I had a chance to watch an early screening of Disney’s new movie, McFarland, USA, which is hitting theaters this Friday (February 20). McFarland, USA is a feel-good, family movie that is a must-see this month. After a series of bad choices in his career, Jim White (played by Kevin Costner) finds himself in a small, predominately Latino town in California with what he thinks is a less than desirable job. When he gets to know his new students and realizes their exceptional work ethic, drive and family ties, things change for White and the students for the better. He takes a group of underprivileged, novice runners and turns them into champions.
I have to say that the movie was amazing, so when I had a chance to sit down and interview the real life inspiration behind the film, I was really excited. I interviewed the real life Jim White (the coach) and three of the McFarland runners – David Diaz, Damacio Diaz and Danny Diaz. They all had such an inspirational story to tell, which Disney did a great job of doing in the film, but I was excited to ask my own questions.
Q: Do you feel like the movie does a good job of describing that culture of a picker?
DAMACIO DIAZ : Yeah, we’re very, very proud of the way the movie portrayed us and our family. 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. So for us, it was a way of life.
Even some of us, 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.
Q: I would like to know is your mom really that way, because she was a scene stealer? She was amazing in the movie.
DAVID DIAZ : Not, not at all. [LAUGHS] Much worse. [LAUGHS]
JIM WHITE : Let me answer that because when Mrs. Diaz saw this film for the first time, she came out and she said I love the film, but they didn’t make me strict enough.
DAVID DIAZ : Yeah. Yeah.
Q : Are those hills what you really trained on?
DAMACIO DIAZ : Oh — they’re a lot worse. It doesn’t do it justice.
Q : I wanna know what your guys’ first reaction was when you heard that not only was your story going to be a movie but specifically this movie and knowing what these true life, inspirational movies become? What was that like?
JIM WHITE : Well, from my aspect, it was in various stages, because this was about a 15-year process for us, my wife and I. We signed with this one company. Two years later, we signed with another one. It took a long process. When actually Disney did it, we were very thrilled that Disney had it, because then we knew that it shouldn’t have any sex, cussing and cigarettes and that type of thing. We were very happy.
Q : How much, if any, input did you have to have on the filming, the making the movie?
DAMACIO DIAZ: Mr. White might have had more than us. We basically told our story, got interviewed for hours and hours and that was pretty much it. Mr. White had a lot more influence in how this script was written.
DANNY DIAZ : Once you give them your story, then they can do whatever they want. So, with myself, they made me chubby in the movie. I’m trying to be nice here. But they made me chubby or overweight and hella slow. So, but that’s okay. That’s what they wanted to do and I’m just excited to be included in the movie. They could’ve chosen any other team because we have nine state titles. We were just happy that Disney stuck with that first year and we’re lucky to be in the movie.
Q: I notice a lot of you became teachers. Did Coach White encourage you with his style of teaching or coaching?
DAVID DIAZ : He was a very inspirational part. We are a God-fearing folks, so we were teaching in Sunday school on Sundays. And we, we were part of the Royal Rangers and so —
DAVID DIAZ : – we did that on Tuesday nights at our local church. But yes, Mr. White was there as a person that we could rely on. And, and believe it or not, before he was a coach, he’s a scientist. He was a fifth grade teacher and before he was a P.E. teacher. He’s a very knowledgeable guy. And we try to trip him up on that, and he’s very smart. Um, he’s a pretty good coach, too. But, as far as as wanting to be a teacher, he wasn’t the only reason why we got into the education, but he was one of the two or three maybe. My parents definitely pushed us to go that route.
JIM WHITE : Let me add one thing to that. Mr. Diaz, their dad, pushed education real hard, too. He wanted them to get their education, so he went back and got his education.
Q: Sports in high school can make or break a young man. How did that impact your lives during high school to move on in the future?
DAMACIO DIAZ : We were already tough kids and we were used to working hard. There are seven of us in our family. We’re all a year apart. David’s the oldest and he was a bully. He would beat us up all the time. [LAUGHS]
But he encouraged us to play sports. Matter of fact, he ordered us and he forced us and he made us play sports, because the way he saw it- he’s the first one and so he learned it before us. It taught you discipline. It gave you character. It taught you how to accept losing or winning. And so, that was something that we did since we were third, fourth, fifth graders. By the time we got to college and we’re now training and running and living our lives with Mr. White — some of us traveled out of the state, out of the country with Mr. White. It became something that was gonna help us get out of our environment and it did.
All of us went to college. A lot of us competed in college. And so, sports is what kind of helped us get out of that.
Q: In the movie, you spent a day picking in the fields with the boys. Did you ever do that again?
JIM WHITE : Uh, I’ve done it quite often. I didn’t enjoy it very much. [LAUGHS] In the movie, we didn’t do cabbage. We didn’t have that close to us. That was the only thing really that they had available to show that type of work. It’s usually grapes and it’s oranges and it’s almonds and it’s cotton and stuff in our area, but those weren’t available.