Hemingway movie, a rare Hollywood moment in Cuba
An international film crew in recent weeks has been re-enacting this and other historic scenes in the streets of Havana for Papa, a biopic about the budding friendship between Hemingway and the reporter in the turbulent Cuba of the 1950s.
Years in the making, producers say it is the first full-length feature with a Hollywood director and actors to be shot in the country since the 1959 revolution. Due to decades of ill will between the two countries and Washington’s 52-year-long embargo, other movies ostensibly set here, such as The Godfather Part II and 1990’s Havana, were filmed in stand-in locations like the Dominican Republic.
“It was an absolute passion to actually make it in Cuba where everything that is in the script happened, where the finca (farm) is where (Hemingway) lived, where his boat was, all the spots from the Morro castle to Cojimar where he fished,” said director Bob Yari (Crash, The Illusionist). “It’s all here, so trying to duplicate it somewhere else was not very appealing.” Shooting began in March and wrapped over the weekend on the joint Canadian-Cuban-American production, with the island’s governmental film institute known as ICAIC providing location support, period costumes and local actors.
Papa came to Cuba under a US Treasury Department license exempting it from most embargo restrictions. The film’s makers said there was a cap on how much they could spend, but would not say how much or release overall budget figures. For licensing purposes the movie qualified as a documentary, since it depicts a firsthand account of real events that took place here. So it’s unlikely just any Hollywood blockbuster would get the same permission in the future.
Though the title derives from the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s nickname, the movie is based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who is played by Giovanni Ribisi (Avatar, Saving Private Ryan). Hemingway is portrayed by theater and screen veteran Adrian Sparks.
Petitclerc fell in love with Hemingway’s writing and, while working for the Miami Herald in the 1950s, he wrote a letter to Hemingway professing his admiration. He didn’t intend to send it, but his girlfriend found it and dropped it in the mail. One day, he got a phone call from his idol: “Good letter, kid,” says Hemingway. “You like to fish?” Before long, Ed is on a boat with his idol, and the two strike up a friendship that would last until Hemingway’s 1961 suicide.
The film crew got access to some of Havana’s most iconic locales, including the former Government Palace, which long ago was turned into a museum celebrating Castro’s revolution. Producers even secured unprecedented permission to shoot inside Hemingway’s former estate, Finca Vigia, today considered such a shrine that tourists aren’t even allowed inside and must peer in through the windows.
There have also been some only-in-Cuba moments of frustration. In a country with a history of high-seas defections, something as simple as getting on a boat requires official approval. So when cast members’ names were missing from a list one day, an open-water shoot was delayed. Cuba’s scarce and creaky Internet service forced the crew to return to the yesteryear practice of slipping the day’s call sheets under hotel room doors, rather than sending them by email. Much of the equipment had to be brought in from overseas to guarantee high production values. But the payoff was the opportunity to shoot in a city that has in many ways remained frozen in the 1950s, with classic American automobiles from the era readily available to provide a historic backdrop. “It’s been chaotic. Every day there’s a new drama,” said English actor Joely Richardson (Nip/Tuck, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), who plays Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. “It’s been so nutty. But you know what? It’s up there with my best experiences. It’s been fantastic.”