Director Niki Caro on Bringing McFarland, USA to the Rest of the World

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At this point, there are few directors I haven’t had a chance to interview in some capacity over the years, but one of the most elusive has been Niki Caro, who blew many people away with her early film Whale Rider way back in 2002, and then followed that up by directing the equally sensational drama North Country in 2005.

Now she’s tackling a Disney sports movie and it’s one that’s as unconventional as the other movies she’s directed, being a movie starring Kevin Costner as Coach Jim White, who moves to the quiet burg of McFarland, California in the late ‘80s to take a new job in the mostly Hispanic community. Realizing that the high school football team is no good, he convinces the principal to let him put together a cross-country running team from the school’s extensive kids of immigrant workers who he thinks have what it takes to go to the state’s first running championships.

ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Ms. Caro a few weeks back to talk about her return to America and the studio system with McFarland, USA, a film that has a fine performance by Costner but is just as much about the seven young actors she cast as McFarland’s inaugural cross-country team. Having wanted to interview Caro for as long as I have, she turned out to be absolutely delightful while talking about what a great experience it was making the film.

mcfarland usComingSoon.net: I really liked the movie, but if you told me 13 years ago that the director of “Whale Rider” would be making a movie about Mexican immigrant workers forming a cross-country team, I wouldn’t believe you. It seems like a strange movie for you in some ways, so how did you find out about the project? It’s sort of your return to studio movies since “North Country.”

Niki Caro: Yeah, yeah. It’s a good question, because ever since Whale Rider I’ve been looking for something that I could make in a similar way and who knew that it would a movie for Disney about cross-country kids? The similarities are obvious: It’s a culture not my own. It’s a real place and a real story, and that’s where I think I work best, and it’s certainly where I’m most inspired as a filmmaker when I can go into a real community and collaborate with them in the telling of one of their stories. This was a very, very good experience for me. I would say Whale Rider is always going to be my baby and incredibly special, because I’m a New Zealander, but this comes very, very close as an experience.

CS: You’ve written a lot of your own material, so it’s also surprising to see you take on a movie written by someone else. It takes a lot of time to make a movie so to find a screenplay strong enough that you would set aside things you may have been developing yourself. What was it about the screenplay that jumped out at you?

Caro: It was the story. To be completely transparent, I did a lot of work on the script, so I had a real investment in the architecture of the movie, but the story itself, I was so inspired by and not just watching White and what that original team achieved but the scale of the achievement and the fact they created a legacy that is enduring. Equally, I was inspired by the people themselves and how strong they are, physically and mentally and emotionally and spiritually. It was from that place of deep love and respect that this movie was made.

CS: What’s amazing is that it’s not just Jim White’s story, but it’s the story of that community and the culture in the town of McFarland. You had the benefit of being in that town and having those people around you, so what were some of the things you wanted to know when you first met Jim and some of the original runners?

Caro: The way that I work is just to kind of go there and Jim was so great. He and wife Cheryl hosted me, and I stayed with them and they took me all around, and I met a lot of people and I put out to them any questions I liked about their experience and about running and competing, about their relationship with Jim. But then there’s the whole other layer about being in McFarland and looking and listening and eating–because the food there is really good!–and just absorbing all the texture of that life and observing the light and the color. I can bring all of my skill as a filmmaker and all of the resources that the studio offers, but the aim was to go there and make something really authentic and really specific. And that’s exactly what we did. If you go to McFarland, it’s going to look like that with a lot of the same people on the street that you will see in the movie.

nikicaromcfarland3CS: It must be strange for the town. This is obviously a big part of their rich history, but it must be weird for them to have a filmmaker showing up to make a movie about them and their town and having all the camera crews there. It must have been a strange experience for them. Did they completely change their lifestyle while this was going on or did they just try to be as transparent as possible?

Caro: It was a big party really. I mean, everywhere we shot, everybody came out. Fantastic! They all came out. They had a little party alongside the movie we were making. They were very respectful. They shut up when we asked them to. Kevin was wonderful with them, and I just loved that. I had it on Whale Rider, too. There were these old ladies that came to set every day, these old Mauri women, and we’d make them very comfortable. We’d give them chairs and headphones and cups of tea and blankets when they got cold, and I would check in with them just to see that I was doing a good job and they’d give me little cuddles and go “Oh, it’s really good, dear. It’s a quality show.” And I thought, “Oh, they must get here all the time.” It must be quite interesting that there’s a movie here, but they were coming out because of the movie. Normally, they would just stay inside their houses. And they did the same thing in McFarland. You go down the main street in the middle of the day and it’s really empty because everybody’s working, but if there’s a film crew there, I swear you got 300 people supporting you from the sidelines, because it’s a community that has a lot of love and a lot of pride. It was so nice to be able to acknowledge on that film.

CS: A movie like this, you would normally get a star like Kevin Costner attached to it and then you’d find everyone else around him. I understand you actually cast all the young actors as runners before you even went to Kevin to play Jim White. Is that true?

