SXSW 2023 Interview: Writer-Director Julio Quintana Talks The Long Game (Exclusive)

Teens and adults bonding together to overcome adversity and prove their shared identity is based on more than just one characteristic is as relevant today as it was almost three quarters of a century ago in the 1950s. The exploration into the importance that a group of people shouldn’t be judged based on just one aspect of their backgrounds is powerfully highlighted in the new biographical sports drama, ‘The Long Game.’

The film was directed by Julio Quintana, who also served as a co-writer with Jennifer C. Stetson and Paco Farias. ‘The Long Game’ is based on the critically acclaimed 2012 book ‘Mustang Miracle’ by Humberto G. Garcia. The screen adaptation features an ensemble cast that includes Jay Hernandez (who also served as an executive producer), Dennis Quaid (who also served as a producer), Cheech Marin, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Brett Cullen, Oscar Nuñez, Richard Robichaux and Paulina Chávez.

In ‘The Long Game,’ JB Peña (Hernandez) moves to the small town of Del Rio, Texas to take over as the school district’s superintendent. When he arrives, his dreams of joining the prestigious, all-white Del Rio Country Club are immediately squashed.

However, he soon meets a group of high schoolers who happen to caddy at the club. They, too, are prohibited from playing the same course because of the color of their skin. So JB and the teens band together with the intention of winning tournaments and making it to State. However, they quickly learn that there’s a lot more to aim for – and a lot more on the line – when a team of Mexican-American teens competes and wins in this exclusive world.

‘The Long Game’ had its World Premiere during the Narrative Spotlight Screening Section of this month’s SXSW. In honor of the movie’s premiere, Quintana generously took the time four days before the project’s premiere screening on March 12 to talk about scribing and helming the feature during an exclusive interview over Zoom.

Film Factual (FF): You co-wrote the script for the new biographical sports drama, ‘The Long Game,’ with Jennifer C. Stetson and Paco Farias. What was the inspiration in penning the screenplay, and how did you all work together to create the film’s story?

Julio Quintana (JQ): The project was brought to me by a producer, Javier Chapa, who also brought me my last movie, which was also a true sports story. There’s also a book, ‘Mustang Miracle,’ by Humberto G. Garcia that the movie is based on.

There was also a script that was great. My job was to take the script and try to make the characters have stronger arcs, and maybe give them some more flaws in the beginning so that they could have a bigger change over the course of the film.

The general job of the filmmaker is to try to infuse the story with issues that really resonate with me, including issues with identity over being a young Latino in the United States, as well as what America means today, especially from a Latino perspective. I tried to infuse the story with those kinds of ideas so that it resonates with not only me, but also other people.

FF: Speaking about how you infused the movie’s script with issues that resonated with you, how did you approach making the feature’s story relatable to modern audiences?

JQ: Part of it is that I operate under the assumption that teenagers in the ‘50s had similar feelings as teenagers today. so I wrote the characters in the way that I would have reacted if I was in high school, dealing with these things, or if I was their coach now. That automatically helped me anchor the story in what people are thinking about and feeling today.

I don’t think that people ultimately changed that much; I think everyone wants to belong and have family, as well as succeed. They’re all inspired by overcoming adversity.

But obviously, the movie is set in the ‘50s and deals with the racism that prevents these young boys from playing at this country club. It’s impossible to explore a movie like that without thinking about the conversations we’re having about race in our culture today.

My last film, ‘Blue Miracle,’ which is based on a true story and is about fishing, didn’t have some of the same hot topic issues as (‘The Long Game’). So it was a little bit easier to make it a little bit more fun and light.

With this film, we were able to make it a fun and entertaining movie, but we also had the responsibility to integrate the conversation that everybody’s having now. I tried to be as honest as possible in exploring these issues because it has some real-world consequences right now.

FF: Like you mentioned earlier, ‘The Long Game’ is based on the critically acclaimed book, ‘Mustang Miracle,’ by Humberto G. Garcia. How did the book influence the way you crafted the screenplay with Jennifer and Paco? Besides the book, what other research did you do into how Mexican-Americans were treated, especially in sports, in the U.S. in the mid-1950s?

JQ: The book really encompasses a lot of the story. A friend of mine and I drove down to Del Rio, Texas, where the story is set, and drove around. We went to the country club where the story takes place.

But Humberto’s book is very thorough and provides all of the facts of what happened in a way that’s compelling. You also get a sense of the characters in the book.

So the research I really had to do was to watch all kinds of sports movies to make sure that I’m hitting the beats that people would typically want from this type of movie. But I also had to make sure I wasn’t retreading a particular type of character. It’s easy for a sports movie to fall into cliches and formulas. So I studied what was done in the past, especially in golf movies, to make sure that we weren’t doing anything that hadn’t already been done before.

FF: Besides writing the script, you also directed ‘The Long Game.’ How did co-writing the screenplay influence your helming style throughout the production?

JQ: Being a writer-director helps make the process of shooting a movie a little bit easier. As a writer, I work on the script for so long that by the time I get to set, I have a clear idea of what everything looks like.

My background is also in cinematography, so I have a good sense of how I want to shoot it.

So the challenge is to be open to whatever the actors want to give me when I get to set. If something’s not working, it’s important to be flexible in trying new things. So it’s definitely a process of trial and error. So you have to make sure that whatever you’re holding onto is actually important, and you’re not just holding onto the things that are arbitrary.

