Hollywood and Cuba: The Challenges of Filming in an Unfamiliar Frontier (Q&A)

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Bob Yari

The director and producer of 'Papa: Hemingway in Cuba' talk legal and logistical challenges of filming on the island.

The Ernest Hemingway biopic Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, which opens this week, was the first Hollywood movie filmed in Cuba in half a century.

Cuba is not merely the location but also a central character to the story, according to director Bob Yari.

Because of tense relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments, when the project was first in the works nearly a decade ago, the plan was to film in Portugal, where there were fewer hurdles. 

“I fell in love with the story,” says Yari, who was then attached as a producer. “It’s such a private personal look into Hemingway’s life, the story of his demise and mental illness and depression that he dealt with toward the end of his life.”

Papa is told from the perspective of Denne Petitclerc, a young Miami Herald reporter who befriended the iconic author and who wrote the screenplay for the film.

“They went off and tried to shoot it in Portugal and it didn’t work,” Yari says. “[Petitclerc] passed away and the rights passed to his wife. I never forgot the project and I kept trying to reach the wife. I convinced her it was in good hands if she trusted us with it.”

Yari’s persistence paid off. After years of waiting and loads of paperwork, not only did the crew film in the country Hemingway called home, but they were permitted to shoot inside the author’s house, now a museum.

“They gave us unprecedented access to shoot inside his home and even allowed us to use his actual typewriter,” Yari said. “His home was preserved in a way you won’t believe. His stationery with his name on it is still on his desk.”

In addition to access to the places and things Hemingway left behind, by filming in Cuba Papa was also able to feature the people — many of whom lived through the events retold in the story.

“One of our extras pointed to one of the apartment buildings across the street [from the presidential palace] and said, ‘I was at that window when the rebels came and stormed the palace,’” says producer Amanda Harvey.

That access and authenticity didn’t come easily.

Yari and Harvey had to clear governmental red tape before the trade embargo was lifted and adapt to filming in a country that lacks the infrastructure to which most Hollywood productions are accustomed.

The duo talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the highs and lows of filming in a new frontier and what they’d do differently next time.

Why did you decide to film in Cuba instead of somewhere that looks like Cuba?

YARI Cuba, because of its position back in the '50s, was so unique. It had its own character. When we found out Hemingway’s home had been kept intact as a museum, I could not see another way to do it other than to bring that authenticity.

HARVEY At the time, they allowed newsgathering and not feature films. We came from the point of view that this was going to be a historical reenactment, a docudrama basically. It would have been next to impossible to re-create that somewhere else.

YARI It wouldn’t have rang true like I think it does now. It’s such a beautiful country.

What other locations were you considering?

YARI I didn’t consider any other location. I was really passionate about doing it there, especially after we went there to scout locations. When I saw what was there and the places he had been, where he lived, where he drank, all these places were kept almost the same as the day he was there.

How long did the paperwork take?

YARI It took about two years. We asked for a special license, an exemption from the embargo. Initially they turned us down. So we made several trips to Washington and met with the State Department and the Treasury Department. We had people like Senator [Dianne] Feinstein write letters for us. We kept at it until we convinced them that a docudrama qualifies as conserving the history of the story.

How did the cost of shooting in Cuba compare to other locations?

YARI It’s obviously much cheaper for personnel and certain supplies. It’s more expensive in that you have to fly in a lot of equipment.

HARVEY You also have the challenge of there’s not much infrastructure to get things done. Even though it cost less it was more challenging to find creative solutions.

YARI We converted a bus into changing rooms for the actresses.

What were the biggest challenges of filming there?

YARI The Cuban people are passionate and skilled filmmakers but the attitude, the work ethic is a communist work ethic. It stems from never knowing anything other than no matter how fast or good you work you’re rewarded the same as everyone else. The attitude was everything can get done tomorrow. That caused a lot of issues, but they really stepped up. By the first third they were keeping up with the pace of a U.S. film. It was all worth it to be able to work with the Cuban crews and artists down there.

HARVEY We were lucky to work hand-in-hand with ICAIC, which is the government film division. They really helped us secure locations and do the impossible down there.

Seeing the finished version of your film, was it worth it?

YARI Yes. We’re really happy with the film. We actually got our first critic’s quote from Jeff Lyons who said “sure to be one of the year’s best pictures.” When you get something like that from him it’s all worth it.

HARVEY Our proudest moment as filmmakers was when we showed the film at the Havana Film Festival in December and we had the whole crew sitting there with us. They were so proud that they were a part of it, and we were happy we could share that with them.

YARI The arts can bring people together regardless of government differences. Hemingway was the perfect vehicle for that. He’s beloved in Cuba to this day. In the U.S. he’s an iconic figure. 

Would you film there again?

YARI With the changes that are coming, I think that answer is yes. Without these changes, it would be no. It’s just too difficult and I don’t think too many films would qualify. If we don’t have to go through that process and red tape, we would go down there and do another movie.

HARVEY I agree. If a script called for trying to be authentic to Cuba in the story. Being on set with these people for so long, they’ve become friends of ours as well. That’s a nice bonus.

What would you do differently next time?

YARI So much. We went down there and figured out quickly that they had no such thing as catering. We had to bring in a chef from Mexico and teach them how to do catering. We now know so much more. We know where all the deficiencies are and we’d go down with so much more preparation. 

HARVEY The biggest challenges were the props and costumes. We had to design all the costumes here and bring them down with us. Some of our props were confiscated by the Cuban government. We never saw those again. Involving more line producers from Mexico or outside of Cuba would have been a little more helpful.

YARI Within the government the different departments really don’t communicate with each other. Customs was completely oblivious to the film. They were a nightmare to get things through.

If a filmmaker is considering Cuba, what advice would you give for how to decide?

HARVEY Is it a period piece? Do you need to show Cuban exteriors in the '50s, '60s, '70s or even now? The outside sets are the hardest to replicate. So if that’s a centerpiece of the movie, I’d say definitely try to do it there.

YARI How important is Cuba as a character or element of the script? If it’s something like The Godfather and it’s a hotel scene and you’re not exploring known landmarks, then do it somewhere in South America where it’s going to be easier and cheaper. [If you need to show iconic places like] the openings of the Havana harbor, if those are part of the elements, then it’s worth it. It’s not a place you would go just because it’s cheaper.

What happened with Sharon Stone? (Stone sued Yari in 2014, claiming he asked her to falsify documents for the film.)

YARI She was attached to play Mary Hemingway. She was very, very passionate about the part. We had met many times. She had already been outfitted for the costumes. When we were first down there, on a general license from the State Department, she wrote to us and said I’m only coming down with a certain type of license. We tried to explain to her that we’re down here and we’re already shooting. We asked, "If we shut down and got this other license, will you come down?" She said yes. We stopped the production, came back to the U.S., redid a different license, got approved, and she refused to come down again. Whatever advice she was getting was the wrong advice.

HARVEY The bottom line is we got the specific license she requested and then she decided not to do it.

YARI People in lawsuits throw out a lot of smoke and mirrors to bolster their case. We never ever asked her to lie. That would be ridiculous. That would mean all of us were lying. We obviously wouldn’t do that. We don’t want to go jail over a movie.

HARVEY I’m so happy Joely Richardson played Mary Hemingway. Everything is a blessing in disguise, in my opinion.

The film opens April 29.