I woke up early the next day and was off in a mini van to the jungles to scout our first location. We picked a spot in Mayabeque Province, just outside of Havana. There were bamboo trees and thick vegetation and the deeper you went in the thicker it got. There was sugar cane that the crew cut and handed around. It looked like a stick and you chewed on it to find the sweetness inside.
In an open field we constructed a thatched hut which we would later burn to the ground. That’s the film business.
Day 1 of shooting and the actors and extras stood around in the blazing heat in vintage suits and we had very little water and no bathroom facilities. It was a nasty first day. Our Walkie Talkies didn’t show up either so the soft spoken Cubans were bombarded by the blasting voice of the Canadian 1st Assistant Director who was screaming for his cast to come to set. They were up on a hill in an old bus that was converted into a costume truck and couldn’t hear him… so he just kept yelling louder. It was culture shock for the mild mannered crew. They were not used to having someone so loud and aggressive.
As the sun fell behind the trees the jungle came alive with sounds and the constant buzzing of mosquitos that all seemed to be saying “we have malaria”. No matter how much mosquito repellent was applied they just kept swarming. The Cubans didn’t seem to take notice but the Canadians were squirming. Someone told me that if you rubbed dryer sheets on your skin and tied them to your waist the mosquitos wouldn’t bite you. I put that theory to the test. I was a mosquito buffet
Get me out of here!
Some of the happiest people I have ever met are Cubans. The crew that I had the pleasure of working with were completely professional. The grips were working with old equipment that was frequently catching things on fire. They would just grab a bucket and douse out the lighting “flags” and we would keep shooting.
The women were organizers of Extras and transportation. They were also our Hair and Makeup department and additional assistant directors.
I spent most of my time in the only proper truck that we had, which was the hair and makeup truck. There were only two dressing rooms for the entire cast. The extras changed in pop up tents and in an old bus. I didn’t have a work space so I sat in the makeup truck as the actors were being processed. That truck also had the only bathroom for the entire crew. It was rank after a day but the smell was covered up by vats of “Final Net” hair spray. I inhaled enough hair spray to torch my breath. I mean… loads of hair spray.
I brought a box of Kashi granola bars to Cuba and one day I took them to the makeup truck. I handed one to the Makeup Artist, Karen and she proceeded to take one bite and pass it on to the next person. I laughed and said, “no no stop! I have one for everyone!” They just looked at me and didn’t understand… they didn’t speak English so well and my Spanish was horrible… but the point being; they share everything. I have never met people who did not have ambitions to do better than the next person or have more than their neighbor. They have been raised to take care of each other and to share, unlike North America where the message is to do better, have more, display your wealth and success. And guess what? They seem so much happier than us.
Once we got out of the jungle I felt like I could handle anything else that came my way. We moved back into Havana and no longer had the long drives to and from work in the morning in over -cramped vans. The roads were horrible and it took forever to maneuver around deep ruts and holes. You also have to be aware that walking the streets in downtown Havana can be a bit treacherous. The sidewalks are paved but will all of a sudden open up into a 3 foot hole or crevice. I stepped into one while I was sight seeing and dropped down up to my hips because I wasn’t paying attention. There are also a lot of dogs on the streets. They aren’t necessarily strays. They could have homes but the owners just let them out all day long to search for food on the streets and let them back in when they return from work. I fed a lot of dogs scraps and sandwiches that I didn’t want. I realized at one point the crew wanted my sandwiches. I ended up giving my unwanted food to the people to take home to their families and scraps to the dogs. One day I had the usual full container of rice and mystery meat, that had been our meal every day for a month, and I could not stomach it anymore so I carefully put it down in front of one of the street dogs. He took one sniff and walked away. Made me a bit nervous.
You don’t go to Cuba for the food. A popular luncheon meat is kind of like bologna and the crew were grateful to have those sandwiches to take home. It made me think about how spoiled we all are when it comes to food and the amount of waste there is on film sets. I couldn’t find a good salad anywhere and I’m not sure how you would survive as a vegetarian in Cuba. Salads consisted of shredded cabbage with nothing on it. Surprisingly someone taught the Cubans how to make good pizza. I had an amazing cheese pizza in a pop up tent restaurant near the Hotel Nacional. It was in a wood fire oven and I could have eaten that every single day. I also had a really good Paella in a restaurant. It was spiced nicely and had shrimp and Logostina in traditional Spanish rice.
