Canadian-Italian screenwriter Alessandra Piccione takes us behind the scenes of her new screenplay The Cuban movie (coming out November 6, 2020) to a dream-like Havana that invites us to leave ‘normal’ behind.
The first thing I remember about the moments after my plane landed in Havana is that it was hot. I can handle it, I told myself. The Cubans are used to it. But no sooner had I finished that thought, my cab driver exclaimed, “It’s too hot for me.” It turns out the summer of 2018 was a bit of an exception as far a heat goes, even for locals.
I had only been to Havana once before, in January of that same year, and the weather was much more manageable–ideal, in fact, for a romp in the legendary capital city. I went with my producing colleagues to get a feel for the place where we would be shooting part of our movie, The Cuban, starring Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr.
I’d finally completed the screenplay, and wanted to make sure I had it “right.” Director Sergio Navarretta planned to soak up the culture and scout iconic locations. The lead actress, Ana Golja (Degrassi), was searching for character inspiration while producer, Taras Koltun, wandered the streets creating a photo essay of it all. It’s times like this that I love my job.
It’s difficult not to immerse yourself in a place ostensibly frozen in a nostalgic mid-century aesthetic, set against the backdrop of brightly coloured neoclassical structures (that even manage to crumble artfully).
On our first day the streets of Old Havana were populated with leisurely tourists and locals alike, and filled with the sound of Cuban jazz. We didn’t get far before stopping at a watering hole with rum a-flowing and, of course, a band. I don’t know exactly how it happened, but our director, Sergio, was suddenly up there playing the bongos and smoking a Cuban cigar.
This is Havana. Forget everything you know.
The entire adventure feels like a hazy dream now, like a pitstop in an alternate reality where life and pleasure take precedence over work and worry.
We made our way through a list of iconic landmarks: the Hotel Nacional, the El Floridita bar (a favourite of Ernest Hemingway), the Café Madrigal, the Malecón with its spectacular view of the cityscape, the Cabaret Parisien and, of course, we caught a show at the Tropicana. We explored contemporary hot spots like Casa de la Música or the cutting edge Fabrica de Arte Cubano, to sample the island’s most current offerings in art, culture and music.
We wandered the streets aimlessly at all hours, hopping into the backseats of rickety taxis with Kia engines and dilapidated 1950s Ford exteriors. We made it our mission to seek out the best “paladars” (family-owned restaurants) in the city, ate on elegant rooftops and even found pizza at midnight.
The entire adventure feels like a hazy dream now, like a pitstop in an alternate reality where life and pleasure take precedence over work and worry. I can’t tell if it was the food, the atmosphere, the rum, or the gentle, welcoming people that gave Havana its dreamy quality. Perhaps, it was the music.
We had already recruited one of Cuba’s most celebrated sons, Toronto-based Juno award winner Hilario Duran, to compose the soundtrack for a film that centres around Cuban jazz. Duran’s superb original compositions, along with new arrangements of a few old favourites like “Quizas” and “El Canonero,” figure prominently in The Cuban.
In the film, Luis (played by Gosset Jr.), is trapped inside his own Alzheimer’s-afflicted mind until his caregiver, Mina (Golja), uses jazz to trigger his memories of being a famous musician in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Those memories, told in hazy, richly coloured flashbacks, were shot entirely in Havana.
Taking things slower
That summer I returned to meet the crew, the director, the rest of my producing team and actors Ana Golja and Giacomo Gianniotti (of Grey’s Anatomy fame) who had already spent a sweltering month in Havana.
Shooting away from home is never easy, and Cuba presents its own unique challenges of bureaucracy and economy that are impossible to overcome in the usual sense. Instead, with patience, solutions would reveal themselves, forcing us to take things slower, and with a sense of calm.
Our fearless director, half immersed in the ocean to cool off as he was directing a scene, assured me everything would work out. He found endless inspiration in this place.
When it came time to shoot a flashback of a young Luis and his band in a 1957 Skylark convertible cruising down the Malecón–a scene I was convinced would be impossible to capture without interruption on the busy artery–the traffic suddenly calmed as if by magic in the exact moment we needed to film. Chaos returned to the road on cue when that single take was done.
Like the hazy memories of Luis’ mind, shooting in Havana was a dream-like, timeless experience enhanced by relentless heat and infectious music. Whether visiting for work or for pleasure, Havana invites us all to leave our “normal” behind, to step into the present moment, tap into creativity and, ultimately, to surrender.
The Cuban movie will be released on VOD on November 6, 2020. Find out more at thecubanmovie.com
Watch the trailer here:
For more inspiration from the colourful Caribbean, check out: