Cuba looms large in the imagination of Yanquis. With legendary cigars, rum and music, Cuba’s like a fat mango just out of reach—so close, yet so far.
Since 1960, the U.S. has enforced a crippling embargo, prohibiting not only trade but travel to the Caribbean nation. El bloqueo (“The Blockade”) keeps Cuba impoverished, locking it into a crumbling time warp—where a fading Kodachrome landscape has taken hold; where “Yank tanks,” classic American cars from the 1950s, prowl like endangered species, held together by hope and ingenuity; where buildings literally turn to dust. Ironically, this has only made the island more desirable, forbidden fruit infused with the romance of Hemingway, Lanksy and Che.
But change is coming. In July 2015 President Obama normalized relations with Cuba and eased travel restrictions. Filmmakers, eager to bite into that fat mango, dove into pre-production. But optimism aside, does that mean it’s realistic to shoot in Cuba? We talked to pioneering Yanqui producers Amanda Harvey and Bob Yari, the first American filmmakers to shoot a feature in Cuba in over 50 years. Their film, Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, which Yari also directed, premiered in April 2016. It’s based on screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc’s real-life friendship with Hemingway, forged in 1959 in Havana; character Ed Myers, the stand-in for Petitclerc, is played by Giovanni Ribisi, while Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson play Ernest and Mary Hemingway respectively.
Brian O’Hare, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Filmmaking is like war. You’ve got an “army” you’ve got to provide for—challenging even under perfect conditions—but how do you do that in a country like Cuba?
Bob Yari (BY): Anywhere you go in the world, you need to feed this army—120 people, three times a day. You hire a catering company and it’s not a big deal. But you go to Cuba, and lo and behold, there’s no such thing as a catering company. You innovate. We brought a chef from Mexico and trained local people who worked in restaurants. It was very challenging.
MM: How did this start?
BY: I got the script 10 years ago. I remember loving the story and I just didn’t see shooting it anywhere other than Cuba. Cuba is a character, not just a backdrop. It’s a very hard place to duplicate in the Dominican Republic. I mean, they did it in The Godfather—a three-minute scene shot on a rooftop—but when you’re traveling throughout Cuba showing iconic places, the Malecon, the Ambos Mundos hotel, there’s an authenticity factor that is huge. So I told [the rest of the team] and they said, “You’re crazy.” They went off and tried to shoot in Portugal. I honestly don’t know what happened, but somehow it shut down.
Then, Denne Petitclerc, the writer, died. And the rights went back to his widow. I chased her for two years, finally convincing her to trust me with this project. Then it became my mission to see if I could make this in Cuba. We hired a lobbyist. I flew to Washington many times; I met with the State Department, Department of the Treasury’s OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control], and initially they turned us down. We persisted, trying to change their mind. We convinced them that, like a documentary, this is about preserving a historic story in a historic location and place; things that are not going to be there forever. So it’s a worthy artistic cause and not just commerce. It was “journalism,” but even that was a push.
Amanda Harvey (AH): Right. This was a “historical reenactment.”
BY: We called it a “docu-drama.” Like the film Lincoln; we used that as the big example because that was in the theaters at the time. We said, “Look, Lincoln was reenacted; it’s being presented as a historical drama.” And ultimately, luckily, that’s what convinced them. And it was before the Obama changes, which make it relatively easy to go down there and shoot. I mean “easy” as far as permission, not easy as far as logistics. When you have $150 million to make a movie like Fast and Furious 8, you have ships filled with trucks and equipment and supplies; they just offloaded everything and it was terrific. But we had very tight monetary restrictions that we had to operate under…
MM: Imposed by Cuba?
AH: No, the U.S. They said, “Sure you can go, but the Americans can’t spend more than [a certain amount].” But most of our crew was international. Our line producer was Mexican, so he could spend money. So we sorta spun that as well to our advantage.
MM: Did you do a co-production?
AH: Yes. With a Canadian company.
