Sami Khan, Michael Gassert and Jon Miller’s documentary, The Last Out, follows Happy, Carlos and Victor - three Cuban baseball players who have risked everything to travel to Costa Rica for the chance of signing with a US Major League baseball team.
Khan and Gassert wrote, produced and co-directed this powerful and compelling documentary. Meanwhile, Gassert and Miller are responsible for the film’s beautiful cinematography.
I was lucky enough to talk to the three filmmakers about their experience of making The Last Out.
[FYI… on occasion, this conversation veers into spoiler territory. I would advise watching the film before coming back here to find out what happened behind the scenes.]
What inspired you to make The Last Out?
Sami Khan: Production on The Last Out began the summer of 2014 as we began to investigate the harrowing stories of Cuban baseball players seeking careers in the US. As the son of immigrants, there was something in their incredible journeys that deeply affected me.
How did you first meet Happy, Carlos and Victor - the subjects of your film?
SK: After four months of research and persistent follow-up, we eventually gained access to baseball agent Gus Dominguez.
Micheal Gassert: It was really the relationship that Sami built with Gus that led us to Costa Rica in the first place.
Jon Miller: Yes, we found our story through Gus and he was our way in - he sold us on these players and their stories.
SK: We then filmed for four-five months before we found Happy, Carlos and Victor.
At the beginning, of course, you didn’t know the story that was about to unfold...
MG: After we locked into this story, Sami encouraged me and Jon to follow these guys and capture lots of footage.
JM: As time went on, the more committed we became to follow where the story would lead. It surprised us in a lot of ways. There were also a lot of things that we didn’t really understand until we got into the edit.
The Last Out is an incredibly intimate film. How did you build trust and intimacy with your subjects?
SK: Mike did the hard work of embedding himself in Costa Rica and connecting with Happy. The bond he formed with Happy is the key to the film.
MG: After we visited Cuba, Sami and I brought back some mementos for Happy, Carlos and Victor - including handwritten notes from their girlfriends and mementos from their mothers. They started to understand that we were after the human side of the story. This is how we got some of the intimacy that you feel in the film. Then, when things started to happen, they were happy for us to be there.
Were they always comfortable on camera?
MG: Some of the guys - like Carlos and Victor - were a little wary initially. Carlos was protective of his emotions but then he would let them all out at once. Happy is very honest about his emotions and he doesn’t change at all when he’s on camera. It's really amazing. From the beginning, he had a sense and understanding of the project that was maybe deeper than we had.
While Happy is the centre of the film, I was also gripped by Carlos’ story…
MG: Carlos’ story is a tricky one. He is such a hard worker and had so much promise. We really wanted our audience to understand the pain he feels when everything unravels in such a devastating way.
JM: One of my favourite shots of Carlos in the film is one that Mike captured - where he is walking down the hill before he disappears. This shot made me wonder (and many people have mentioned this too) where is he going?
The Last Out not only exposes the dark side of professional sport, it also takes us on an incredible immigration journey...
JM: We had been filming for 10-12 months and had just got back from Costa Rica when Mike got a message from Happy saying that he had been cut and that he was considering leaving Costa Rica and coming to the US. It was a moment of truth for the project. Were we just going to ignore that text message and stay with Carlos and Victor? Or was the story going to keep Happy at its centre?
Without any hesitation, Mike decided to go back to Costa Rica and follow Happy’s journey - wherever that would take him. I met him in Newark airport with a DSLR camera and he flew to meet Happy. That level of commitment when the project really needed it was pivotal.
Happy was obviously emotionally devastated at the time and this became the heart of the film and what makes it so special.
MG: The three of us were all waiting for something to happen. We thought that might have been Carlos’ signing. When Happy sent that message, it was instinctual for all of us to follow his story. Jon knew what equipment I would need to throw into a backpack and that enabled me to capture little moments and then hide the camera quickly.
Many of these scenes are really very tense. I’m thinking of the river crossing in particular. What was your experience of this terrifying moment in the film?
MG: The safest thing would have been to wish them the best of luck and watch them go across the river. However, my instinct was to stick with Happy as far as possible. Unfortunately, that got me into a detention centre along with him. Thanks to Sami and his wife, Jon and everyone else working on the film, we were able to get out.
