MCFARLAND, USA - Movie Production

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Building The Team
Caro's sojourn in McFarland had an added element as she set about to cast performers from the community. It was a long process and included "movie boot camp" for the novice actors she found in McFarland. But as a result, three out of the seven runners on the team in the movie are from the McFarland area: Sergio Avelar and Michael Aguero were actual runners and Ramiro Rodriguez was a champion soccer player.

Caro began to build the cast about a year before the start of principal photography and describes the very involved casting process. "The casting directors held open casting calls in McFarland, Bakersfield and San Diego," relates Caro. "Then all of that footage was sent to me in New Zealand. Amazingly enough, the kids that really resonated for me were the ones from McFarland. We narrowed down the list of candidates by giving them fundamental acting exercises and eventually committed them to tape so we could show the studio. And that's how we ended up with our team."

It's a casting style that producers Gray and Ciardi support and have also embraced themselves in previous movies. They cast real jockeys in "Secretariat" and went even further in "Miracle," as Gordon Gray explains: "Niki's approach is also our preferred way of casting movies. When we made 'Miracle,' we couldn't decide whether it would be better to cast actors and teach them how to skate or to get hockey players and teach them how to act. [Director] Gavin O'Connor and I took ice skating lessons for a day to see how hard it would be to teach a neophyte how to skate and after about a half an hour, we decided we'd be better off teaching a hockey player how to act. Then we went even further than that and got hockey players from Boston. So whenever possible I think you want to get authentic actors and athletes and sometimes they are one in the same. Sometimes it's better just to go to the source and Niki is really good with actors, so we never had any doubt."

As Caro lined up her team, she and the producers also found their coach in Kevin Costner, who was always the actor they hoped would play Jim White. "I think it's always a good sign after you've filmed a movie that you can't see anyone else in that part and that's how we feel about Kevin," comments Gray. "He was the person we always had in mind when we were developing the script. He's absolutely perfect for that role. He's the right age, he's a grown-up, he gets kids and he gets coaching. He's a great actor. He's got a sense of humor. He conveys a real quiet strength."

Gray adds, "He's always been one of my favorites. And he was great with those kids. It's helpful to have an actor who knows his way around a set, especially when you have young actors or in our case, kids who had never acted in a movie before. He used to give those kids tips in a really low-key way. They really looked up to him and I think they enjoyed each others' company in general."

As soon as Costner signed on, Caro began a close partnership with him that continued throughout production. "We worked quite thoroughly in preproduction on the script. We had a very close relationship even before we got to set. He's such a gift to this movie, such a great actor but an equally fantastic collaborator and a really generous man. I think he really brought not just strength to the role but also his tenderness and vulnerability and his care with the boys. He really mentored them; he was like a coach to them and that's something you Kevin Costner was a great hit with the young actors. He quietly mentored them and offered advice if they wanted it but for the boys, listening to Costner's stories and watching movies with him in his trailer was a highlight. can't fake. That's the soul of the movie," says Caro.

From day one of the filmmaking process, Costner found Caro to be a real ally. "Niki has been true to me," says the actor. "She's been incredibly consistent and that sounds like a boring word but actually it's heroic and noble because that's what you want in life-somebody to be consistent. She's very creative and she gives me a lot of room but she has both eyes on me and has helped me directorially in certain scenes. She just came up to me and whispered something to me that made a big difference, so I've appreciated her as a director and as a friend."

The narrative and themes of "McFarland, USA" appealed to Costner, who says, "It's a heartfelt story but it's not a soft one. It definitely falls into the canon of Disney family films but among the elements that resonated with me was that it is a true story. You're thrilled that this could actually happen in this small, American town. Jim White represents the difference an individual can make in a community like McFarland."

That difference, Costner adds, did not just impact one generation of runners but many to come as Jim White built a track-and-field dynasty in McFarland that exists to this day. But it all began with that improbable 1987 team. "They were like the little engine that could," says Costner. "They didn't have the trappings of success, didn't have the gym with fancy equipment and didn't even have the shoes. And somehow they did it. The greatest thing about athletics is that talent ultimately levels the playing field. Doesn't matter what economic strata you come from. Can you run? Can you play? Can you compete? Jim recognized that in these seven boys and taught them to see it and believe that, too. This story follows these seven boys on their way to manhood and in the process they set a standard in that town that was followed by the entire community. Now young people growing up there want to be a part of the McFarland cross-country team."

