VANCOUVER — Baseball has Field of Dreams, football has Rudy and basketball has Hoosiers.
The traditional indoor variety of the sport has been virtually ignored by Hollywood filmmakers, yet this weekend, as The Miracle Season gets its wide-scale release on movie screens throughout North America, B.C.’s tight-and-vibrant volleyball community can celebrate a heartfelt assist in helping the true story of an Iowa high school girls team reach the silver screen.
(Note — Nothing more than the movie’s basic plot line is revealed within)
“It is something that is long overdue, and it makes me really proud to be a part of a film about volleyball that portrays a real team going through real struggles,” says Claire Hanna, 31, a former UBC Thunderbirds standout who served as the project’s volleyball consultant when filming took place throughout the Lower Mainland and Fraser Valley over the summer of 2016.
“I don’t know why there hasn’t been (a volleyball movie) yet, given how popular the sport is internationally,” she continued, “but after watching this movie, I hope that so many more will embrace the sport.”
ENTER, STAGE RIGHT
When it comes to sports hotbeds in Canada, B.C. can lay a particular claim to volleyball.
It’s a place where a girls and boys high school programs are amongst the best in the nation, and where since the turn of the century, university dynasties have been built in both the women’s game by the UBC Thunderbirds and in the men’s game by Langley’s Trinity Western Spartans.
Hanna, a Calgary native who later earned a spot on the Canadian national team, placed herself directly in the heart of that delivery system, leaving home in 2004 after talking UBC head coach Doug Reimer into giving her a tryout.
By the time she left the Point Grey campus, she was a three-time CIS national champion determined to carve out a career in broadcast journalism.
Yet after a stint in Edmonton as co-host of City TV’s daily Dinner Television show, Hanna found herself out of work in March of 2016.
“I didn’t know what would happen, but I was looking for a job in the broadcast industry, so I posted on-line how I had been laid off,” remembers Hanna.
It wasn’t too long before she got a text from former UBC women’s assistant coach Leah Allinger, advising her that a U.S.-based production company, through Volleyball B.C., had put out the word that they were looking for a so-called volleyball expert to serve as a consultant for a movie which would soon begin shooting in the Greater Vancouver area.
“They needed to have a volleyball coach and consultant,” said Hanna, these days a sports anchor at CTV Regina. “The details were a little wishy-washy but they wanted someone who had volleyball experience and also some TV experience, so it was a good fit. And it was perfect timing because I needed a job.”
Hanna, who would move back to Vancouver for the start of production that summer, then immersed herself in the script for The Miracle Season, starring Academy Award winners Helen Hunt and William Hurt and based on the true story of the Iowa City West high school girls varsity team and its chase of a state title in the wake of the August 2011 passing of its star player and captain Caroline Found.
“When I got hired, not one of the volleyball actresses had been hired,” remembers Hanna, who was thus tasked with tapping into the local volleyball community to find all of the extras who would fill out the teams portrayed in the movie. “I put out a huge Facebook message and reached out to every college and university coach in Western Canada to let them know that there were auditions to be extras in the movie. The reach was insane.”
Hanna says the post was shared over 600 times, and that parents of players from as far east as Ontario contacted her and were willing to fly their daughters out to Vancouver for the auditions.
The task was to find extras who were not only at home on the volleyball court, but had enough natural acting ability that they could carry that realism into off-court settings like the team room and school cafeteria.
KEEPING IT REAL
This past Wednesday, just prior to a special advance screening of The Miracle Season at the Colossus Cinema in Langley, the members of the Trinity Western Spartans women’s volleyball team, several of whom answered that Facebook casting call, were introduced to the rest of the theatre’s patrons.
“Honestly, half of my team cried during the movie and I was on the verge,” admitted Jessica Bailey, a TWU middle blocker from Surrey’s Pacific Academy, who was cast as a member of the Iowa City West team and appears in several scenes throughout the movie. “It was extremely exciting to see yourself on the big screen and it was everything I could do to hold the squeals. I’m used to seeing Tom Cruise up there, then oh my goodness, I’m up there, too. I was only an extra, but it was an amazing experience to get a feel for what the film business is all about.”
