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Sports coming-of-age movie ‘The Long Game’ tells a true Texas story for a wider audience

"The Long Game" tells the true story of the Del Rio Mustangs, a group of Mexican American youths who in the 1950s overcame prejudice to become a state title-winning team.
Courtesy of 42West
"The Long Game" tells the true story of the San Felipe Mustangs, a group of Mexican American youths in Del Rio who in the 1950s overcame prejudice to become a state title-winning team.

In the 1950s, four Mexican American teens in Del Rio, Texas, wanted to play golf but weren’t allowed to play at the white country club in town. As the story is told in the book “Mustang Miracle” by Humberto Garcia, those young men went on to become Texas state champions.

Now, that epic tale is getting a loving treatment on the big screen. The new film “The Long Game” premiered at South by Southwest last week. The director – Julio Quintana, who is from Texas – spoke to the Standard about the significance of telling a multilayered story. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

“The Long Game” director Julio Quintana.
“The Long Game” director Julio Quintana.

Texas Standard: Tell us a little bit about yourself first. I mean, I’ve heard that you came to Austin around 2000 – your family part of the oil business. How did you come across this story? 

Julio Quintana: Well, it was brought to me by a producer, Javier Chapa, who also brought me my last movie, “Blue Miracle” – a similar kind of true story also starring Dennis Quaid. And so it seemed like a good reason to kind of bring the team back together and take another crack at the “amily/sports movie space kind of thing. But to be perfectly honest, when he first brought it, that was actually part of why I resisted doing the movie, because we felt like we had sort of done something similar enough. And I didn’t want to retread old territory. But, when I started reading into it – and I actually read the book and the screenplay – what really resonated with me was these young guys who, you know, they were left out, but instead of feeling sorry for themselves, they actually went out and built a course in the middle of a field and taught themselves how to golf with old clubs. And, you know, my family’s from Cuba. And so I grew up with stories like that. My dad used to make his own baseballs with electrical tape and things like that. So for me, it really resonated as an inspiring story that we could all kind of get.

Had you ever heard the story before you read the book, the screenplay?

No, I never heard anything about it. And that’s actually kind of crazy because now, having done two true stories of crazy things that I never heard of, it kind of makes me think that there’s a lot more of these kinds of stories that we just don’t know. You know, we don’t talk about them. I think maybe it seems like, you know, there’s a lot of inspiring stories that kind of get to fall to the wayside. So I’m really excited to be able to shine a light on something like this.

» SEE MORE: In 1957, this team of Hispanic golfers shocked Texas by winning state

The real Del Rio Mustangs team.
Courtesy of 42West
The real San Felipe Mustangs team.

You know, it’s got to be difficult, though, when you’re sort of doing that classic underdog story to come up with a new and inventive way to tell. Did you find that that was a challenge for you in telling this story? 

Yeah, I mean, the thing is, with movies like these, they have certain tropes and they have a structure that everybody’s seen a million times. And so that’s why I first didn’t want to do it. But then the thing is, what I find is it’s not really a golf movie if you just don’t make it about golf – it’s about the characters and it’s about their personal struggles. So for me, you know, golf became sort of a metaphor for, in one aspect, the exclusion of certain parts of society.

But also the other beautiful part of golf is that there’s a lot of nobility to it. There’s a lot of etiquette, a lot of mutual respect. You know, people have to be honest and there’s not a referee keeping track of everything you’re doing, and you have to take care of the course when nobody’s paying attention or makes it bad for everybody. So I think what it became was a story of these young guys learning to be men – contributing members of society, respecting themselves, which is the most important thing. And ultimately, you know, growing and overcoming the obstacle. So it’s not so much a sports movie. It’s really just a classic coming-of-age story.

South Texas has quite the reputation for chess, which was, you know, a game of nobility. I mean, they have world class champion players in those high schools. And here we are talking about some, you know, for boys who want to play golf, which again, is one of those sports that’s typically associated with wealth and privilege. I mean, that’s part of what makes this story as intriguing and appealing as it is, it seems to me, no?

