The MLB playoffs threw out their first pitch this afternoon – but on screens across the country, including Milwaukee this weekend, the sport is in the spotlight for different reasons thanks to the documentary "The Last Out" and Mequon-born co-director Michael Gassert.
Currently playing at Marcus Theatres locations around the city as part of the CineLatino Film Festival, the doc follows several talented young Cuban players trying to make it to majors – or at least just get their chance to make there. What starts as a classic underdog sports story, following the mostly on-field trials and tribulations of three central players – Happy Oliveros, Carlos González and Victor Baró – soon drastically evolves as the three confront impossible systemic roadblocks, corruption and exploitation that turns pursuing their dream into a crushing nightmare. And through all the on and off-field struggles, Gassert and his camera are there – remarkably, even when one of the players is forced to take desperate action and attempt to cross into America to overcome the system. The result is a tensely compelling sports drama and even more intense immigration saga – all too real and too human.
"One of the reasons why we made this film is, as fans who appreciate the sport and spectacle, we got a sense that there was a story that wasn't being told – especially in regard to the Cuban situation and everything, as a result of the ridiculous trade embargo we have, that these players have to go through just to have a chance," Gassert told OnMilwaukee. "We wanted to reveal the human cost of the spectacle that we all take for granted."
It's been a long journey for Gassert and his co-director Sami Khan to get "The Last Out" out to audiences, hitting many festivals over the past few years – including the all-virtual 2020 Milwaukee Film Festival. But now it's finally on the big screen, with a recent limited U.S. release and several showings in the ongoing CineLatino Film Festival – including one at 4 p.m. at the Marcus South Shore featuring Gassert himself in attendance to discuss the movie.
Before then, however, we got to chat with the Wisconsin-raised director about what brought him to this story, getting detained during the film's harrowing border sequence and what it's like bringing his film to big screens back home.
OnMilwaukee: Did you come to this story originally interested in the baseball hook or the immigration hook?
Michael Gassert: Well, Sami Khan, my co-director, I think was inspired to research a baseball story when he was working on his first feature film. He tells the story that, as sort of a de-stresser, he would study baseball statistics – not just strikeouts and wins, but spin rates and that sort of thing. But he had the keen sense to focus on the Cuban predicament. And when he pitched the story to me, I was enticed by the whole “dream” aspect of it, the possibility of these players reaching the pinnacle of their sport.
But also, yes, the immigration part of it was essential from the beginning. As I mentioned, because of the trade embargo, these players cannot be signed directly out of Cuba. They have to establish some kind of residency in a third country and, often times, participate in illegal activities just to be able to become free agents. And then Major League Baseball will recognize them when it’s convenient for them. So I think we always knew this would be a story that would open up questions to some of these bigger human rights issues.
Has anyone from MLB or any baseball leagues reached out to you about this film? What’s been the reaction from the baseball community?
We’ve been in touch with some former Cuban baseball major leaguers who’ve been spreading the word about the film. We heard that it was being shared in a group chat of over 180 current and former Cuban baseball players. I think they can identify very closely with this story – I mean, it’s their story essentially.
But it’s a populist film. It’s a film for the people. We don’t take an investigative, “Dateline” approach to turning the lens on Major League Baseball. We really wanted to tell a story from the perspective of these players, these young men who go through so much, sacrifice so much. For them, the stakes are so high. That’s where our focus was. So we haven’t had Major League organizations necessarily knocking on our door. And I think that’s understandable. It sort of implicates everybody in terms of their participation in this nefarious trade of migrants, essentially.
Gus (Dominguez, sports agent and "The Last Out" subject), he’s a businessman, and I genuinely believe that he wanted to sign all these guys – but when it didn’t become lucrative for him, he dropped them. And that was difficult for us. I think we understand that it is a business, as Gus says, and that there’s difficult choices to be made – but when your business is dealing with human beings, there’s a level of humanity that must be brought to the situation. And that was lacking. … There’s just a moral responsibility there, when you’re dealing with folks and bringing them out of a communist country, dropping them into a capitalist society and just expecting them to figure it out for themselves. It’s a lot to ask.
How did you find these three particular subjects to follow, and how did you try to bring them all into this film and tell all their stories?
We actually met Happy, Carlos and Baró through Gus. Sami reached out to Gus in 2014 – when we were doing the initial research for the film – and he welcomed us to his home in L.A. and we filmed a long interview with him. That’s one of the first things that we shot.
We were sort of taken aback by the circumstances in which he was incarcerated in 2005. Seemingly he was just trying to help get these Cuban ball players out and give them a chance, but because of the embargo, according to the feds, he broke the law sending this money down there. To us, that didn’t seem like he was crossing an ethical or moral boundary – but it was a violation of the law, and he went to jail, as revealed in the film. It seemed to us that maybe this was going to be a redemption story about Gus. When we interviewed him, he mentioned that he had this new crop of players in Costa Rica, and would we like to come down and meet them and check out some of the showcases that were happening. We jumped at the chance. We’d been fishing around a little bit, different stories related to Cuban ball players, but we hadn’t really latched onto this A-story until Gus invited us down there.
