Based on the 1987 true story, “McFarland, USA” follows novice runners from McFarland, an economically challenged town in California’s farm-rich Central Valley, as they give their all to build a cross-country team under the direction of Coach Jim White (Kevin Costner), a newcomer to their predominantly Latino high school. Coach White and the McFarland students have a lot to learn about each other but when White starts to realize the boys’ exceptional running ability, things begin to change. Soon something beyond their physical gifts becomes apparent—the power of family relationships, their unwavering commitment to one another and their incredible work ethic. With grit and determination, the unlikely band of runners eventually overcomes the odds to forge not only a championship cross-country team but an enduring legacy as well. Along the way, Coach White realizes that his family finally found a place to call home and both he and his team achieve their own kind of American dream.
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Here are some Fun Facts about the movie:
§ “McFarland, USA” is inspired by a 1987 true story, in which an unlikely band of inexperienced, under-equipped, young Latino runners with exceptional determination rise to become cross-country state champions under the leadership of their coach, Jim White. Over the years since then, the McFarland High School cross-country teams have won nine state championships and the small school is considered a powerhouse in the sport.
§ Coach Jim White is retired now, but if you go to McFarland, chances are you will see him out there on his bike, keeping up with the kids every evening with a lot of his original team running alongside as well. White retired in 2002 after teaching in McFarland schools for 40 years and coaching for 25 years.
§ A number of the original runners on the championship 1987 cross-country team became educators in the McFarland school district. The former teammates are not only working in their hometown, but also raising their families there and actively supporting the cross-country teams of today by coaching, helping out with the meets and practices and donating goods or money so the teams have what they need.
§ Three out of the seven young actors on the team in the movie are from the McFarland area—Sergio Avelar who plays Victor Puentes and Michael Aguero, cast as Damacio Diaz, are actual runners and Ramiro Rodriguez, as Danny Diaz, was a champion soccer player.
§ Ramiro Rodriguez had no intention of auditioning when he agreed to drive his cousin to the casting tryouts for “McFarland, USA.” He landed the role of Danny Diaz after being pestered repeatedly by executive producer Mario Iscovich to audition.
§ Sergio Avelar is a bona fide runner and a member of the McFarland Track Club. He has been running since 2001 and considers himself a “decent runner.” One of his coaches in middle school was actually Thomas Valles, the real-life person represented by the role that Carlos Pratts plays.
§ Actor Rafael Martinez, who is by nature soft-spoken and polite, admits that he cut school in order to audition for the movie. Needless to say, having won a role, he has no regrets.
§ Prior to the start of principal photography, director Niki Caro organized an informal gathering for the on-screen White clan that proved insightful for her and the actors. In pre-production she assembled the actors together—Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher—and had them play Monopoly as a family unit. The interesting exercise kick-started a family dynamic that lasted for the entire shoot.
§ Kevin Costner, who plays Coach White, 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. They felt so comfortable with the famous movie star that they even nicknamed him “KC.”
§ Like the real McFarland team, all seven young actors had to train to become champion runners. Although some had more track and field experience than others, all of them took their drills very seriously. Mark Ellis, the coach hired to train them for the film, would have it no other way and the team evolved over time. But training them wasn’t as simple as merely putting shoes on their feet. Every morning at 8 a.m. the runners showed up for practice, which was literally running and more running to build up endurance.
§ In the script, the character Thomas Valles, played by Carlos Pratts, is a natural runner with prodigious talent. But the reverse was true for Pratts, who zealously prepared for the cross-country scenes and in the process, became a runner. In addition to drills with the film’s running coach, Mark Ellis, Pratts worked out with personal trainer Brian Nguyen. Nguyen famously got Mark Wahlberg into boxing shape for “The Fighter” and did likewise for Pratts.
§ The production took the cast and crew to some of the most beautiful spots in Southern and Central California, from Lake Castaic to Malibu to the Griffith Park Observatory, in addition to the fields and neighborhoods of Bakersfield and McFarland.
§ There were some unique cinematic opportunities in the filming of the movie, especially the embankments of almonds covered in protective plastic that served as training hills for the team. The expanse of these weird mounds across the landscape was visually arresting and certainly emblematic of McFarland, home to Blue Diamond Almonds.
§ Classic lowriders are featured in “McFarland, USA” in several scenes. Lowriders are custom cars fitted with hydraulic jacks that allow the chassis to be lowered almost all the way to the road. Lowriding was very big in California’s Central Valley in the mid-’80s with Bakersfield being one of the lowriding epicenters of the area. Lowriding is often stereotypically depicted as gangster-related in film but the reality is that these car clubs are essentially about family and community and the cars are lovingly treasured.
§ Director Niki Caro took particular interest in the “hero-car” lowrider vehicle—and not just in the service of the movie. The car actually belongs to Caro and she likes to drive the 1970s Chevrolet Caprice, which was customized to the movie’s specifications. The beautiful classic features an iconic chain steering wheel and a mural on the hood that is in the likeness of the owner’s girlfriend in the film, Lupe. The painting is in the style of the Virgin of Guadalupe, which is an ongoing visual theme in the movie.
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McFARLAND, USA is rated PG and is now playing in theaters everywhere!