I was with Happy and the rest of the group on the flight to Mexico City and I was able to pass Happy a little point and shoot camera. It was Sami’s idea because we knew there was a chance that we would get separated. That’s how Happy was able to capture the footage approaching the US border - where you see him in the back of the pick-up truck with the group. Even on this little camera you feel a tremendous surge of adrenaline - they are literally meters away from their dream of a better life.
The Last Out feels like an honest and authentic depiction of this journey...
MG: To tell an honest story about immigrants, I think you have to at least emotionally be able to put yourself in their position and try to show what some of these people go through. You really feel for your fellow human beings who are just trying to better themselves.
The initial concept that Sami had for the film meant that we knew where this story could go. As we got closer to Happy, Carlos and Victor, it all became very real and we understood our obligation to put their truth out into the world.
There have been some emotional moments in some of the film's Q&A sessions. Carlos, for example, wants everyone to know that what you see of their life in the film is what actually happened to them. For us as filmmakers that means a lot.
Coach Roberto also really likes the film. He felt that it was really honest and true to the experience. I am glad that we were able to include his voice.
What did Gus think of the film?
MG: Gus, as you can imagine, had a different relationship with the film. At the beginning, in our minds and probably his too, the film was going to be framed around his experience. Then we focused on the guys in Costa Rica.
Gus knew that we were after a deeper story but he still felt that it should have been more centred on him and his perspective. We have tried to be as fair as possible to him and let him have his say in the film but he wasn't best pleased with the final product.
JM: He was disappointed that the film wasn’t his redemption story, which was how he saw it and how we saw it at the beginning as well.
What technical challenges did you need to overcome to capture this story?
SK: At the beginning, while we knew that we had a compelling present tense story happening before our eyes, we still didn’t know exactly how we were going to capture it. Early on, we were even using zoom lenses but as we started to dig deeper into what we hoped to accomplish with the project - to humanise the plight of the migrants - the burdens of this big fancy camera package became too cumbersome.
Jon is an accomplished director of photography and Mike is an accomplished sound artist and together we developed the right technical package. We used a small compact camera and that allowed us to be more intimate - the tools you choose are so important.
MG: Capturing the footage was, in some ways, the easy part. It was a massive story and we needed to make it succinct and accessible for audiences. Sami really led the charge here through the edit. The same level of courage and bravery was needed in both the filming and the editing process.
What was the editing process like?
SK: The editing process was challenging because we had hundreds of hours of footage spread across ten countries. We were fortunate to work with three incredible editors on the film.
Carla Gutierrez had just cut RBG and was looking for a project that was mostly vérité. We showed her Happy’s journey and she loved it. Carla helped us hone the emotional journey of the film through Happy’s eyes. She didn’t particularly understand baseball but she understood how to draw the drama out of the story.
We worked with Carla until she had to move on to her next project. She recommended another editor - her good friend Mark Becker. Mark helped us with the film’s structure. Mark also worked with Daniela Quiroz, an emerging editor who is just fantastic and who made some of the film’s sequences really sing.
Is The Last Out a sports documentary?
JM: We struggled a little with the genre question. Is this a sports movie or is it something else? How should we set up our audience’s expectations at the beginning of the movie? It was a challenge at some of our preview screenings. Mark really figured out solutions to make all the film’s elements work.
The brutal nature of professional sport highlighted in the film reminded me in some ways of Hoop Dreams…
MG: I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where Arthur Agee, one of the subjects in Hoop Dreams is from. I remember being 12 or 13 years old and watching Hoop Dreams in a movie theatre with my Dad. We had a real connection to that film. I’m sure that it was the first documentary that I had ever seen.
We take athletes for granted I think. We can feel a sense of entitlement - that they are there to entertain us. We sometimes forget that there are human beings behind that entertainment. Even when we put athletes up on a pedestal, we strip them of their humanity at the same time.
Sports films achieve the most when they turn the lens back on us and reveal our own humanity. Hopefully this is the case with our story. How do we feel when a film exposes the darker world of sport - the result of our geo-political situation or our biases towards immigration? How do we respond to what we see?
I would like to thank Sami Khan, Michael Gassert and Jon Miller for being so generous with their time.