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Brimming with the vibrant energy of Havana's restless youth, the indie feature Una Noche follows a trio of characters full of hope and fraught with tension on one sweltering day of the sun-bleached capital.
Shot in Havana, Una Noche introduces three first-time actors -- Dariel Arrechaga (Raul), Anailín De La Rúa De La Torre (Lila) and Javier Núñez Florián (Elio) -- who spent over a year in training with director Lucy Mulloy.
Mired in the nervous desperation of contemporary Cuba, Raul dreams of escaping to Miami. When accused of assault, his only option is to flee. He begs his best friend Elio to abandon everything and help him travel the 90 miles across the ocean to Florida. Elio's commitment is tested that day when he’s torn between protecting his twin sister and his own desire to get out -- which comes to a shocking climax.
Writer/director Mulloy brought her first feature to New York’s 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, making its North American Premiere in the World Narrative Competition. It previously had its World Premiere at the 2012 Berlinale.
In getting it made, her film-in-progress garnered numerous production awards including the Spike Lee Production Grant, The Hollywood Foreign Press Association Grant, Tribeca Film Institute’s Creative Promise Emerging Narrative Award, The Adrienne Shelly Foundation/IFP Director’s Grant, and a Gotham Independent Film/euphoria Calvin Klein Grant for Women Filmmakers.
A Student Academy Award-nominated writer/director and Oxford alumna in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, Mulloy graduated from NYU’s Graduate Film Division, attended the Tribeca All Access and IFP Narrative Labs -- where Una Noche had its origins.
Mulloy was also a protege of Spike Lee who attached his name to the production. In addition to the notable story of a debut feature shot on film in Havana with Cuban novices, the film became even more newsworthy when it screened at TFF. Much to everyone’s chagrin, its leads (the faux twins) -- who by this time had become a romantic item -- never showed in Manhattan despite plans for a big media campaign.
Once they hit America’s shores, they ran off in order to seek asylum -- which they are now being processed for.
In shuttling between NYC, London and Havana, Mulloy found herself in her publicist’s Manhattan office, conducting this exclusive interview in advance of the release of the film in late August.
Q: There was quite a controversy about the actors not being at Tribeca because they disappeared to get asylum.
LM: Basically the actors went to Berlin and everything was great. They went to the festival and it was amazing, it was a beautiful cinema, and they were treated great, had an amazing time and it was wonderful. We couldn’t dream of a better premiere.
We were invited to Tribeca for the American premiere and the American consulate in Cuba granted them visas to come to the states for Tribeca. A few weeks later they got their tickets and they were set to go and excited, the three actors the producer, Matie [Artieda].
Just before the premiere we got a phone call from Sandy at the airport saying that the actors playing the brother and sister, Javier and Anailin, had gone to look at the shops and haven’t come back, and that was two hours ago.
Yunior [Santiago], one of the producers who’s from Cuba was like, “they’ve gone,” and I was more optimistic, thinking they’d be back for the flight. Sure enough, they weren’t at the gates.
When the premiere happened at Tribeca, they didn’t come and I was petrified because I had no idea where they had gone. They didn’t tell any of us, but I spoke to Javier’s mother, who’s quite a stressful person -- and she’d be stressed if he hadn’t come back from a rehearsal in time.
The fact that she was relaxed about it put my mind at ease. I imagined she must know something. They left behind a dummy suitcase for when they came back, so it looked planned.
Q: So where did they end up?
LM: They initially went to Anailin’s uncle who put them in contact with an attorney and they started applying for asylum. I met up with them just the day before yesterday in Miami in almost a year. That was the first time I had seen them since Berlin.
We had a press day in Miami yesterday and they came out for that. Javier told me that Anailin’s mom knew this was a choice they made beforehand and that they were going to leave.
They had intended to come to Tribeca, but they were in Miami and had this window of opportunity to get out so they decided to take advantage of this opportunity and went to the uncle’s house.
Javier’s brother was in Las Vegas and I think they did a TV show which got them tickets to Las Vegas. I got a phone call the day after Dariel and Javier won best actor award at Tribeca and it was Javier saying, “what did I win?”
He was very excited and I was relieved to know he was with family. They are applying for their Green Cards now. If you’re Cuban you can apply for asylum easily. It’s the easiest country to be from to get a Green Card -- it takes about a year. I was in shock.
Tribeca was amazing -- a mind-blowing experience -- but I was really concerned and stressed out. Then I saw the two of them -- they play twins in the movie -- but now they’re a couple. And now she’s pregnant with twins.
Q: Did they meet each other through the film?
LM: They didn’t know each other before.
Q: How much time did you spend in Cuba before shooting the movie?
LM: I went to Cuba for the first time in 2002, so ten years ago. I lived there and then every year I went back, so I spent some years there. My perspective when I went there for the first time was very different from what I learned, observed and how I observed that reality. It was a very superficial view of Cuba as a happy go lucky vacation spot.
Q: Did you always have the film in the back of your head?
LM: When I first went to Cuba it wasn’t with the intention of making a film, I just went because I went. I was just interested to see what it was like and I had studied political theory and it was a country that caught my attention. I was interested to see what it would be like this.
Q: When did you decided you needed to make a film?
