It’s not easy adapting any true story to the big screen, but there’s an added weight to it all when it involves the passing of a loved one, and those involved knew that loved one. Such is the case for the new sports film, The Miracle Season.
The true story begins with that of Caroline “Line” Found, who is the star player of and team leader of the volleyball team of West High School in Iowa City. Following her tragic passing, her team must learn to cope with her death, band together, and rise up to win the State Championship. It’s a very emotional story, and one that took some time and soul-searching to get to the big screen.
LRM had a chance to attend a press conference for the film, where director Sean McNamara, actors Danika Yarosh, Helen Hunt, and Erin Moriarty, as well as Found’s father Ernie and real-life coach Kathy Bresnahan all came together to discuss this story’s journey to the silver screen.
Sean McNamara: I think a lot of us saw the HBO special that told the story, and I think a lot of producers saw that and probably approached Ernie and his family. At first, I don’t think they were ready to tell their story, but then four or five years later I believe the people at LD got together and went back to, I think, Scott and approached you.
Ernie Found: Yeah, that’s it. That got rolling when Kathy, after the 2011 volleyball season, wrote a very quick little open ended note to Frank DeFord, Time Warner, and New York City, New York. Frank had got to him and, meaning the letter got to him, but it also got to him in that it touched his heart about it. He had some personal credit, he lost his daughter actually when she was eight years old. cystic fibrosis. This is 40 some years ago. Of course cystic fibrosis was an incurable disease and still is, but can be managed a lot better. But, anyway, that’s probably what caught his heart a little bit, and so out came Frank DeFord and the crew and did the HBO piece. It was an honor to spend time with Frank DeFord, he was a magnificent man, I could talk about him forever.
Anyway, the problem is that they did to darn good a job, in that, it attracted future filmmaking groups to come out and at the time it was just not right. Our hearts were still very raw and we were worried what Hollywood and our naivety probably could do to something like this. So it was, “Thank you very much.” But, please, let’s stay to ourselves here.
Then some time went on and we met David Aaron Cohen. Then we started to develop a great deal of trust, which is probably the most important element of this, for us anyway. For us, meaning my family, our community, the school, and so forth. Then Sean came to town and again the trust was reinforced. Then we said, “Let’s go ahead.”
This question is for Helen Hunt. So, when they approached you with the script and it’s obviously a real story, did you have a battle in your mind, like am I going to be able to portray this family?
Helen Hunt: No. For me the first thing was [director Sean McNamara], because we had worked together before. So, anytime you love working with a director and they want you again, that’s really a great feeling. Then, I hadn’t met anybody. It was just a piece of work I was going to try to do my best. Then, [the real Kathy Bresnahan from the story] came out and spent time with me, and with my daughter. She taught my daughter how to set a volleyball while I videotaped her to try to learn how to be her. She was so open and generous and honest about what Ernie’s family meant to her. What the girls mean to her still. I am not going to cry either, so don’t even start with me.
I met Ernie once we starting shooting and then it wasn’t really until I was standing on that floor, with these women around me that I went… this is exactly the movie I should be making. A movie about when the unimaginable happens, what do you do? For me, from the perspective of this character, standing in a circle of generous, smart women is just exactly the movie I was meant to be part of. By all accounts, it’s a movie about an extraordinary young woman and the qualities that she must have had are exactly the ones I needed to be around. So, it was really perfect. Thank you, Sean.
I have volleyball players in my family too, so I know this board is very unique, especially among young women. It is very tight group of young women together. Really working as a unified group, but, how do you see this film as different than other sports films? I mean, there is a lot of sports films that talk about miracles and changes, and winning against all odds. How does this speak to you in a different way than perhaps some of those other sports films?
Kathy Bresnahan: How many of the sports films had women in them? That was really important to us. That in this time of women finding voice, now all of a sudden were empowering young women. That they can be athletic and feminine and strong and carry a community on their back. To me that is an incredible message for young women. I think this transcends sports crowds, because it’s a film of hope, and perseverance.
Ernie Found: I guess for me the thing that makes it more special, or the thing that kinda propelled us to say, it’s okay to go ahead, is it being a little different than other sports inspirational movies is the basis for it. It’s the ultimate in personal tragedy. How people… at times like that you need to make choices. How those choices are made are going to dictate how things are going along in the future, and hopefully people are able to come together and share their hearts. Open their hearts. To have something like sports come to a good fruition. Frankly, if the girls had not won the State Championship, it wouldn’t have mattered. For them to be able to carry on and do share and to grow together, for me was the most important thing.
I want to ask you a question about coaching… sorry Kathy. So, to me, a really pivotal point in the movie is at practice, that really tough ladder practice. First of all, did you really do that?
Kathy Bresnahan: The ladders? Was a total failure. It was. Every kid ended up outside crying.
As it would be. I am a college athlete myself and I played my whole life and I told my kids, my daughters, were all athletes. I said, “That’s a good coach.” She made them all turn on her and come together. That was a pivotal moment where you were like, they can be mad at me, they can hate me, but they’ve got to come together as a team.
Kathy Bresnahan: You know why, cause I felt a responsibility… I could have cared less that we won state except it was seasonal and I didn’t realize how important it was to them. My job was to them. If that is what they expected to do, I had to at least try to put them in a position to get there. So, most seasons we would do those mental kinda drills all the time. That was the only night we tried to do it. One grabbed me by the collar and said, “I’ll do this for you, but you gotta give me some other reason then.” They just came at… they were still really grief-stricken, and they weren’t ready to handle an emotional practice. So that is why I didn’t think we could handle an emotional State Tournament.
And that goes to what Ernie just said about making a choice. Like, ultimately you have to make … as humans we can get through it but we have to make the choice. I really liked that turn in the movie, for me the story, so thank you. Honestly, thank you very, very much.
