For its closing film this year, the Havana Film Festival in New York is showing Bob Yari’s Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, a film which as the distinction of being the very first Hollywood feature-length film to be shot in Cuba since the 1960 U.S. embargo. Starring Adrian Sparks as the famed American writer and Joely Richardson as Mary Hemingway, the story is told from the point of view Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), a fictional version of the film’s screenwriter, Denne Bart Petitclerc. The one-time journalist, who worked for the Miami Herald in the 50s before becoming a successful screenwriter, got to know Hemingway during his last years in Cuba. He worked on this very personal project until his death in 2006.
Yari’s film chronicles that friendship against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile political climate in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s revolutionary fighters were taking aim at Batista’s government. Seeing as Cuba, and Hemingway’s Finca Vigía are so central to the story of Myers and Hemingway, shooting in the island was a priority for Yari. Indeed, the real-life locations add a certain authenticity to the proceedings: the pool at the Finca, with its clear-blue hues where he first meets a naked Mary, is just one of the many things that seduces Eddie into thinking that this house is paradise, while the glimpses we see of the Floridita, the cocktail bar in Old Havana where Hemingway was often found in a drunken stupor, show that the film’s crew were intent on making full use of their chance at filming in the Caribbean island.
We got a chance to talk to Yari ahead of the film’s screening about the long process to get the green light from the American government and how he went about casting the iconic couple of Ernest and Mary Hemingway. He also shares some not-so-politically correct and somewhat misguided comments about the work ethic in Cuba and what it was like shooting on the island.
How He Landed This Long-Gestating Project
“I really loved it. I told everyone involved that I thought Cuba, in this story, was actually one of the main characters.”
It was a project that was circling for many years. I first came across it about 10 years ago. They were sending it around with Anthony Hopkins attached. And when I read the script I actually fell in love with the story because not only was it a personal glimpse into Hemingway’s very private side — everyone kind of knows him in his iconic image, but we’ve never really seen this other side of him. And then this story of this young reporter who is just really affected in this life-changing way with his experiences with Hemingway. Great story. So I really loved it and I told everyone involved at the time that I thought Cuba, in this story, was actually one of the main characters. And I thought it was critical to shoot it in Cuba. And everyone told me, no it’s impossible. It can’t be done. Then they went off and they tried to shoot in Portugal and I’m not sure of the circumstances but it fell apart, and then the writer passed away. His widow had the rights and she became a little reclusive because she had an accident that really affected her badly. So I just remembered the project and saw it wasn’t being made; I started chasing it. It took me a few years to convince Wanda Petitclerc, his widow, to trust me with the material. She was very protective of it. As it was his personal story. After I got control of the script then I set out on this mission to see if I could do it in Cuba. To be honest, I didn’t want to do it anywhere else.
On Shooting In Cuba
It wasn’t easy! It took me about two years to convince our government. Initially they turned us down flat. They said, no, this squarely falls within doing business with Cuba, and it’s banned by the embargo. So, I just didn’t give up. I kept persisting and trying to convince them that it was a docu-drama. Because they allowed documentaries to be filmed and news gathering to be done as an exception to the embargo. I even had senators, like Senator Feinstein supporting us. Finally I got them to relent and then, obviously, the next step was to get the Cuban government give us that unprecedented permission to shoot in the Finca, which is now a museum. And have this type of access to the locations that the story happened in. It’s a pretty difficult place to do business, as you can imagine. That was probably the hardest thing. To get our own government to give us that approval to shoot there.
On Culture Clashes On Set
90% of our crew was Cuban, and we brought some people from the U.S., and some from Canada and Mexico — from different places for different skill sets that we thought were necessary. You know, we were really impressed by the passion and skill set that Cubans have for filmmaking. As you probably know they have a very vibrant film community there. And a terrific film school were people come from all over South America to attend. There really is a lot of passion for filmmaking. The problem we had was kind of a built-in work ethic and mentality that, I think, comes from many many years of communism. Things are very slow moving. I mean, things always are in the Caribbean, but the communist government system, it doesn’t reward you for quick or exceptional work. So people’s attitudes, and rightfully so, is, “Well, we’ll get it done when we get it done.” And an American film goes at a very fast pace. Initially it was hard. I almost watched them kind of suffering and not being able to keep up. But they stepped up. By the end of it it was a process and they came up to speed, and they sacrificed a lot and kept up with the pace we needed. They helped us get it done. I was thrilled working with the Cuban crews there.
On Casting the Hemingways
“It took me about two years to convince our government. Initially… they said, ‘No, this squarely falls within doing business with Cuba, and it’s banned by the embargo.’ I just didn’t give up.”
As I mentioned, we had Anthony Hopkins attached to this script. I know he was very passionate about it. By the time I got it, he was probably too old to play Hemingway, but I kind of searched long and hard for an actor that wasn’t famous but could play Hemingway in a way that the audience would get lost in the story. And not thinking they’re watching an actor do Hemingway. If you have Anthony Hopkins, who’s a great actor, I think we all would’ve just said, oh wow we’re watching Anthony Hopkins. What I really wanted was to tell this story was for people really felt they were watching Hemingway and not an actor doing him. It was a big risk to do that. But once I saw Adrian, who was performing a one-man play on Broadway for two years [in John deGroot’s Papa] doing Hemingway. And once I saw him and his performance, I just was so completely sold that we shouldn’t go with a “name” actor and hire Adrian.
I actually think Mary Hemingway, the part, and the character, were an exceptional complex person to portray. In fact, their relationship — a lot of people say, I don’t understand it, why are they jumping at each other that much? But that’s how they were. And everyone who knew them and hung out with them knew this dynamic and she was a person that was accomplished in her own right. She was a very successful journalist and then she’s married to Hemingway and living in his shadow. And I don’t think she liked that. I think it builds resentment because they both loved the limelight. He didn’t like his limelight to be taken away. And she didn’t like being in his shadow. It created this constant state of, as a character in the film says, siege. When I read the script and after doing research that, yeah, this is how they lived together, it really became a huge challenge to portray that and yet not make Mary really seem unlikable to the point where it would turn off the audience from her. And that was one of the key obstacles for telling this story properly. And Joely was just magnificent at doing that. Which is playing her as a very challenging person at times, and yet, very soft and caring and likable at the same time. I think she pulled it off.
Papa: Hemingway in Cuba is the closing night film of the 2016 Havana Film Festival New York.