Hollywood Rediscovers Cuba: Is It Too Soon To Call It Havanawood?

May 4, 2016
Originally published on May 5, 2016 12:40 pm

We all know about the lumbering, old American cars on the roads in Cuba. But right now, it's very fast cars and motorcycles getting the attention. The latest installment of the enormously successful Fast and Furious franchise is shooting in Havana.

Fast and Furious 8 is the second U.S. movie, and the first big-budget Hollywood film, to be shot in Cuba as relations between the two countries improve, easing tensions that date back to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

American filmmakers are eager to take advantage of the island's distinctive look and feel and its cheap labor.

On a recent day of shooting, crowds gathered on on street to watch the kind of American production they'd never seen. Camera operators were flying on a helicopter while motorcycles and classic American cars screeched past past the capitol building in Havana.

"We're at a place that nobody ever thought would be possible. We are in Havana, Cuba. And you can see how beautiful it is with all these beautiful people," the movie's star, Vin Diesel, says in a You Tube greeting while on location.

The production brought in big Hollywood trucks, cranes, cameras and lights. And they hired Cubans like Alexis Alvarez.

"I thought that Hollywood was some sort of monster," says Alravez, an assistant art director. But he says the shoot has been incredible, and that he's been treated with great respect.

And the pay is good by Cuban standards — double or triple what he might make on a local production. The films he usually works on have such limited resources, he ends up having to sweep the floor and paint the walls himself.

This kind of Hollywood work is a brand new opportunity for Cubans and Americans. Until recently, the island was off limits and other locations had to stand-in for Cuba.

Over the years, James Bond's adventures in Cuba were shot in Puerto Rico and Spain. The Godfather, Part II was filmed in the Dominican Republic. So was director Sydney Pollack's 1990 film Havana, starring Robert Redford.

Cuban filmmaker Manuel Perez Paredes, who's 76, recalls what a difficult time all the American filmmakers had for decades.

"They couldn't film here and Cuba couldn't buy the American films to show here," he says.

But that didn't stop pirated movies and TV shows from getting to Cuba. Thanks to the black market, Cubans have been able to watch all kinds of American films, TV shows and music. They get it in "el paquete semenal" -- or the weekly package — of illegally downloaded entertainment in the form of a hard drive.

"We get films from everywhere," says Perez, adding that he would like to see more American filmmakers to Cuba.

Fast And Furious 8 is the biggest by far, but not the first American feature film shot here since the 1959 revolution. That would be the recently released Papa: Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, which has been widely panned.

American director Bob Yari it took two years of lobbying to overcome red tape with the U.S. Treasury Department before he could shoot on location.

"We had to pretty much convince them that, like a documentary, our film was a docudrama about actual events happening in actual locations and preserving that history," Yari says. "And that's what finally got them to reverse their initial denial."

There was red tape on the Cuban side, too, he says.

"Obviously, you have to submit your script. It has to be approved. Getting access to those locations was not easy," he notes. "But they were very cooperative. And one of the things I have to say that they didn't do, which was wonderful, was censor in any way shape or form, our story."

Yari says there were other challenges. The U.S. limited the amount of equipment they could ship to Cuba, and it was hard to get money to the island. There were no film catering companies, and they had to create their own makeup and wardrobe trailers.

But Yari says Cuba did allow them to film at Hemingway's home — which is now a popular museum. The Cuban government also lent military weapons for some scenes. Yari says he was impressed by the Cubans he worked with.

"They're very skilled at what they do. they have a terrific crew base down there, and I look forward to watching them make bigger and better movies," he says.

With Hollywood coming to Cuba these days, some are starting to call it Havanawood.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Cuba, where decades-old American cars are famously still on the streets, now has some newer and very fast cars on the road.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The latest movie in the "Fast And Furious" franchise is shooting in Havana. It's the first time a Hollywood blockbuster - it's the first Hollywood blockbuster to film there since the Cuban revolution more than a half-century ago.

INSKEEP: Relaxed relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments mean filmmakers can take advantage of the Cuban scenery. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The buzz all around Havana is about the "Fast And Furious 8" shooting on location here.

(SOUNDBITE of archived recording)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Action.

DEL BARCO: Crowds gather on the streets to watch the kind of big-budget American production they've never seen before here, camera operators flying on helicopter while motorcycles and classic American cars screech past Havana's capital building. Among the onlookers was Erasmo Moises.

ERASMO MOISES: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Actor Vin Diesel posted a YouTube greeting while on location.

(soundbite of archived recording)

VIN DIESEL: We're at a place that nobody ever thought would be possible.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Havana, Cuba.

