In Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s debut feature film, a brother and sister living in Havana embark on a dangerous journey with their friend, floating on a raft bound for Miami. Even ahead of its release this month, the film has garnered Mulloy numerous accolades, and even a stamp of approval from director Spike Lee. In April, the movie also made waves when lead actors Javier Núñez Florián and Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre (who became a couple during production) disappeared en route to the Tribeca Film Festival, only to resurface days later with the revelation that they were seeking asylum in the United States.
At its core, though, Una Noche is a compelling portrait of a teenage girl, a coming-of-age story set in a context rarely seen. I talked with Mulloy about the Una Noche, her working relationship with Spike Lee, her experiences as a female filmmaker, the importance of representation, and what made her, a British director, so keen on telling a Cuban story.
You come from a creative family, both of your parents are animators and filmmakers. What is it that made you want to be a director?
I think it’s a really incredible position to be in, to actually be a writer-director, and to imagine a story, dream up a narrative and characters, and then actually have them come to real life. Meet the actors, cast it, look at the locations, find the exact places that you want the movie to take place, and kind of make this fantasy you have into a reality. It’s like making your dream come true, really. It’s kind of magical. It’s that form of creativity that really appeals to me and made me want to direct.
I understand you spent quite some time in Cuba, prior to developing the concept for Una Noche. Do you think the film is an honest portrayal of life in Cuba?
Oh yeah, that was my priority, making sure that the the film was a representation of reality. It was important to me that this film would resonate with a Cuban audience, would ring true to a Cuban audience. That was the utmost thing in my mind, when I was making every decision on set: that it should feel authentic, natural, and real. And that people would be able to watch the movie in Cuba and see themselves or see people that they knew, and relate to those characters, and believe in those characters. All of the locations that we used are real locations, are real people’s homes. All of the people in the movie are not actors. They’re people who were selected because they can relate to those characters. The way that the actors were speaking, the slang that they used, the accents that they have, down to the clothes that they wear… I observed all of it in detail. I chose real people because I feel that no actor would be able to replicate that. I wasn’t embellishing anything, I wasn’t trying to get Cuba to look like this or like that, or get a political point across. I was literally just representing the bare truth of what I was seeing.
You said in an interview once “Everything we do is political, who we cast and and who we don’t cast.” What drew you to tell this particular story, about a very particular group of people we don’t often see on screen? Why did you want to tell a Cuban story as opposed to any other story?
I went to Cuba ten years ago and I was blown away by the place, by the people, by the stories. I was really struck by the fact that I had never seen this side of Cuba on the screen. It made me feel robbed of a whole other perspective. When you travel I think you realize, wow, the movies that we’re seeing really have the same Hollywood actors, the same faces, the same story lines, the same clichés. For me, I’m just trying to tell an authentic story about real people that I hadn’t seen before. I think it’s really, really important to have different people represented, especially in Cuba. I think the kids who are in the movie and many kids like them don’t feel represented. It’s really important that everybody see themselves onscreen.
Going off this idea of representation and diversity in film, can you talk a little bit about what it means to be a women in the movie industry? What have your experiences been?
I think it’s really important that there be female directors from everywhere, every walk of life, every culture. I think that woman in society, in general, going through life, are treated differently. And I think that those experiences obviously do translate to work when you’re directing a movie and even afterwards, when you’re trying to do post production. And it’s not just as a director, it’s the same in many different walks of life. For me, there were moments on set when, for example, I would be talking to someone at a location, and I would be standing there with a production assistant who was male and the person that was answering my questions wouldn’t answer me, they’d talk to the man. It was things like that that every woman goes through, and you kind of notice it and you carry on and you do your work. But when it comes to directing, I get the job done, and that’s got nothing to do with whether I’m male or I’m female.
You did get the job done, and it looks like it was a very difficult film to shoot. So much of the last act takes place in the water, which couldn’t have been easy. What for you was the most difficult aspect of making the film?
Maintaing the energy and the drive at each different hurdle I come across. Because you’re right, it was incredibly difficult to make this movie. I wish I could say it was easy, but no, it was incredibly hard. The hardest part is to keep going and to keep believing. In a way, it’s the easiest thing as well because you never really stop believing in your movie, but there are times when you can get really tired. There were so many moments where I really needed things that just weren’t available. But there were other times as well where there were incredible people who would pull through and make things happen and really surprise me in terms of how much support was actually out there. For example, with IFP, and Tribeca All Access, and editing the movie at NYU. It was really those people from those institutions who helped to get to that final stage and help the movie get made. I still really can’t believe it’s coming out.
Now, I have to go ahead and ask you about the situation that happened prior to the Tribeca Film Festival, when your two lead actors disappeared upon arrival in Miami, and later came out to say they were seeking asylum in the United States. What was your reaction? And how are they doing now?
Initially I was surprised, which sounds stupid because I made a movie about leaving Cuba. But I was shocked. I saw the kids yesterday, and they are doing really well. They are living their lives. Anailín is actually pregnant now, and they’re expecting twins. So they’re kind of embarking on another chapter. They’re really enthusiastic about acting more, as well. They miss their parents and stuff, but they’re living a whole new life. Of course, things aren’t as easy as they imagined, it’s not as simple, but they are definitely enjoying their new life and new opportunities. It’s pretty incredible. They’re in a good place. I wish them the very best, and I’m sure they’re going to have beautiful babies!
I know you were planning to do a sequel to Una Noche until your actors decided to seek asylum in the US. Since that’s no longer in the works, can you talk to me a little about whatever future projects you have planned?
I’m working right now on a script following a male character who leaves Rio to come to New York. It’s basically his journey of getting into a very dark world, and ultimately finding himself.
Finally, Spike Lee has been a huge supporter of this film, and of you, what has it meant for him to be so vocal in this process?
It’s amazing. It blows my mind. I’m happy that he likes the movie and wants to support the movie. He’s been involved since the script stage, he went through the editing process with me, and gave some really insightful, helpful advice. It’s just inspiring to me to see somebody who is in the industry, an independent filmmaker who is consistently making films, someone who also went to NYU, and is giving back in this way. It gave me that inspiration that I could get this movie made. It means a lot to me.
Una Noche released by IFC opens in theaters today (August 23) in New York and Miami, and on iTunes starting August 25th.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.