Filming 'Hemingway in Cuba' was a nightmare for director Bob Yari
The film, opening Friday in KC, was the first Hollywood film shot in
Cuba in more than 50 years
But the country was essential in the making of the film
It stars Giovanni Ribisi, Minka Kelly and Adrian Sparks, as Hemingway
BY ROBERT W. BUTLER
Making the first Hollywood film shot in Cuba in more than half a century
It was also, according to director Bob Yari, "a nightmare in many respects."
The Iranian-born Yari has enjoyed a quarter century in the film
business, usually as a producer. He was part of the team that created
the Oscar-winning "Crash."
To make "Papa: Hemingway in Cuba," which opens Friday at the Rio, Yari
devoted a decade to navigating the treacherous waters of international
tensions dating back to the Cold War, not to mention dealing with a
radically different culture.
It all began when he read the screenplay by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who
as a young Miami newspaperman was "adopted" by novelist Ernest Hemingway
and his wife, Mary.
Over several years in the late 1950s — during which Fidel Castro's
Communist Revolution was brewing — Petitclerc spent weekends at the
couple's home outside Havana. He saw Hemingway — the best-selling author
of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and the Sea," as well as a
one-time reporter for The Kansas City Star — at his best and his worst.
In the film, Petitclerc — renamed Ed Myers — is played by Giovanni
Ribisi. Hemingway is portrayed by stage actor Adrian Sparks, who played
the novelist in a one-man show. He is a dead ringer for "Papa." Joely
Richardson was cast as Mary Hemingway, and Minka Kelly serves as Myers'
fellow journalist and love interest.
By the time Yari got involved in 2007, Petitclerc had died and several
attempts to make the film had failed. Undeterred, Yari hatched a plan to
not only make the movie, but to make it in Cuba, where it all took place.
"We had to deal with this embargo which now, thank God, is being
softened and may soon be lifted," Yari said in a recent telephone
conversation from Los Angeles. "When we first applied for license from
the Treasury and State departments they turned us down flat. It took two
years of arm wrestling to get approval."
Even so, the embargo proved a constant irritant.
"There is no way to legally transfer money to Cuba," Yari said. "Our
government is always on the lookout for that. If they catch you, the
money will be frozen. We constantly got caught in that."
The Cuban government — which has long venerated Hemingway as a writer
who celebrated Cuban life and as a friend of the revolution — proved
more cooperative. Not only did it not attempt to censor the production,
but it allowed access to key locales in Hemingway's life.
"They let us shoot in Hemingway's house, a museum that has been left
exactly the way it was the day he left Cuba for the last time. It was
really kind of amazing — visitors to the museum can't enter the house,
they can only look in from the outside. But we were allowed to go inside
with an entire film crew."
The U.S. embargo of Cuba proved beneficial in one regard: Havana looks
almost exactly as it did 60 years ago, with the streets filled with
immaculately maintained autos of the pre-revolutionary era.
"We never built a set," Yari said. "We shot on real locations, which
required very little dressing."
More complex was the relationship between the American crew members and
their Cuban counterparts.
"We had issues with the communist mentality and work ethic," Yari said.
"In Cuba, no matter how hard you work or don't work, you are paid the
same. The result is a pretty relaxed attitude. For Cubans there are 90
minutes in an hour.
"But an American film crew typically works 14, 15 hours a day. The
Cubans were initially shell-shocked by the pace we were setting, almost
tortured by it. But one of the great joys of this experience was
watching them, because of their passion for Hemingway, really step up."
Despite the difficulties, filming in Cuba proved essential, Yari said.
"One of the things about our story is that Cuba is not just a background
location. It's a character. Hemingway's love of Cuba and the Cuban
people is a big part of all this. I don't think you could have faked it
by shooting anywhere else."
Yari recalled a day when actor Sparks, in full Hemingway costume, was
walking a Havana street.
"This little old lady starts crying and yelling, comes up and touches
his face and speaks in Spanish. She tells Adrian that when she was a
little girl she was standing outside her house crying and that he —
Hemingway — came off his boat and put his hand on her head and told her
she was such a pretty little girl."
The recent release of the FBI's massive file on Hemingway convinced Yari
that while in his later years Hemingway was paranoid, the author had
good reason to be. In fact, many of his acquaintances believe government
persecution contributed to the writer's suicide in 1961.
Some of the bombshell allegations in the film — that Hemingway was
actively involved in running guns to Cuban revolutionaries and that he
was the subject of an FBI vendetta because he had once observed Bureau
director J. Edgar Hoover in drag — sound like creations of a
Not so, Yari said.
"That's how I felt when I first read the script: I can't believe this.
As far as I can tell these things have never been divulged before. But
according to Denne's widow, that is all as he experienced it."
Read more of freelance writer Robert W. Butler's features and reviews at
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