I remember meeting these guys on the field for the first time. Like music, baseball is a performative activity, and they were just getting used to media folks coming with cameras. Gus was very helpful and encouraging of them, to speak to us. But it wasn’t really until after that showcase when we went to their apartments, and they were cooking up chicharrones and playing dominoes, and you could just feel the brotherhood. I mean, these guys were familiar with each other from playing in the Cuban Baseball League, but they weren’t all best of friends. But these guys all came together. So there was a brotherhood that was formed, and we had a sense of that when we were finally off the field with these guys.
I remember Carlos looking at me at the time, being like, “What is the story you guys are making? When’s it coming out? Who’s it about?” And we didn’t have the answers at that moment – but I remember being on the cab ride back to our hotel after that get-together, and I looked at Sami and was like, “I think this is our story, with these guys.”
The whole border-crossing sequence near the middle of the film is incredible – especially considering you go in thinking it’s a story about up-and-coming baseball players and now you’re crossing the border with people. How much did you prepare for something like that to happen, and was there a moment where you were like, “What are we getting ourselves into?”
As it is an inflection point in the film, it was also an inflection point for us as filmmakers. Because we were privy to some conversations with the coaches and Gus, we understood that they needed to make some changes – maybe the offers weren’t as strong coming in, but there’s also the question of did Gus showcase these guys too early before they had their papers and spoil their opportunity. We weren’t surprised that Happy necessarily got cut, but we were shocked by the way he was let go. We had been waiting for something to happen. I remember at that time as well that Gus had told me that he was going to come back in three weeks with contracts for Carlos.
We had been documenting these guys for almost a year at that point, and then this happened. It was instinctual for us, at that point, to stay with the players and their perspective. I mean, we could’ve stayed in Costa Rica and Happy becomes a footnote, this player who was released and goes off into the world. But I had just been down in Costa Rica – I think on my seventh trip, down there for six weeks – and came back to New York where I’ve been based to do a job. I remember telling Sami and Jon, my other producing partner, “Guys, I’ve gotta go make some money; I’m broke.” (laughs)
But on the day I start that job, Happy sent me a text saying he got cut and that he’s going to go to the States tomorrow. I was like, “Oh my goodness.” Fortunately I was working on a project with a producer that I have a great relationship with and was understanding. I found an excellent replacement after going through my whole rolodex – another sound mixer who rented a car, drove up to where I was in upstate New York and gave me the car. Sami had bought an airplane ticket, and I went down and met Happy at 3 a.m. at a bus station. I didn’t know how far I was going to go or where it would take us. Sami and John were keeping an eye on me from afar. But my instinct, the whole way, even when we got pulled over by immigration and I followed them into the detention facility, was just to stay with Happy and our crew for as long as possible.
And ironically, even after being detained and being separated from Happy, they – the Mexican government – were going to fly me up to New York back to my residence. But after some snafus at the airport – they wouldn’t let the immigration officer through security – I ended up missing my flight to New York. But at that moment, I knew Happy was going to Houston to meet his cousin. So I remember saying to the guys, “OK, I signed the deal – now we’re on my terms. I want a hot meal and a flight to Houston.” Well, the guy didn’t have any money so I ended up buying breakfast for both of us – but they did get me on a flight to Houston.
That was sort of another moment of divine intervention – because if I had made that original flight to New York, I wouldn’t have been there with Happy in those very first moments where he got into the States and those first scenes reuniting with his cousin and the party and talking with friends about what it’s like to be a new immigrant. And the scene in the mall, which is I think my favorite scene in the film, where Happy goes in and looks at all the stuff – Rolex watches and a woman applying hand cream to his arm.
To be there for his first moments was just so important and so powerful because that’s not just their stories; that’s the story of any immigrant, not just in the U.S. but across the world. People have thanked us for making this film from all different backgrounds and said, “For anybody who doesn’t enjoy first world privileges, this is a representation of our story.” And for us as filmmakers, that’s fulfilling.
What’s it like bringing this film to Milwaukee, to your hometown?
The Midwest doesn’t have as large of a Latin population or Cuban story, but Midwestern folks have big hearts. And I think the universal themes of the film – which you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate – hit home with Midwestern audiences. Just to have the chance to do the best for yourself and for your family, and what it really is to miss somebody and to sacrifice: Those were important themes for me to bring home.
Also, I think in the country in general, we have such a deficit of empathy. And I think when we can create stories and represent true experiences with people that show our collective humanity and our shared experiences, the differences seem so much smaller than everything we have in common.
For my friends and family and people I’ve known my whole life, getting the opportunity to present the film in Mequon at a special screening in September, it just meant so much to me to bring those stories home. These are folks who maybe live different lives than me and have different experiences, but really come from genuine hearts and can appreciate and understand these stories. It’s an honor and a privilege, really, for me to do that and bring it home.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.