Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, Black or White) portrays Jim White in Disney’s new family feature McFarland USA, which opens nationwide on February 20th 2015. The movie is helmed by New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country).
In 1887, Jim White, along with his family, moved to McFarland, California, to become the coach at the local, predominantly Latino, high school. An economically challenged town in the Central Valley, White did the impossible, overcoming the odds, encouraging the kids to find their own American dream, and forging a championship cross-country running team, a legacy that continues today.
Kevin and Niki spoke with pride about their new movie at the press day for the film.
What appealed to you about playing Coach White?
Kevin Costner: I had read the story in Sports Illustrated. And I remember being very taken with it. I had lived in the Central Valley in Visalia, I actually played McFarland in high school baseball.
Then this movie came up. And this shining cloud Niki Caro said, ‘Would you be in this movie?’ It was so nice to be wanted. You might think that I get every [movie] I want; I don’t. And to be wanted, and for that to match up was really a nice thing for me.
There are men and women all over America who are affecting our young people. Relationships that coaches establish with young people is something that carries through their life if it’s done right.
There’s not a lot of Jim Whites, he represents the best of the best. He is a very graceful, very quiet man, who somehow let them know what was possible. Not that they were gonna get there, but this is possible for you, a goal. And Jim White, in just putting the goal out in front of them, look what happened. Champions.
What inspired you to make the movie, Niki?
Niki Caro: I was inspired, simple as that, by Jim White and the original team and the scale of their achievement, and the legacy that they left that goes on.
But I was really inspired by the people [of McFarland,] by how hard they work, by the commitment to their families, their faith, their community. And it was great fun for me to be able to light that up. I get a kick out of working real communities. And this is a real story.
[If] you drive to McFarland, you’ll see a bunch of people you see on screen. It looks like it does on screen. That’s deeply satisfying to me to go in and tell a story that is not only meaningful, but is true and real, and tell it with the real people. This has been a deeply satisfying experience for me and I hope it will be for the audience too.
All the kids in the movie seem to have genuinely bonded. How did you create that?
Niki: I give Kevin credit for a lot of that. He was and continues to be so generous to these boys. He continually propped them up, was their coach in many ways.
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’s due to Kevin’s tenderness and enthusiasm for these amazing kids. That has given the movie something special.
Kevin: That’s very generous of you to say, it really is. It bears saying that Niki completely immersed herself in this culture. It’s a style that Niki does, which is she trusts the people that she’s going to film.
It’s not lost on anybody that she trusts the members of this community to be able to work in the movie, and to be great. It’s the DNA of how she works. She is gentle but she’s gonna get her movie and she protects her cast and her story.
With Niki there’s no committee. Niki was our leader. I was a player on the court for her.
Niki: How lucky am I, right?
What did you learn about Mexican people making this movie?
Kevin: I grew up in Ventura, and also in Visalia, and I’ve driven down these roads. I saw people working in those fields. I played and fought and had friends where their families were pickers in Saticoy, California, a little Mexican barrio school that I went to.
But I didn’t invest the way I did until Niki brought me this movie. And bending down to work [in the field] and seeing a field go forever, understanding that this is every day in all kinds of weather, [gave me] the appreciation of who these people are. This is as American a story as you can possibly have.
There’s a mythology around McFarland because their lives changed when they understood that 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 life is gonna be hard. There’s something incredibly heroic about that.
What was it like directing an Oscar winning director?
Niki: Every day was a really good day at the office. Bull Durham, if you haven’t seen it, see it. If you’ve seen it, see it again. It’s one of my five favorite movies.