Mulan streams exclusively on Disney+ September 4, 2020.
Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan is a movie that could serve as an inspiration to many women. Which makes it perfect to be released on Women’s History Month. And ThatsIt LA was invited to see a special screening of the film to celebrate the month and International Women’s Day. Directed by Niki Caro (McFarland, USA, The Zookeeper’s Wife), the movie is based on the Disney animated feature of the same name.
Unlike some of their previous efforts, the Mulan live-action take distances itself from its animated predecessor by focusing more ballad source material and being more epic in scope when it comes to the action sequences. While there will be nods to it, it is pretty clear that Caro’s Mulan will be different. Which is refreshing when compared to Disney’s other films which are simply carbon copies.
Niki Caro, as well as Yifei Liu, the actress who plays the titular character, spoke after the screening about the movie’s message, how it honors its animated predecessor, and the source material, working with a mostly female staff, and more. And here are highlights from the event.
1 – The Most Expensive Live-action Film By A Woman
These live-action adaptations of a Disney animated classic don’t come with a cheap production budget. Some of them can reach up to nine-figures. Even the combined production budget of all of Caro’s previous films doesn’t come anywhere close to Mulan. It does, however, make it the largest live-action film, with this kind of a budget, to be helmed by a female filmmaker. While that may sound intimidating at first, Caro didn’t see it as something to be scared by.
“The intimidating thing is my responsibility to the story, to the studio, and to the audience. As far as the budget goes, no. Because I think every film I’ve made, Whale Rider included, I had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed. This time to be able to have a budget equal to the very epic vision in my head was just really satisfying.”
2 – Drawn To The Story
Naturally, it was the story of Mulan that drew both Caro and Liu to be a part of the film. “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,” Caro said. “And it was a story that didn’t, in fact, originate from the 1998 animation. But it started at 1300 years old, and has been relevant for centuries, and never more so now. So, for all of those reasons.”
“Of course, when I first hear from my manager, who asked me, ‘so there’s this Disney Mulan, do you want to audition for it?’ I heard that so many people were auditioned, so I asked myself that what can I bring, because I know, obliviously, this is a role that everyone wants to play because it is just so meaningful as a woman, as a human being to be that brave, and loving, and accept her imperfectness to become who she really wants to be,” Liu added.
Liu explained how she felt all kinds of emotions swirling inside of her during the audition process. “I really asked myself a lot of questions because I know the audition process, it is hard because you need to go into a room and continuously run a few scenes that are spread in different sections of the script,” she said. “So then, you know, the other side, I am super excited and nervous, but in another side, I wanted to bring the best me, so I needed to really get through mediate, and do things, and just calm myself, and working with this beautiful director, and just do my auditions.”
3 – A Character’s Journey
Playing as the title character, Liu knew she would have to play as the character to who disguises herself as a man. But she wanted to bring something layered, nuanced, and inspirational. “I think it is always easy to ask for answers like ‘what is your opinion about this character?’ But the hardest thing to Mulan, to me, is to give the answer yourself and put you in that circumstance and to have it organic, not like acting,” she said.
“I really see it as a whole journey. So, I felt the fight sequences are also a part of her story. It is just the reaction is different, and you are doing different interactions,” Liu added. “So, as a whole, it is really both.”
“It’s magic,” Liu said when asked about what it was like to play as the live-action Mulan. “Sometimes, I feel like it opens up a new gate. When you are a kid, you feel like ‘oh, this is the world, this is my understanding.’ As you grow older, you feel like you have different views. And in a character, it’s a learning process, it is, of course, learning new stuff that you’ve never experienced before. So, this aspect is a gift.”
This was an experience that was completely different from Liu’s other movies. And after a three-month training process, it brought her closer to the character. “I understand Mulan as her connection of her spirit and not the ego but the true self,” Liu said. “So, I really agree to train this way.”
A central part of Mulan’s story is the title character disguising herself as a man so she can take her ailing father’s place during the war against northern invaders. This meant that Liu had to find her male voice. “First of all, the voice. You had to really prepare to do (in a deep voice), yeah. But on top of that, the thing that I like the most, the layers of the characters and what is she really thinking,” she said. “Male voice, I think, is the most simple part, maybe. Because it is just lower your tone, right. You have to do it with a – like it belongs to you. You own it. To discover is she feeling, what her feel is, and be honest to her feelings. Sometimes it could be the smallest details. Like hesitation or just blink.”
4 – Finding Balance In Honoring The Animated Original And The Ballad Of Mulan
As much as Caro wanted to honor the Ballad of Mulan, she also wanted to pay homage to the animated film that inspired the live-action adaptation. So in an effort to find that balance, she took a research trip to China. “The first thing I did was to go to China with my team. It was amazing because I have never been before. What a spectacular country,” she said. “It was so super cool and so inspiring, and I when I was there on the ground, could imagine what sort of sequences that could take place there.”
Mulan is a fantastic animated movie to come from the Disney Renaissance. And while it does have a few controversial characters, its character work and themes still continue to resonate with today’s audiences. So in an effort to honor the animated predecessor, Caro found a way to bring that same spirit into the live-action film. “As for the animation, even though, clearly, the choice to make it in live-action was to make it very different, in tone, from animation, I did want to honor that work,” she said. “Because that is a perfect film. It really is. I wanted to honor it by bringing through sequences that felt iconic.”
Of course, with Mulan being adapted from its animated predecessor, there are obviously going to be a few nods to it. “So, the matchmaker sequence. The avalanche sequence felt like something. It wasn’t in the script when I came on,” she said. “So, I brought it back because I felt that was a way that we could really flex out cinematic muscles, and visual effects, of course, into a really spectacular avalanche.”