BY: There’s no way you can make a movie on the cap they gave us: $100,000. It was very, very difficult.
AH: We literally came in right under, like with $20 to spare.
BY: It had to be carefully put together. We got our license, started putting the pieces together, got permission from the Cubans, started putting crew together, arranging for equipment to go down, and then tried to send money down there. And we told the bank, “Here’s our license, we have permission…” and we couldn’t do it! You cannot send money to Cuba. Any bank, anywhere in the world, will freeze your account, the minute they hear “American” and “Cuba” associated. And it’s because of OFAC regulations—they don’t mess with the U.S. government, because they can penalize them by freezing them out of the U.S. economy. That became one of the big challenges: How do we get money down there?
MM: Bag men?
BY: Ultimately, we sent money to Mexico and had people take cash in. We kept telling people “We’re OK. We have permission.” If they freeze your account for 60 days…
MM: You’re dead.
AH: The Cuban government allows businesses to open bank accounts, but it’s a three-month process.
BY: The issues you deal with shooting in Cuba, you wouldn’t even think of. It seems like common sense: “They don’t have equipment, they don’t have infrastructure…” But you have no idea what they really don’t have, what the issues are, until you’re there.
AH: And when you’re there, you don’t have Internet either. You have it in the hotel, but once you step out of the hotel you’re disconnected from everyone and everything.
MM: How do you communicate with your office?
BY: We’d have to wait until we got back to the hotel at night and send emails.
AH: Sometimes I’d be on set and if [a matter] was important I’d go back to the hotel while we were shooting, just to send emails.
MM: At any point did you just go, “Why are we doing this?”
BY: I think we were so motivated to get it done. We had so many obstacles: the U.S. government, the Cuban government, the issues, the money, the financial cap, and then we had an issue with Sharon Stone—she was originally going to play Mary Hemingway and she caused the production to shut down and we had to figure that out. It was probably the most difficult film I’ve ever made. And I’ve done about 40 films. Some of them were difficult, but this one takes the cake. I so wanted to break this barrier, to shoot a film in Cuba, which hadn’t been done for 55 years, and I thought, “This embargo is so ridiculous.” I mean, we can travel to North Korea, which has nuclear missiles that are threatening us, but you can’t go to Cuba, which practically doesn’t have a military. Our embargo has kept that country in a lot of poverty; I went there and expected to feel resentment and distrust, and yet we didn’t really feel any of that. We were welcomed with open arms. Hats off to Obama for breaking this barrier down, because it needed to be broken down—it’s a great injustice.
MM: I think as cultures, we’re very curious about each other.
BY: Our project was a natural bridge. Because Hemingway’s so beloved in Cuba. And Hemingway really loved the Cuban people and the country. So it was great, because ultimately we got everything we wanted from the Cuban government, because it was Hemingway. They gave us access to weapons, Cuban museums…
AH: They gave us access to a Cuban Coast Guard cutter.
MM: As a destination, how did your preconceptions of Cuba mesh with reality?
BY: I think it was better than I’d expected. I thought, “Wow. We can be inside Hemingway’s home [Finca La Vigia], just the way he left it years ago. And we can present Cuba as a real landscape, which hasn’t been done in American film in so long.” But once you get down there, there’s something very intangible. There’s a feeling there that I don’t think you can duplicate in any other Latin American country and I think it has to do with the mix of ethnicities, the architecture. There’s just an “air” to it that I think we were able to capture. The magic of it is, this embargo and Communism have kept Cuba the same as 60 years ago. So we didn’t have to do a lot. We went and got some beautiful, long wide shots of the Malecon at sunset and no one can tell it’s not 60 years ago without a lot of CGI.
MM: What’s Cuba’s “secret weapon?”