Caro: It was a really big process to cast the seven runners. It’s way harder than you might think. Even in a big city like Los Angeles, to find seven teenage boys who were all Mexican who are bilingual who can act and also run really fast. Believe me, that’s a shallow pool. So we had to go out and do open calls in places like, obviously Bakersfield, Los Angeles, San Diego, Texas and that started more than a year before Kevin came on. By the time we got Kevin to commit, we were pretty far down that road. The interesting thing was that of all the places we went to, and all of the thousands of kids we saw, we ended up casting three from McFarland. There they were, right under our noses. 

CS: They were all runners already and part of McFarland’s cross-country team?

Caro: Yeah, two of them were, and Ramiro who plays Danny Diaz, for a husky kid, he’s very fast and he was a soccer player and he’d actually gone to State for soccer, so all the McFarland kids were athletic. The whole process of pre-production was teaching the runners how to act and the actors how to run, and nobody can tell me which are which, because most of them are really good. 

McFarlandCS: I imagine the kids from McFarland must actually have known the real people either from school or around town, so that must have been weird to play younger versions of people they might already know.

Caro: I mean, it was. For instance, Ramiro who plays Danny Diaz, the real Danny Diaz was his counselor in school just a couple of years ago. It’s a very close-knit community, because the original team… well, for a start, they’re in McFarland, but they are so inside the lives of the kids now, you don’t have to go very far in McFarland. If you throw a stone, you’ll hit one of the original runners. They’re everywhere. 

CS: What were some of the challenges of shooting in McFarland and finding the locations and the environments you needed to recreate for the racing scenes? Were a lot of the actors able to do their own running?

Caro: Yeah, it was very challenging for the boys, because they really had to be in peak physical condition and they had to be able to run very fast, sometimes running really fast up really brutal hills. It was a challenge to get them ready, but they were all up for it. In terms of filmmaking challenges, the one that I completely underestimated–and it’s not a very glamorous answer–but the fact that in most scenes of the movie, there are eight people. I completely underestimated how much time it takes to cover eight people in a scene, as opposed to two or three. That was really about my commitment and the studio’s commitment that this not just be a movie where the big white guy comes in and saves all the brown people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. You have a flawed white guy who is redeemed as a coach and a father and as a man by these kids and their community. In shooting the movie, I really had to make sure that every one of those kids had their own story and had their own coverage. It meant that we had to move incredibly fast and it meant that those boys had to be impeccably well-prepared, even the ones that had never been on a movie set before. And they were. It was amazing and it was a good experience but a lot of work.

CS: Did you spend a lot of time with the seven runners just working with them as actors and going through scenes?

Caro: Oh, yes, yes, yes. They were in serious rehearsals for two months. They would live together and we’d get them up at 6 a.m. and they’d go train, then they’d have breakfast and then they’d go to the gym, and then they’d have lunch then they’d have to come to the rehearsal room for the afternoon. I would arrive and they’d all be asleep, they were so exhausted. They’d all be sleeping on the floor and on the sofas. We’d wake them up and put them through as intense training dramatically, acting exercises. This was obviously essential for the kids that had never acted before, but it was also really good for the ones that had. What we quickly learned was that they each had something to offer the others. Even for somebody relatively experienced like Carlos Pratts, he had so much to learn from the kids that had grown up in McFarland. They were all immensely supportive of each other. They knew each other strengths and weaknesses and they stepped in accordingly. What you see on screen, the team, it’s real, and I think those kids in many ways will be a team for the rest of their lives.

nikicaromcfarland4CS: Carlos is a real find. I didn’t realize he was an actor beforehand, but he’s really good in the movie. Let’s talk about Kevin Costner because he’s a superstar at this point who can do anything he wants. He can do sit around and do nothing if he wants, too. When he does movies these days, he puts a lot of himself into it, more than just an actor who shows up, does his lines and goes back to his trailer. Can you talk about working with him and developing it with him once he came on board?

Caro: It’s a really good question, because when you get the opportunity and the privilege to work with somebody like Costner, you don’t really know how it’s going to go, because for sure, he is one of the great movie stars. Unquestionably the king of the sports movie genre, but a testament to what a good man he is, that he showed up for us absolutely not as a movie star. It would have been enough that he showed up as an actor, but that he showed up as himself, as the man he is, was so moving to me. It was so special watching the tender way he took those boys under his wing, and he became their coach off-screen in a way, because he’s such a seasoned actor and because they really looked up to him and because he could give them something that nobody else could. They were taught impeccably well, and they were really, really well looked after by him. 

CS: Have you actually shown the movie to the people in McFarland yet, had a premiere there?

Caro: We’re going to. It’s going to be in Bakerfield on the 13th, yeah, because McFarland doesn’t have a movie theater, but the official McFarland premiere is going to be a blast.

CS: You’re so good at capturing Americana between this and “North Country.” Is that something you’re looking to explore more in the future, trying to find more areas of our country to explore?

Caro: Yeah, probably not the next project, but I’ve had a big crush on America since I was a child. I’m America’s biggest fan, and so I’m always happy to be able to find work here and stories to tell here, because this is a magnificent place.

McFarland, USA opens nationwide on Friday, February 20 with previews on Thursday night.

(Photo Credit: Brian To/WENN.com)