The area also had personal significance for Costner, a native Californian who lived for a time in nearby Visalia. "I've told people before that my favorite year in high school was my junior year in Visalia. I just loved the Central Valley. I found myself hunting and fishing in the mountains. I loved the fields. But in McFarland, there are a lot of migrant farm workers who vastly influenced the area and suddenly the town sort of grew up. I think our movie has attempted to portray that culture and I hope the people of McFarland will be happy with it," Costner says.

Caro adds that while Jim White certainly influenced McFarland, it is also true in the movie that his newfound hometown also deeply affected him. "It's certainly true in our movie and in the White family's own story that they got as much as they gave if not more so from the community. Jim White had an extraordinary and potent effect on those boys and their lives and that community but the community equally had a profound effect on the Whites," says Caro.

Working closely with the seven novice actors who make up the cross-country team may seem daunting, but Costner took it all in stride and embraced them all. "These guys, from the moment I met them, had smiles on their faces," says Costner. "They came up to me and were very aware of the movies that I've made. They made me feel great and I tried to look out for them during the course of this movie."

He adds, "It's really easy to become a know-it-all, so I don't want to try to be that. I can see what they're doing and know that maybe they ought to do it differently but I would rather them come to me than be out there telling them what to do. They know they can come to me."

But in the world of the story, it takes a while for Jim to warm up to McFarland, and his students also regard him warily initially, especially the truculent Thomas, played by Carlos Pratts. Unlike some of the team, Pratts is a seasoned actor who starred on Season 1 of the FX series "The Bridge."

Thomas is a gifted, natural runner but until he encounters Jim White, he doesn't understand that this talent might provide not just pride and accomplishment but also a way out of his troubled home life and what he considers a bleak and preordained future. Through Thomas especially, Jim White begins to understand the grim reality that defines the lives of migrant workers and their sons and daughters. "Thomas has so much turmoil inside, he typically turns to violence first," explains Pratts about his character. "He has also had to grow up fast and doesn't want to burden people with his problems, so he's very quiet and keeps it bottled up and is somewhat a loner. When he meets Jim White, he's just another boss/foreman. The foreman runs the crew in the fields and he's used to being yelled at by these people. Thomas' day begins at 4 a.m.-he wakes up, grabs a tortilla, runs out to the fields, picks, runs back and by 7 a.m. he's in school. His reaction to Jim White is, this is my world and you don't understand it."

Jim's recognition of Thomas' athletic ability begins to bridge the cultural and emotional divide between them. "Jim constantly pressures Thomas to join the team and ultimately Thomas realizes that Jim isn't using him for anything, he's helping him," relates Pratts. "He becomes much more than a coach; he becomes a shoulder to cry on and finally Thomas realizes he isn't alone. Jim White saves his life."

Off-screen, Pratts says that Costner was also a great teacher and often Pratts learned by his example on how to behave both as an actor and as a person. "Working with Kevin was amazing and the way he treats people, so honestly and so openly, as a young actor, it was great to see and really helped me understand the kind of man I want to be. Working with him was one of the best experiences of my life," comments Pratts.

In turn, Pratts performed a similar service to the young actors who played his teammates. "He brought a real kind of leadership to the group and really helped the other boys along," Niki Caro notes. The rest of the actors making up the cross-country team are: Rafael Martinez, Ramiro Rodriguez and Michael Aguero who play the Diaz brothers David, Danny and Damacio, respectively; Hector Duran as Johnny; Sergio Avelar, who portrays Victor; and Johnny Ortiz as Jose. Each had a different route to the project but together, Caro says, "All of them brought a really strong sense of family and community spirit to the movie." Martinez, soft-spoken, polite and sweet natured, sheepishly admits that he cut school to make the audition for the movie. "But it was worth it because I got the part and making the film was such a great experience on every level and it was a real education."

Like many of the cast, Martinez met his real-life counterpart and took the opportunity to get to know and understand him and his journey. As is true of many of Jim White's champion runners, David Diaz remained in the community and coaches kids today. "He certainly lives up to the character in the script," observes Martinez. "He is the oldest of the three Diaz brothers, the most mature of the bunch. He had to take on many responsibilities for the family and his brothers, and he took it upon himself to be on point, to make sure he was a good example for his brothers and his family. He has a big heart and great faith-he worked harder and prayed harder than anyone, which I admire about him."