BY: The great thing about Cubans is that Communism has done a job on them, and it’s positive and negative, right? One of the things it’s taught them is, “No matter how hard you work, the reward for you is the same as for the couch potato.” So they have a very easy-going attitude, and it’s terrible for American filmmaking, going 14 hours a day. But they have this attitude of “We’ll get it done” and you can see it on the cars on the street. These are cars with more than a million miles on them, late ’50s American cars—it’s unbelievable. And they keep these things running with no access to replacement parts because of the embargo. Their ingenuity is terrific. When we couldn’t find star trailers for changing rooms when we were on remote locations, they went and brought a school bus.
AH: And they converted it to a dressing room. And it was better than any star wagon we’d ever seen. Their resources are so limited—they’re sort of in this bubble and it pushes you to find solutions in the bubble. There’s this ingenuity and creativity that comes out of that that’s really spectacular.
MM: Did you submit the script to the Cuban government? Was someone on set who made sure you stuck to the script?
AH: Bob produced The Painted Veil  in China, where there was censorship, and Bob said, “For sure, [the Cuban government] is going to come back with notes.” But when they came back, they said, “Great—go shoot it.”
BY: They didn’t change a word. No censorship. No interference. China was horrible. They wanted scenes taken out, even for the finished film they said, “You have to make these changes.” It was a big ordeal. So I was expecting that here, but they let us do exactly as we wanted.
MM: But Cuba needs dollars. Did that influence their amenability?
BY: I didn’t feel that. There are areas in the government that couldn’t care less. They were making it as hard as they could. Like customs: no cooperation.
AH: The customs people didn’t communicate with the film arm of the Cuban government. When we were taking the hard-drives out of the country when we were finished, customs was like, “No. You can’t take that out.” And we were like, “That’s the film. We have to take that out.”
BY: So that wasn’t what we felt—that they were bending over backwards. I think the Hemingway thing had more effect than the money thing. Because there’s a part of them that wants to give the middle finger to anything from the U.S. and say, “Hey, don’t think you can come here and walk all over us.” What I think tipped it over was Hemingway, overall.
AH: But the great thing I learned there was that the government works on all one level. There’s no hierarchy so to speak, and so, for one instance, we were told we couldn’t get the university to double as our newsroom, and Bob’s like, “No. We’re getting it. Ask someone else.” So you learn that sometimes in Cuba, you have to ask five or six people and they all say “no,” and the seventh person is going to say “yes.”
BY: That’s the only way I could get this film done, by not taking “no” for an answer. Because it was all “no.” We were bulldogs. And ultimately, that’s what got it done. I think if we’d given in at any point on anything, it would have all crumbled.
MM: Did you hire a fixer?
BY: That person doesn’t exist! The best we found was a Canadian company who’d done commercials and music videos. So they had a sense of “who’s who” on the film side. But you just have to get down there and figure out who you can talk to and how it works. Everyone has a position and how they wield power is very personal. It’s all they have. They can’t have wealth, so they have this bit of power.
AH: Another instance when we were down there: We were shooting on the water, but the Cuban government doesn’t allow Cubans to go on the water. We had a barge, and all our crew was there ready to go, and our actors were being brought out on a support boat. And this boat decided not to follow this Cuban Coast Guard cutter onto the water; he decided to follow normal channels and check in with Cuban customs.
BY: Because you have to get permission to get on a boat.
AH: So he went through normal channels and they said, “No. You can’t go out there.” We had to get the Cuban Coast Guard cutter to come back, pick up the actors and have them come out on that boat.
BY: They literally cost us half a day. All we had was four days on the water. I don’t know if you know anything about shooting on water, but it’s a nightmare. So when you lose half a day of your scheduled shoot—it’s crazy.
MM: How much of your crew was local?
BY: Ninety percent of our crew was Cuban. We tried to use some key positions from Cuba, like our production designer was Cuban. They have a great film community down there. They have one of the top film schools in Latin America, so they have great film people, though you have this problem concerning the pace of work they’re used to. But they’re so passionate, they overcame that.
