Tribeca 2021 Interview: Michael Gassert and Sami Khan on Staying in the Game for “The Last Out”

Before the Tribeca Film Festival was set to unfold last year, co-directors Michael Gassert and Sami Khan and their producing partner Jonathan Miller were putting the finishing touches on “The Last Out,” a project that had been in the works for years and was primed for a premiere in April when it could coincide with the start of Major League Baseball’s spring training. Of course, life had other plans and after spending the previous years following Cuban players Victor Baró, Carlos O. González, and Happy Oliveros, they were all too ready to handle some curveballs, but while COVID upended their best laid plans with the cancellation of Tribeca, the trio had fortunately made a film for all seasons.

“We like to think of the baseball as a Trojan horse to some of these bigger, more important ideas,” says Gassert, on the eve of the film’s proper premiere at Tribeca this weekend.

While many are apt to say “more than just a game,” Gassert and Khan impressively convey the totality of what baseball means to Baró, González, and Oliveros, who risk their lives to sneak out of Cuba under the cloak of night with the hope — but no assurance – that they will be able to play professionally, earning money they can send back home. They have help, at least at first, from Gus Dominguez, a savvy agent who has pioneered a business that brings players into Costa Rica where they can be seen by Major League scouts and if they strike it big, he’ll receive a cut of their contracts. But their stay is contingent on their play, which would never appear to be an issue from a physical standpoint, but mentally becomes all but impossible for some when homesickness sets in and acclimating to a different culture brings its share of challenges.

If the path to simply escaping one country for another looks dangerous, Gassert and Khan show how treacherous the path is after getting to the other side, with Baró, González, and Oliveros perhaps confident in their skills on the field, but also holding no illusions that they will be the next Aroldis Chapman when the odds of making it in the majors are so slim in general, just hoping to be able to make ends meet and their leap of faith an indictment of their options elsewhere. Although it surely wasn’t ideal, there’s certainly something poetic in “The Last Out” taking its time to reach the big screen as intended and before it’s apt to wow audiences this evening and beyond, Gassert and Khan spoke about how they were drawn to this subject, handling its many twists and turns with grace and how as a small team they were able to get their arms around such a big story.

How did you two join forces on this?

Sami Khan: Mike and I came up in independent filmmaking in New York City [together] and Mike’s an incredibly talented musician and sound artist. I worked with him initially on a fiction feature that I had shot in India, and I was like, “Oh, I like that guy’s energy.” He gets it. He’s been around the world too and when I had the first breadcrumbs of an idea for this project, I brought him on to interview this Cuban baseball expert. Then we just started spitballing, and the spitballs turned into snowballs and that turned into things cascading down a mountain. We found Gus Dominguez, and these characters in Central America, and that’s the genesis of the relationship and the project.

What led you to these three players you follow?

Michael Gassert: When we started out, Sami had reached out to Gus Dominguez [through] just a cold e-mail and a lot of people have sought to tell Gus’ story, but Sami was able to just develop a trust and a relationship with Gus where he felt comfortable opening up to us. The first interview where we learned his whole backstory [about] everything that he’s gone through being incarcerated, he also let us know about this group of young Cubans that he had down there training in Costa Rica and invited us to come down, so we were like, “Of course.” We were still sniffing out our A-story there. We were following some leads in South Florida and I think we went to Red Sox spring training, but we knew there was something there with Gus.

We went down with our producing partner, Jon Miller, who so elegantly captured that first showcase and we were a small team, but we were really able to spread out and cover a lot of ground and capture some really intimate conversations. But it wasn’t until we went with the guys to their apartment after that showcase where they were playing some dominoes, drinking some beers, cooking up some chicharrones, and listening to reggaeton, I was like, “Okay. Yeah.” I remember Carlos turned to us and he’s like, “What is this about? And when’s it coming out?” And we didn’t know right away. But when we left that night, we turned to each other and we’re like, “This is the story with these guys.”

When we came back down, we’re like, “Hey, you know the answer to that question? We want to be there with you. We want to make this about you and every turn of your journey.” And of course, you say, “Yeah,” when you [think you’re going to] sign that Major League deal, and you go to the minors, we’re going to be there right with you, but you don’t think to say, “Yeah, we also want to be there with you too when you miss your family and you’ve got no country and your girlfriend dumps you and you don’t know where to go.” But our instincts to stick with the guys and their willingness to open up to us and just be truthful and vulnerable really helped create the intimacy of the story.

What’s it like coordinating a shoot like this? You’re not only in Costa Rica with the guys but cut back to their families in Cuba from time to time.

