Do you remember what story headlined national news two weeks ago? What about two months ago? 53 years ago? News comes and goes so fast that today's national story becomes next week's forgotten headline, and events that shake the foundations of our society are quickly forgotten. Books and movies like The Perfect Game can remind us of these triumphs, inspiring us to find the heroes around us and celebrate their stories.
Research by Immersion Content to Play Baseball
Casting the Perfect Team Synopsis
Finding inspirational stories is the job of people like Bill Winokur, investment banker turned novelist turned screenplay writer, who wrote The Perfect Game. "I had burned out about 7 or 8 years ago," Winokur said, "and had stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to touch lives so I wrote my first novel, Marathon, which was a very special story. It's also a true story, but more personal to me. Then I was lucky enough to stumble upon this story (The Perfect Game), which is known to many people."
Winokur wasn't the first to want to write this story. About 50 different filmmakers had approached the members of the 1957 Monterrey Industrials team in almost as many years. The team members, who agreed only to sell the rights by a unanimous vote, had turned down every offer that came to them.
Winokur met with the adult team members in a Monterrey conference room. With no film background to rely upon, he pitched his idea that communicated his deep affection for the story. "There was one guy in particular, Ricardo Trevino, who was skeptical," Winokur recalled. "He sat in the back of the room, arms crossed and just stared at me. After I made my pitch he said, 'What gives you the right to tell our story?' I looked him in the eye and said, "Well, what gave you the right to win the Little League® World Series?'"
The convinced Trevino on the spot. "He said, 'I don't care if you succeed or fail, I'm putting my faith in you,'" Winokur remembers. "After that, it didn't take long for the other guys to agree."
Research by Immersion
"There's a lot of research that goes into writing a book if you want to write one well. That's also part of the fun," Winokur said in a recent interview. "I did go down to Mexico and spent hours and hours with every single player and coach and participant in the event. I immersed myself in the culture.
"Remember, it's a period piece, so it's more than going down to Mexico, but it's also researching what the world was like in 1957. What was it like in McAllen, Texas, in Louisville, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. That's what makes writing so exciting. You get to go on a trip in time and place."
When he finished the book, Winokur adapted it to a screenplay. At that point, he reached out to director Bill Dear (Free Style, Angels in the Outfield) and sent him a copy of the script. "I read it and was overwhelmed," Dear recalled. "Very few of the movies you’re offered you end up doing that get inside you and touch you. The last one like that was Angels in the Outfield, which I related to because of not having a father.
"This one I related to again because of the father-son relationship, and the amazement of the pure simple story of these kids who had nothing and aspired to something. They were willing to play at any level; at a sandlot field they cleared outside the church. But there was something that they aspired to – what if we tried more, reached farther."
Content to Play Baseball
"Bill Winokur told me they would have been content to walk across the border to McAllen, Texas, and lose because they would have stood there on a baseball diamond and would have realized their dream," Dear said. "That's what you see in the movie, that they can go beyond their dream. But they wouldn't have been devastated if they had lost.'
Winokur resonated with that part of the story, and shared what made it so compelling to him. " You have a group of kids who had nothing and were content to simply play baseball. You have a coach who's a down and out factory worker who aspired to baseball and had baseball skills, but lost his faith. That's a match made in heaven, right, because each held the key to the other's redemption.
"The coach could have lost his way, his faith, his belief in things. Here are these kids to whom he could impart skill, and at the end of the story, they each helped the other find something that was missing. I didn't make that up; it really happened. That's the real essence of the story."
Bringing the story to film proved to be a challenge for a production that started, ran a couple of weeks, stopped for eight months, and resumed with almost all new cast members. Dear recalled those weeks early in the production. " We had the story and the script and went to Mexico to start. We started filming and some of the money came in with new restrictions. They replaced me (the director) and others."
But with new financing comes new contracts and new agreements to be signed. "They had to deal with rights," Dear said, "and Bill Winokur said they could have the rights to the story, but they had to bring Bill Dear back, and that doesn't happen in Hollywood, that kind of loyalty."
"We felt the making of the movie paralleled the story of the baseball team," Winokur said. ". Just when it seemed like it was all for naught, production shut down, we wouldn't have distribution, a thousand things conspired to make us think it won't happen. But we told ourselves if those kids coming from dirt poverty could walk across the border and some day be standing in the White House with the president of the United States, who are we to give up easily?
"I'm not being corny about it, but that's really how we felt. We really wanted to honor the people whose story this is."
Casting the Perfect Team
Winokur and Dear agreed that the goal of the production was for the story, not the cast, to be the star. " What we really wanted was an ensemble cast," Winokur said.
"We didn't want people to say, 'Oh, that's Jim Carrey, or that's Johnny Depp.' We wanted people to go and say, 'That's Cesar Faz. That's Padre Esteban. Look at those great kids.'
"We got lucky because every actor of every age really took this movie to heart. It wasn't a job or a gig. They took it to heart. From Clifton to Cheech to the kids, to everyone else, people really believed in what we were doing.
"We've all seen Cheech for decades, and I personally think it's the best thing he's ever done," Winokur said. "He's really convincing. Everyone gave a great performance. I think the kids were great. They had a chance to really act and emote in this film, and they really delivered."
"Carlos Gomez is one of the most outstanding actors in this film," Winokur stated. "He didn't have as much screen time, but when he was, he had such a presence, it was incredible. He had certain scenes where I had tears in my eyes just watching him. He was brilliant, a consummate professional."
Dear agreed, " He brought the other actors up. When you have someone delivering that brilliant of a performance, it causes others to rise up. They realized this isn't just another story, it's the story of heroes, of men who changed a nation."
When the 1957 Monterrey Industrials returned to their hometown after winning the Little League® World Series, 500,000 people lined the 20-mile route from the airport to the city to welcome their heroes home.
When the cast and crew of The Perfect Game were filming in Mexico, people came to greet them in restaurants and around town, to thank them for honoring their heroes and telling their story. Winokur summed up his feelings about the production when he said, "There's something very fulfilling when you can communicate a story, whether in written form or the visual art of a movie. You touch people's lives, people you've never met. Since this project began, people have come out of nowhere and found one or the other of us by email and told us how we've touched their lives.
"I read a letter from an older Mexican gentleman to my partners. He was in tears. I did something that made his life better, and it's hard to describe that except to say that I feel a lot more life purpose than I ever did trying to consummate a business deal on Wall Street."
In 1957, a barefooted, rag-tag team of boys from poverty-stricken Monterrey, Mexico defy extraordinary odds to become the first foreign team to win Little League® World Series – doing so in a perfect game, the only one in championship history. Based on a true story, The Perfect Game tells the tale of how their miracle changed not only their lives, but an entire city’s destiny.
The Perfect Game opens Friday, April 16, in theaters nationwide.