When you’re working with so many talented actors, they’re going to bring things to the table that you don’t expect. This is an ensemble movie, and all of them are talented and have good ideas. So it’s just the manner of opening up the space enough so that everyone can contribute and help bring the story to life.

FF: Speaking of the ensemble cast, the drama stars Jay Hernandez, Dennis Quaid, Cheech Marin, Miguel Angel Garcia, Julian Works, Christian Gallegos, Gregory Diaz IV, José Julián and Jaina Lee Ortiz. What was the casting process like for the film?

JQ: Well, Jay, who plays the coach, JB, who’s the main character, was already attached to the role when the film was brought to me, and he was perfect for it. Jay is in a lot of ways like JB; he’s Latino, but doesn’t quite speak Spanish. Jay can also bounce back and forth between different cultural circles, and that’s sort of how JB is, as well.

I’ve worked with Dennis Quaid before, on my last film. So I know he’s obsessed with golf, so he’s the perfect person to play a coach in this movie.

Cheech Marin was a last-minute addition. We thought we were going to have a couple of other actors, but they ended up falling through, and we ended up with Cheech, which was a miracle. We couldn’t believe that we got him, and we were so happy about it. He’s a breath of fresh air every time he shows up on screen, and everyone loves him.

The boys were all cast through our casting agency, which sent us options. I had known a couple of them ahead of time. Miguel Angel Garcia was in my last movie, and I love his work, so I brought him on to be in this movie.

Julian Works auditioned for my last movie, but we didn’t cast him for different reasons. But he was amazing, so when I was doing my rewrites on this movie, I was thinking about him to play the lead young kid.

All the rest of the boys were amazing finds. Christian, Greg and José and all the other guys brought a ton of life to the film.

When you’re casting this kind of movie, one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that they don’t all blend together. If you cast people who sound and look too much alike, the audience can get confused, and ask, “Which kid is that?” So the biggest challenge was to get different looks and energies so that we could have a rich tapestry of talent.

FF: Once the actors were cast, how did you work with them to build their characters’ emotional arcs throughout the movie’s production?

JQ: Well, I would say that the most work I put in was my collaboration with Jay, who played JB, the head coach, and Julian, who played the lead kid on the team. That was just conversations; I would tell them about what I was thinking about the characters, and they would tell me what they were thinking, and we would talk it through and figure it out.

The rest of the characters just figured it out. They took what was on the page and showed up, and threw in their own mannerisms, blocking and ideas that made the characters feel alive in ways that I didn’t really imagine when I was writing it. So those guys all found their place.

I gave them room to explore. I made bad decisions, so we’d do another take, and they would make bad decisions, so we’d do another take. So we’d do it again and again, and wouldn’t move on until we got it.

I was also lucky to have Jaina Lee Ortiz playing JB’s wife. She was also amazing. Jaina is the lead on her big network TV show (‘Station 19’), and Jay is the lead on his big network TV show (‘Magnum P.I.’). Julian’s also on a big TV show (‘9-1-1: Lone Star’).

So I had all of these actors who are big deals on TV, and they were willing to do supporting roles in my movie. So I had such a strong cast that it seemed like everywhere I pointed the camera, I was getting talented performances. It was pretty amazing.

FF: ‘The Long Game’ was shot on location in Texas and Colombia. What was your experience securing the locations and creating the look of the drama’s golf course settings?

JQ: Yes, we shot the movie partly in Texas and partly in Colombia. The movie’s set in Texas, so all of the exteriors and the interior of the houses had to be in Texas. We shot just in Smithville, just outside of Austin.

We went and looked at the actual Del Rio, which is a cool place. But the problem is that Del Rio has changed a lot since the ‘50s. But Smithville is a time capsule in a lot of ways; the ‘50s houses have been really well preserved, and downtown still looks like the ‘50s. So in Texas, we tried to find locations that have a charm and nostalgia to them that a place like Smithville has.

The rest of the film was shot in Colombia. We shot the golf course scenes there. There’s also a portion where they go to Mexico, which we shot over there, as well. Golf courses are more or less standard designs at this point around the world, so we were able to shoot the golf course scenes in Colombia and intercut them with Texas.

The problem with that was that it was overcast and cold in Colombia, and everything was very green and lush there. There were also mountains everywhere. So all of that stuff had to be avoided or dealt with in post (production). So a lot of the challenge of shooting in Colombia was trying to find places that don’t look like Latin America. But everything seemed like it cut together pretty seamlessly.

FF: ‘The Long Game’ (had) its World Premiere in the Narrative Spotlight at this month’s SXSW in Austin. What does it mean to you that the film (premiered) at the festival?

JQ: This is my first big festival (for a movie that I directed). I’ve been to SXSW for other, smaller projects, and projects that other people have directed, but this is my first feature to premiere at a major festival like this. So it’s been great.

I’m from Texas, and have been here since ’95. The movie’s set in Texas, and the guys who played on the original team live here in Texas. So this seems like the perfect place to premiere the film.

It’s a fun way for everyone to come together and celebrate the movie because my last film came out during COVID. So obviously there weren’t any premieres for it; it just premiered on Netflix worldwide. So it’s great to be able to celebrate this movie together and watch it with everyone who made it with me.

Fun Film Fact: ‘The Long Game’ won the SXSW Audience Award in the Narrative Spotlight category.

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