Oscars: How an Irish Director Came to Helm a Spanish-Language Cuban Drag Queen Film
"I got interested in the world of Cuban drag artists while on holiday in the mid-’90s. The emotional power in the performances stayed with me," says Paddy Breathnach of 'Viva,' his country’s entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.
This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Irish director Paddy Breathnach traveled 4,500 miles and a world away from Dublin to capture the subculture of Havana’s underground drag shows that forms the backdrop of his coming-of-age Oscar hopeful Viva.
“I got interested in the world of Cuban drag artists while on holiday in the mid-’90s. The emotional power in the performances stayed with me,” says Breathnach. “A sheet hung up in a suburban backyard and a single lightbulb created a theater and a world of dreams out of nothing. This power of transformation and creation was driven by a desire to express identity in a raw, unabashed passionate voice. It was intoxicating.”
Breathnach returned in 2001 and wrote the first treatment for what would become Viva, the story of Jesus, a young, gay hairdresser working at a Havana nightclub who dreams of being a performer in the club’s drag shows.
A veteran director of such genre features as the Josh Hartnett-Rachael Leigh Cook rom-com Blow Dry (2001), Breathnach gave his treatment to Irish screenwriter Mark O’Halloran (2007’s Garage). Then Breathnach spent the better part of a decade trying to secure financing for Viva.
“Many financiers couldn’t see it,” he admits, noting that he was determined to shoot the film in Spanish despite not being fluent. It was here that Breathnach’s experience as a documentarian came in handy: He went on a research trip to Havana with O’Halloran, shooting video of performances in drag clubs around the city. “One night in 2007, some performers made a theater out of the narrow courtyard of their apartment building,” says Breathnach. “The neighbors leaned out of windows and over balconies and brought chairs and sofas out to the courtyard to watch. It had a magic about it that inspired us.”
The magic lasted: Viva premiered at Telluride and was an instant word-of-mouth hit. Buzz and critical acclaim led to a deal with Magnolia Pictures for a 2016 U.S. release, the film’s submission by Ireland as the country’s foreign-language Oscar bid and on Dec. 18 its selection as one of the final nine, with high hopes for a final stop at the Dolby Theatre.