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Interview with the star and real-life subject of Disney’s “McFarland USA,” Kevin Costner and Coach Jim White

 

McFarlandUSA54612f1f790f3By Jeff Boudreaux

The Dolphin recently took part in a conference call for Disney’s “McFarland USA,” which opens nationwide on Friday Feb. 20. Star Kevin Costner and the man he portrays in the film, Coach Jim White, answered questions from college journalists across the country. I was fortunate enough to attend an advance screening for this amazing film and my review will be online Friday morning. For ease of reading, the responses of Mr. Costner will be presented in red and those of Mr. White will be presented in blue. And now, please enjoy this in-depth interview of the men who took part in bringing this tremendously inspiring true story to the screen:

Q: Coach White, what does it mean to you and the community of McFarland to have this film made and this inspiring story told on the big screen?

JWIt means an awful lot to the Community of McFarland, myself included.  The boys, we just got out of “Question and Answer” things and they’re elated that they’re part of it.  What it’s done for the community actually is we now have a new city logo, the old logo “Heartbeat of Agriculture” is obsolete and we went with a new one that a High School girl came up with in a contest and it’s a runner, silhouette of a runner running through the field and underneath, it says Tradition, Unity, and Excellence.  And this has been, accepted by our city and our school and everybody else is really involved in this and just happy.

Q: This question is for Kevin Costner. What originally drew you to this project? Did you have any knowledge of this truly inspiring tale, before reading the script for this film? Did you meet with Jim White before signing on for the role?

KCWell thanks for the question. Good Morning, everyone.  Maybe it’s afternoon back there, but I remember 15, 20 years ago, I actually don’t know how long, but I read a story about McFarland in “Sports Illustrated” about Coach White, and I was just thinking, Wow, what a great story!  And obviously, you know, once I finished the Article, I didn’t think anymore about it until again that same amount of time rolled away, and I was approached to be in this movie and I thought wait a second, I — I know this story.  And what was maybe even more interesting, may be interesting or not to you, but I’d actually played McFarland in high school.

I lived, for a short amount of time, in the Central Valley which is where all our Agriculture is in California and so in high school going to a little high school in Visalia, California, I played McFarland baseball so I’ve been very, it’s funny how this story I read a long time ago, I suddenly was in the movie and then I realized, my God, I’ve actually played against this community.  So it’s a big full circle for me and for Jim, I think I met Jim a couple of days before we started filming but we would, Jim would often come to the set and we would have a time to either talk with him or his wife and just walk around.

And it was always more just about life in general, things would circle back to McFarland and his own history there and the boyhood.  It was general conversation that you would have with somebody that was, just everyday stuff which in a way, was just very, it was very pleasant.

Q: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?

JWI think from my part, one of the real main feelings that I have as the feelings that Kevin Costner left with the town, when he chose to stay there because, he truly showed a love for the kids and a love for the town and the community, and I think you’re going to get that feeling when you see it and — and that’s a wonderful feeling.  And the other part of it is really, really true to life hardships that the kids have to go through working in the fields.  That is so, so important to understand what they’re really going through.  And then to come back and have a successful life that they’re having.

KCYeah, you’re asked this question in different ways but it comes down to sometimes a very basic thing which is you want people to get their money’s worth when you watch a movie.  And what does that actually mean?  Because films are emotional experiences.  They’re not intellectual, they’re emotional.  And what I think what we hope and when movies are working at their very best, they become about moments that you’ll never, ever forget, and we carry the moments of films throughout our whole life.  And I think the things that get set in McFarland, seeing these people first hand, up close in these fields that they’re simply working there, these incredible hours through very difficult weather conditions, every day of their life for one reason and one reason only, to advance their children and to give their children a better opportunity.

So at it’s very core, this is not a movie about running.  It’s not about Cross Country.  This movie is really about the American Dream, and the American Dream in McFarland is alive and well.  There’s nothing more American than a parent trying to make their life better for their children.

Q: This question is for Mr. Costner.  Please tell me about the process of getting into character and what specific quality of Jim White you wanted the audience to grasp, a quality that you think is essential to the storyline, theme and Jim White’s success as a coach.

