Filmmakers Ben Masters and David Modigliani on sandlot baseball, turning Texas stereotypes on their head and humanizing politics
by Margaret Williams
Photographs by Jessica Pages with assistance from Katie Leacroy
Ben Masters and David Modigliani arrive at The Long Time, home of the Texas Playboys, a sandlot baseball team, on one of those perfect spring days. It’s been just a few weeks since both directors’ documentary films premiered at South by Southwest. Masters’ “The River and the Wall” won the Louis Black Lone Star Award, and Modigliani’s “Running With Beto” was a recipient of an Audience Award, recognition that caps a wild couple of years for the two filmmakers.
In December 2017, Masters, along with Austin Alvarado, Filipe DeAndrade, Jay Kleberg and Heather Mackey, set out to document how the president’s proposed border wall would affect Texas’ western borderlands. Their three-month journey, which started in El Paso and ended in the Gulf of Mexico, saw the friends traversing the Rio Grande via mountain bike, horse and canoe, and the result is a documentary equal parts wild and hilarious. Interviews with former congressman (and current presidential candidate) Beto O’Rourke, Congressman Will Hurd and Dr. Louis Harveson of Sul Ross State University are interspersed throughout to provide details on the larger political and historical context of the Texas-Mexico border.
Modigliani first met O’Rourke playing baseball for the Playboys in April 2017 — O’Rourke was on the opposing team and had just announced his run to unseat incumbent senator Ted Cruz — and the filmmaker, whose past feature documentaries “Crawford” and “61 Bullets” delve into the complex human side of politics, was impressed with O’Rourke’s energy and campaign style. The two stayed in touch, and that fall, Modigliani was granted full access to trail O’Rourke, his staff and his family for the final year of his campaign. The intimate and up-close results — thanks in large part to the trust O’Rourke and his wife, Amy, placed in Modigliani and his team — capture the excitement, exhaustion and emotion of a campaign that Texas hasn’t seen since the likes of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Despite the many ways in which their work overlaps, Masters and Modigliani are meeting for the first time. The two embrace, with Masters ready to get down to brass tacks. Take it away, gentlemen.
Ben Masters: So what’s your connection to this place [gestures to the surrounding field]?
David Modigliani: I’m a founding member of the Texas Playboys. We started in 2006. Jack Sanders owns the property and is the founder. It is a special place.
BM: And you first met Beto here?
DM: Yes, a while back, the Playboys had barnstormed El Paso to play Los Diablitos. I missed that trip, but they came to play us in April of 2017. They had this lanky center fielder with a name I hadn’t heard before who happened to be a U.S. congressman. He had just announced that he was running for Senate. I was playing first base. He got a single, so we chatted a bit there. Then, in the seventh-inning stretch, he got up on a hay bale and started speaking to the 100 or so people that were here.
It was very clear to me then — he’s magnetic and charismatic — but it was also the type of campaign he talked about running. He was going to every county in Texas and test this human-to-human politics. That sounded like an epic odyssey. There’s a built-in narrative structure.
BM: Making a documentary is a real pain in the ass that requires multiple years of your life, and I know every time I get approached with a topic, my first instinct is like, no, absolutely not.
DM: Right, and you’ll be telling that story long after the film is finished.
BM: You’ve got to go ask people for their hard-earned bread, and then create an expectation that essentially you alone are responsible for delivering on.
DM: Filmmaking is putting the cart in front of the horse. It’s usually a very challenging decision. In this case, I was pretty damn sure I wanted to do it right away. I believe in the importance of storytelling in our society, but sometimes it’s hard. Am I doing my part? To see the possibility of telling a story that could help humanize politics, that was exciting to me.
BM: I like that Beto is a character in the film, but it’s not a glory piece. It’s amazing the amount of trust and access that they gave you. How did that conversation and relationship begin?
DM: Building the trust to create such an intimate film, I credit Amy. She invited me and my crew to come over and have a drink on the Friday night before we began shooting. It created an opportunity for everyone to kind of get to know each other before beginning work.
