McFarland, USA is the underdog tale of a gruff, leathery football coach (Kevin Costner) who turns a band of misfits into a team of high school cross-country champions. The film, which opens Friday, is based on McFarland High’s journey to the 1987 California state cross-country championships, the first year of the state championships. We recently spoke to director Niki Caro—a New Zealander whose previous films include Whale Rider and North Country—about the film, Costner and sports movies.
SI: Given your body of work, a mainstream Disney sports movie does not seem an obvious choice for you. What drew you to this particular story?
NIKI CARO: I was talking to Disney for another movie, and they thought I would be good for this movie. They sent me a package of materials, and I remember going through old Xeroxed copies of sports magazines and grainy black and white photos. The photo I really remember is two boys embracing at the end of a race, and they were forehead to forehead, one had a hand on the back of the other’s neck, and the image was so powerful. I would be sent big packages of stuff, and the sports reporting, the journalistic aspect of the story, I found extremely moving. And I could see that a legacy had been created, and it’s still thriving [in McFarland]. That’s really great currency for me to tell stories out of. Because it’s real and tangible, so I could go to a place and experience it myself.I
SI: You came in with a point of view and a very specific vision for this movie—was there a particular moment when that idea came together?
CARO: I went to California and stayed with Jim and Cheryl [White], and one afternoon they took me out to see some of the contemporary kids practice. It was 5 o’clock—they have to train in the evening because it’s so hot there. So I’m standing on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, and in the distance come a group of kids, probably about 14, 15, and the image of them was so beautiful, coming at me, backlit with the sun going down, with dust kicking off their heels. I thought at that moment I could make something really beautiful from this. Something literally cinematic. I knew that the story had, in its DNA, a really strong soul and spirit. It was in that moment that the filmmaker in me got really excited.
SI: Setting is such a central part of your previous films: the Maori Village in New Zealand in Whale Rider, small town Minnesota in North Country. You insisted, despite the costs, that production shoot part of the time in McFarland. Why was that so important to you?
CARO: Sense of place is really big for me—as a filmmaker and as an audience member, it’s huge. Disney really backed the vision for this film, which was my vision for a very specific film and a very authentic film. They made it possible for us to shoot in McFarland, which is very unusual because it’s just a way more expensive place to shoot. But it was really important for us, for the authentically, to be there. The way I approached this was similar to Whale Rider, to go into a culture not my own. I knew I could work the same way: to work collaboratively with a living breathing community. The other thing that ties to the subject in spirit is the heart and humor and humanity that’s so alive in the culture: I just thought I could bring that stuff out—via a vehicle of a sports movie.
SI: To add to the authenticity, some of the young actors are from McFarland. One of them was working in a pizza parlor the day before shooting began. Another had no intention of auditioning and was giving his cousin a ride to the set, where he had to be convinced to tryout. I imagine that casting for this movie—finding teenage Mexican-American boys who can act and run really fast—was a bit tricky.
CARO: Yeah, as you can imagine, that pool is really shallow. There’s not an agency that you can call and there would be a 100 of them. It would have been fine if you needed one or two. But we needed seven, and they all needed to be great. So we did this gigantic open call—all over California, Texas, New Mexico, and in the end it didn’t surprise me that we found three in McFarland because they are incredible kids and they lived the story. Really, getting kids from the area was more out of necessity than by design. Half of them could run but not act, and the other half could act but not run. We went through two months of very rigorous and dramatic and emotional rehearsal. And over that period of time they became a team and a family.
SI: There are some really evocative images in the film: the boys running hills of almond hulls covered in tarps, through the fields of Central California at sunset. You show that running can be a very cinematic physical activity. Did you draw on any previous movies about running?
CARO: Of course, Chariots of Fire is the first place you go to. It’s interesting—the things you remember about Chariots of Fire is the slow running on the beach and the Vangelis music. We assumed—Adam [Arkapaw, the director of photography] and I—that we would have to cover all of our running stuff at high speed [in order to capture slow motion], but funnily we ended up with virtually no slow motion, we sped everything back up to real time. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s a less romantic version of running. But yeah, this movie is one of very few running, but I think it’s unique in that it depicts running a little differently than what’s been done in the past. The amazing thing about cross-country is that they don’t run indoors—I could put them in extraordinary environments. And it’s kind of uniquely cinematic in that way, to be able to commit to the screen some things that people don’t get to see too often.
SI: I heard you took up running when you started working on this project—how did that help you with the themes of the story?
CARO: God knows nobody hated running more than me. Because I was writing and rewriting the script, I thought that I’m going to have to run because I’m going to have to know what it feels like to run. That was four years ago, and I’m happy to say that I still run. What running kind of opened up for the story was the transcendence, the feeling that these kids who worked this land could kind of fly above it. The transcendent spiritually that running gave them felt like something I wanted really hard to express thematically.
SI: What was the challenge in working in the sports movie genre?
CARO: I’ve seen my fair share [of sports movies], and the best sports movies aren’t really about the sporting aspects. I was on a panel last night, and [Disney president of production] Sean Bailey said sports are really a vehicle to get men to come and cry. I would say that Kevin’s movie, Bull Durham, is in my top five movies since I first saw it. Yeah, it’s a movie about baseball, but it’s really a movie about how men and women try to get along—that’s what makes it an amazing movie. Of course, it’s vitality important to get the sports absolutely right. I put a high bar on authenticity, and we worked really hard at getting all that right, and having [retired McFarland cross-country coach] Jim White on set was huge.
SI: This is Costner’s seventh sports movie, but he’s playing the role of coach for the first time, so we see a different kind of performance from him, one that’s maybe a bit more quiet and human than we’re used to. What is it about Costner that makes him so suited for this genre?
CARO: He’s All-American, he’s a real man, he’s an honorable guy on screen. He’s more experienced than anybody else. He’s made some of the best of them. People really related to him. They’re bringing on board all of his back catalogue. I found it fascinating because a guy like Costner, king of the genre, could have walked his way through it. He didn’t. I had high hopes that he would show up as the great actor he is—and what I was unprepared for is that he showed up for this movie as a regular guy. He was incredibly generous with all the actors, but it went both ways—what they brought out of him was his humanity and his humility. I think that’s what makes his performance in this movie different from any of the others and, I think, more special.