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Here’s What It’s Like to Shoot an American Movie In Cuba Today

Two American directors share their recent experiences of shooting feature films in the socialist country.

Giovanni Ribisi in "Papa Hemingway in Cuba"

Giovanni Ribisi in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba”

Yari Film Group

Shooting a feature film in Cuba comes with a unique set of challenges that make the usual logistical hurdles of filmmaking seem like nothing. Still, those who have had the opportunity to shoot in the socialist country say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. As the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba comes to an end, film production in the country is expected to ramp up.

While Hollywood studio productions like “Fast 8” and “Transformers: The Last Knight” claimed to be “making history” earlier this year by being the first American films to shoot in Havana in half a century, two American directors had already shot independent films in Cuba on the heels of the relaxed travel restrictions by the United States government: Bob Yari’s “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” and Ben Chace’s “Sin Alas” (“Without Wings”).

READ MORE: ‘Sin Alas’ – First American Film Shot in Cuba in 50+ Years – Gets Exclusive 1-Week Run at Metrograph (NYC)

Shot in 2014 with the help of the Cuban Film Institute, “Papa” is based on the autobiographical screenplay by journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006 while trying to bring his true story of meeting Hemingway to the silver screen. The producer of films including “Crash” (2004), “Thumbsucker” (2005), and “The Illusionist” (2006), Yari chose “Papa” as his first directing projecting in 25 years.

Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson in "Papa Hemingway in Cuba"

Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba”

Yari Film Group

“I remember reading it, loving it, and thinking that you really couldn’t shoot it anywhere but Cuba,” Yari said. “Cuba was such an important character in the film.” The movie stars Giovanni Ribisi as Ed Myers, a reporter for The Miami Globe who decided to become a writer after reading Hemingway’s novels as an orphan. In 1957, Myers writes Hemingway a fan letter that leads the author to invite him to visit his home in Havana.

Though Cuba’s film industry is comprised of crew members that Yari says have a true passion for filmmaking, half a century of communism has established a slower filmmaking pace and intensity compared to the speed of U.S. movie productions. “When you combine that with a U.S. film crew that’s used to shooting 14-hour days, it just sent them for a loop and things didn’t get done,” Yari said. “They ultimately stepped up, but that’s one of those challenges that you don’t anticipate.”

Some of the other challenges that are unique to Cuba include simple things like not being able to hire a catering company. “You have to create your own catering and you have to create a lot things that we’re just used to anywhere else in the world,” Yari said. “A lot of it is missing down there.”

READ MORE: Ernest Hemingway Biopic ‘Papa’ Announced as Key West Film Festival Centerpiece

Part of what makes the experience of shooting in Cuba worthwhile, however, is getting to work in a unified filmmaking community where all the best talent is essentially at your disposal. “Everyone knew what was happening in the whole industry,” Yari said. “You didn’t have to go out there and advertise that you were shooting a film — they already knew it when you were down there.”

Then there are the vintage cars, buildings with architecture preserved from the 1950s, and the Cuban coastline that looks the same today as it did half a century ago. “Cuba has such a feel to it,” Yari said. “It’s really hard to duplicate it almost anywhere else in the Caribbean or Latin America.” Despite the challenges, he said he remembers his time shooting in Cuba as a “wonderful experience” that any filmmaker should jump at if given the opportunity. “If you have reason to go down there — if the story calls for it — it’s worth doing.”

Minka Kelly and Giovanni Ribisi

Minka Kelly and Giovanni Ribisi

Yari Film Group

Yari’s production company, The Yari Group, self-distributed “Papa,” which won Best Narrative Film at the 2015 Key West Film Festival and Best World Feature at the 2016 Sonoma International Film Festival. The movie has generated just north of $1.1 million in box office revenue.

Working on a very different scale, director Ben Chace landed his first experience shooting a movie in Cuba in 2008, when he made the 30-minute documentary “La mitad,” about the son of a Cuban exile who travels to find the places he’s known only through his father’s stories. The following year he co-directed “Wah do Dem,” a film about a Brooklynite’s misadventure in Jamaica, winning the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Best Narrative Film award.