BM: Everybody says things they wish they didn’t say. Everybody has actions that they wish that they could redo. Did he ever ask for any type of creative control or insight?
DM: You know, he didn’t. I knew from the beginning that it would be vital for us to be creatively and financially independent from the campaign and set those terms. He had either seen or spent some time learning about this film I had made called “Crawford,” which involved spending time in a very conservative town and reflecting the humanity of folks across the political spectrum. I think he saw that there was a through-line to my work, and it wasn’t someone acting opportunistically.
BM: In your film it really felt like we were along for the ride. It’s mostly cinema verité with some talking heads. Why did you decide to shoot and edit that way? What were you going for?
DM: We had the opportunity to be up close with this extremely kinetic campaign, and that is the experience that I wanted the audience to share.
BM: I know that’s really hard.
DM: We had great editors. Just extraordinary — cutting a two-hour scene into 90 seconds while still making you feel these human moments. “The River and the Wall” does that, too. Delivering a vast amount of information, but making it digestible through these very alive, and funny, moments. Following this group traveling the border, I felt like I was on that journey with you.
I loved the fact that you were able to get those two guys [O’Rourke and Hurd], whose districts abut one another and [who] probably don’t agree on a ton, to share some of the same perspective and some different perspective about the border situation and how to address it.
BM: Yeah, you can’t help but respect [Hurd]. He has a desire to do good in the world, which I find incredibly admirable. What connects those guys is public service. We’ve lost that in our politics. Both are there to serve.
BM: “Running With Beto” is really about this movement in Texas, and there were all these other colorful characters from across the state.
DM: Yeah, there’s so many narratives of Texas that people project onto it that aren’t from here or live here. I knew we wanted to confuse people’s stereotypes. We had a woman from Bulverde — from a military background, gun enthusiast, swears like a sailor — who really found purpose in community after the  election.
We had a 17-year-old kid from Houston, Marcel McClinton, who had experienced gun violence at his church and became really involved in politics as a result. And we had a woman from the Valley in McAllen, Amanda Salas, who was just hellbent on registering as many voters as possible.
BM: Someone that saw the film told me, they’re like the Greek chorus of the film. I think they help show the moment in Texas and help process the loss at the end. We have their sense of this being not the end of something but the beginning. The scene where Amanda confronts her father? That was probably the best scene of the movie for me. You have somebody with strong conservative values and somebody with strong Democrat values. They were actually talking about it.
DM: Thank you. Yeah, that scene means a lot to me, too. I think part of making politics feel accessible also has to show people struggling within their own families. How do we talk about things that impact our lives with the people that are all closest to us, despite often disagreeing?
BM: Is it fair to say you’re a fan of Beto?
DM: Fan is hard, but I would say I deeply respect Beto after seeing how hard he works.
BM: But I’m assuming you wanted him to beat Cruz?
DM: Yeah. As a citizen of Texas, I would have preferred Beto to win that election, yeah.
BM: How does that boundary — personal belief, maybe a hint of fandom — play into the creation of a documentary and the different hats that you have to wear?
DM: I think in any character-driven documentary, I need to feel a deep connection to the subject, because I’m asking the audience to connect with them, too. I felt an empathy for what Beto and his team were experiencing, particularly when the campaign really took off and the national news media descended.
But I think at the same time, including election night, when they were experiencing the emotional loss of a hard-fought campaign, I felt empathetic toward them but ultimately came back to our job of telling the story.
BM: So on election night, did it sink in, or were you captivated with filming everything?
DM: The loss was palpable. The disappointment after this extraordinary effort by the campaign and the movement that was behind it, to not quite get over the hump, that was palpable. Honestly, I felt more energized on election night, because we now had the responsibility to show what this campaign meant to people across the state. Because he lost, it felt all the more important and exciting to be offering an in-depth story for the historical record.
This story is part of our series “Listening In,” where we pair SXSW speakers and artists and then happily eavesdrop on the exchange. Find the complete series at tribeza.com/listening-in.