Ernest Hemingway was one of the last great American artists to live in Cuba before Fidel Castro rose to power, so it’s only fitting that the famed author of The Sun Also Rises and The Old Man and the Sea is the subject of the first American film shot on the island nation as it begins a more liberal, post-Castro period.
The American blockade of Cuba, which began after Hemingway left and Castro took power in 1959, meant that U.S. studios couldn’t make feature films in Cuba for more than 50 years. Bob Yari was a quasi-pioneer for the diplomatic thawing, after spending years trying to circumvent the embargo to make Papa: Hemingway in Cuba.
“We applied for a special license, an exemption, and [the government] turned us down. It took two years of going to Washington for meetings and asking senators to write letters,” Bob Yari told Inverse in a phone interview. “Then of course, [there was] getting Cuban government permission to shoot in Hemingway’s house, and give us access to the military where we got weapons and the coast guard.”
Due out in theaters on April 29, the film focuses on Miami Herald journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc (Giovanni Ribisi) and his friendship with Ernest Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) during the rise of the Castro revolution.
“What convinced them was our argument that this is a docudrama,” Yari added. “It’s preserving a true story and the true locations it happened. That’s how they gave us permission.”
Government permission wasn’t the only trouble Yari had bringing Petitclerc’s story to life. From an inexperienced crew dealing with a language barrier to Petitclerc’s widow holding fast to her late husband’s dream project, Yari had a whole lot of all the hardships on his way to making history.
Why was it important to go through all the trouble to shoot in Cuba? Why wasn’t “faking it” an option?
When I read the script ten years ago, one of the things that struck me was that Cuba was not just a location, it was a character. Yes, you can use CGI and duplicate locations, but Hemingway’s love of Cuba and Cuban people was integral. I don’t think you can duplicate [that] because Cuba has such a feel to it. Its people, its landscapes are very unique. How often do you get [the chance to] shoot in the actual location that has been preserved for almost sixty years, the way he left it? It became a passion for me to shoot in Cuba.
The arts are a bridge among people, especially estranged countries. I saw that as a way to increasing cooperation with Cubans because that was an area the embargo allowed an exemption. I thought it was important to do whatever we could to bring that sense of trust, working together between Cubans and Americans.
What was it like shooting in Cuba just before the sanctions lifted? For various reasons, Cuba today looks almost “preserved” in the fifties.
Not only is it picturesque, it has such a unique air to it. It made it easy, that much of the 50s is preserved. We had no problem finding cars of the era. But so much decay happened, it was a challenge to make [places] look new, but keep that feel to it it has currently.
I hate to use a cliché term, but [it was] was magical, especially in Hemingway’s house, the locations where some of the events and story actually took place. I think the whole cast and crew felt it, the presence of Hemingway at these locations.
The movie is based on Petitclerc’s first-hand experience with Hemingway, but he passed before the film entered production. How did you approach the movie, given how things must inevitably be edited out or changed?
When Denne passed away the rights went to his wife, Wanda Petitclerc, and she was protective of this work even though Denne had written many screenplays. This was his baby and his wife was reluctant to trust anyone with it. It took me two years to convince her to trust me.
She was insistent we stay true to the story the way he had written it, the way he lived it. So unlike most films, we restricted ourselves from taking licenses. I would say 98 percent of what you see is the way he described it, the way he relived that what he experienced. We took very little license in changing things.
Adrian Sparks plays Ernest Hemingway, but the film is about a young reporter meeting him, and few people today can recall what it’s like to be with Hemingway. How do you direct an actor to be someone larger than life with no references?
The beauty of the script was, to the eyes of this young reporter, seeing Hemingway as this larger than life figure — macho war correspondent, big game hunter, novelist — getting into his home and see his private moments, at his most vulnerable. The darkness he has to fight in reality was a form of mental illness that haunted his entire family. He had nine suicides in his family including his granddaughter, so it was such an insight into the character I think had to be portrayed real.
I didn’t look for a big star. Anthony Hopkins was attached to this many years ago, but I always felt if we did this story with Anthony Hopkins you’d be watching Anthony Hopkins performing Hemingway. With Adrian I found the ability to have the audience lose themselves believing they’re watching the man himself and those nuances of his character, what he felt, his suffering. I believe Adrian portrayed them in a way it would be very difficult to see if you were watching a major star.
Because you filmed in Cuba you had to have a Cuban crew. What was that like, given the different structures, cultural, and language barriers?
Very hard. It had a lot of challenges. For an American film, they don’t know how to stage it. They don’t have trailers, filming equipment, lighting, [all] were difficult to come by and we had to import a lot of it. The saving grace was the Cuban cast and crew. 90 percent of our cast and crew were Cuban and there’s a great film school in Cuba. They’re passionate filmmakers and very skilled, but they weren’t used to the American pace. It’s grueling and they were dazed by how quickly we were moving. They were having a hard time because it’s a much more relaxed society.
They just stood up and made it happen. Within a few weeks, as painful as it was, they picked up their pace and made up for all the areas we had slack in. Their effort and professionalism came through. I admire them greatly and I think, with doors opening with filmmaking going to Cuba, I think it’s going to be a very special and major place for filmmakers to go.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba releases in theaters on April 29.