Making the first Hollywood film shot in Cuba in more than half a century was thrilling.
It was also, according to director Bob Yari, “a nightmare in many respects.”
The Iranian-born Yari has enjoyed a quarter century in the film business, usually as a producer. He was part of the team that created the Oscar-winning “Crash.”
To make “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” which opens Friday at the Rio, Yari devoted a decade to navigating the treacherous waters of international tensions dating back to the Cold War, not to mention dealing with a radically different culture.
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It all began when he read the screenplay by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who as a young Miami newspaperman was “adopted” by novelist Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Mary.
Over several years in the late 1950s — during which Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution was brewing — Petitclerc spent weekends at the couple’s home outside Havana. He saw Hemingway — the best-selling author of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “The Old Man and the Sea,” as well as a one-time reporter for The Kansas City Star — at his best and his worst.
In the film, Petitclerc — renamed Ed Myers — is played by Giovanni Ribisi. Hemingway is portrayed by stage actor Adrian Sparks, who played the novelist in a one-man show. He is a dead ringer for “Papa.” Joely Richardson was cast as Mary Hemingway, and Minka Kelly serves as Myers’ fellow journalist and love interest.
By the time Yari got involved in 2007, Petitclerc had died and several attempts to make the film had failed. Undeterred, Yari hatched a plan to not only make the movie, but to make it in Cuba, where it all took place.
“We had to deal with this embargo which now, thank God, is being softened and may soon be lifted,” Yari said in a recent telephone conversation from Los Angeles. “When we first applied for license from the Treasury and State departments they turned us down flat. It took two years of arm wrestling to get approval.”
Even so, the embargo proved a constant irritant.
“There is no way to legally transfer money to Cuba,” Yari said. “Our government is always on the lookout for that. If they catch you, the money will be frozen. We constantly got caught in that.”
The Cuban government — which has long venerated Hemingway as a writer who celebrated Cuban life and as a friend of the revolution — proved more cooperative. Not only did it not attempt to censor the production, but it allowed access to key locales in Hemingway’s life.
“They let us shoot in Hemingway’s house, a museum that has been left exactly the way it was the day he left Cuba for the last time. It was really kind of amazing — visitors to the museum can’t enter the house, they can only look in from the outside. But we were allowed to go inside with an entire film crew.”
The U.S. embargo of Cuba proved beneficial in one regard: Havana looks almost exactly as it did 60 years ago, with the streets filled with immaculately maintained autos of the pre-revolutionary era.
“We never built a set,” Yari said. “We shot on real locations, which required very little dressing.”
More complex was the relationship between the American crew members and their Cuban counterparts.
“We had issues with the communist mentality and work ethic,” Yari said. “In Cuba, no matter how hard you work or don’t work, you are paid the same. The result is a pretty relaxed attitude. For Cubans there are 90 minutes in an hour.
“But an American film crew typically works 14, 15 hours a day. The Cubans were initially shell-shocked by the pace we were setting, almost tortured by it. But one of the great joys of this experience was watching them, because of their passion for Hemingway, really step up.”
Despite the difficulties, filming in Cuba proved essential, Yari said.
“One of the things about our story is that Cuba is not just a background location. It’s a character. Hemingway’s love of Cuba and the Cuban people is a big part of all this. I don’t think you could have faked it by shooting anywhere else.”
Yari recalled a day when actor Sparks, in full Hemingway costume, was walking a Havana street.
“This little old lady starts crying and yelling, comes up and touches his face and speaks in Spanish. She tells Adrian that when she was a little girl she was standing outside her house crying and that he — Hemingway — came off his boat and put his hand on her head and told her she was such a pretty little girl.”
The recent release of the FBI’s massive file on Hemingway convinced Yari that while in his later years Hemingway was paranoid, the author had good reason to be. In fact, many of his acquaintances believe government persecution contributed to the writer’s suicide in 1961.
Some of the bombshell allegations in the film — that Hemingway was actively involved in running guns to Cuban revolutionaries and that he was the subject of an FBI vendetta because he had once observed Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover in drag — sound like creations of a screenwriter’s imagination.
Not so, Yari said.
“That’s how I felt when I first read the script: I can’t believe this. As far as I can tell these things have never been divulged before. But according to Denne’s widow, that is all as he experienced it.”
Read more of freelance writer Robert W. Butler’s features and reviews at ButlersCinemaScene.com.