In fact, the Diaz family and McFarland in general struck a personal chord with Martinez. "It reminds me of the village in Mexico where my family is from-Colorines. Certain blocks in McFarland remind me of Colorines. It brought back so many memories for me. It is also a small, family-oriented community where everyone knows everyone and looks out for each other," says Martinez.

The boys lead parallel lives as farm workers before they even arrive to school. Ultimately Jim White decides to truly understand the unique and daunting obstacles these boys face when he joins them in the fields, which resulted in an interesting on-screen moment between Martinez and Costner. "I'm probably the only actor who gets to say he taught Kevin Costner how to pick cabbages," laughs Martinez.

Ramiro Rodriguez, a bit of a jokester off camera, is a McFarland native who makes his acting debut in the film. In fact, Rodriguez initially had no intention of auditioning. He was just the transportation. Describing how he came to get the part, Rodriguez says, "I went because my cousin needed a ride to the tryouts. One of the producers asked me if I wanted to be in the movie. I said no thanks. But he kept asking me and the next thing I knew, I was competing against my cousin! I had been planning to start college but I couldn't pass up the opportunity."

But as it turned out, Rodriguez had several connections to the film. "I knew about the story-in fact, Mr. Diaz [Daniel] was a counselor at my school when I went there for high school. I didn't know that until I got to meet him for the movie. I was like, are you serious? When I found out I was going to play him, I was so relieved. He's super nice and he's a really funny dude," says Rodriguez.

Not a runner and not a trained actor, Rodriguez had a steep learning curve to master. Fortunately, he had ample help from director Niki Caro and Kevin Costner. "The great thing about Niki is she is so supportive and really listens and encourages our ideas," says Rodriguez. "She let me be me in a lot of the scenes, which made it much easier. And Kevin was amazing. If someone felt down or confused, he picked up that vibe and was so helpful, especially for me. I didn't know anything about movies; I didn't know what a mark was or how to look for camera and he showed me all that and gave me tips and told jokes and kept it light."

Michael Aguero, who plays Damacio Rodriguez and is from the nearby city of Bakersfield, found real purpose and joy in "McFarland, USA," also his first acting experience. Emancipated from his parents at age 14, he found solace and purpose in high school arts classes. However, he was working two jobs to support his young son when he heard about the open casting call. "I figured, why not, I should give it a shot," relates Aguero. "I'm so happy that I did. I got to work with a lot of good people, especially Niki. She helped me embrace this whole acting thing, to try to create a career for myself in this. She's been so helpful to me, so nice and generous and if I ever had anything on my mind, about the work or whatever, she was happy to talk to me about it. She pulled me aside many times, in her quiet, kind way and explained things to me. She had a lot of patience with me and I am very grateful."

Caro was equally impressed with the young, novice actor. "Michael brought a smile to my face that I could not get enough of," Caro says. "He stood out from the first time I saw him and that never ceased."

Some of Aguero's favorite memories of the movie were the locations. Because cross- country runners race in all sorts of terrain, he experienced a cross-section of picturesque places, from the Central Valley to Los Angeles. "I really enjoyed Griffith Park. I had never been there before. I had no idea that was where the Hollywood sign was! The views were amazing, you could see all the way to Malibu Beach. Castaic Lake was just beautiful; running down to it, you could see the dam and all the mountains. It was amazing," enthuses Aguero.

A particularly indelible scene for Aguero was one in which Coach White takes the team to the beach for the first time in their lives. The company shot that scene at Sycamore Cove in Malibu. Like his character, that scene also marked Aguero's first visit to a beach and first plunge into the Pacific-a chilly introduction to the ocean, considering the October shooting date. "It was brutal," recalls Aguero. "I jumped in and immediately wanted to jump out. They shot it with two cameras and you could see me in the wide angle but not in the tight because I wanted to scoot! So we did it again. It was definitely cold but it was fun."

Hector Duran, the affable thinker of the group, has been acting since he was 9 years old, appearing mostly in small television roles, but "McFarland, USA" is his highest profile project and his first feature film. His description of his character Johnny is not too far from Duran himself. "Johnny Sameniego is a very bright, witty kid who likes to have fun and also get things done at the same time," says Duran. "He helps get the team together, in a really uplifting way. I really love my character; he always has a big smile."