Caro explained how she modernized that sequence to something that would celebrate Mulan’s intelligence and strategery. “The trick there was to try to understand how she could be so strategic enough to bring the avalanche down because, in the animation, it is really quite cute,” she said. “Because it’s Mushu, and it’s a little rocket, and it comes out of that kind of comedy. But the thing about Mulan that I like the most is how super smart she is, and strategic, and we spent quite a bit of time as we tried to figure out the avalanche sequence.”
5 – Making Battle Sequences Feel Epic Under The Disney Brand
While Mulan is a celebration of female empowerment, being able to tell the battle sequences in an epic format proved to be challenging under the limitations of the Disney brand. “The biggest challenge for me was to how to tell a story about two armies going to war, a young woman being able to go to war without being able to show any fighting really, or any blood under the Disney brand,” she said. “I mean Game Of Thrones has changed the battle game for shooting those sorts of sequences. It couldn’t be that.”
Despite that, Caro was still able shoot sequences what would still feel as epic as a Game Of Throne’s battle, just a little less bloody, by using her staff as the natural world around her. “I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts and Wu Shu and being inherently beautiful. But what locked it for me was that I figured out that I could set it in a geothermal valley, so that they smoke, and steam could reveal an obscure violence that could suggest it. It could also be very beautiful and very cinematic, and I am proud of that. I’m proud that the battle sequences feel visceral and robust but never gratuitous.”
Of course, with Disney wanting to bring a more epic tone to Mulan by punching up the action and battle sequences, the titular role is going to be physically demanding. Liu recalled how she went into a physical audition after doing the first performance auditions with Caro. “So that was maybe after two hours after the audition, and then – I am relieved kind of because I believe I did an okay job,” Liu said. “And then Niki [Caro] said, ‘so we are going to send you to this physical trainer to see – there is a gym there.’ And then I said, ‘Okay. Oh, I am on my next step. That means something.’ I remember the trainer was super professional, so whenever I do pushups, and squats, and weights, and different kinds of cardio, whenever I finish one part, he had a notebook this thick and then writing something. After like 90 minutes, I couldn’t walk. I think it is more intense than the actual training process. It really tests your limits. But it was fun.”
These battle sequences are unlike anything Disney fans have seen in these live-action adaptations. So when it came to visualizing that, Caro knew she had to work with the right people. “It begins with the screenplay and with the process known as pre-viz, where you make the sequences in the computer with fake computer people,” she said. “Then that work gets handed over to the stunt coordinator who works it up with real people. Our stunt coordinator, Ben Cooke, worked with an amazing team of kung fu masters, and they were all training alongside the cast. Ben would shoot these sketches, and I would be able to say to him what worked and what didn’t, really drill down into the etch to make sure the characters were really well represented.”
6 – Working Outside Your Comfort Zone
However, Caro found out that she got into the stunt work, which is a job that is generally reserved for a second unit. “Onset, Mandy and I would shoot them in a really different way that fight scenes are normally shot,” she said. “Most of the time, the first unit, which is our unit, would only work with the cast. The second unit, stunt unit, would shoot the other stuff. But Mandy and I ended up doing quite a lot of the shooting in the first unit because we loved it so much. And so, every time, you would see the camera and following actions, that is just Mandy Walker and my exuberance.
Caro also credited Liu for her persistence and willingness to do some of the stunt work herself. “Because we loved it. It was amazing. It was so beautiful to shoot bodies in motion, particularly with martial arts. Yifei can do everything,” she said. “So, a lot of the time, even though she had a stunt double, who is incredible, we would ask for Yifei to come and do the stunt work because she has amazing grace and somehow was just more right when she was doing the stunt work.”
Caro also reminds us that Liu can sing, and suggested that audiences stick around to her a new rendition of “Reflection.” “Stay all the way until the end and hear a Mandarin version of “Reflection” sung by Yifei,” she said.
Liu said she was a singer when she was a teenager, but has since stopped. The music video suggests that she still has the talent. But the actor is a little more humble about it. “It was when I was a teenager, so different,” she said. “I am a good karaoke singer, though. Recently, I’ve always wanted to try Frozen 2, I don’t know if I can reach the note or not, but I wanted to try.”
7 – The Power Of A Female Crew
One thing that Caro is proud of is being able to assemble a talented female crew to help make the movie happen. “I think it is the only movie of its scale and genre that all the voices and all the people running it were women,” she said. “Me; Mandy Walker, the cinematographer; Liz Tan, our first AD and also co-producer; our costume designer and makeup designer.”
“I really wanted to thank Niki for everything. She’s the kindest human being I have ever worked with,” Liu said. “Speaking of that atmosphere on set every day, I totally understand why and how people really can brought up their own self by working with somebody who totally gives you room and encourages you with unconditional love.”
An all-female film crew did make for a very efficient the workplace. “It was a very very female-led this show,” She said. “Of course, being female-led, very well prepared, communicated very effectively, bordered it on time and slightly under budget, because that is just how we roll.”
8 – Achieving Your Dreams
And filming Mulan proved to be a life-changing experience for the two, especially Liu. “I felt acting totally changed my life. I always wanted to become an actress when I was a kid,” she said. “For that glamourous, and that emotion. After that, at the age of 21, 22, I started to read this novel. It’s called ‘The Girl Who Played Go.’ It’s written by a Chinese-French author. Of course, that movie never happened, but it was offered. I just feel like I wanted to reach out to her, but I feel like I can’t because there is this space that I need to fill. That’s when I so into like Stanislavski and all the professional side, and the beauty changed my aspect of life. There is no limit for our mind and imaginations. And our meaning of living is really to reach that dream and achieve that dream, and dream is so beautiful. So, I think, acting is really everything to me.”