AH: It’s more challenging for them because they don’t have transportation like cars. So when we have a 5 a.m. call time, they have a bus that goes around the island picking people up at 2.30 or 3 o’clock in the morning. That’s their transportation to get to set. Their days are even longer than ours.
BY: Anywhere in the world, crew normally has access to transportation, or they’re put up in hotels, but they’re all over the place. We didn’t realize this was the custom in Cuba: When you shoot a film, a bus goes to everyone’s house and picks them up. That takes a lot of time. The first guy picked up sits on a bus for an hour and a half.
We asked for our prop boat to be painted. And we show up to shoot and paint is dripping off the boat. They painted it when it was wet. Or we show up to do a major scene and we ask the prop guy, “Where are these guns we need for this day? It’s on the call sheet.” And he says, “Oh, we left those back. We’ll get them tomorrow.” If I had any hair, I’d pull it out. You learn to work with it.
MM: Did you have the film commission on set?
BY: Yes. There’s a body called ICAIC, Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematograficos.
AH: It’s the film division of the government. The head of the ICAIC, Santiago, was on set with us, and he would help secure locations with his group. They helped with certain aspects that Bob or I couldn’t penetrate.
BY: You absolutely need them. Interestingly enough, there’s an independent film world that’s building up. Like, someone will rent you costumes from their home. But 90 percent of it is still through ICAIC. Three or four years ago, Castro came out and said, “Communism hasn’t worked so well for Cuba.” Because the Russians and the Venezuelans cut them off, they had to lay off almost a million people off the state payroll. And in doing that they had to give them a way to make money. They opened up a few areas of business ownership: restaurants, food stalls. Supporting film became legal. It’s just fascinating to see this capitalism, like a weed coming through broken concrete, making its way.
MM: So how long before there’s a Target on the Malecon?
AH: Right now, there’s no marketing anywhere, nothing bombarding you.
BY: There’s no branding. There’s no company. No one is trying to sell you anything. At all. Not even a bumper sticker. So when you come back to Miami, you’re just…
BY: That part of it is going to be lost, unfortunately. That’s why now is a beautiful time to go visit.
MM: What’s the future for American filmmakers in Cuba?
BY: I think it’s a question of floodgates opening. It’s going to be so attractive to Hollywood—not because it’s cheaper, the limitations are going to make up for that. But the uniqueness of the landscape is going to make for a lot of writers writing stories about Cuba, so I think you’re going to see a lot of filmmakers going down to Cuba with the easing of regulations. I think that’s going to be the first wave of American reintroduction into Cuba.
MM: What advice would you give filmmakers wanting to shoot in Cuba?
AH: If you know you’re going to shoot in Cuba, definitely try and open a Cuban bank account. And hire locals that have been on previous productions. They know the lay of the land. A bilingual line producer for sure. Ours was Mexican.
BY: My one word of advice is “preparation.” We all think preproduction is preparation. Not in Cuba. You need to go down months ahead and really explore what’s missing and what you’re going to need and provide for it. When you’re down there on a schedule, you can’t find out that there’s no catering. You need to think of that and provide for a solution way in advance. That’s the only way you can make up for the “show-stopping” problems.
MM: One last question: How comfortable were you, as a “first-world” filmmaker, in Cuba?
BY: We were lucky. We secured the best hotel. But once you get out on location, they don’t have toilet paper. They don’t have toilet seats.
AH: The first time I went to Cuba, I went to the restroom at the airport and found that there were just holes in the ground.
BY: They’re missing a lot of what we take for granted with creature comforts. They have shortages of everything. A lot of times the toilets don’t even work, so they bring buckets of water to pour into them so you could use them.
AH: When we went down, the customs guys opened our bags—we brought extra bags with supplies for all our American cast and crew—and he looked at the toilet paper and he was like, “You brought toilet paper?” He laughed at us, but we had bags filled with tons of little amenities that you take for granted.
BY: But definitely go down there. MM
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba opened in theaters April 29, 2016, courtesy of Yari Film Group.