My question is for both Danika and Ernie. Danika, do you ever get tired?
Danika Yarosh: Ever? Like at night?
On the money, like energy and stuff?
Danika Yarosh: I’m sorry, what was the first part of the question?
Do you ever get tired? Because you’re so full of energy.
Danika Yarosh: Well, it’s strange. My energy, because I feel like I am always having energy and I feel like I never actually sleep when I am supposed to, but at the same time I probably nap the most out of everyone in my life.
Ernie Found: Line was like that. Line was a ball of fire. Not always going in the right direction. She is someone who knew the rules and knew how to bend the rules. Didn’t very often break them. But, often times bent them quite a bit. But, for Line, it was… she was there to be with people. She was someone who loved to smile and would love to generate a smile from someone else. Even, when you could tell that that person was far from in a state of mind to want to smile. She was a big hugger. Just wanted to share with people. Her energy was boundless, and continues to be.
How difficult… [Actresss Erin Moriarty], this is for you. How difficult was it for you to play a role where you had to sit in the shadow of another person and then take on a persona of your own?
Erin Moriarty: I kinda feel like that difficulty was almost made easier to me because, Kelly Fliehler, the girl who I was portraying took on that role so well. I think that that is the exact… that’s what was going through her head prior… I mean, from speaking to her, she handled it so gracefully that she made the job easier to me. I was able to step up to it easily because I was portraying her and she did it so well. So, she kinda paved the way for me, and was an inspiration for me. Made the prospect of that less daunting and more about honoring Line as opposed to stepping into her shadow.
For Sean. Of all the movies that you made where does this one fall, it’s probably the last movie is always the best one. As far as meeting goes and what you hope it will contribute to the culture.
Sean McNamara: Well, I do love all the movies that I have made. They are like family. What is important about this, and the most challenging was I try to make a role model movies and inspirational movies. A lot of them end up like sports movies sometimes do with wins and losses, but everyone is still there.
When I met with Ernie the first time, there’s two grown men, a six foot seven guy, and a six foot three guy, and we broke bread and drank a lot of beer and cried together. I just want to continue to make that type of film that will inspire, especially young women. I have three little guys of my own, but I think… I grew up on Rocky, I grew up on Miracle, I grew up on those types of movies that I would just get out and start jogging the next day. I saw that there weren’t that many films like that for young women and I just find that I like making those movies and they’re wonderful. This is the best time, with all the youth that is going out in the streets and making noise, I think it’s a very important time. If we can see that on film now, we can see young women in positions of authority and role models. I think, that’s the type of movie I want to continue with.
My question is for Helen, Erin, and Sean. This is obviously a very emotional story. What was the atmosphere like on set and how did you keep the mood positive?
Helen Hunt: We have like 15 joy machines (the actresses).
Erin Moriarty: Yeah, it’s true.
Helen Hunt: Hanging around all the time. I honestly have to say there was not a bummer in the group.
Erin Moriarty: No. Which, is rare.
Helen Hunt: Awesome young women after another. They are still in touch. I met two of them for ice cream on Sunday. One’s sleeping at my house. Erin helped my daughter with a school project. It’s quite incredible they tip each other off on auditions. There was not one drag in the group and so maybe that could happen with 15 men but I have not seen that dynamic before.
Erin Moriarty: I just feel the same way, there was so much love on that set. I was a little bit nervous going into it, because personally speaking, even among a group of 15 young women that is unprecedented for me. It was so important that there was this dynamic on set because, we essentially had to relive this emotional trauma every single day. To have each others back and to have so much support and love on the set. It was just brimming with it. It was such a pleasure. To this day, Helen included, these women have stayed very integral parts of my life and it’s rare to be able to have a job that you take so much away from in that sense. So, the environment on set was one that was very, very bonding, loving, and supportive.
Helen Hunt: That’s made possible by the director with a super positive attitude and you feel good. If that doesn’t happen, then it doesn’t happen.
Erin Moriarty: And also, our coach, and the director. Helen was the coach of the team and Sean was the director. Having those two people be at the forefront of this young group of women, we were setup to succeed.
Sean McNamara: I also just want to add to that. They are far more articulate with this than me. What I loved about volleyball, and I didn’t know this, they get together and huddle between every play. Even if the play completely sucked, they go, they make a huddle, they talk to each other, they slap each other. They’re going, “We could do better, da da da.” That’s sorta like energy between every… we would do it like five or six times every angle they have to do it. It brought a lot of positive energy. I think we should all be doing it. People in life should go around just at the offices, okay let’s huddle, we can do better on this.
That’s the sort of thing that comes out in sports. That bonding. I think that bonding just went through the whole team. Helen is playing the coach, Coach Bres. She would put her fist in and they would all get together with her and look each other in the eye. I think that started coming out in everything. So we did it as filmmakers, how are we going to do this? We have like 30 days to shoot this massive movie and how do we do that? So, we all get together and work it together. I think bonding touched, looking in each other’s eyes, with that common goal. I think that is how we did it.
My question is for Sean. How did you approach the film both as a director and an actress, but also as parents?
Sean McNamara: Well, it was particularly challenging for me as a parent, because we did Soul Surfer together, and at the end of the day Bethany lived, she lost her arm, but she had this loving family. It was very inspiring. By the end, she has gone on, and I remember when I read the script, and I’ve got three little guys, and I read this… I go, I honestly don’t know met Ernie. I don’t know what I’m going to do. It was so scary, if you will. It was in the meeting of Ernie that I realized I could do it, because he is such a good man and he talked to me and expressed his fears. I expressed my fears. We got through it and that’s how we got to this point for me to want to do it. It was because I am a parent that I was not sure how to do this. It was very frightening.