Duran spent a lot of time with his real-life doppelganger, who is still a huge part of the McFarland community. "Mr. Sameniego still lives in McFarland and when we shot there, I was able to get to know him personally," remarks Duran. "He was very welcoming. He had me over for dinner and his brother-in- law is the mayor of McFarland, so he invited me over to his house, too. The entire Sameniego family was very hospitable. They took me on a tour of McFarland and were so nice to me. They showed me the house where he grew up and all of the medals that he won. He was very gracious but also humble."

Sergio Avelar, who plays Victor Puentes, is also a McFarland native and a former runner and member of the McFarland Track Club. He had a prior personal relationship with Jim White and one of the original runners. "I've been running since 2001 and I was always a decent runner," says Avelar. "One of my coaches was actually the role that Carlos plays, Thomas, when I was in middle and high school. He's a great man. He took us to the meets that weren't on our schedule, like the Junior Olympics. He really inspired us to do good things, on and off the field. And Coach White? Legit! Just a fantastic person, wonderful and very nice. Even after he retired, he still helped us out at the practices and meets. He was always really easy to get along with and he was always color blind. Even though he is Caucasian and we are Mexican, it never mattered. He and his wife are the coolest, most wonderful people."

According to Avelar, his character, Victor Puentes, is "a cocky, machismo, ladies' man." "He's always preening himself and always checking out girls and making sure he gets the attention," says the young actor. "He gives Jim [Coach White] a hard time, but just being a smartass. He doesn't give White any respect at the beginning, but once his uncle talks to Jim, Victor sees that he is okay and that he needs to give him respect. Victor's uncle is his father figure because his father is in jail. His uncle's trying to keep him out of the gang life and it seems like Victor's trying to get in, just trying to still be that little badass. To get him away from that, the uncle is telling Victor to continue running. Whatever his uncle says, goes."

Caro has nothing but praise for Avelar and says, "Sergio was magnificent and particularly helpful to me in understanding the running because he ran in state championships for McFarland."

Johnny Ortiz knew he wanted to be an actor at age 5 when he saw "Spy Kids." After years of studying, his first real audition led to a role on "Southland," which led to other small parts but none like Jose in "McFarland, USA." Describing Jose, Ortiz says, "He's a shy, quiet boy and that was fun to play. I'm usually playing the crazy, loud one in high- speed car chases. Jose's different; he's humble and loves poetry. And he loves to run. When he runs, it's like his anger comes out. I used to wake up every day and jog in the Rose Bowl. It's so much fun. You just feel the breeze, like nothing can stop you and in that way, my character and I are very similar."

That's not to say Ortiz didn't have his moments of craziness, especially in the car wash scene. That sequence involves the community coming together-Anglo and Latino-at a makeshift car wash put together to raise money for the McFarland track team. "I felt like I was with family in that scene, it was so real," comments Ortiz. "Washing cars, playing with the folks, dancing with the music. There's a sequence where Michael [Aguero] and I breakdance. When that '80s beat came on, I did a front flip and Michael was like, 'Whoa!'."

Ortiz adds that in general his teammates and Costner contributed to that familial feeling, on and off the set. "I truly bonded with all the guys, they're really wonderful," says Ortiz. "We really connected and related to each other. And Kevin was a big part of that. Sometimes, after we would rehearse on set and they would start lighting and placing cameras, Kevin would go over the scene with us and tell us what he thought. Or we'd go to his trailer and watch movies. It really did feel like a family."

This little family of young men underwent a powerful and, for some, life changing experience in filming "McFarland, USA," from athletic training to acting. They all rose to the occasion, impressing everyone on the crew, including Caro. "It was very intense for them, even for Carlos, who had more professional acting experience," says Caro. "But for the others, who had never been in a movie before, it was seismic. It was amazing to watch them go through that experience and to get them on the set that first day. I talked to the crew as I do always before I shoot and one of the things I said to them was, 'These kids are really green and we need to take care of them. We need to recognize that they don't know anything and if they screw up, be gentle and generous.' But they never did; it was like they were born to it. It was amazing how effortlessly they came to it. They were well-cast and well-prepared, but in the end it comes down to the fact that they are just great kids and amazing people."

