Director Niki Caro is best known for her 2002 breakthrough film WHALE RIDER and her 2005 film NORTH COUNTRY, both films earned Oscar honours. Her latest cinematic achievement MCFARLAND, USA proves Caro is as diverse as she is talented and a force to be reckoned with in the business. In an industry dominated by men Caro stands and works confidently and her work shows she more than belongs to be there. During a press conference held recently in Beverly Hills for her latest endeavor MCFARLAND, USA you could see her passion for this project in every word she spoke all while remaining wildly humble. When asked what it was that attracted her to want to be a part of telling this story, she replied:
“I was inspired, simple as that. And not only and just by Jim White and the original team and the scale of their achievement, and the legacy that they left and the legacy that goes on. But I was really inspired by the people, by how hard they work, by the commitment to their families, their faith, their community. And it was great for me to be able to light that up. And films that I’ve made previously, I really enjoy – I get a big kick out of it, actually, working with real communities. And this is a real story, it really is. You drive to McFarland, you’ll see a bunch of people you see on-screen. It’ll look like it does on-screen and that’s deeply satisfying to me to go in and tell a story that is not only meaningful, but is true and real, and tell it with the real people. And then if that weren’t enough, to go in with the likes of these people, this has been a deeply, deeply satisfying experience for me and I hope it will be for the audience, too.”
There is a bond that you see between the runners and Kevin Costner on-screen that is also clear as they sat before us during the press conference. A bond that the actors were able to form while they trained learning the skill of cross-country running the month prior to filming. The chemistry was clear with not only between the runners but with their Coach, Kevin Costner as well who Caro believed had a large part in making that bond become a reality and truly embodying the boys coach saying:
“I credit a lot of that (bonding) with – I give Kevin credit for a lot of that. He was – you were – continues to be so generous to these boys. Amazing. And, you know, continually propped them up, he was their coach in many ways. You know, me and my team got them prepared physically and dramatically, but what you see on that screen, the closeness of that team and that coach is real. And it is due to Kevin’s generosity, and tenderness and enthusiasm for – for these amazing kids. That has given this movie something special. You know, when I called “cut,” it didn’t stop. It’s ongoing. You can see.”
While the boys had a lot of training to do both physically and dramatically there was no special effects when it came to the scenes of their cross-country meets. Caro laughed when Carlos Pratts explained the difference between running cross-country and “movie running” saying that not only did the boys run, but that hill was no joke:
“He’s just being a little bit modest, because they had to run. They were, they had to run. There’s a hill in that movie; and there’s no special effects. Those kids, including Danny Diaz, are going up that hill really fast. And the porta potties were at the bottom, and I was at the top. And I made myself run up and down it many times that day, and it’s brutal. So um, yeah, you don’t get to be so modest, actually, Carlos – or any of them – because – because they had the goods, and that’s them for real, running seriously fast.”
When Caro takes on a project she becomes completely immersed in it with a goal of it feeling 100% real and authentic and the proof is in her past work and shines in the present. Her approach to authenticity was to film entirely in and around McFarland, CA to make their community shine. She hired the people of McFarland as extras and even went as far as hiring four McFarland-area teens (Michael Aguero, Ramiro Rodriguez, Hector Duran and Sergio Avelar), with no acting experience at all, to play four of the seven cross-country athletes. Not only was she making an inspirational film but she to was a huge part of inspiring the people of McFarland and changed their lives dramatically by taking four teenagers and giving them the opportunity to be a part of this amazing project and share the screen with Kevin Costner. To inspire the actors even more she made sure they had time to work with and get to know the real-life counterparts, while Costner spoke at length with Coach Jim White who went on to coach the McFarland cross-country team for 23 of the 40 years he taught school there.
While Niki Caro was bringing an inspiring story to life, changing lives in the city of McFarland she was counting her blessings daily and beyond grateful for the opportunity to work with Kevin and the boys and being a part of telling such a beautiful story, saying:
“Every day was a really good day at the office, yeah. It was amazing. I mean BULL DURHAM, if you haven’t seen it, see it. If you’ve seen it, see it again. It was one of my favorite movies, you know, top five movies. And I’m – you know, I’m not a – look at me; I’m not a sports girl. But you know, working with Kevin was nothing but a privilege, and a pleasure. I’d do it again tomorrow, if you don’t mind. And also, working with these guys, too, I’m a little uncomfortable – I mean bless them, they are so happy and grateful to be in this movie. But they’re not as grateful as I am to have had the opportunity to work with them, and to work on this story and to light this culture up. Because you know, to your question about sports and movies, the sport was probably the least attractive of all the attractive elements about this. But the idea that these guys, because of the way they lived their lives and who they are, and their circumstance, they are so strong physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, it makes them run. It makes them fly. And that was the idea that propelled me through this storytelling, and never happier. Such a happy filmmaker. Yeah, McFarland USA.”
It is such a joy to see a filmmaker so proud of their team, that you can literally see the excitement and passion shine as they talk about the project. Such is true with Niki Caro and MCFARLAND, USA. The film hits theatres everywhere today February 20, 2015. Oh and just in case you wondering, yes that bad-ass 1976 Chevy Caprice in the film with the amazing mural on the hood belongs to Niki Caro, it’s how her children get to school every day.