LM: I heard all these stories about people leaving and it struck me that 90 miles, nothing really, not a huge distance, but it’s life or death making this choice and I met people consciously making this choice and I was talking to people telling these stories that they were going to make a boat and try and leave. That idea was terrifying to me, just being surrounded by water. They said that if the water turns pink you know you’re in the Mexican Gulf and there’s no turning back.
I’ve met people that tried to leave 19 times and have seen deep purple water, and sharks. The experience is just terrifying and epic. People drink the salt water and go crazy. The stories were so extreme and they were taking this extreme choice and lancing into the water. I had heard about things and seen Elian on the news, but I have never been able to get into the head of somebody… sometimes people would die and wash up on the shore.
Q: Do they make the boats like rafts?
LM: The reality is that in Cuba people aren’t allowed to buy boats. You can’t just go and buy a boat because of the situation with people leaving. People were coming in to audition and I remember distinctly one guy in particular who, when I said we we’re shooting in two months, told me. “I’m not going to be here in two months because I’m making my boat and leaving myself.” But he gave us advice on how to make the boats and oars authentic and strong as possible so it would actually work.
Q: How did Spike Lee come into play?
LM: Spike Lee is the artistic director at NYU [’s film school] and I was his student, so he’s my mentor. He read my script and we got the Spike Lee Grant, which helped with production costs. He was amazing. When I had a rough cut of the film he sat through it five times and gave me incredible feedback and on point advice.
Q: The film was shot three years ago?
LM: The last shots were done in 2012, but I did the initial shooting and pickups for three weeks then went back any time I had film stock.
Q: Were you able to shoot freely or did you have to hide yourself?
LM: We had permits. We did have a small crew and we were kinda trying to get things done. We had permits and on some days we had police with us to watch the truck, but we got that initial permit because of this one guy that really supports independent film in Cuba, from this small government institution, The Audio Visual Association of Cuba.
Q: Though this is a very untraditional film, you’re a bit of a traditionalist to shoot with film.
LM: It’s only become more traditional to shoot with film in the last few years. It was the norm in film school to make a film on film. I love the aesthetic of film, though video has its own aesthetic, but when you’re making a movie with [film] takes you into a completely different world.
Q: Would you shoot another movie on film?
LM: Now the situation is such that labs are closing and Fuji has gone under completely. People say it’s going to be a boutique industry to shoot on film; it’ll be a strange, quirky rarity. Hopefully video will catch up.
I remember having a class with cinematographer Declan Quinn and he was talking about this back in maybe 2003 or ’04, that soon no one will shoot on film. The quality won’t be as good, but it’ll be cheaper and everyone will accept it.
Q: Did they know how to use film in Cuba?
LM: Nobody knows how to use film in Cuba, I don’t think they even have a lab. We had to use this kind of camera that I think Kurosawa donated to Cuba and it broke. The three cameras they had for shooting film in Cuba we used and they broke because no one had used them in years. We got everything we need by the skin of our teeth.
Q: Did you screen the movie for Cubans and what Cuban movies did you see before?
LM: We screened at the Havana Film Festival, in Havana, in a really small space. There were so many people that wanted to see that screening that they had to make another one in parallel. They screened it in a thousand seat cinema and 2000 people showed up, so they had to call riot police.
After that the Cinema Institution refused to put it in cinemas, so in effect it’s banned in Cuba. I hadn’t seen a lot of Cuban movies. One I saw in film school that really struck me -- Soy Cuba -- and that was definitely an influence and inspiration. I hadn’t really seen a lot of Cuban movies, except maybe snippets.
Q: There can’t be that many professional actors to choose from. What was the casting process like?
LM: We just went the most old fashioned way of finding people. On the street casting, giving out casting flyers to thousands of people and everyone told their brothers, sisters, cousins, and anyone interested to come along to our auditions. I did improvisations with people and found the actors like that.
With Javier we got him because we were trying to find someone that looked like Lila and we went to all the high schools where we took pictures of everybody who could be her brother. But when the actors came in, it was evident just on intuition that they were right for the roles.
Q: How did you manage these non-actors?
LM: We worked together for over a year. So to develop their relationships we would improvise similar situations to the movie that would help them get into the character relationships. We’d also go over the script and by the time we went into shooting they could recite it word by word and could probably do it again right now.
Q: Do you want to do something similar again with non-actors or non-Americans?
LM: The next script I’m working on is about a guy from Rio in New York. I want to try a combination of good actors from the States for the New York side and incorporate some unknown actors. I really do like that and you can get natural performances.
Q: How did you get the music?
LM: The music was written originally for the film. I went back after we edited the film and recorded the music. For the first song, I had never written music before, and we didn’t have anything, but we needed a song because it was a singing scene. So I just wrote something down, they helped with the melodies, we got some Cuban musicians, and I realized it’s not impossible to do the soundtrack.
I wanted the music to incorporate what was going on in the scene and be a part of the story. I wrote each song and the lyrics pertaining to what’s happening to the characters. We used reggae, salsa, rap.
Q: What’s the next film called?
LM: The working title is Rio Tastes Like Chinatown.
Q: Have you been to Rio?
LM: I went to the Rio Film Festival and I was talking to people that said why don’t I make a movie here and I thought why don’t I? It look incredible here.
Q: Are you going to try to get an established actor in Rio actors?
LM: I’m open to working with someone known, but if I can’t I’ll just do what I did in Cuba. The main thing for me is that the character is right.
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