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of great sports movies – boxing, baseball, basketball. But golf is, for a lot of members of society, like being an astronaut. I mean, like trying to get on a golf course and certainly mastering it and winning a tournament is fairly unthinkable for large segments of society. Mostly the cost – the barrier entry is very expensive. And in the fifties it was literally just based on your race. And so I think getting to see young men doing something that really is unthinkable for most people in their situation is inspiring.

I had a similar thing in my last movie where, you know, it was about these young orphans in Mexico winning a fishing tournament – the world’s biggest marlin tournament. And I just got a flurry of emails of people just, you know, young Latinos who, like said “I’d never fish before, but I went with my dad, who I hadn’t talked to in ten years, and we reconnected and things.” And so it sort of expands the possibilities of what people think they’re able to do. And I think that if you can do one thing that you never thought you were able to do, I think it has potentially a domino effect.

Courtesy of Anita Gallón/42West

Maybe you can shine some light on this for those who don’t know the story of these four young men in Del Rio. What was it that compelled them to refuse to say ‘no’ to that? I mean, because there are lots of things and other ways that they could have gone with their lives or with their, you know, free time. And yet they pushed on with this. 

Yeah. I think what’s interesting about it is that, you know, part of it was the fact that they were caddies. And so what that tells me is that if you’re just exposed to something, it kind of breaks down sort of the mystique of it. And so when they were in high school, they’re watching it. People play all day and they’re starting to wonder if they could do it themselves. And they think, ‘oh, okay, maybe that doesn’t seem so complicated’ and such. And so I think exposing people to new things also opens up the possibilities of what they think they could do.

And then also they had the encouragement of a great mentor. So Jaime Peña was the coach who was rejected from the country club himself. He wanted to be a member as an adult, but he got rejected. So he decided to start this team with all these young caddies. And so it really was just, you know, one person believing in them and telling them that it’s possible and that really gives them the impetus to continue forward.

You know, one thing that resonates with a lot of Mexican Americans is that cultural in-between thing. If you know what I’m talking about, I’m wondering, how did you tap into that for this film?

Well, that’s a big part of any immigrant story, I think, in the United States. I’ve experienced it myself. My family’s from Cuba, and I think I’m really Cuban until I hang out with Cubans that just got here. So that feeling of kind of being halfway between two cultures is very real. And so, you know, one way we illustrated that was there’s a scene where the boys go across the river at night for fun to Mexico, which everybody in South Texas has done at some point. And they realize very quickly that they’re not quite as Mexican as they thought. You know, in reality, they are Americans. I mean, we are all of us immigrants, especially if you’re born here, we’re American and we’re all just trying to figure out exactly what that means for each one of us. But that’s pretty clear that they’re not Mexican.

Courtesy of Anita Gallón/42West

Where did you shoot the film?

We shot mostly here in Smithville, in Bastrop. And then there were some portions that we shot in Colombia for the golf courses and the portion going across the river to Mexico. So we just blended those two.

Del Rio is a pretty distinctive place. Did you think about actually going down to Del Rio and shooting it there or no? 

Yeah, we did. And I went down and looked at Del Rio. We scouted it. One of the biggest issues is that it’s set in 1957 and Del Rio has changed a lot since then. And so a place like Smithville, it seems, is kind of like a time capsule. They’ve done a good job of preserving the fifties houses and the fifties downtown. So in a weird paradox, modern day Smithville feels more like 1950s than modern day Del Rio.

Well, now your previous feature films – you’ve touched on “Blue Miracle,” “The Vessel” also centered around Latino stories. Are you seeing Hollywood backers and studios wanting these stories more these days? I mean, what about that part of the production work?

Yeah, it seems like there’s been a lot of articles that have come out about how big of a demographic Latino audiences are. There’s certainly more demand for more diverse content in general. But I think the Latino thing is coming up on the tail that I think that in my experience, I don’t really want to make movies that only Latinos want to watch, even though they are a huge market. I think that my stories tend to be more universal than that. And so there are Latino characters and Latino settings. But I think if the stories are universal enough, everybody can relate to them. And so I tend to think of my movies like they have kind of more of an American Latino kind of perspective because that’s what I am and that’s the point of view that I bring to the table.

"The Long Game" reunites director Julio Quintana with actors he worked with on his previous film, including Dennis Quaid.
Courtesy of 42West
"The Long Game" reunites director Julio Quintana with actors he worked with on his previous film, including Dennis Quaid.

