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Improved Relations Between U.S., Cuba Could Ease Way for New Filming Location

Cuba, si! Yanqui, si! Filming, maybe.

President Obama’s announcement last month that the U.S. would ease some restrictions on commerce with Cuba raises a key question for American producers: Will the island develop into a filmmaking destination?

The temptation is there. After all, what better location than Cuba, a short hop from Florida, to shoot stories set in the ’50s and ’60s. Havana-bound travelers have likened the journey to time travel, because so little has changed there since Fidel Castro came to power in 1959: Vintage cars cruise the streets, rotary phones still ring, and people stroll along the old Malecon esplanade.

“The entire island is a tableau frozen in time,” says location scout Claudia Eastman, who journeyed there in 2012 along with fellow location pro Nancy Haecker, “Game of Thrones” producer Bernie Caulfield, Morgan Creek senior VP David Robinson and others at the invitation of Cuba’s film school, EICTV.

One Stateside filmmaker who recently took advantage of Cuba’s retro look is Bob Yari, who spent a month shooting his Ernest Hemingway biopic “Papa” entirely on location in and near Havana in March and April of 2014.

Yari was able to film at Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s Cuba home, now a museum preserved as the author left it in 1960. The pic, which Yari produced and directed, focuses on Hemingway’s declining years, just before he moved back to Ketchum, Idaho, where he killed himself.

“We shot entirely at the actual locations,” Yari says. “We didn’t use any stages.” The international crew included a Salvadorian-American d.p. (Ernesto Melara), an American costume designer (Jane Anderson), and a U.K. sound team. Screenwriter Denne Bart Petitclerc, who died in 2006, was a young reporter when he befriended Hemingway, and wrote from intimate knowledge.

Yari, who will seek a deal for “Papa” via the fest circuit but self-distribute if necessary, says shooting in Cuba is not for everyone. In addition to the hassles of clearing paperwork with U.S. and Cuban authorities, he notes, “Production is not up to Hollywood standards — but it’s getting there.”

But Europeans, unrestricted by regulations, have long shot commercials and musicvideos in Cuba. “The infrastructure is good,” says local producer Oriel Rodriguez, “and with digital cameras and laptop editing, a lot of local people are now making their own independent films, outside the system.”

Still, it remains to be seen whether the thaw will pay off for filming. “I don’t think things will change immediately,” says Simon Whistler, Latin America director at Control Risks, a consulting group. He adds that Republicans in Washington will do all they can to make “people’s lives difficult when it comes to getting licenses.”

But others believe change — fast or slow — is inevitable, and will alter the island forever. “I tell folks to go now, before they lift the embargo,” Eastman says, “because, sadly, we will ruin it.”

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