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How Cuba opened its doors for an American biopic about Ernest Hemingway

On the set of
On the set of "Papa," a film about Ernest Hemingway's time in Cuba.
Bob Yari
On the set of
Bob Yari (left) says Cuba has a thriving film community and a movie infrastructure that is becoming more available on the island.
Bob Yari
On the set of
Bob Yari (center), director of "Papa," said it was a long saga just getting to Cuba.
Bob Yari

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As the long trade embargo between Cuba and the United States is loosening, some of the first Americans headed to Havana are from Hollywood.

Last month, Conan O’Brien came on The Frame to talk about taping his late night talk show there. Now, movie producer Bob Yari has wrapped filming what is believed to be the first U.S. feature shot in Cuba in more than half a century.

Yari, who financed the Oscar-winner “Crash,” recently directed  “Papa” — a movie about Ernest Hemingway’s time in Cuba. Yari and the film’s producer, Amanda Harvey, hope to have “Papa” in theaters by the end of the year. When they visited The Frame studios, Yari told host John Horn about their island odyssey.

Interview Highlights

I suspect you have been working on this film before relations thawed between the United States and Cuba. How did your trip come about?

YARI: Well, it was a long saga getting to Cuba. I first came across the script —a producer brought me the script — nine or 10 years ago. I fell in love with the script and the story, which is of a young journalist who is an orphan in the depression era and grows up reading Hemingway and idolizes him. He becomes friends with Hemingway the last two years of his life in Cuba, with the background of the Cuban revolution. It seemed like everyone involved with the project at the time wanted to shoot anywhere but Cuba. Reading [about] the existence of some of those locations, it just occurred to me that there was no other way than to go to Cuba and shoot this film. 

So, you tell your producer, Amanda: Let’s go to Cuba. What are the logistical challenges?

HARVEY: First we had to get license from the Department of Treasury to be able to go down there and have Americans be in Cuba for a month or two. And I was all for it, I said, Where do I sign up?

Once you get down there, what kind of infrastructure for movie making is there? Do you have to bring everything in or are there local crews you can hire? 

YARI: One of the things most people don’t realize is Cuba actually has a thriving film community and industry. It has a terrific film school that has put out very talented people. There are German companies that have sprung up that have quite a good amount of equipment. But they don't have star vehicles down there, they don't have wagons. So, it's challenging. But with what's down there, which is getting better daily, it's very doable. 

The Cuban government is very restrictive in terms of information, in terms of media and what type of Western [influences] get into the country. Did the government have any approval oversight on the script? Did it feel as if you were being watched?

YARI: Not really, although there was a process, especially for our film, because of the access we were requesting to places like an active museum. So, we really had to have cooperation and permission from the government. We did submit the script — I know it was translated and reviewed. They never came back and said, We want things changed. But they were extremely cooperative. Part of the benefit was Hemingway himself — he's such an icon, he's so loved down there that people from the government [on] down, they were all anxious to help us get this done. 

He as a famous house on an estate that's preserved near Havana. Were you able to get to Finca Vigía?

YARI: That's one of those things we were just blessed with. When Hemingway left his home, he literally left everything in it. And the Cubans have kept it pristine and the Cuban government, for the first time, allowed us interior access to shoot inside his home. 

You actually took the production in there and were able to shoot it.

YARI: Exactly. It was a great privilege to be in the location where this story happened — our story is a true story. Much of the dialogue, much of the occurrences were real events and we got to recreate them, not only in the real location, but almost production-designed from scratch by the real artifacts. 

Given that there is still a trade embargo and other limitations, are you hopeful that the film can show in Cuba at the Havana Film Festival in December?

YARI: Very hopeful. I believe one of those exceptions allowed by our government is exhibition of an artistic nature in a film festival. I believe the Cubans would be very happy to have us down there and we'd be very happy to be there and show the film at the Cuban festival in December. 

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