There have been plenty of “based on a true story” inspirational sports films over the years, but it’s a rare feat to be truly inspired, and come face-to-face with the real-life subjects whose story has received the Hollywood treatment. For me, that’s exactly what happened earlier this month after visiting the Disney lot to attend a screening of McFARLAND, USA, the new film from Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (out this Friday). While the film itself is no doubt special, my connection to it was made stronger after meeting Coach Jim White (played by Kevin Costner, who I interviewed here) along with the Diaz brothers – David, Damacio and Danny, all of whom will see their lives hit theaters everywhere this weekend.
Sitting down with a group of family writers and bloggers in Los Angeles, these men took time to share some thoughts on the portrayal of their lives growing up in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of McFarland, California, and where time has taken them since their come-from-nowhere cross country championship in 1987. While accomplishing big things in McFarland was easier said than done, even bringing the story to the masses faced some steep hurdles along the way.
“This was about a 15-year process for us, my wife and I,” explained Jim White about the ups-and-downs of dealing with various producers and agents. “We signed with this one company. Two years later, we signed with another one — maybe not quite that often, but it was a long process. When Disney agreed to do it, we were thrilled because then we knew that it shouldn’t have any sex, and cussing and cigarettes, you know? But in reality, the way the script was written, we prayed that it would never happen — and it didn’t, because they threw it out. Disney brought in better screenwriters.”
Commenting on the Diaz brothers’ scene-stealing mother (played by Diana Maria Riva), Danny is quick to point out that “going back to how she was depicted in previous scripts — those were probably more accurate. But since this is gonna be a family movie, [the way it turned out] it’s okay.”
While some of the rougher edges may have been smoothed out a bit to make sure McFARLAND, USA secured a PG rating from the MPAA, the overall essence was captured in showing a culture of family and respect that the boys have carried on through adulthood, eventually moving from beyond the fields as “pickers” and into education themselves, following the lead of Coach White. But that hardly means that the fields have entirely been left behind…
“We’re very, very proud of the way the movie portrayed us – our family,” says Damacio. “We were raised in the field [and it] was our life. We started picking, and hoeing, and raking and doing everything you could possibly think of. We were about seven or eight years old when all that began — it was a way of life. For some of us, even after graduating college, like Danny, the day after he graduated from the university with the diploma, he was in the fields working, because that was, in our family, what was expected.”
Coach White had actually joined the boys in picking, but not the cabbages featured in the film.
“I didn’t enjoy it very much,” he says with a laugh. “We didn’t do cabbage. We didn’t have that close to us. In our area, it’s grapes and it’s oranges and it’s almonds and it’s cotton.”
“And just to let you know,” David interjects, “we own almonds now [CHUCKLES], and about two years ago, Mr. White helped me pull. He was out in my field still in the evening helping me do my work.”
Nearly 30 years later and the Coach and his students have remained family – and family is a theme that ties the film together from beginning to end. With that, there was something that I’d wanted to ask Coach White about that I didn’t get a chance to during the formal interview, but he knew I had something more to ask, and he approached me as we were about to do a photo shoot – offering up a chance to learn more.
As a father of two daughters myself, the on-screen relationship between Costner’s version of White and his two daughters (played by Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) resonated with me – particularly the Quinceañera that the town chips-in to help pull-off for 15-year-old Julie. It’s a touching scene, and that, coupled with some earlier emotional moments piqued my curiosity as to how Coach White’s daughters have reacted to seeing their childhood told on film – especially since my own girls are having pieces of their youth explored to an audience in near-real-time. White explained to me that his girls had just seen the film for the first time the night before our junket, and that they too had been moved by the way it all turned out. But, reality had been a little bent when it came to the timeline of things – “condensed time” as some call it. While Coach White in McFARLAND, USA is raising high-school aged girls, their real-world counterparts were already in college. Creative license for dramatic effect… and it works really, really well.
McFARLAND, USA opens on over 2,600 screens this Friday. Get tickets now via Fandango.