I first heard of screenwriter Alessandra Piccione and director Sergio Navarretta in 2015 when I covered their film The Colossal Failure of the Modern Relationship. Their newest film, which they also produced, is called The Cuban. It stars Louis Gossett Jr. (An Officer and a Gentleman), Oscar nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo (The House of Sand and Fog), Ana Golja (Degrassi), Lauren Holly (Dumb and Dumber), and Giacomo Gianniotti (Grey’s Anatomy).
If you’re in Canada, you can watch it during the Canadian Film Fest presented by Super Channel, which a virtual festival being held in a few weeks. Other screenings should pop up in the coming months as other festivals go virtual or are able to resume in-person events.
Alessandra and Sergio called me recently from Toronto, Canada, to talk more about The Cuban.
How did you get into writing the story?
Alessandra: Sergio was on the producing side of projects and really longing to get back to directing. This idea kind of came through him. He met some young people and one of them was telling him that he had a dream about his grandfather. That sort of sparked an inspiration.
We’ve all been touched by dementia or Alzheimer’s in some way in our lives and known people in that situation. It felt like the right time to make a movie about someone with dementia in a nursing home. It started with a short film idea where a young woman works in a nursing home, and she meets an elderly man with dementia who turns out to be a famous Cuban musician. She uses music to reawaken him. They get to know each other, and it’s such a lovely story. We just liked the idea right off the bat from the short film stage. I found it very moving.
From that we pitched it to Louis Gossett Jr., who really loved it and wanted to be part of it. It snowballed into a feature film rather quickly. We talked with our Telefilm funders and everybody was excited about the idea. I wrote a first draft. It felt like the story was going faster than I could keep up with it!
Is the elderly gentleman in the story a real person?
Alessandra: He’s fictional. But the way he responds to things and his situation – the relationship in the film is certainly based on people that Sergio and I and crew members have known. Even having seen people in that circumstance before and seeing how they react, how they move in and out of lucidity so quickly and unpredictably, I’ve seen a lot of that in my life. It was inspired by a lot of people, but the character is fictional.
Have you been to Cuba before? What were your impressions?
Alessandra: We’d been there before, but always in relation to film: researching the place and getting an understanding of it culturally. I physically wasn’t there for the shoot. Sergio can speak to that.
Sergio, could you also tell us about any challenges you faced and how you creatively addressed those?
Sergio: By the sheer nature of being a director, I have a vision and a plan going in. At times as directors, we get really attached to our vision. A place like Cuba will really challenge you in every way possible. The things that we take for granted with long-term planning, organizational things, air conditioned vehicles, and locations being locked down in advance – all of that gets thrown out the window. …. The first day was a disaster [because] after a month of planning, nothing was ready. Subsequent to that, I just fell in love with the people, the culture, and the music. When we talk about melting pots, Cuba should be the example for the world. You have descendants of people from Africa, Europe, all over the world, who made Cuba their home. They’re essentially Cuban first and everything else second. The spirit of the culture is also really carried in the music.
The happy ending is that I was able to feel more creatively supported and a lot more inspiration came out of those initial frustrating moments.
What would you like audiences to take away when they see the film?
Sergio: It’s a testament to the power of the imagination. It’s a dedication to the human spirit. It’s an uplifting story. The main theme is that we should always honor our imaginations because to people with dementia, their imaginations are their realities. We shouldn’t value cognitive and logical memories over imagination because again, a lot of people suffering from this disease confuse the two, and that’s okay.
Alessandra: There are a few things. It’s pretty layered thematically. At the end of the film, there’s a dedication. It’s dedicated to all those whose stories remain untold. I think that is what I want people to take away from the film. We need to be aware of each other. This is a great time to be talking about that message, too. Now everybody is in quarantine and people are isolating themselves from each other. it’s a time to be mindful of what other people are going through, who they are, and to remember that we’re all human and we’re all in this together.
When things are back and running, we’ll probably reschedule a special fundraiser and screening at Baycrest Hospital, [which] is a major research institute for brain health. The CEO of that institution saw the film. He said he’ll never look at the residents at Baycrest the same way again because it’s changed his perspective on everything. That’s what I would like the film to be able to do, to open people’s eyes a little more.
What was it like to work with the cast?
Alessandro: I remember my first day on set just being in Lou Gossett Jr.’s presence. It hit me in that moment that we were working with one of the greats. He delivered incredible, stellar performances every single time. He’s amazing.
Sergio: You really appreciate how much the cast brings to the table. It certainly makes my job more fun. They make it look easy on camera with their brilliance, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes for them to pull off these performances. I feel really blessed that I had the honor of working with a legend like Lou Gossett Jr. I was a huge fan of Shohreh Aghdashloo, who was nominated for an Oscar for House of Sand and Fog. [There’s] Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti from Grey’s Anatomy, and star Ana Golja, who also sings and performs in the movie.
It was a team effort and working collaboratively is one of the most gratifying things from my position. They all pull together and ask a lot of questions. We had discussion about their characters. It’s different than the TV world where they meet the director and launch into something without having that spiritual, human connection. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about films. We have that time for things to ferment and have those important interactions.
What was the time table involved on the film? What was post production like?
Sergio: In terms of timelines, every project is really unique and different. What was interesting about this project is how quickly it came together. Sometimes it feels like we push a boulder uphill and things take forever in the filming stage. With this project, we were holding on for dear life because it went like a rocket. Sometimes things are meant to be and it felt that way with a lot of serendipity around it. I would say beginning to end, we took about three years.
I drew out post production because I wanted time to sit with the performances and my editor, Jane MacRae, to think through the scenes carefully. You can’t do that in a 12-week or 8-week schedule. [With] the color correction, you’ve probably noticed the look of it is very unique. We have the 1960s Panchros lenses to achieve that look. Color grading on a lower budget movie is usually quick. You’re lucky to get five days, whereas we got two weeks. We sat with the colorist and could isolate frames and pixels that normally in other mediums you don’t have that luxury.
I got to work with the Oscar nominated sound team from The Shape of Water. That was a lengthy schedule to let us hone in on those sonic elements that help evoke emotion when you’re watching the movie. With so many layers to a movie, it’s really cool to be able to draw on all the tools.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
Sergio: Now that we’ve entered this phase of COVID-19 and it’s driving us all mad – every time we turn on the TV or social media, that’s all you see with companies talking about its impact on business. But the come away for us is how important music is in society. This film really is a dedication to the power of music and the positive effects music can have, especially in times of crisis.
Alessandra: I agree with Sergio. That was a perfect way to end it.