Before Barack Obama opened diplomatic relations with Cuba, a filmmaker was breaking down barriers to shoot the first Hollywood movie there in 55 years. In 2014, after years of clearing red tape with the U.S. State Department and working with Canada, producer/director Bob Yari began shooting a film about Ernest Hemingway's time in Cuba, Papa Hemingway in Cuba.
The author's time on the island was rather grim. For years, he battled depression and writer’s block while living on an estate called Finca Vigia. Yari says, speaking via phone from Los Angeles, “I didn’t feel you could do the story justice shooting somewhere else.”
Yari is best known as a producer with scores of films under his belt, including the Oscar-winning Crash. As early as 2006, Papa Hemingway in Cuba was brought to his attention, and Anthony Hopkins was set to play the title role. Portugal was considered as a stand-in location for late-'50s Cuba. Although the director says he fell in love with the script, he refused to shoot in Portugal. The film never happened.
Then the screenwriter, Denne Bart Petitclerc, a former Miami Herald reporter who based the story on his personal experience with Hemingway, passed away in 2006. Petitclerc’s widow, Wanda, became protective of the script and wouldn't give anyone the rights to shoot it. In 2009, Yari finally came onboard again after persuading Petitclerc’s wife to trust he would respect her late husband's vision. Part of retaining that authenticity came with his promise to shoot in Cuba as the movie's director, a role he hadn't taken since 1989.
Yari says it took about a year and a half to earn the widow’s trust, but the fight to bring the film to the big screen was far from over. Several years passed before things finally began rolling in 2014. “It was very challenging because first we had to get over the hurdle of the embargo from the State Department, and that took about two years. And then we had the hurdle of convincing the Cuban government to shoot in their house and many locations that are now tourist attractions,” the director explains.
Even after they were able to get to the island, Yari and his crew endured obstacles that took them by surprise. A four-day shoot on the ocean is tricky enough in itself. Yari had a barge, several boats, and a crew of 100 — from both Hollywood and Cuba — ready for the actors. The talent included Giovanni Ribisi as Petitclerc’s youthful reporter alter-ego Ed Myers, Adrian Sparks as Hemingway, Joely Richardson as Hemingway's wife, and some Cuban nationals. But the actors were delayed getting to the dock. It turns out they needed to be cleared by the government to board a boat.
"Getting on a boat in Cuba is not an easy thing,” Yari reveals. “They restrict that heavily because, I guess, people take off when they have access to a boat... It took half a day to fix that red tape to get them to the set."
Yari had positive things to say about working with a Cuban crew. However, there was a bit of a culture clash. “They just have another pace of doing things,” he says, “and I think it's only because of their passion and their love of Hemingway that made them kind of fix that in two or three weeks and get us done in time... They make so much out of so little. An example of it is the cars driving around in the street from the late '50s — U.S. cars, and without access to U.S. parts for those cars.”
Those cars and Cuba’s static buildings, including interiors of Hemingway’s estate, helped make for a convincing period-appropriate backdrop. “You shoot a wide shot of the Malecón, and you don’t need to CGI half the buildings out like we had to do for a shot of Miami,” Yari notes.
The island also stood in for Miami. “You almost have streets that you can’t tell you’re not in Miami.”
In the film, Ed writes for a newspaper called the Miami Globe. Yari found a library at the University of Havana to stand in for the newsroom. He still needed an exterior establishing shot, however, which he re-created with CGI effects. “We used an existing image of the building, and we added elements that brought it to life, clouds moving in the sky, birds, the water being blown by the wind.”
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Yari admits it may be easier now to shoot in Cuba with diplomatic relations between the island nation and the States thawing. Filming would have been easier for him had Obama paved the way earlier, but he is happy to see change coming to Cuba.
"Even though it was kind of hard for us and then everyone else gets to jump in now, it was really, really gratifying to see that happen,” he says of the opening of diplomatic relations. “We're all very happy that change is coming."
Papa Hemingway in Cuba
Opens Friday, April 29, at AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach, and AMC Sunset Place. Check local listings for times and ticket prices.
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