Celebrating Girls and all they can be

Summer 2012

American Girl E-News

In January 2012, American Girl introduced the newest Girl of the Year. She's McKenna Brooks, a ten-year-old girl who shines in gymnastics but struggles in the classroom.

This summer, our newest Girl of the Year, McKenna Brooks, debuts in the all-new movie An American Girl: McKenna Shoots for the Stars. Like the two-book series and doll that launched in January, this movie introduces a ten-year-old girl who shines in gymnastics—but struggles in the classroom. Why did we choose to create a movie out of this particular book series? Because we knew that girls who had read McKenna's books would love watching her come to life, particularly in dramatic gymnastics scenes that showcase her talents and her dreams for the future. For any child who has a goal and might need to jump, leap, and sometimes tumble over a few challenges to reach it, McKenna's story is a great inspiration.
A cast and crew that shines Creating McKenna Shoots for the Stars took time and a whole team of talented partners—including executive producer Debra Martin Chase, whose impressive credits include The Princess Diaries, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Cheetah Girls, and Lemonade Mouth. For director, we chose the best person for the job, Vince Marcello. After auditions in early June of 2011, we found our McKenna: a rising star named Jade Pettyjohn, who had landed roles in short films and on TV series such as The Mentalist. Veteran actors Nia Vardalos (from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and Ian Ziering (from TV's original Beverly Hills, 90210) signed on as McKenna's parents, and Kerris Dorsey—the young costar of last year's Moneyball—was cast in the role of Josie, McKenna's tutor. A very exciting addition was Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby, who was cast in the role of McKenna's gymnastics coach (of course!). We also "interviewed" several dogs to help our movie partners find one with just the right personality to play Cooper, McKenna's goldendoodle. Horses were vetted, too, for a therapeutic horseback-riding scene with Josie.
Setting the scene just right In July 2011, American Girl team members traveled to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Our mission? To review everything from sets and locations to costumes, hair, and make-up to ensure that McKenna's story would translate well to screen. McKenna's bedroom—which had been a teenage boy's room just a week before!—was completely transformed to match its description in the book.McKenna with her tutor, Josie Young Jade Pettyjohn was transformed, too, with the help of a McKenna-inspired wardrobe and a dedicated hair stylist. Each costume was custom-made at American Girl, which meant making multiple versions (for the lead actor, stunt double, and stand-ins) in just a few weeks' time. The efforts were well worth it. In her striped leotard, Jade looked the very picture of McKenna—a gymnast with spirit, strength, and a "girl next door" smile.
Getting into character Training our young actors to become believable gymnasts took work, too. For several weeks prior to filming, Jade and co-stars Kally Berard and Ysa Penarejo, cast as teammates Sierra and Toulane, took part in gymnastics lessons. Of the three girls, only Kally came to the movie project with previous experience. Still, each of them quickly learned poses, stretches, and other mannerisms to help them look like the serious gymnasts they would be playing. The girls would rely on stunt doubles to stand in for them during scenes with more difficult moves, but Jade learned to rely on something else, too—an extra-wide balance beam that ensured she stayed on the beam during shoots! She also worked on her moves at night, thanks to a long strip of tape her mom put on the floor of their condo to serve as a practice beam.
Action! After months of prepwork and planning, filming began in Winnipeg in mid-July. Cast and crew assembled in the library of Ecole Riverbend Community School, where actors Jade and Kerris played out an early tutoring scene. The set around the two girls looked like an actual school library—except for the 20-plus crew members monitoring lights, cameras, and sound. The action wasn't confined to the set, but spilled out into the hallways and parking lot. More crew members—60 to 70 in total—carried equipment and props, prepared food for the cast and crew, and supervised a cafeteria full of Winnipeg children hoping to be "extras" in an upcoming classroom scene. Throughout the day, every minute on set was put to good use: while Jade and Kerris were changing outfits, the director called in photo doubles—girls with similar builds and complexions—to sit in for them so that lighting and cameras could be adjusted for the next take. And each scene was filmed from a variety of angles to ensure that the director captured what he needed for the final cut. When the movie wrapped three and a half weeks later, we were all confident that he had everything he needed. With help from our talented partners, we had created a new way to meet McKenna—a movie featuring a character and a message that we hope all viewers will relate to, learn from, and love.