Rounding out the cast is the White family-Maria Bello as Jim White's steadfast wife Cheryl and Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher as their daughters, Julie and Jamie. Prior to principal photography, Caro organized an informal gathering for the onscreen White clan that proved insightful for her and them. "In pre-production I got the White family together-Kevin, Maria, Morgan and Elsie-and had them play Monopoly as a family. That was really interesting, even in a tiny little exercise like that, watching the family dynamic just click in, and that's the way it was for the rest of the shoot," says Caro.

Bello was incredibly moved by the "McFarland, USA" script and committed to the project almost immediately after reading it. "The humanity of the story really touched me; these kids and their passion and what they had been going through with their families, the work they had to do, all the huge, emotional and physical obstacles they had to overcome," informs Bello. "And then the dedication that they had for cross-country and for Jim White, this man who incited in them this commitment not just to running but to themselves and each other. It was fantastically empowering and inspiring. I've always related to the underdog. How these young men, with Jim White's encouragement, rose beyond their circumstances with such grace really spoke to me."

Of course, at first, Cheryl, wary of her new neighbors, is not thrilled about the family move to McFarland. Her initial view of McFarland is narrow but she and Jim slowly come to understand that they have more in common with the people of McFarland than they initially anticipated. Bello, a bonafide human rights activist, was particularly interested in Cheryl's philosophical transformation, particularly as it relates to events today. "Cheryl doesn't begin the movie being a citizen of the world, in a lot of ways," explains Bello. "She's lived in a very small box of a life until she gets to McFarland and realizes that there's so much that she hasn't seen; so many different kinds of lives that people are living. And in her own way she becomes an activist, I suppose. It's so relevant even now to what we're going through in terms of the migrant workers, fair pay, immigration and our borders. I think it illustrates that we can be more open and understanding of the people who are here picking our food."

Kevin Costner, with whom Bello shared many of her scenes, says that Bello brought subtlety and strength to Cheryl, which made her role more than just the standard-issue spouse. "Maria's a world-class actress and she commands the screen," comments Costner. "She has presence and she's given that wife role a lot of dignity and a lot of authority and that's because she knows how to hit her marks and she knows how to deliver those lines and be authentic. Maria's very skilled and doing as much as she can but not trying to do too much. She's playing a person who is willing to tell her husband when she thinks he's wrong and also able to love him for the things that she knows are going wrong in his life."

Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher, playful and affectionate with each other, connected like sisters on and off screen. In fact, all the ladies developed a special bond. "The girls are fantastic. Morgan is incredibly mature for her age, a deep thinker and artist and always effortlessly herself, so there is never a false moment. And Elsie is so funny, quite a free spirit," enthuses Bello.

"Maria is wonderful," adds Saylor in response to Bello's praise. "She's a really sweet person, so smart and funny. She and Elsie and I would hang out and giggle for an hour over nothing. Or sit in Maria's trailer and talk about clothes or life, whatever. Everyone was so great but that bond with Maria and Elsie was a real treat and made all of our scenes together really fun."

Saylor shared several scenes with Costner also, as a father and daughter who not only have to navigate McFarland but also their own precarious relationship. "Kevin is really cool and one of the most fascinating people I ever met," says Saylor. "It was fun to get to know him and to work with him. He's an interesting actor to watch; he's really present in the scene and he really works it out in rehearsal. It's not just about getting to set and performing when the camera rolls. I definitely asked him a lot of questions and he was happy to answer them. Plus he's lived such an interesting life and had great stories."

Saylor and Carlos Pratts also had several scenes together and in some ways their characters' friendship becomes a bridge between the Whites and their new neighbors. Saylor often had lunch with the rowdy bunch of boys and was bemused by their off -screen antics. "They were a delight and a handful," remarks Saylor. "I worked the most with Carlos and we got along really well. But it was fun to hang out with them. Sitting at a table with all seven of them was a little overwhelming. They have a lot of energy and humor. But they were all really kind and excited to be a part of this movie. I think it is an important story to them and they loved the chance to be on set and especially to work with Kevin. They called him KC and every day they would say something like, 'You know what KC told me?' They were very cute and enthusiastic."

Rounding out the cast are Martha Higareda as Lupe, Danny Mora as Sammy, Valente Rodriguez as Principal Camillo, Vanessa Martinez as Maria Marsol, Chris Ellis as Coach Jenks and Diana Maria Riva as Senora Diaz.

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