The actual volleyball actors would likely say they learned as much from the volleyball players.
“Volleyball is a hard sport to just pick up and they had three weeks to learn so they worked hard and they were very coachable,” said Bailey. “We had to teach them how to look like volleyball players but it was so fun because we were giving the actors volleyball tips, and they were giving us acting tips.”
Trinity Western Spartans head women’s coach Ryan Hofer was also present at Wednesday’s advance screening, and although he’s now watched the movie, he admits he needs to see it again.
“It was hard for me to evaluate it as a movie-goer because as a coach I found myself critiquing the volleyball and looking for myself,” said Hofer, who wound up being cast in the movie as the head coach of the rival team. “I almost need to watch it again for the story.”
Hofer, who has a non-speaking role, also did his best to make sure the film maintained its credibility, but admits he went a little too far one day when he noticed that Hunt, who played the role of Iowa City West head coach Kathy Bresnahan, was breaking the rules by crossing the substitution line to talk with a player while in the act of coaching.
“During a break I went up and mentioned it to her, and she said ‘Thanks, you would know,’” said Hofer. “But when I walked back, one of the extras came up to me and told me ‘You don’t talk to the talent.’”
Realism was the goal, and to that end, Hanna played a huge role in the movie, working directly alongside Hunt.
“I got to work with Helen Hunt in every scene and I can remember the very first day we worked together,” recalls Hanna. “She said ‘You could tell me that I have to bounce the ball five times before the server serves and I would believe you. I really trust you. Don’t make me look dumb.’ I told her that she didn’t have to worry, that I wanted her to be great.”
As Hanna admitted later, it was perhaps the most impactful moment she experienced over the course of the summer.
“It made me realize how important my role was,” said Hanna, “and that she is human, too, and she wants to succeed in her role just like I wanted to succeed in mine.”
And thus with a largely B.C. crew of volleyball extras, filming at local high schools and at UBC’s Doug Mitchell Arena, it was lights, camera, action.
WHY THE MIRACLE SEASON MATTERS
The Miracle Season is a story of triumph but also one of sorrow.
And at one stage of the production, TWU’s Bailey got a reminder of just how emotional a story she and the rest of her fellow cast members were helping to tell.
“We met the (real-life) father of Caroline Found, and he was tearing up on the sideline,” remembers Bailey. “He was so passionate about letting his daughter’s story be told in the right way. We were so grateful to see him and to see what an amazing guy he was.”
Yet there was also another entirely different but essentially vital component to the film, and that was the way in which it captured the purpose of a group of young female student-athletes.
“I grew up wanting to be a volleyball player and an Olympian,” says Hanna, “but all I could find were boys sports movies. That’s all I had to lean on. So being a part of one of the first female sports movies where we are shown for what we are, as athletes and not sexualized, that is what is most close to my heart about this movie.”
Adds Bailey: “Volleyball is the most-played sport by females in the (U.S.) so it’s shocking that there has been no representation in the theatre. There’s Bend It Like Beckham (soccer) and Bring It On (cheer) but (The Miracle Season) is a very unique situation.”
For Hanna, it was almost like she was back in War Memorial Gym with her former teammates prepare for a big Canada West weekend clash, even though she was standing on the sidelines.
“I know we were replicating a real team, but to me, it felt like a team,” she said. “We put together a team of actresses who all had roles, and they all executed in the moment.”
The energy, it seems, was so palpable, that one day during the filming, Hunt had a question for Hanna.
“Helen had her daughter on the set almost every day,” begins Hanna, “and at the end of one of the days, she asked me if I knew anyone in L.A. with a volleyball background.
“To me, that was huge,” she continues. “The fact that we inspired her daughter to want to get into volleyball was amazing.”
The Miracle Season is playing at eight different theatres throughout the Fraser Valley and Lower Mainland, including New Westminster, Richmond, Coquitlam, Vancouver, Langley, Pitt Meadows, North Vancouver and Mission.
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