Sami Khan: I don’t want to reveal the magic trick too much, but there was only three of us making this film most of the time, and a lot of it Mike shot himself, so there are times where we’re being liberal with the timeline and there’s an emotional truth that’s deeper than any sort of strict chronology. We knew that Happy’s cooking was holding the crew together, and that was something heavily emphasized when Mike went to Baracoa for the first time, so it was about weaving this bigger tapestry that captured the emotional experience the guys were going through and it was fun in the edit to discover those moments and to hold onto those, because that’s what helped us get out of the wilderness was those deeper emotional truths, like the importance of cooking to the family.

Did anything happen along the way that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Michael Gassert: I was attracted to the dreams of the story when Sami had pitched to me initially, but [it was] his strong instincts to really investigate and follow a Cuban story and the unique distinction that Cuban immigrants have as being on the short end of the stick of this trade embargo that we have. They have to go through incredible and sometimes illegal things just to do what everybody’s trying to do and make a simple, better life for themselves, so when it came to making the final choices about who to stick with and where to go, I think we understood that baseball is a way into this story, but there’s a deeper truth that we can tell that’s much bigger than maybe what’s on the surface.

It seems like the rules of engagement with Gus had to change when some of the players start to have issues with their arrangement, and already, given his history, he might have a distrust for the media. What was it like navigating that relationship?

Sami Khan: Yeah, he’s an interesting cat. Gus has been through a lot. He’s suffered a lot. His family has suffered a lot. He’s risked a lot. He’s delivered Major League careers to a lot of players, but then he’s also skirted a certain moral gray area with our guys in particular. One of the advantages of co-directing [this] as the story was unfolding was our conception of who Gus was changed. We thought this was this redemption story of this guy out of prison turning his life around and going to sign these guys for millions and millions of dollars, but it turns, so the experience that the audience goes on with Gus is the experience that we had. So the advantage of a filmmaking partnership was [we could tell one another], “Okay, Happy told me this. And that’s not what Gus is saying. So ask Gus about that,” and we asked Gus about that and our relationship with Gus was transforming. He was becoming more antagonistic when we were pushing him more for his responsibility to the players. That’s where, in the edit, we wanted you to go on that experience too that we went on. We also wanted to be fair to Gus and let him make his case, but also not minimize the pain that the players they’ve suffered because of his decisions.

As a viewer, I could’ve watched this go on for hours when your subjects’ lives are so compelling, but was there a natural point where you knew to put a bow on things?

Michael Gassert: The process turned out not quite as we imagined it, but I think we feel really good about where we ended up. The journey of the editing was as arduous as some of the filmmaking, and it’s good that you have the instinct to want to really sit back and enjoy observational documentary because that was our instinct in shooting — to not only just develop that intimacy, but just allow life to unfold in front of us. When we first started putting the film together with Carla Gutierrez, we really let the verite breathe as much as possible — probably too much. [laughs] There was a point of the process when we had to really take the film apart and put it back together with some of Carla’s colleagues — Mark Becker, and Daniela Quiroz — because Carla was onto her next project after a year of us working with her. We did have a wealth of story and even characters that we weren’t able to feature, just because it’s hard to do that in 84 minutes, but we just hope that the guys that we did focus on can represent the bigger story of not just each other, but all of the players and immigrants that we met along the way who were making these really difficult decisions to leave their family and their country behind with an uncertain future, just to try to make life better.

What’s it like to get into the world now? It was set to play Tribeca last year.

Sami Khan: To be honest, it’s slightly surreal. I haven’t wrapped my head around because COVID already threw a wrinkle. Everything was all cylinders were firing in March of 2020. We were so ready to go and 2020 was going to be a huge party for us. So it doesn’t feel real yet. I haven’t seen Mike [in person] for 15, 16 months, and I don’t think it’ll feel real until probably weeks or months afterwards. It’s like, “Oh, that happened, this is finally over.” With long journeys like this that are so difficult, that take so much risk from all of us — the risks Mike took to his personal safety, the financial risks that my wife took to support me for a time during this project — [there are] so many people who are credited and not credited in the film, and we hope [the premiere] is for them, especially. Then for us, it’ll dawn on us in a week or two.

Michael Gassert: And you mentioned putting a bow on this, I think through that really difficult process of editing and coming out of the woods, we imagined sitting together in this final sound mix or a theater and being like, “Yes, this is the film.” But we had to finish this in mid-March to early April when the whole world was changing. I remember feeling really grateful that we were at least at that point where we could finish the film remotely, but thinking about [the premiere], I know we all have friends and family coming together, but between Sami and John and I, we haven’t sat and experienced our work together. So I’m just immensely grateful that we’re going to come together tomorrow. We pray for clear skies, but it’s looking good.

“The Last Out” will play the Tribeca Film Festival on June 19th at 4 pm at Clinton Hall at Empire Outlets.