KCWell the part was written very well so I didn’t have to try to invent little gags to make Jim interesting.  Jim doesn’t, on purpose, doesn’t try to act very important or really interesting.  I think he’s very level with these kids, and he’s so level to the point that he’s also able to tell them when they’re off course.  You know, it’s very important to be able to Coach in a lot of different ways and coaching is not always about the finish line.  Coaching is about the big picture, which is how they’re gonna be as men and — and it was, while it couldn’t have been pleasant for Jim, there were probably moments in time where he had to risk his teams, you know, by telling them they’re wrong.

By disciplining them in — in their own ways and — and what happens is, you know, when you do that to young people, they have the ability to turn around and walk away and never come back.  But if Jim didn’t stand his ground, didn’t have the integrity to say no, this isn’t the way we’re gonna do things, then the goals that these young men were able to achieve would never have been possible.  You have to be able to stand in the face of a young man and say I need a better effort out of you.  I need more discipline out of you.  And if you want to be on a team, you have to act like a teammate.

So I could tell without Jim ever spelling those things out to me, that that is how he coached.  There’s a very, there’s a quiet dignity to him.  Maybe Jim when I’m not looking, is hell on wheels somewhere else, I don’t know.  But I think he is quintessentially what you see is what you get.  And I thought to try to make no more of that other than the passion that he had to have burning deep inside him every day when he went to coach these kids.  He’s an Educator.  You know, I think one thing that maybe gets lost in this is a coach is just another word for an educator.  And so, it was — it was very, it was really, um, I thought it was important to be a part of this movie, and I was really glad to.

Q: My question is for Mr. White.  What did you initially see within those kids that made you so passionate about wanting to a start a Cross-Country team?

JW:  Well from the movie’s standpoint, I needed a job. I needed to supplement the income a little bit maybe or I — I wanted to do something, so I wouldn’t get fired again.  Uh but then when you — when you’re out there and you’re looking in reality, uh, I’m — I’m looking for kids that, have a desire to do something better.  And if you notice in the movie that he had sent them on laps, and OK, give me a lap, these boys didn’t slack off and jog and walk like everybody else was doing.  They actually loved to run and so you try to look for things like this in young people.

They were doing that without really telling him how fast they wanted them to run.  You know, don’t do this or that but of course when he came in and when he said well, Top 4 kids get one of these Gatorades, uh, I used things like that in my training.  Ah, let’s see the top guys in, I’m gonna take them and buy them a milkshake.  Well they’ll run for anything, you know.  They will.  It doesn’t have to be anything but an ice cream cone.  And uh, I said, you know, after a hard day’s work, and then a hard day’s work out, I want a little bit more out of them and I said OK, let’s see, if we all now can run a mile in a certain time, then I’ll take you guys out to dinner or something.

And so then you’re building a team.  You’re not building an individual, because now they have to encourage their whole team to do it also cause that’s the only way they’re gonna get rewarded, so I look for things like that in young people and if you can get somebody that has instinct built in — in them that they — they want to succeed, then you take it and grow from there.

Q: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.  My question is for Mr. Costner.  There are many inspirational sports movies about a coach and his team.  What makes this one stand out?

KC: Well you know, I think when you want a movie that has to do with sports, one of the keys is not make it about too much of the sport.  It has to be the backdrop.  And, you know, it’s what gets said to people when they’re not actually performing is what — what really becomes the most interesting.  You know, as a coach, there’s a lot of ways, that people do it.  And they, and — and I don’t know if you’ve had a coach in your life, I don’t know if anybody, you know, who’s on the phone listening, has had a coach in their life but you know, they can make anything possible.

And if they’re not doing it the way Jim did it, or way some of the coaches I’ve had in my life, they can also turn you off completely.  We have the power to build people up and we equally can just tear someone down so it’s a very delicate thing when you put the life of a young person in your hands and say I’m going to coach you.  Um, and I think that the thing that made this inspirational was not so much the finish line – yes, that’s a Hollywood ending – but in real life, this actually ended that way, so that’s the joy of this movie.

