Interview: Sergio Navarretta on the Dance Inside the Mind in “The Cuban”

Every morning for the shoot of “The Cuban,” Sergio Navarretta would put in his earbuds and listen to a playlist he had put together for that day.

“It just gets you there so much faster than having to talk your way into a day or into a scene,” Navarretta says of music, which became an inspiration for so much in the director’s latest film.

Not only would Navarretta be able to share how he felt about any given scene with his cast and crew by dropping the needle of a certain track to create just the right mood, but in fact the way music can summon emotions and memories is at the very big heart of “The Cuban,” which tells the story of a young woman named Mina (Ana Golja) who takes a job assisting at a nursing facility where her aunt (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and becomes curious about Mr. Garcia (Lou Gossett Jr.), a patient with vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s with a poster of the Cuban bandleader Benny More on his wall. Seemingly unresponsive to conversation, Mina, whose grandfather loved Cuban jazz and taught music at the University of Kabul, begins to play music for him, taking him back to his days at dance halls he’d play in Havana and uncovering a whole hidden history including some things that might be better left in the past. Still, by the time Mina starts grilling Cuban sandwiches for Mr. Garcia to jog his memory further, “The Cuban” is already sizzling in a number of ways as the friendship they develop, cutting across different cultures and ages, opens up new ways about thinking of the world for them both.

The film is return to live-action for Navarretta, who last produced the animated family film “Arctic Dogs,” but it is no less spirited, sweeping audiences into the Tropicana and the other places Mr. Garcia played as immersively and colorfully as the memories come back to him, and in fact, “The Cuban” is the rare production from outside the country to film partly in Cuba, making the film feel as if it’s a real adventure. With the film’s plans for a theatrical run cut short by COVID-19, that much-needed excursion is now available to audiences everywhere with its release in virtual cinemas and the filmmaker recently spoke about how the film came together, both as a production and a narrative that moves so fluidly between the past and present.

How did this come about?

Four years ago, I was coming off a big animation movie called “Arctic Dogs” and it was such a long and grueling schedule that I was emotionally burnt out. I wanted to find something that would reignite my joy of cinema and I met this young actress Ana Golja from “Degrassi,” the TV show. I said, “If you have any ideas, I’m totally open to exploring even a short film,” which I hadn’t done in years, and she said, “Okay,” and she went away with her partner and she came back with a seed of an idea about a grandfather and a grandson, loosely based on the [true story of a] young producer’s guilt around not being able to see his grandfather who lived in Russia. That’s where it started and once we attached Lou Gossett Jr., it evolved into a movie about a young Afghan nurse who has an encounter with a one-time famous Cuban musician with Alzheimer’s and through their interactions, they form this unlikely relationship.

The way I cast is a bit unconventional in that we build the characters around the actor, so I knew early on I wanted Lou Gossett Jr. [since] I’ve always been a fan from the days of “Roots” when my parents sat me down and made me watch that as a kid to all of his other wonderful performances. Thankfully, we were able to lock in all the [other] actors that I wanted, including Shohreh Aghdashloo, who I had seen in “House of Sand and Fog,” so that’s how that developed. I really stay away from casting if I can help it. I’d rather break bread with an actor or have an espresso and talk about life and not so much about the work and the character, at least early on, so I can start to envision that actor in that role.

You and Alessandra Piccione, the screenwriter, had previously worked together on your last live-action film “Looking for Angelina.” What was it like having that foundation to take on this film and crack the structure of it?

Yes, my collaboration with Alessandra is strong and intimate and what a luxury for a director to be involved from inception all the way through to post-production. It really gives me a long runway to start reflecting on the themes of the movie and by the time we get to set, I’m fully ready to take it on. [With “The Cuban”] I wasn’t really in the mindset to make a morose depressing movie about Alzheimer’s and dementia or ageism, so I wanted to highlight the juxtaposition between the muted reality of a modern-day nursing home, and memories [which are] full-color and vivid, using primary colors and the Afro-Cuban jazz brought an uplifting, colorful layer to it. Those transitions were a challenge, but it was also exciting because once we got into shooting in Cuba and some of that footage started coming back, the whole team was on fire. We were super-excited to sink our teeth into it.