DIESEL: We are in Havana, Cuba. And you can see how beautiful it is with all these beautiful people.

DEL BARCO: The production brought in big Hollywood trucks, cranes, cameras and lights. And they hired Cubans, like Alexis Alvarez.

ALEXIS ALVAREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Alvarez, an assistant art director, says the shoot has been incredible and very surprising. He says he thought the Hollywood machine would be some sort of monster. But he says he's been treated with great respect and love. Of course, the pay is good by Cuban standards, double or triple what he could make on a local production. The films he usually works on have such limited resources, he ends up having to sweep the floor and paint the walls himself.

This kind of Hollywood work is a brand new opportunity for Cubans and Americans. It wasn't long ago that the island was off limits. Other locations had to stand in for Cuba. So over the years, James Bond's adventures in Cuba were shot in Puerto Rico and Spain. "The Godfather: Part II" was filmed in the Dominican Republic. So was Sydney Pollack's 1990 film, "Havana." Cuban filmmaker Manuel Perez Paredes, who's 76 years old, recalls what a difficult time all the American filmmakers had for decades.

MANUEL PEREZ PAREDES: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "They couldn't film here," he says, "and Cuba couldn't buy the American films to show here." But that didn't stop pirated movies and TV shows from getting to Cuba. Perez says thanks to the black market, Cubans have been able to watch all kinds of American films and TV shows. They get it in, la paquete semenal, a weekly package of illegally downloaded entertainment in the form of a hard drive.

PAREDES: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "We get films from everywhere," says Perez. He extends a welcome for more American filmmakers to Cuba. "Fast And Furious 8" is the biggest by far, but not the first American feature film shot here since the 1959 revolution. That would be "Papa: Ernest Hemingway In Cuba." American director Bob Yari says it took two years of lobbying to overcome red tape with the U.S. Treasury Department before he could shoot on location.

BOB YARI: We had to pretty much convince them that, like a documentary, our film was a docudrama about actual events happening in actual locations and preserving that history. And that's what finally got them to reverse their initial denial. Initially, they had turned us down.

DEL BARCO: And he says there was red tape on the Cuban side too.

YARI: Obviously, you have to submit your script. It has to be approved. Getting access to those locations was not easy. But they were very cooperative. And one of the things, I have to say, that they didn't do, which was wonderful, was censor, in any way shape or form, our story.

DEL BARCO: Yari says there were other challenges. The U.S. limited the amount of equipment they could ship out. And it was hard to get money onto the island. There were no film catering companies. And they had to create their own makeup and wardrobe trailers. But Yari says Cuba did allow them to film at Hemingway's home and other locations. And the government lent them military weapons for some scenes. Yari says he was impressed by the Cubans he worked with.

YARI: They're very skilled at what they do. They have a terrific crew base down there. And I look forward to watching them make bigger and better movies.

DEL BARCO: Cuba has one of the best film schools and film festivals in Latin America. Its government film institute, ICAIC, was established after the revolution. It's produced most of the country's films.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CUBA LIBRE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "Cuba Libre" director Jorge Luis Sanchez says he had to use a Norwegian actor to play the American protagonist in his period film. His budget was so small, he had to be creative.

JORGE LUIS SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: Sanchez says there wasn't enough fabric for half a costume, so they had to turn it around to shoot from behind. That sort of guerrilla filmmaking is familiar to students or independents, except that Sanchez is one of Cuba's biggest film directors. His biopic of musician Beny More was Cuba's candidate for an Oscar in 2006. And he's made co-productions with Spain, Germany and Mexico.

SANCHEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

DEL BARCO: "As more American productions come to Cuba," Sanchez says, "maybe we can both learn how to make movies from each other but with mutual respect." Cuba also has a thriving independent film scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUAN OF THE DEAD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Speaking Spanish.

(MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: The 2010 film "Juan Of The Dead" is a zombie comedy with political overtones. Claudia Calvina was the executive producer. Her production company is also now helping American productions, including a sequel to the "Buena Vista Social Club." She says the price of everything needed to make films in Cuba is going up for everyone.

CLAUDIA CALVINA: Now Cuba is not cheaper. You Americans have made everything much, much expensive.

DEL BARCO: Calvina says she hopes any money made from the big-budget American film shoots will be reinvested in Cuba's own state-run and independent film industries. She worries that Hollywood will come first.

CALVINA: I'm afraid that these kind of big shootings that brings a lot of money to the country anyway will be more prioritized because they bring money. And in some point, they don't create any kind of conflict with the social and political ideas that maybe independent films sometimes talk about.

DEL BARCO: With Hollywood coming to Cuba, these days some people are even calling this place Havana-wood. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.