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As Relations With U.S. Thaw, International Productions Are Converging on Cuba

Thanks to the thaw in relations with the U.S., Cuba since January has become a Hollywood destination, attracting shoots like “Furious 8,” “House of Lies,” and the latest “Transformers.”

But European productions never stopped shooting in Cuba, and they’re increasingly converging there, eager to capture the country’s end-of-an-era charm before that unique look vanishes forever.

For the Italian production “No Country for Young Men,” a dramedy about young Italians forced by their economic woes to hustle opportunities abroad, director Giovanni Veronesi scouted off-the-radar locations such as old Havana courtyards used for illegal cockfighting and terraces atop modern high-rises where Cuban youths set up private bars and, as he describes, “isolate themselves from
reality.”

“Parts of Havana look like bombed-out Sarajevo,” Veronesi says. But “then you turn around and it looks like Portofino.” The production also shot on the Playas del Este beaches, just outside Havana, and on the small resort island of Cayo Largo, one hundred miles to the south.

Veronesi and producer Arturo Paglia, co-chief of Rome-based production company Paco Cinematografica, say the six-week Cuba shoot “was rough,” citing red tape, spotty internet connectivity, bad cellphone reception, expensive hotels, and a creative blip that soured the possibility of a co-production (despite Italy and Cuba having a co-production treaty). Paglia also recalls how President Obama’s visit caused Havana’s airport to shut down entirely, so that “for five days, we couldn’t leave or bring equipment in.”

Still, he relents: “In hindsight, I’d advise shooting there.”

For “No Country,” budgeted at $2.2 million, Paco enlisted the production services of Havana-based Island Film Cuba, which is also helping Showtime’s “House of Lies.”

“What the Americans are doing now, the Europeans have been doing for more than 20 years,” says Renzo Trivellini, Island Film’s Italian co-founder.

The Yanks, he adds, are working at a much higher budget level. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t continue to be space for smaller-scale productions from all over the world, and especially from Europe.”

Island Film also handled a smooth one-week Cuba shoot for Italian director Gabriele Muccino’s upcoming road movie “Summertime.” “We thought there would be snags, but there were none,” says line producer Ferdinando Bonifazi.

Trivellini is particularly proud of the work he and his Cuban partner, Nelson Navarro, did on Irish director Paddy Breathnach’s “Viva,” set in Havana’s drag-queen scene. The Ireland/Cuba co-production made the 2016 Oscar shortlist for foreign-language film.

Havana-based lawyer and producer Lia Rodriguez underscores that Cuba has co-production treaties with many European countries, which, she says, “can be a great advantage.”

She and her partner, Antonio López, co-produced Spanish director Félix Viscarret’s TV miniseries “Four Seasons in Havana,” based on the crime novels of best-selling Cuban author Leonardo Padura. The production, made in tandem with Spain’s Tornasol Films and Germany’s Nadcon, represents the first show distributed globally by the new Paris-based Wild Bunch TV unit.

Rodriguez says that though Europeans come to Cuba mainly for the locations, Cuban film institute ICAIC has a big studio facility “with complementary services,” which she expects international productions will be using once they start planning entire shoots in the country. Universal worked with ICAIC on “Fast 8.”

Italians, she notes, are spearheading the renewed European effort to forge closer cinematic ties with the island nation. Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba last September served as a conduit of sorts to reestablish relations, according to Rome Lazio Film Commission president Luciano Sovena. A month later Sovena hosted a Cuban delegation at Rome’s new MIA film and TV content mart.

Sovena had hoped that Veronesi’s “No Country” would be the icebreaker on the never-used 20-year-old co-production treaty between the two countries. But that didn’t happen because Cuban authorities objected to a purported reference in the film to legalized prostitution, then did not relent even after Veronesi changed the screenplay.

“The bureaucracy is a killer,” Veronesi admits. “But for what I got on the screen, I’d say it’s worth it.”

His advice to international indies: Get to Cuba fast. “Havana is being transformed by construction,” he warns. “In 10 years, old Havana probably won’t be there anymore.”

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