I don’t think the movie would have been successful if it was fiction and we go, Hey, they’re gonna win 9 State Championships and they had nothing going for them.  That would have been like, I’m not sure I want to see that movie because we just made that up.  But the fact that it was real gave the people who wanted to make this film, they wanted to go, well how could that happen?  How could that possibly happen?  And what it is, it’s a combination of young men and a man with a level of wisdom, a level of desire to come together with one goal in mind and — and through work, they achieved it.

You know, McFarland is a small little Community.  Big deal, right?  A little Community wins 9 State Championships. That’s a curiosity, but when you dig down deep and understand where these young men come from and where Jim White had to balance his own life, his own daughters who maybe took a back seat, sometimes to these boys who may be asked a question point blank, are we as important as these boys?  That answer was always yes of course you’re more important. But I have to give these men attention.

But make no mistake, probably wasn’t lost on Jim on those drives to those school where, wait a second, I got to be — I have to remind myself to be a father.  So what you’re really watching when you watch a sports movie you’re watching, what makes it inspirational, just the fact that there’s a level of authenticity about how a person has to go through their day can be very entertaining to watch and when you layer those things into a sports movie, I think a sports movie has a much better chance to work.

Q: My question is a two part one so first, what was it like working together on the film?  My second question is directed toward Mr. White.  How much of an influence did you have on the actual making of the film? What was it like working together on this film?

KC: For me, it’s a true story, so to be able to talk with the person that lived this life.  You can just imagine how fun that was on the sidelines to kind of go back and forensically look at the bones that — that where this program started, look at them from a practical standpoint, look at them from an emotional standpoint, and actually find out where Jim’s at in his life now.  You know, if your ears are open, if you’re genuinely interested, you know, it’s a great story there.  So that was fun for me.  You know, sometimes we get caught up in the movie itself.

When I go off to make a movie though, there’s the red carpet, right?  There’s the premiere.  That’s all the fun stuff.  But sometimes what gets lost is how much joy you had the 3 months making the movie.  And you know, a lot of times in our life, people want to look at the championships.  They want to look at the good things that happened.  But the real joy sometimes is the journey and so to talk to Jim about his own journey, for Jim to perhaps even ask me about mine, those are things that I will be able to take with me that no one will know about the making of McFarland.

Q: How much of an influence did you have on the making of the film?  This is directed toward Mr. White.

JWWell as far as an influence, I think I had a big influence as to what had been written up and what Kevin had actually read.  I think he told me one time that, he turned this movie down because the script didn’t portray me, maybe he can talk more about that, portray me like he felt like I should be portrayed.  So in that way, I didn’t have a direct contact with him per se, and meeting with him and trying to say No I didn’t do that, I didn’t do that.  I didn’t have to.  He picked up, my feelings and my true love for the kids through articles basically.

And I was very appreciative of that because he turned it around and got it written the right way.  You have anything to comment on that Kevin?

KC#1, I appreciate that Jim said that.  But you know, a writer writes a story in a way that, he thinks, and you know, we have to read history a lot.  You know, you guys are in college and read history, you know.  I made the movie “Wyatt Earp” and if you know anything about Wyatt Earp, in that particular town, there were two competing newspapers.  They were actually competing to sell newspapers and one — one of the newspapers really liked the Earps, and the other newspaper liked the Clantons. And when you read the same story about the same day, those stories are wildly different so sometimes, we have a tendency if something is 40 years old in the newspaper, we think of it as history but if you really think closely, it was just some newspaper reporter and you don’t know what his vent was on that particular story.  As I read about Jim White in Sports Illustrated, as I read this story, to me some things that were in that script did not jive what I thought would be possible.   There’s no way that the results could have happened from these young men given some of the things that the character was doing.

And my appreciation went out to the producers and to the writer that allowed me to say, Wait a second, anything I know about sports, a guy acting like this would not get these results.  And for Jim to actually say that right now on the phone gives me a lot of, makes me feel really good that, um, you know, I just, I think maybe what he’s saying is I just was intuitive about who had to be in order to get these results.  And the script originally didn’t reflect all those things.

 

 

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