One unique aspect of attending a college in Southern California is the chance to be involved in Hollywood in a way that is unknown to the outside world. The Master’s College athletic program was able to experience this firsthand as they participated in the filming of Disney’s newest sports movie, McFarland USA.
Zachary and Amie Schroeder, coaches for the school’s cross country and track teams, were contracted by Game Changing Films as cross country coaches and consultants on-set. Game Changing Films is a sports casting and production company that has worked on films such as The Longest Yard, Million Dollar Arm and Benchwarmers.
“We were hired to coach the actors and train them,” Coach Z. Schroeder said, “They weren’t runners, so we were hired to whip them into shape and do form drills to make sure they looked the part. We were also consultants on-set to advise them on all things cross country, including choreographing the race scenes.”
For five weeks, the actors trained under the Schroeders’ expertise, learning firsthand what it was like to go from an unlearned runner to a competitive athlete. This training meant daily conditioning sessions, nutritional advice, and strength building routines. He was brought in to work on all parts of the sports story, starting with the script, then the casting calls for extras, the filming, and even the voice-over recordings after initial shooting had finished.
The job description also meant that at least one of the Schroeders was on-set whenever there was filming in order to make sure things were realistic.
“A lot of what we were able to add to the film were subtle points, it wasn’t anything that was major or front and center,” added A. Schroeder. “But we were able to add the professional collegiate coaching aspect to it. The director would ask us if a phrase or terminology was correct, and we would let them know.”
When the coaches were also asked to have a hand in the selection of special abilities extras for the film, they immediately knew where to start. Emails and announcements went out to current and past Master’s students, informing them of casting calls and dates.
Josiah Downer, a Master’s alumni who also previously ran on the cross country and track team, recalls his time at the casting calls. “I did some basic drills and strides so they could check out my form. We also ran 800-meter stretches to see if we had endurance.”
Using this technique, the coaches were in charge of selecting runners who could look like a high school runner. Among those chosen were former Master’s cross country alumni, current athletes at the college and others throughout the Santa Clarita community.
When asked about the difference between training actors for the film and training students for the school team, Coach Z. Schroeder said, “There’s almost no comparison. When it comes to training our team, we are looking to develop a high level athlete. For the general public, there’s a sense of accomplishment, of completion. That’s great, but with our athletes, we are trying to develop a competitive mindset. It’s not about completing a race, it’s about competing at our highest ability.”
More importantly, the Master’s cross country program desires to equip disciples of Christ, showing how the sporting concept parallels the Christian life. But for the actors, it was more a ‘fitness trainer’ position, getting the guys into better shape and teaching them better form so that they could look the part of high school runners for the film. Even so, the job had unexpected ministry aspects.
“It was a great opportunity because these guys certainly were not saved. I really felt that it was a great chance to evangelize and reach out. We always want to be a light to the world, and to outsiders whenever they come onto campus. That wasn’t what we were hired to do but it was a secondary benefit to what we were doing.”
Because the main actors were using the campus field and fitness center during their five-week training, they were able to see the athletic program and its mission at the core.
McFarland USA is Disney’s rendition following the true story of the 1987 high school cross country team from the small, predominately Latino town of McFarland, California. The film star Kevin Costner plays Jim White, a job-hopping coach struggling to find common ground until he notices the students’ running ability and transforms them from a group of untrained runners into a championship team, producing a legacy that lives on today.
By Desi Buchanan