Shooting in the downtown area of Havana was a little crazy. Its a busy place and the streets are a bit narrow. You can walk along and someone on a balcony above the street will dump a bucket of dirty water down or worse, they’ve emptied their toilet, so you have to be careful not to get doused with something unpleasant. I dropped my walkie talkie in the gutter once and the girls yelled at me to not pick it up. One of the men came over with a plastic bag and retrieved it for me and sprayed it with disinfectant as the girls pointed at it and said, “poe poe”. Ewwww… I knew what that meant… its pretty universal.
The vintage looks on set were fantastic. The suits and dresses and shoes were all brought in from Canada and the cast looked amazing.
Honestly, once you are surrounded by a cast dressed in 1950’s suits and you are on the streets where all the cars are authentic for the period its hard not to believe you are back in time, until you glance to your left and see someone in lime green shorts and a Nike tee shirt. Fashion in Cuba is very flashy and colourful. The women love to show off their bodies and bright colours are in style. You see a lot of hot pink and oranges and yellows and anything neon. I think there are still a lot of tourists who bring along clothes to give away. I brought linen tops , tee shirts with logos, and silk dresses and gave them away to my friends on the crew. Everyone gave me something in return. I tried to refuse but they were insulted so I accepted the tokens of friendship. One older woman gave me a beautiful vintage shell bracelet. The Art Director gave me a tiny mariachi drum key chain. Someone else gave me a little red heart pendant. They have nothing and yet they insisted on giving me something. Such displays of love and affection were everywhere. I was there for Valentine’s Day and it was more popular than Christmas! It was such an event. All the women had special surprises planned for their boyfriends and husbands. There was not a cynical one in the bunch. It’s that Latin lover thing and it really is true. They take love very seriously. It was touching and charming and I felt a bit of a spoil sport for always rolling my eyes at the cliche celebration that was invented by Hallmark and Laure Secord. See? I can’t help myself.
We filmed at night because it was so quiet. Havana does not have a crazy night life like you would expect. It is definitely not Miami. People go for long dinners and have drinks and then walk along the Malecon, which is the most popular social thing to do in Havana. I compare it to a boardwalk by the ocean where families and friends stroll along and there are musicians and teenagers sitting on the breaker walls entertaining each other. There are no drugs in Cuba but you do see people drinking. They also love to smoke their cigarettes. As the temperature drops and the wind picks up everyone disperses to their homes and it becomes quiet except for the taxis and cars that are still driving tourists back to their hotels. At the Hotel Nacional things are gearing up for a big show with dancers and a band and singers. Everyone will sit outside in wicker chairs and drink cocktails and smoke cigars. When I was there I saw the famous Buena Vista Social Club and it was a thrill for me to get to listen to them.
Once it is dark in the downtown area things wind down and the streets are empty except for our film crew, cast and extras. We lit up the streets and had some occasional curious onlookers but, for the most part, it was deserted.
We were shooting a scene one night where the army and the revolutionaries have a standoff. It was very late and the Extras hadn’t eaten. When a food truck with sandwiches finally arrived, after hours of waiting, they ran to the truck in a stampede. Each of them had weapons and they were not prop guns.. meaning plastic or fake.. these were real Cuban Army rifles and handguns. They just dropped them in the street and ran for that bologna.
When we were ready to film the scene the first line was “People lay down your arms”… instead it became “People lay down your sandwiches.”
There is a nice beach outside of Havana called Plays Santa Maria Del Mar. It is a public beach and has beach chairs and restaurants. There are a couple of hotels and you can have your dinner and drinks served right on the beach. The water was wavy and there was a bit of seaweed but it is a soft sandy, relaxing beach, and its a hot spot for families to cool off on a weekend
My next blog will feature the incredible Hotel Riviera. The famous mob run 1950’s casino and home of the Copa Room.
Now I’m going to make myself a pitcher of Mojitos…. and yes… I said pitcher.