Hollywood's First Film in Cuba Just Wrapped

Papa Still - H 2015
Ramon Espinosa

Papa Still - H 2015

As Bob Yari's 'Papa' completes filming — and Conan O'Brien sends his talk show there — experts offer up three tips for what to know (and bring) 54 years after JFK slammed the door on the communist nation.

This story first appeared in the March 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

With President Obama normalizing relations with Cuba — a second round of diplomatic talks is set for Feb. 27 in Washington — the Caribbean nation is welcoming a U.S. filmmaker invasion. "We just brought in Conan O'Brien," says Cuba Film Productions chief Michael Pacino, "and completed filming of the first Hollywood feature since the 1960 embargo: Bob Yari's Papa." Discovery Channel is shooting Cuban Chrome, about the classic American cars Cuba loves, and U.S. director Bruce Donnelly recently helmed Alumbrones, a doc about Cuba's arts scene. "The idea to go to Cuba was Conan's," says Conan executive producer Jeff Ross. "Once we arrived we had no restrictions, and the people were happy to see us. The people were a pleasure to deal with." But before rolling into Havana, keep these three expert-recommended musts in mind:

1. Pack plenty of cash.

"You get a lot of bang for your buck in Cuba," says Donnelly, adding, however, that "for visitors, cash is king." Few local businesses accept credit or debit cards, and there are two types of pesos — one for visitors, one for residents — with different exchange rates. "Be clear on which currency a price is quoted in," adds Donnelly. And put some lost days in the budget: "Things in Cuba move at their own pace."

2. Bring a translator — and extra batteries.

"Two foreign-based rental companies have the latest Arri lighting, HMI [lights], etc.," says Pacino. "You'll find willing and capable grips, lighting, sound and camera crews, costume and props departments, construction workers, a collection of archival footage dating back to the 1930s and many capable actors," says veteran Cuban film official Jose Llufrio. Adds Pacino, who recommends Havana's Sunset Vision, "The issue is, most don't speak English." Notes Donnelly, "Memory cards, batteries, film, lightbulbs, gels and diffuser paper for lights are in short supply." Internet connectivity is spotty, and blackouts occur regularly.

3. Get insurance — it ain't easy.

"I have had trouble securing insurance for our production in Cuba through U.S. insurance companies," says Donnelly. Notes Pacino: "Once Cuba is removed from the U.S. 'terrorist' list, things will change. We have our own sources for insurance related-issues."