You’re working with Dennis Quaid again here. And I’m thinking about another Austin director, Rodriguez, who has his own sort of team of players. You mentioned you’re bringing the team back together. Do you have that? I mean, do you feel like you’ve built up a sort of cast of people who are going to be central figures in your movies going forward? 

Yeah, I had like two of the main characters from “Blue Miracle,” Jimmy Gonzales, who played Omar, and Miguel Garcia, who played a young kid. I brought them over into this movie as well, and so I had three people from “Blue Miracle” in this movie. And, you know, there’s a shorthand. I mean, every time it gets a little bit less awkward every time we know what we’re going for. And I find that it creates a sense of camaraderie on set that you just say “yeah, we know what we did last time. Part of it is, you know what I like, but also let’s not do the same thing we did last time.” And so I’ve been proud, for example, that people are saying that Dennis in this movie, they liked him better even than “Blue Miracle” – which is great for me and him, because we didn’t just do the same thing again. But yeah, like my brother is my cinematographer this time and my wife was one of the producers. And I don’t know, just for me, a big part of my life is who I hang out with. You know, if I have to hang out with people, I just want to be with people who are cool and have a good time and are serious about their craft. And, you know, none of us have egos. And so it just makes life better.

A big family. What’s next? I mean, I know you just debuted this. Do you have more screenings in the works. Is it already general release? Where do you stand with it?

Yeah. We’ve got a lot of interest from buyers in the last week because that’s when we started sharing it with them. So hopefully it’ll be distribute here in the next couple of months. So we had really great experience with Netflix last time, but also there’s a lot of other suitors now so.

Well, what about the state of the film industry in Texas? I mean, you’ve put down roots here. So have a lot of other people in the industry. Can you make it here in Texas the way that Linklater once did earlier in the day? How would you sort of characterize the industry and where it stands right now?

Well, I mean, what I can say is that the lack of incentives obviously makes challenges for shooting here. I mean, part of why we had to shoot a couple of weeks in Colombia is because it’s so much cheaper with the incentives to go other places that you end up trying to shoot as much as you can in a different place. So that, for us, it was golf courses. The golf courses – they’re generic enough that they blend together. But yeah, that is frustrating, I’m here, I have my kids here, my family’s here, so I have to leave my kids for two months at a time to go shoot a Texas story in another country. It’s odd.

And so yeah, I hope they figure out the incentive part of the film industry because it really is quite difficult to convince producers to spend 20% more to shoot here. So I think if we could figure that out, we have a great crew base. We have really so many talented people and so many great actors. We’re bringing actors from Texas to Colombia to shoot a Texas story. I mean, makes no sense. So I think if they could figure out that piece of it, then I think this place would really thrive.

Director Julio Quintana at work on set.
Courtesy of 42West
Director Julio Quintana at work on set.

Today, what counts for success in the industry? I mean, so much has changed with the proliferation of streaming services that are out there. What counts for success in your book when it comes to “The Long Game”? 

Well, I think for me, like, I really think that this movie deals with specific issues that seem to be kind of tearing us apart – you know, conversations about race and identity and things. And we don’t seem to really be able to agree on anything. And I think one thing I ask every time I would test the movie with any audience, I would always say, “what do you think of the politics of this movie?” And everybody would just be confused and just say “I don’t think this is political at all. I don’t understand what you mean. Like, it just seems like an honest story.” And for me, like that’s just a slam dunk win. Like what I really want is, is for people that don’t agree about anything, to be able to watch the movie and everybody can laugh and everybody can cry at the same time. And maybe if there’s one little thing that we can all agree on, that maybe there’s a little hope going forward. So if that’s theatrical or streaming, I don’t really care as long as everybody, you know, comes together.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the team as the “Del Rio Mustangs.” This has been corrected.

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Kristen Cabrera is a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine, where she saw snow for the first time and walked a mile through a blizzard. A native of the Rio Grande Valley, she graduated from the University of Texas-Pan American (now UTRGV) and is a former KUT News intern. She has been working as a freelance audio producer, writer and podcaster. Email her: kcabrera@kut.org