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The Independent Critic

 An Interview with "McFarland USA" Inspiration Coach Jim White 

Inspired by the 1987 true story, Disney's "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 the predominantly Latino high school originally hired as the school's assistant football coach after a few less than successful coaching stops along the way. 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. With an almost unfathomable determination, this unlikely band of runners overcomes the odds to forge not only a championship cross-country team but one that builds an enduring legacy. Along the way, Coach White realizes that in the most unexpected place his family has finally found a home. The real Coach Jim White still lives in McFarland, California, having retired as one of California's winningest cross-country coaches. Coach White talked by telephone with The Independent Critic about the release of "McFarland, USA" in theaters nationwide on February 20th.

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Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Hey Coach, how are you?

COACH WHITE

Fine. Thank you.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

First of all, thank you for taking a few minutes of your time to talk to me. I appreciate it. Can you talk to me a little bit about what it was like for you to watch this film? I mean, I'm sure you've been asked this question, but how was it for you to look up at the big screen and see Kevin Costner portraying you? And Maria Bello portraying your wife?

COACH WHITE

Let me ask you a question first, did you tear up when you saw the movie?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Absolutely. I teared up and I cheered.

COACH WHITE

(Laughing) Well then, you know exactly my feelings on it. My wife and I have seen it seven times and we tear up every time and we know exactly what's coming next. I can quote some of the lines, because I've seen it. Before we've finished all of this endeavor, I'll have seen it thirteen times. That's a wonderful thing. To have Kevin Costner play me is just such an experience. He's been one of my favorite actors and we couldn't have picked anybody better. I did tell them "Well maybe my first choice would have been Clint Eastwood." He looks like me, but I don't want him to play me because he's too old now. (Laughing). Kevin Costner, he's excellent. As far as Maria Bello as my wife, truthfully neither one of us knew who she was. We don't go to a lot of movies. We actually didn't know her, but we think she did a great job.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It's my understanding that you met her at one of the screenings.

COACH WHITE

Oh yeah, we've met all of the actors. We've been to two weeks of screenings in McFarland. We've talked to her. She's a very personable lady. During the screenings, we felt like she wasn't too personable but she was concentrating on her lines. Following that, she was very, very open.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How did the screenings in McFarland go?

COACH WHITE

They went great. You know, the great thing about being there in McFarland is that when you see the streets in the film that's the way they still are. It actually involved a lot of seconds and people just playing roles from the town. They got work. That was very rewarding. Do you recall "Go Johnny?" A girl was down there going "Go Johnny." That's actually a Diaz daughter (Editor's Note: The Diaz family figures heavily into the film's story). They had six boys and one girl. The girl is in the movie herself and one of the other brothers is in the movie. He's one of the lowrider drivers. He's actually the vice-principal of our school. It involved a lot of people. They can see themselves in that movie - just a glimpse of it, but they can say "Hey, I'm in that movie."

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's one of the things that I think Disney tends to do well as a studio. They tend to take stories like yours, they make a quality film, and they've also made a film that reflects positively on the community. One of the things I noticed was that even in the portrayal of Mexican field workers, it was honest without being condescending or a caricature. So many times when you see Latinos in a film, you see the caricature. This film doesn't do that at all. The humanity of this film was so rich and the characters so well developed.

COACH WHITE

That is so true to life, what they portrayed on the screen. Mrs. Diaz was a big lieutenant or a sergeant or a captain in the fields. With her kids, she was like "Yes, you're going to do this, this, and this." In the home, she's just a wonderful, wonderful lady providing food for everybody. You don't realize this, but she still cooks breakfast for all of her kids. They all come to her house for breakfast every morning. She raised all of her grandkids. She kept them. She's got 15, 18 grandkids and they all were raised by her when the parents were working. You'd go to her house and there'd be ten little ones all at one time sleeping all over the living room. It's just a wonderful family. They still are. They're part of our family and we're considered part of their family and other families, too. One of the other boys from a different year, his parents never saw him around but I was able to pin his badge when he went through his correctional officer training. His parents couldn't do it, because they couldn't take off of work. They can't miss work. That part of the film is really true. I'd say "Mrs. Diaz, we have a meet this afternoon." She'd say "Well, I'm sorry. These boys have to work." I would have practice at a different time. That stuff is just really accurate.

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Photo Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios - Featuring cast of "McFarland, USA" with Latin music superstar Juanes

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I wondered about that. I also wondered about the town itself and even your journey. I wasn't sure how accurately it was all portrayed. Obviously, you were a coach before you got to McFarland. From what I've seen of your background, it seems like it would almost be culture shock to go there.

COACH WHITE

(Laughing) Actually, in reality I didn't start that program until 1987. They had to start somewhere. That's how they chose to start it. I was there prior to that. I actually graduated from Pepperdine. I didn't come there by way of Idaho, but I did go to school in Idaho for three years. That's why we've always had kind of a desire to go back to Idaho. That was trumped out by our love for McFarland.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you talk a little bit about this journey? I read that you'd been approached before about making a film. This is obviously a really inspirational story. What made you finally say "This is the one?"

COACH WHITE

The journey started about fifteen years ago. We were written up in several newspaper articles throughout the United States, like the L.A. Times. They were viewed by a lot of people. That led into a piece with Runner's World. It went to Sports Illustrated. It went to BBC, ESPN, and a lot of places like that. We had a lot of publicity along that line. They were all developed around the hispanic boys working in the fields and coming back and running in the fields. It went from one thing to another. We've actually had several movie companies that were interested in doing something with us. We signed with a couple of them and nothing ever happened. Disney actually signed us twice. They signed us and a script was written. It was written in such a way that my wife and I prayed daily that it died. We just said "It can't happen. I don't want this kind of a story to be written about me. I'd rather not have a movie made than have something like that." Our prayers were answered and that was thrown out. Then, Disney picked it up again. A fella came in and said "What about this McFarland movie?" They said "We had a script and we threw it out." They picked it back up and went with it from there.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I want to be respectful of your time and I know you need to go. I want to talk a little bit about McFarland the town. I've read that it has changed a lot and I know you've taken a lot of pride in that. Can you talk a bit about the impact of running and this success on McFarland/

COACH WHITE

I can definitely take  a lot of pride in that. In the movie you see that old fruitbowl of America, that tattered sign that says "Heartbeat of Agriculture." We knew the lady who made that sign and came up with the logo. Now, our city said "We want something different." We went out to the high school and a high school girl came up with this idea. She won a scholarship for it. It's a new city logo. It has a silhouette of a runner running through the fields and underneath it it says "Tradition, Unity, Excellence." That to me is a very positive change and it really portrays our town right now.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

And also really your own journey and the journeys of the young men you've worked with over the years.

COACH WHITE

Yes. Yes. It's just such a positive thing. We now have a huge water tank that they finally got painted. It has silhouettes of the runners on it and the names of all the state champions. We now have a gazebo that they're going to put the same logo on it. They're dedicating that to me sometime this month. It's just various changes like that that are so positive. It's an excellent feeling.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

That's wonderful. Well, I thank you for your time. I wish you the best of luck as your film opens in theaters this weekend.

COACH WHITE

Thank you.

"McFarland, USA" opens in theaters nationwide on February 20th. Presented by Walt Disney Studios. Starring Kevin Costner and Maria Bellow. Directed by Niki Caro. Rated PG. "McFarland, USA" is also a Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award winner.

Interview by Richard Propes
Copyright 2015

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