Disney’s new version of Mulan features plenty of familiar beats from the 1998 animated film, but unlike the myriad of practically shot-for-shot remakes the studio has produced over the past few years, this one feels like it has an identity of its own. Eddie Murphy’s cute dragon Mushu is nowhere to be found this time, the movie is basically a full-on wuxia film, and the villain works with a witch who begins to find herself ideologically aligned with Mulan as the adventure unfolds. More than any of that, though, the biggest difference between the two versions is that in this iteration, Mulan’s journey is not about finding herself. Instead, it’s about shedding her disguise to embrace her power and become the warrior she’s always been.

This past Saturday, I attended a screening of the film at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood, and afterward, Mulan director Niki Caro and star Liu Yifei participated in a Q&A, talking about how the film came to life, their biggest challenges with the project, and much more.

A New Record Holder

Did you know that Mulan is the highest-budgeted live-action film with a female director behind it? The movie’s $200 million budget dwarfs the reported $100-130 million of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, so for now, Caro holds the record. Her reign could be relatively short, given that budget information for Cate Shortland’s Black Widow and Chloe Zhao’s Eternals is not currently available, but it’s still an impressive accomplishment – and the movie benefits greatly from that investment. “The intimidating thing was my responsibility to the story, to the studio, and to the audience.” Caro said. “As far as budget goes, no [I was not intimidated]. With every film I’ve made, Whale Rider included, I’ve had a vision that was far bigger than the budget allowed. So this time, to be able to have a budget equal to the very epic vision in my head, was just really satisfying.”

Finding Mulan

Caro’s team saw over 1,000 actresses in multiple countries for the lead role of Hua Mulan, and after a year-long search proved fruitless, they turned their attention to China for the second time, and the timing worked out where Yifei was able to come to Los Angeles and audition for them. “She was so terrifyingly good as an actor, but also really strong,” Caro said. “Super strong. The audition was very demanding, and on top of her jet lag, and her two hours, and her 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. She’d flown for 14 hours, she hadn’t slept all night, it’s like five 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.”

Let’s Get Down to Business

Caro made sure to cultivate a large female presence behind the scenes. “I think it’s the only movie of this scale and genre where all the voices, the people running it, were women. So me; Mandy Walker, who’s cinematographer; Liz Tan, the first A.D., also a co-producer; [and also our] costume designer [Bina Daigeler] and makeup designer [Denise Kum]. Very, very female led, this show. And of course, being female-led, very, very well prepared, we were. Communicated very effectively. Brought it in on time and slightly under budget, because that’s just how we roll.”

Biggest Challenges

“It’s always easy to ask for answers like ‘What is your opinion about this character?'” Yifei said, when asked about the biggest challenge she faced playing the lead role. “But the hardest thing about Mulan, to me, is to give the answer yourself and put you in that circumstance and have it be organic, not acting…I really see it as a whole journey. I felt the fight sequences were also part of her story. It’s just the reaction is different and you’re doing different interactions. So as a whole, it’s really both [the physical and emotional components that were equal challenges].”

“The biggest challenge for me was telling a story about two armies going to war, a young woman going to war, without being able to show any fighting really or blood under the Disney brand,” Caro explained, when the same question was posed to her. “That was like, ‘Hmm…OK.’ Because Game of Thrones has kind of changed the battle game for shooting those sorts of sequences. It couldn’t be that. So I was really blessed that the fighting style was martial arts, wushu, being inherently beautiful. But also, what unlocked it for me, was that I figured out that I could set a battle sequence in a geothermal valley so that the smoke and the steam could reveal and obscure violence. It could suggest it. It could also be very beautiful and very cinematic. And I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the battle sequences feel visceral and robust, but never gratuitous.”

Retaining Elements from the Animated Film

While the filmmakers returned to the ancient Chinese folk song “Ballad of Mulan” for inspiration, Caro also wanted to make sure she kept some moments from the animated movie in tact – including its best battle moment. “I did want to honor that work, because that is a perfect film,” she said. “I wanted to honor it by bringing through sequences that felt iconic. So the matchmaker sequence. The avalanche felt like something – it wasn’t in the script when I came on board, 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 the trick there was to really try to understand how she could be strategic enough to bring the avalanche down. In the animation, it’s quite cute because there’s Mushu and a little rocket and it comes out of that kind of comedy, but the thing about Mulan that I love the most is how super smart she is and strategic. So we spent quite a bit of time as we tried to figure out the avalanche sequence, how would she make it happen?”

Mulan hits theaters in the United States on March 27, 2020, though it has been delayed in some markets due to the coronavirus.

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