HAVANA — Rebels allied with a young Fidel Castro burst into the street outside Havana’s Government Palace as soldiers loyal to strongman Fulgencio Batista rain gunfire from above. Steps away, Ernest Hemingway and a young journalist friend dive for cover behind a parked car.
An international film crew in recent weeks has been re-enacting this and other historic scenes in the streets of Havana for “Papa,” a biopic about the budding friendship between Hemingway and the reporter in the turbulent Cuba of the 1950s.
Years in the making, producers say it is the first full-length feature film with a Hollywood director and actors to be shot in the country since the 1959 revolution.
Due to decades of ill will between the two countries and Washington’s 52-year-long embargo, other movies ostensibly set here, such as “The Godfather Part II” and 1990’s “Havana,” were filmed in stand-in locations like the Dominican Republic.
“It was an absolute passion to actually make it in Cuba where everything that is in the script happened, where the finca (farm) is where (Hemingway) lived, where his boat was, all the spots from the Morro castle to Cojimar where he fished,” director Bob Yari said. “It’s all here, so trying to duplicate it somewhere else was not very appealing.”
Shooting began in March and wrapped over the weekend on the joint Canadian-Cuban-American production, with the island’s governmental film institute known as ICAIC providing location support, period costumes and local actors.
“Papa” came to Cuba under a U.S. Treasury Department license exempting it from most embargo restrictions. The film’s makers said there was a cap on how much they could spend, but would not say how much or release overall budget figures.
For licensing purposes the movie qualified as a documentary, since it depicts a firsthand account of real events that took place here. So it’s unlikely just any Hollywood blockbuster would get the same permission in the future.
Though the title derives from the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s nickname, the movie is based on an autobiographical script by Denne Bart Petitclerc, who is played by Giovanni Ribisi (“Avatar,” “Saving Private Ryan”). Hemingway is portrayed by theater and screen veteran Adrian Sparks.
Petitclerc was abandoned by his father as a young boy, fell in love with Hemingway’s writing and later came to see him as a father figure.
While working for the Miami Herald in the 1950s, Petitclerc wrote a letter to Hemingway professing his admiration. He didn’t intend to send it, but his girlfriend found it and dropped it in the mail.
On a recent Saturday, a reading room at the University of Havana library stood in for the Herald newsroom. Cuban extras milled about in slim ties and saddle shoes, long skirts and horn-rimmed glasses. Vintage typewriters clacked away.
The scene retells the moment when Petitclerc, known as “Ed” in the movie, fields a fateful phone call that at first he thinks is a prank by one of his pals.
“Good letter, kid,” says Hemingway. “You like to fish?”
Before long, Ed is on a boat with his idol, and the two strike up a friendship that would last until Hemingway’s 1961 suicide.
The film crew got access to some of Havana’s most iconic locales, including the former Government Palace, which long ago was turned into a museum celebrating Castro’s revolution.
At the majestic Grand Theater, which is closed for restoration, a sumptuous salon was tricked out to look like the bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel where Hemingway frequently stayed. In this scene, Ed is tipped off by notorious mobster Santo Trafficante (James Remar; “Django Unchained,” “Dexter”) that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover has it out for Hemingway.
Producers even secured unprecedented permission to shoot inside Hemingway’s former estate, Finca Vigia, today considered such a shrine that tourists aren’t even allowed inside and must peer in through the windows.
Sparks who has played Hemingway on stage since 2005, confessed to something of a spiritual connection to the writer and said it was a magical experience portraying him in the land he loved.
“To be playing a section of the film where he’s struggling with writer’s block, I’m standing on exactly the square foot of ground that he stood on, with his typewriter in front of me, playing the scene. It wasn’t acting, it was channeling,” Sparks said. “It was just allowing him to come through.”
There have also been some only-in-Cuba moments of frustration.
In a country with a history of high-seas defections, something as simple as getting on a boat requires official approval. So when cast members’ names were missing from a list one day, an open-water shoot was delayed.
Cuba’s scarce and creaky Internet service forced the crew to return to the yesteryear practice of slipping the day’s call sheets under hotel room doors, rather than sending them by email.
Much of the equipment had to be brought in from overseas to guarantee high production values.
But the payoff was the opportunity to shoot in a city that has in many ways remained frozen in the 1950s, with classic American automobiles from the era readily available to provide a historic backdrop.
“It’s been chaotic. Every day there’s a new drama,” said English actor Joely Richardson (“Nip/Tuck,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), who plays Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary. “It’s been so nutty. But you know what? It’s up there with my best experiences. It’s been fantastic.”
Petitclerc went on to a long career as a journalist and writer of books, TV shows and movies, including the screenplay for “Islands in the Stream,” based on the Hemingway novel of the same name. He died in 2006.
Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939 to 1960 and wrote much of “The Old Man and the Sea” and other works here, and islanders claim him as much as Americans do.
The two countries’ mutual affection for Hemingway is among the few things they agree on. Cuba and the U.S. have cooperated multiple times to preserve his writings and belongings — so it’s not surprising the first Hollywood feature to shoot in Cuba is about him.
“Hemingway was probably the most prominent American to make Cuba his home, and I think the people of Cuba to this day cherish him and love him,” said Yari (“Crash,” “The Illusionist”). “And hopefully this film will become an addition to that component of bridging this gap between two cultures and two peoples that have drifted apart.”