A version of this story first appeared in the July 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Just two weeks before Cuba was crossed off the U.S.' terror blacklist in May, a delegation of 20 showbiz pros set out from L.A. to explore the isolated island state. Among their ranks: TV showrunner Bruno Heller, the Englishman behind Fox's Gotham; outspoken Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines; Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute; JoAnne Sellar, producer of every Paul Thomas Anderson movie since Boogie Nights; and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, a screenwriter from Tulsa, Okla., who has penned episodes of Amazon's Transparent. The trip — organized by the Washington, D.C., nonprofit Center for Democracy in the Americas and L.A.-based issue-advocacy firm Rally — offered an intimate look at Cuba's vibrant culture at a crossroads: What once was a glamorous playground for Frank Sinatra and his pals during the '40s and '50s — only to crumble under six decades of dictatorial rule by Fidel Castro — is heading toward a very different kind of revolution. Heller and Fitzerman-Blue spoke to THR about what Hollywood can expect as U.S.-Cuba commerce begins to flow.
What were your first impressions of Havana?
MICAH FITZERMAN-BLUE I half-thought it would be this tropical Soviet Russia with minders and maybe Dennis Rodman around. But it wasn't.
BRUNO HELLER There's an accent of what you might call Soviet propaganda about the place, but you don't get a sense that people are living in fear from the state, even though I'm sure there is [some fear]. The first thing we did was take a walk around the Old Town of Havana with an architect telling us about the history of the city. What Miami is now, Havana was — the center of the Latin American world. The wealth of architecture, what was clearly a sophisticated city with a huge middle class, those are the ghosts in the machine. The people who left. But it makes for a gorgeous city.
FITZERMAN-BLUE Lending itself to the beauty and explaining it, maybe, is not just the streets filled with classic cars and the climate and the proximity to the ocean, but also the lack of billboards or advertisements of any kind — except for the odd propaganda billboard.
HELLER The billboards are never specific. Asta la victoria sempre! or Viva la revolucion. And with a nice picture of Che [Guevara]. And all of that is gorgeously faded into the stonework.
FITZERMAN-BLUE But you hear three buildings collapse every day, and as you drive along the Malecon, which is right along the water — this is prime, amazing property and every third building you can see right through it. It looks like blown-out portions of Detroit but right on the Caribbean. That's an indication of how hurting the infrastructure is — even on the most prominent street you have that much urban decay.
How do Cubans speak about the current regime?
HELLER They expressed their opinions quite frankly in restaurants and public spaces. No one was speaking vituperatively or hatefully against the regime because, obviously, as tourists we were in a highly controlled environment. But we had the sense that people feel themselves to be governing their fate in a new way.
What's the state of technology and entertainment?
FITZERMAN-BLUE They're far back. Cellphones were sanctioned in the last few years. Internet access is abysmal. [Cuba announced June 18 that it would expand access by adding 35 new Wi-Fi hotspots across the island.] But walking through the streets, TVs are on, you're hearing telenovelas, people are singing along, laughing; this is a country that consumes media like any other society. Alexey Rodriguez, a musician from the hip-hop group Obsesion, told us about growing up in the late '80s and pointing this big old radio antenna in the direction of Miami and getting a lesson on hip-hop that made him want to be a hip-hop artist. The same is true today: It's getting through and it's going to get through.
Can Havana be the Hollywood of Latin America?
HELLER As a location, it's a fabulous place. If you need to shoot the Americas 50 years ago, everything is there — gorgeous buildings, countryside, sand, sea and the rest of it. But as far as the infrastructure that you could plug into and Hollywood expects, that could take quite a while — as long as it takes for the U.S. and Cuba to come to rapprochement, and the Cuban people and Cuban emigres to come to rapprochement, that's how long it will take. It needs a huge influx of trusting investment. The potential is vast because you have a pool of highly educated, highly motivated people who are hungry and ready to rejoin the greater American society that they've been kept away from. The dancers, the singers, the writers, the animators — the one thing that has happened because of the paucity of any other outlets is that they have placed a great deal of their intellectual resources into the arts and cultural forms. There is going to be a huge explosion of talent once Cuba is allowed to express itself in the modern world. When we walked around the city, wonderful ancient singers belting it out really caught my ear. I was thinking about a character like that, the idea of someone from an ancient culture that has been hidden away and is just coming into the light again. But obviously that's a solipsistic way of looking at it — they've been there all along.