. A year after we’d started, we went back and we went through the list of everybody that wasn’t available the first time around.  And Yifei was one of the people on that list, and she agreed to come audition. She came to Los Angeles, and she was terrifyingly good as an actor, but also really strong, super strong.” 

“The audition was very demanding, and on top of her jet lag and the two hours in the dramatic audition with me, she had to go to a physical audition with a trainer, because I was determined to have a young woman in this role that could understand and commit to the physical nature of the work.  And so, she hadn’t slept.  She had flown for 14 hours.  She hadn’t slept all night.  It’s like 5 o’clock the next day and she’s in the gym with a trainer who’s pushed her to her limits, and she never stopped.  She never asked for a break.  She did everything that was asked of her.  And I knew then that we’d found our Mulan, and that I’d found a partner and a collaborator and really genuinely a warrior.”

(Courtesy of Disney)

The pair also shared their biggest challenges while filming the movie. Check out their responses below: 

Yifei: The hardest thing about Mulan to me is to give the answer myself and put myself in that circumstance.  And then to have it be organic, not like acting.  I really want to thank Niki for everything. She’s the kindest human being that I’ve really ever worked with.  I totally understand why and how people really can bring up their own self by working with somebody who totally gives you room and encourages you, and just unconditional love. I really see the role as a whole journey, so I felt the fights sequences are just part of her story along with the emotional parts.  It’s just the reaction is different and you’re doing different interactions.  So, it’s as a whole to me.

Caro:  Aside from finding Yifei, the biggest challenge for me was how to tell a story about two armies going to war, and a young woman going to war, without being able to show any real fighting or blood under the Disney brand. Game of Thrones has kind of changed the battle game for shooting those sorts of sequences, and it couldn’t be that. So I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts… Wushu… and inherently beautiful.  But also, I think what unlocked it for me was that I figured out that I could set the battle sequence in a geothermal valley, so that the smoke and the steam could reveal and obscure violence or could suggest it. It could also be very beautiful and very cinematic. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the battle sequence feels visceral and robust, but never gratuitous.  

(Courtesy of Disney)

Lastly, Caro spoke about the the creative choices choosing from the animated and the ballad. Caro said, “The first thing I did was go to China with my team and that was amazing because I’d never been before. What a spectacular country. It was really so super cool and so inspiring.  And I could, when I was there on the ground, imagine sequences that could take place there.  As for the animation, even though clearly the choice to make it in live-action was to make it very different in tone from the animation, I did want to honor their work, because that is a perfect film, it really is. I wanted to honor it by bringing through sequences that felt iconic, like the matchmaker sequence, and the avalanche felt like something needed too. It wasn’t in the script when I came onboard. 

So, I brought it back because I felt like that was a way that we could really flex our cinematic muscles and visual effects, of course, into a really spectacular avalanche. But of course, the trick there was to try to understand how Mulan could be strategic enough to bring the avalanche down. But the thing about Mulan that I love the most is how super smart she is and strategic, and so we spent quite a bit of time as we tried to figure out the avalanche sequence. How would she bring it? How would she make it happen?”

Disney’s live-action Mulan hits Disney+ this Friday (September 4). You can check out our review for the film here!

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