Chace returned to Cuba for his next project, “Sin Alas,” a Spanish language period film about a Cuban writer coming to terms with a lost love and his decision to stay in Cuba during the revolution. The film takes place in present day, with many long, flashback sequences set in 1967. “We were trying to make a piece of art that shows Americans what the conditions are like in Cuba, and also promotes the idea that Cuban actors, musicians and artists can collaborate with an American director,” Chace said. Aside from the producer and director of photography Sean Price Williams, every member of Chace’s cast and crew was from Cuba.

Yulisleyvís Rodriguez

Yulisleyvís Rodriguez in “Sin Alas”

Franklin Avenue Films

Though Chace also found Cuba’s film industry to be an extremely centralized community, he describes it slightly differently than Yari. “It’s a little bit like a cartel,” Chace said. “You have to be on the good side of the Cuban people or you won’t be successful.”

One of the most significant challenges Chace faced was getting a straight answer from members of his crew when things didn’t end up going as planned. “People are used to things breaking down, from cars to any kind of organization, so there’s a certain amount of smoke and mirrors when you’re trying to find out why something’s not happening,” he said. “I was constantly finding myself making speeches and trying to hold people accountable. It felt like I kind of turned into a politician down there.”

Venturing out of Havana one day, Chace learned just how little control he had over certain members of his crew, who cost the movie an hour of shooting time when they decided to purchase a pig, slaughter it, and load it into the movie’s art department truck. “They were using our government-approved vehicle to transport this stuff back to Havana to sell on the black market,” Chace said. “That’s a way to make some income on the side that they need.”

Aside from making sure that key equipment like the production’s camera didn’t get stolen — “Sin Alas” was shot on Super 16mm film — Chace said he found Havana to be “really safe,” and thought his crew and actors were very well trained. “It was a balance of crazy stuff you couldn’t understand and then unexpectedly brilliant preparation,” he said. “I would never do it any differently, really.”

"Sin Alas" director Ben Chace.

“Sin Alas” director Ben Chace.

Franklin Avenue Films

“Sin Alas” screened at the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival, where it was nominated for the World Fiction Award, and had a one-week run at New York’s Metrograph in May. The film is opening at the O’Cinema Miami Beach on June 24, and later this summer will play in Havana at the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema. Chace said he is also soon to close a worldwide digital, DVD and ancillary rights deal with an independent distributor.

Though Chace and Yari are two of the first American directors to venture to Cuba to shoot narrative features in the wake of thawing U.S.-Cuba relations, both were preceded by British director Lucy Mulloy, who in 2010 shot the drama “Una Noche” about Cuban teenagers fleeing to Miami. A protege of Spike Lee, Mulloy won Best New Narrative Director at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and landed a distributor in IFC Films.

American filmmakers have also been making documentaries in Cuba for years. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s 2005 documentary “Young Rebels,” about rap in Cuba, followed five Cuban hip-hop groups during the course of one summer, while Benjamin Murray and Alysa Nahmias’s 2011 doc “Unfinished Spaces,” focused on the Cuban art schools commissioned by Fidel Castro.

For Carlos Gutiérrez, co-founder of Cinema Tropical, a non-profit that distributes, programs and promotes Latin American cinema in the U.S., Cuba’s rich film history has failed to attract the attention it deserves. “Cuba has one of the biggest film traditions in Latin America, particularly after the revolution, but the film institute in Cuba cut a lot of funding in the past 10 years,” Gutiérrez said.

Though the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo is expected to lead to more U.S. productions in Cuba, Gutiérrez doesn’t view the historic action as a magic bullet for Cuba’s film industry. “I don’t necessarily foresee a better future,” Gutiérrez said. “What I see is more production companies going to Cuba to make films, but not necessarily co-productions.” Many countries have co-production treaties with Cuba that use tax breaks to incentivize film production, but the U.S. does not.

So does Gutiérrez see the U.S. and Cuban film industries ever coming together in a meaningful way? “The modes of production are very different between the U.S. and Latin America,” he said,  “so that’s going to take a while.”

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