Screenwriter Abel Arcos on Living in “Dysfunctional” Cuba: “I can do whatever I feel like”

La piscina

After capturing the world’s attention in the 1960s with the stylish and unapologetically political films of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Humerto Solás, and their post-revolutionary cohorts, Cuban cinema had seemingly fallen into a prolonged formal and thematic stagnation. An outdated and overly bureaucratic state studio system that had once protected and stimulated the creative experimentation of national filmmakers now seemed to stifle new expressions in a world that was rapidly changing around them.

Then, seemingly out of the ether, came a new generation of independent filmmakers who began to experiment with new production models that allowed them the artistic freedom needed to express their new reality. And the world took note. In the wake of a growing presence of Cuban independent films on the festival circuit, the Miami International Film Festival finally welcomed this new generation of filmmakers to the history books with an expansive retrospective of recent work earlier this year.

Of the handful of filmmakers that have been on the vanguard of this activity, perhaps thirty-year-old Carlos Machado has been the most consecrated by the critical class. His debut feature, La Piscina, premiered at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, followed by La Obra del Siglo, which picked up a Tiger Award at this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam. But films are never a solitary endeavor, and throughout his young career one of Machado’s closest collaborators has been friend and screenwriter Abel Arcos Soto.

While it’s difficult to speak to Arcos’ thematic tendencies with such a short filmography, his work with Machado has tended to explore the failures of the Cuban revolution and social stagnation through potent metaphors and original stylistic touches that keep the spirit of their Cuban cinematic forefathers alive, while continuing to find new possibilities within the medium.

As La Obra del Siglo continues its world tour, we took the opportunity to talk with Arcos about getting paid for your work, the beauty of collaboration, and finding creative freedom in social dysfunction.

“When you’re writing, the screenwriter and director have to talk a lot, which is why it’s not bad if you’re already friends.”

As a writer, what first attracted you to screenwriting?

Without a doubt it was luck. I had attempted to write other things and when I was in college I realized that I could never be even mediocre in another specialty, so I started reading screenplays, and later I started writing them. I don’t know if screenplays are easier, but they do take less time, and you also get paid more than if it were a short story or a novel, although you still don’t get paid what you should.

For you, what would be the ideal dynamic between a director and a screenwriter?

Since I’m not interested in directing, which to say that I’m purely a screenwriter, all the screenplays that I have written, filmed or not, have been with friends — another small stroke of luck, I suppose. I would love to work with a complete stranger, or rather, or I would love to get paid a lot of money to work with a complete stranger. So, speaking for myself, I think the ideal dynamic would be to respect the obsessions of each person involved. The screenwriter, I think, should give meaning to the idea. I don’t know. When you’re writing, the screenwriter and director have to talk a lot, which is why it’s not bad if you’re already friends.

La obra de siglo
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How do you see the professional landscape for screenwriters in your country? Are there many opportunities?

“Both are screenplays that were written without any contract signed beforehand, made on our free time, which in Cuba is all the time.”

There is no such thing in my country. There are a lot of landscapes, but work is not one of them, given that there’s no film statute and everything is arbitrary and dysfunctional. Nevertheless, this situation, at least in my case, allows me to think better; I mean, if they pay you next to nothing and you have no resources, I can do whatever I feel like. I can say, for example, that I’m not interested in genres because they’re nothing more than reassuring conventions. Both La Piscina and La Obra del Siglo are screenplays that were written without any contract signed beforehand, made on our free time, which in Cuba is all the time. Carlos [Machado] made them into films that wander (‘wander’ understood as losing oneself in an orderly fashion), and that’s why they were written.

Which screenplay has been the most difficult for you to write and why?

Rafael Azcona, perhaps the greatest Spanish-language screenwriter, once said that screenplays are easy to write, what’s truly difficult is getting paid. I also haven’t written that many scripts. For example, I wrote La Piscina in two weeks, in one go. Actually, I wrote a first draft: something without shape, though it still had power. After that, Carlos Machado came in and the screenplay went through his hands, which was for the best. The reason that such a small film has done so well is precisely the way that Carlos was able to tell that story.

In this latest one, La Obra del Siglo, our second film, Carlos and I worked on a screenplay that I had written several years ago, but it changed quite a bit after we stumbled on the archival material, and we began to rewrite with those images in mind. Both have been films that were finished in the editing room, which is to say that they are always left open, so that new discoveries can be made while shooting.

La piscina
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I’ve also written a screenplay with Armando Capó, which will be his debut narrative feature. It’s called Agosto and it isn’t at all like my previous screenplays, though it still wasn’t particularly complicated. It should begin production soon. It goes without saying that I would always be happy to work with Capó.

Without a doubt, there hasn’t been one screenplay that was particularly harder than the rest. If you work alone things move more quickly, but then you need more rewriting, and if you work with a director from the get-go, it takes more time, but once it’s done, it’s done… The screenplays that have been most difficult for me are the ones that haven’t been filmed and will never be filmed.

If you didn’t have to think about budgets, producers or other limiting factors, what screenplay would you like to write?

I don’t imagine this would ever happen, so I don’t even consider the possibility