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McFarland, USA Much More Than a Sports Movie

We attended the interview as a guest of Disney

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Photo courtesy of Disney

By now you have more than likely seen trailers for the Disney film McFarland, USA opening in theaters this Friday. And you might think it is just another sports movie. A film about a down and out coach who moves his family across the country to a small farming town in California and who despite major obstacles somehow manages to build from scratch a high school cross country running team who become State Champions.

And on the surface yes, it is about that. But more than that it’s a movie based on a true story about a town, its people, and a culture many of us, particularly in Orange County, have  little experience with or exposure to. McFarland, USA shares a world that on the surface may appear bleak, but where family rules, community matters, and contribution is crucial to survival. It shows us what it takes to be a champion. And, it tells the story of a cross country team, its members, Jim White, a coach who recognizes and unleashes talent creating a legacy that transforms a town, and how he and his family become an integral part of that town.

McFarland USA Press Conference Junket

Photo courtesy of Stacy Molter Photography

Kevin Costner, Director Niki Caro, and the seven actors who portray the team along with Coach White and three of the 1987 McFarland Cross Country Team State Champions Danny, David, and Damacio Diaz shared how they became involved in the project, what it was like to be part of the film, and what they hope the audience will take from it.

Costner recalls reading a Sports Illustrated article years ago about Coach Jim White and his McFarland High School Cross Country Team and being “taken with it”. He had lived in the Central Valley in Visalia and played McFarland in high school baseball. Flash forward years later and Niki Caro reached out to him with the role of Jim White. Costner describes Coach White, as representing “the best of the best” who let these kids “know what was possible”… “let them see what’s possible, (that) they can exceed beyond their wildest expectations.” Adding, “it’s just a very good lesson this movie. So I was proud to play the essence of Jim White.” Says Costner, “You know I think we’d all like to be Jim White in some way. But it was a pleasure to do that from that Sports Illustrated article, make this giant circle to actually being in the movie. I mean it feels like a movie doesn’t it?”

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Photo courtesy of Disney

In casting the movie, Caro, whose hallmark is authenticity, sought to include performers for the cross country team from the community with casting calls in McFarland and nearby Bakersfield. Two of the seven cross country team’s roles went to kids living in McFarland who make their acting debut: Ramiro Rodriguez in the role of Danny Diaz, who is now a counselor in the high school Rodriguez attended, and Sergio Avelar as Victor Puentes. Also making their acting debuts, Michael Aguero from nearby Bakersfield as Damicio Diaz and Rafael Martinez as David Diaz.

Avelar describes the experience as “surreal”. ”My cousin gave my mother a phone call saying that there’s an open casting call and it was actually in Bakersfield which is 30 miles south of McFarland.”… “I thought of it as a joke… they’re going to get the guys who can act, you know?” Avelar says he was originally just going to drive his cousin to the audition. “Next thing you know I was getting call backs.”

Rounding out the cast are actor Carlos Pratts (FX’s “The Bridge) as the central role of runner Thomas Valles, Hector Duran (“Downward Mobile” and “Shameless”) as Jonny Sameniego, and actor Johnny Ortiz as Jose Cardenas.

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Photo courtesy of Disney

A big part of prepping for the movie was the physical training which was rigorous with Caro enlisting the help of a cross country coach who trained them every morning at 8:00. Pratts shares “in the morning, we went to Santa Clarita and I would run like five or six miles (Santa Clarita is mountainous) and I cried more than I cried when I saw ‘Bambi'”. For Pratts this was followed by work with a personal trainer on strength training and nutrition. “..for about three months I couldn’t have a carb.” He jokes, “And I didn’t wear a shirt in my apartment.” Though Pratts says he was not a runner before, he enjoys running now.

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Photo courtesy of Disney

McFarland local Avelar who was a runner on the McFarland Track Club and personally knew Jim White describes the training as bonding. “We had to train for a whole month and everyday, like Carlos said, we would go out, run five or six miles and then we’d do even more workouts. But through that process we were able to get to know each other you know.” Adding “We really did get to know who each other were, and what our limits were, and how to mess with each other, so that’s the chemistry you see.” Indeed.

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Photo courtesy of Disney

Developing that relationship and chemistry between Costner and the actors on his team, seemed to come naturally with Caro saying, “He was (and) continues to be so generous to those boys. Amazing.” He “was their coach in many ways. You know, me and my team got them prepared physically and dramatically, but what you see on that screen, the closeness of that team and that coach is real. And it is due to Kevin’s generosity and tenderness and enthusiasm for these amazing kids. That has given this movie something special. You know when I called “cut” it didn’t stop. It’s ongoing. You can see.”

