“The sequence that opens the latest film is more historic than the others,” says The New York Times about the first Hollywood shoot in Cuba since the U.S. economic embargo was imposed in 1960.
It’s the scene of Fast and Furious 8 where Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) in a 1950 Chevrolet Fleetline, and anti-hero Raldo (Celestino Cornielle) in a 1956 Ford Fairlane, weave their way through the streets of Havana. The “Cuban part” of the film, premiered on April 14, takes up a bit over 20 minutes of the total movie.
“You’ve never been to Cuba in the way that we take you to Cuba,” said the film’s director, F. Gary Gray in an interview with the New York newspaper where he speaks, one year later, about the preproduction and his experience in Cuba during the filming.
“We’re representing the U.S. when we leave the country, and you could very easily cause an international incident if you make the wrong turn,” Gray said regarding his first talks with Washington. The talks included “from the team to the food service…. I had to give, in advance, details of every shot, every angle and every road we were going to shoot on.” About the negotiation with the Cuban part, he just comments that “they were very nice. We were in and out of Cuba quite a bit during preproduction, and you could see the improvements…a location would look a certain way, and we would come back the next month, and the roads would be paved.”
“Fast” but calmly
Gary said he was “happy” to be allowed to film in Havana. “But what followed were the challenges of bringing a film of this size into a country that didn’t have the infrastructure to support it.” The world’s most renowned car racing saga that has moved through the four cardinal points: Los Angeles, Japan, London, Rio de Janeiro, Abu Dhabi…. In all cases they had a fast Internet connection and other technological facilities.
“We had a hard time sending and receiving emails. Cellphone service, calls back and forth to the States, were extremely challenging. Some of the simplest things, we needed a team of scientists to figure out. But I would say what you lose in convenience you gain in heart and aesthetics.
“You have a full day of shooting, and you wouldn’t be able to see what you shot for days and, in some cases, a couple of weeks. When you’re shooting digital footage, the sizes of the files are huge, and they didn’t have the bandwidth to get the images with sound processed and back to us.
“We would send people to the States to process them and bring them back on a hard drive. It was like sending a carrier pigeon to Florida, and you know how long pigeons take…. We had to hire 100 locals to lock down a 20-block straightaway, because there were over 10,000 people watching us shoot,” he said regarding their logistical challenges”.
The director mentioned he wanted to use drones for the shoots, “but they wouldn’t allow us to bring them.” Instead he brought over a helicopter. It would be the first U.S. aircraft to be admitted in Havana after December 17, 2014
“It looked like a spaceship to the locals,” exaggerated Gray, who set up a “big screen for the locals to see what the helicopter was shooting…. A lot of them have never been on a plane. You start seeing tears stream. Then we start to cry, because they’re crying, and it’s this moment you share where you realize how special it is….”
In a country where a national filmmaker can go through a difficult process to get permission to make a film that at times doesn’t arrive on time, many streets in the center of the city were blocked between April 20 and May 5 for the Hollywood mega production. Neighbors and passers-by in Old Havana, Centro Habana and Plaza de la Revolución witnessed the giant deployment of important Hollywood Trucks that moved all the equipment needed for the shooting, which as such began on Friday the 22nd.
A giant low-cost set
The closing off of streets, the hiring of local personnel and the little information about the earnings the film reported were controversial aspects at the time. Writer Arturo Arango cited a publication that identified as advantages of filming in Cuba in “the beaches and mountains, highways, railways and some of the transportation infrastructure. The country also has an entertainment industry with trained professionals. The food is cheap and the workforce is substantially less expensive than it would be in the United States.”
“While in other spheres of culture mutual respect has predominated, this news about the audiovisual places our country as an enormous maquiladora: landscapes, technicians, citizen safety and workers who you can pay low wages is what we can offer. The only time in which the Cuban reality appears is deformed up to the grotesque.”
Meanwhile, the president of the Cubans Institute of Cinema Arts (ICAIC), Roberto Smith, commented that “Cuba has always been a much sought-after option for foreign productions…. Together with the climate, the natural attractions and the beauty of our cities, the foreign producers find a very qualified artistic and technical talent; a high capacity for organization and that warm and hospitable atmosphere that characterizes us.”
Smith then explained that the shooting of Fast and Furious 8 classified as “service to foreign cinema production,” whose objectives are “entering hard currency for national cinema and increasing the employment opportunities for Cuban technicians and artists”; although this does not mean “we must agree with the artistic or aesthetic proposal of the film….”
He announced that the profits will be used “for the production of our films as well as for the strengthening of Cuban cinema industrial capacity. It is our hope, for example, that the country completes the costly technologies needed for digital films, especially for the postproduction, an increasingly complex process.”
The daily Juventud Rebelde asked him how Cuba had been paid for its services, where those funds would go, why open the doors to that filming in particular…. “I’ve heard comments with totally exaggerated figures that do not correspond to any logic,” he answered, without contributing the definitive figure or any other. He said that the production of Fast and Furious 8 in Cuba was still “closing its financial operations.” Since May 2016, the date of the interview, there has been no more news about the issue.
Fast and Furious 8 can already be found in many Cuban homes thanks to the Weekly Package or other alternative information flows. Its premiere has been the most successful in movie history, collecting 532.5 billion dollars.