Even before you get to Cuba, what was it like figuring out the visual approach where you’re in these confined spaces and they open up?

The hardest thing to confirm was the location [for the care facility], so there was a lot of debate around do we build it or do we find something that’s existing. It was brought to my attention there’s a hospice probably an hour-and-a-half outside the city of Toronto and the team thought it would be perfect, but when I saw pictures, I just couldn’t envision it. But I went there and when I heard all the stories of the people who had gone there to basically spend their final days, rather than feel sad and depressed, I felt this hope and I thought there wouldn’t be a better place to shoot this.

It really became a home base because we spent half the shoot there, and for me and for the actors, it brought us into a certain headspace, not to mention all the equipment that was there – all the wheelchairs and all those small details that normally on a smaller budget movie we just couldn’t afford, so having all that was such a luxury and it really put me there emotionally very quickly.

Given the way schedules generally work where you’re filming all the scenes in one location before moving to the next, were you actually able to stage all of Ana and Lou’s scenes so their relationship could unfold sequentially?

Not entirely, but my goal as a director is to try and be as chronological as possible, just to make sure that there’s a gradual progression for the character development. Strangely enough, the first day Lou Gossett was on set, he was doing [one of the later] scenes when he’s in bed, [which] was the hardest thing for him to do. I didn’t realize he was going through a lot emotionally himself personally, so approaching that scene was really tough for him, and it was so tough for us as well and for the other actors, but I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room on that first day. He’s a consummate pro and he brings such a weight and such brilliance to every performance, so that’s how we started and then we had to go backwards to the beginning of their relationship, but what an experience and he just brought everybody’s game up 100 percent.

Is it true you were playing music in between takes to keep the energy up?

[laughs] Yeah, for selfish reasons, I need music. Music was my first love and it plays such a huge and important role in my life, so I really wanted to play music that was written for a particular scene or to evoke some particular emotion. Day one, I said to my AD team who are super-seasoned, I’m going to play music throughout the takes and I saw the sound team just look up and were like, “What?” [because it adds sound that needs to be removed during post-production]. But they adapted quickly and realized how important it was for every person on the crew, from craft service to the actors to myself, to be on the same page. If we’re doing an uplifting, happy scene, I want everyone to be in that mindset and when we’re doing a sad scene, I want us all to be there, me included, so music played a huge role in the movie, but also behind the scenes.

We also recorded all that music prior to shooting, which was such a great tool for a director and for an entire team to have that music because then rhythmically, it moves in a certain way.(“Quisas”) and “Guantanamera” were written into the actual script, [which] I give a lot of credit to my music supervisors Dondrea [Erauw] and Michael Perlmutter from Instinct, who were able to work on the rights while we were prepping and then we did a recording session with Hilario Duran, the great virtuoso Cuban pianist who ended up doing the score. That was very, very helpful.

How did filming in Havana actually become a possibility?

To give you an idea, we applied for official status three years ago and we’re still waiting. [laughs] The production companies there, the service producers work for the government, so we just found the best partner for the film who really got what we were trying to do. It’s just so different [than a typical production]. I went down there with my first AD and my cinematographer Celiana to prep and we thought we were all on the same page and then we went down there to shoot and nobody knew what was going on. It was a bit anarchic and crazy, but what that taught me as an artist is that sometimes being fluid and just living in the present moment is a lot more conducive to the artistic process than being fixed on an idea.

Obviously, I went down with some firm ideas about what I wanted and we just couldn’t have that, but we ended up with images and scenes that were just way better than anything I could’ve imagined. And a lot of that just came from laying in bed at night in Cuba, just saying what the hell are we going to do? It really pushed me to my edge and I think those are some of my favorite moments in the movie, and generally, shooting in Cuba was such a joy. When you’re pushed to the extremes and exasperated with the heat and everything else, you end up surrendering and I was just seduced in the end by the culture and by the people and that’s encapsulated in the music. When you hear Afro-Cuban jazz, it just aligns you with a culture that’s so vibrant and so beautiful.

“The Cuban” will be released in virtual cinemas on July 31st. A full list is here.

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