Duran, who has been acting since he was 9, though this is his first feature film, describes working with Costner as “an amazing experience. He’s such a humble guy.” Throughout the interview Costner demonstrates this humbleness, crediting Caro and his co-stars for their work and deflecting questions to them.

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Photo courtesy of Disney

One of the central messages in the movie is at the heart of what makes this team so successful. There is this culture of hard work and dedication to family. Coach White recognizes the talent and more and more begins to appreciate these kids’ lives as pickers are part of what makes them such strong competitors. What on the one hand could trap them could alternatively be harnessed to create a better life for them.

Costner, who grew up in Ventura and also Visalia was familiar with the life of pickers, but says the movie gave him a different appreciation for “who these people are.” Saying, “This is as American a story as you can possibly have. There’s no – you think apple pie and baseball’s American? No. McFarland is way more American than any of those things. Those are pastimes. What’s American? Maybe I’m gonna get real sentimental here… But there is no (more) American story than parents who are willing to do anything to better their children, to give their children a chance. There’s nothing more American, and it’s been playing out over the last 300 years here. And so McFarland is not some weird little town, you know, like oh, ‘poor McFarland’. No. Number one, there’s a mythology around McFarland because their lives changed when they understood they they could be champions.” “But… there’s nothing more noble than a father and a mother making an opportunity for their child, knowing that their (own) life is gonna be hard. And there’s something very noble about that to me. Something incredibly heroic.”

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Photo courtesy of Disney

For Costner, sports is “the backdrop” for this movie. “If you want to make a good sports movie, don’t put too much sports in it.” “They didn’t have all the facilities the other teams have.” “The ideas of going to that last meet, where these guys had been building themselves up and right about the last meet, they look up and they see these big busses with big schools and these really nice uniforms and they start to shrink. They start to pull back. And Niki directing me, was we weren’t going to let them fall back. We were going to have them look these other boys in the eye and know that they’re just as good, and in my mind, they’re better. And that’s what the movie was about. That you’re as good and if you work harder, you can do better. And you can be more than you think you can. And its set against the world of cross country.”

McFarland USA Press Conference Junket

Photo courtesy of Stacy Molter Photography

And do better each of them did. All went on to college, with all three of the real life Diaz brothers returning home to McFarland, to their family, with careers and lives that center around helping people and their community. And what message would these brothers like the audience to take from the film?

David shares, “Personally, I would think that there’s a champion in every one of us, you know and we just happened to be a part of a great program. And we live in a very minuscule type of community, but it doesn’t matter where you come from, what you do. All of us are – not are – can be, if we choose to be, a champion at whatever you choose. And ours just happens to be running.” WithDanny agreeing, “If you commit to something, give it your all. Give it your best, It doesn’t matter what it is. If you give it your best try, at school, at work, with family, with your relationships whatever it may be just commit to it and do your best and good things will happen eventually, just like for us. We ran because it was a lifestyle for us. We never expected anything like this and 20 years later to see this coming to fruition, it’s such a humbling, yet very exciting thing to happen for us.”

Echoing his brothers’ sentiments Damacio also adds “I was just so happy to see Disney portraying us how we really were. We’re working the fields and I’m glad the whole world is gonna be able to see that. Because so many, you know, Latino families, Hispanic families, that’s our life. We work in our fields, and we, uh, that’s gonna be our life. And if it’s not for Mr. White (and) obviously my parents that instilled in us that education was the door out, and for us it really was. We hated working in the fields and we sought a better life. But I’m so happy Disney is portraying us how things really were.”

McFarland USA Press Conference Junket

Photo courtesy of Stacy Molter Photography

It’s clear the impact Coach White has on these men’s lives. When asked about what that takes he offers, “I think my whole philosophy on everything is about attitude. I had to have a good attitude and I had to transfer that to the kids, a good attitude. In order to achieve anything it has to be your attitude. That is the only thing you can control. I can’t control other’s feelings about me. I can’t control what happened yesterday or what’s going to happen maybe tomorrow. But the most important thing for me to transfer to these kids is: the attitude of hard work can transfer into the classroom and into your jobs and into their real lives. So when you have problems in life, and we had problems with building the team and outfitting the team, putting shoes on the team… but it’s how (you) let the problems affect you in life that’s the main thing that’ll get you down. So yeah, these kids were my kids, yeah.”

With many more State Championships under their belts, Jim White’s impact on these kids has translated to a lasting impact on the town. The town that once had a sign that read, “Welcome to McFarland Fruit Bowl of California”, now has a logo with the silhouette of a runner, running through the fields with these words: “Tradition, Unity, and Excellence”.

Dana Wilde grew up playing “sous chef” for her father as he churned out one amazing meal after the next for family and friends. She inherited her father’s life long passion for cooking and has spent the past two decades studying, reading, practicing, experimenting, and creating in the kitchen.
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