Helen Hunt in The Miracle Season
[Image: LD Entertainment]

The Miracle Season was always going to be a challenging film for director Sean McNamara to make.

Not just because it revolves around the sporting trials and tribulations of the Iowa City West High School volleyball team, and doing that authentically always comes with its issues, but also because it tells the true story of the sudden death of their leader Caroline Found back in 2011.

It was up to McNamara to honor Found, her team-mates and the book of the same name written by Kathy Bresnahan, as well as making an entertaining film. I recently spoke to Sean McNamara about “The Miracle Season” and the pressures of telling this story, during which time he broke down the process of bringing it to the big-screen.

How did you first come across the story?
I first saw it on HBO. Bryant Gumbel’s "Real Sports." After 4 minutes of watching that I was balling. And I just knew that there was a movie there. I just read the script that the producers had put together. I just think that the producers had got me at a very emotional time. I had done a movie called "Soul Surfer" that was very triumphant at the end. But this was a challenge because I was meeting a family that had had a real tragic loss of life. That was very scary to me. That’s how it came to me. I wanted to tell it in a narrative way. I knew it worked in the 15-minute version on HBO. But I wanted millions more to see it as a movie.

What was your process?
The first thing I did was was fly into Iowa City, Iowa, and met Ernie Founds. He is a towering man, he stands at 6,6, and he is a spinal surgeon. He is a little intimidating. But he is the most disarming and gracious man. He told me the story, we were both in tears, he told me about his hobbies, which helped him to get over the tragedy. But we spent a lot of time talking about his family, and the influence and impact that Caroline and Ellen had on him. Because of him we could have this discussion to make the movie. Because it took about 5 or 6 years to even have this discussion. Because they were scared about Hollywood coming in. Which was understandable. And I just told him that I wanted to honor his wife, honor his daughter, and that there are families out there that are dealing with great loss and this could inspire them. That’s just on the family side. Then on the other side we want to show role models for women. Because there haven’t been a lot of movies like this for young girls.

Had Kathy Bresnham’s book ‘The Miracle Season’ been released by this point?
No, it was in galleys. We read the galleys. We put things from the book in the movie. Because we knew the story, just from the family. The first draft was written without the book. The second used the book to add details.

Was there any artistic license you took?
Here’s how it goes. There are 60,000 events that took place between their death and now. We had a chance to tell 40 of them. What I do is I listen to a lot of the events, a lot of what happened, and learn who they were. What I do is take 5 or 6 events or 5 or 6 people and incorporate them into one brand new event that didn’t actually happen. But what it does is it tells the story in a way that we can all conceive better as a movie going audience. So when it is done right the family understood what I intended. In real life I knew she ordered pizza in detention. We made it the locker room to show that she is a goofball, she is the leader of the team, the coach has to reprimand her, but she wipes her face, and Caroline proves she will always be there for her. That didn’t happen, but is a scene that managed to incorporate many things and introduced characters.

What other research did you do?
I started with Ernie. Then I met Kathy Bresnahan, who is the coach. She took me to a deli, through the school, and I learnt so much through that, and her dynamic with the kids. Then I met some of the players. I did the research then we all came together to do it.

Talk about the pressure you felt of bringing this story to the screen.
The pressure was getting it right on paper and getting the family to trust me. To trust that I was going to do right by them. I needed their help to get their story right on paper. Then once we are shooting I had had all the meetings ahead of time. That meant doing a couple of weeks of rehearsal. I picked actors first. I knew I needed them to play volleyball and act. Very difficult to do both. So I ultimately wanted my two leads to be actors, so then we trained them. The poor girls were covered in bruises from the ball hitting them. Erin almost got hit in the face with a spike, too. It hit her cheek. If it had hit her nose then production would have been closed down instantly. My style is people coming together, the actors meeting their real life characters, and then molding certain details from that to create something.

Have you shown "The Miracle Season" to those impacted?
We have. We held a screening to Kathy and the girls on the team. They were blown away by it. Remember it is a true life story, so it is bittersweet. They lost their best friend 7 years ago, and they would do anything to have her back. Including trading this movie. But that’s not the way it is. And that being said they loved the movie and especially loved the volleyball.

"The Miracle Season" is released on April 6.