- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 26, 2016

With relations between Washington and Havana beginning to cool after a half-century of mutual suspicion, perhaps the next great step will be Hollywood descending upon Cuba for filming.

Even more amazing, however, is that the new film “Papa Hemingway in Cuba,” dealing with the famous writer’s days during the Cuban Revolution, has already done so.

“When I first read the script, I felt Cuba was a character in the movie, and I instantly had the thought this has to be shot in Cuba,” said director Bob Yari of the script written by Denne Bart Petitclerc. “Everyone told me it was impossible, and it pretty much was.”

Mr. Yari and his producers spent two years working with American and Cuban authorities before finally receiving a special dispensation to shoot in and around Ernest Hemingway’s haunts on the island nation 90 miles from Florida.

“Papa Hemingway in Cuba” follows reporter Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), who travels to Cuba to meet the mercurial scribe (Adrian Sparks) just as communist revolution is breaking out across the island. Myers encounters not only history in progress but also Hemingway’s notorious mood swings and temper and signature bouts of drinking.

“I didn’t have any background about what he was really going through the last two years of his life,” Mr. Yari said of the film’s depiction of Hemingway’s latter years. “I love the story because it gave us this insight into this iconic character we all know as a rough and tough war correspondent, novelist and adventurer. But this insight into this personal, private look through the eyes of the reporter at this guy was very novel and enlightening.”

Mr. Yari and his crew filmed in and around Havana, including at Hemingway’s home, which is normally off limits to even tourists. Such special treatment, the director believes, was due to the Cuban people’s love for the American novelist who lived among them during such tumultuous times.

Hemingway is so beloved in Cuba, even today, and I think that permeates up to the government levels,” Mr. Yari said of the enthusiasm for the project, both from officials and civilians. The Cubans “really bent over backward to help, and they didn’t censor us, which really surprised me,” he said.

Mr. Yari has produced dozens of films before, but this was only his second as director. While he read some of Hemingway’s works as a young man, researching the film truly gave him an insight into the writer’s mind, specifically as to his thoughts on love.

“We had always seen all this romantic writing but from the perspective of a woman. He really delved into the feelings and dimensions of a man [on love] even though it was done through a story that was generally about something really macho, whether it was a war or a battle with a fish in the sea,” Mr. Yari said. “I think he really pioneered that area.”

Finding the right actor to portray Hemingway during his latter days proved daunting, but Mr. Yari knew that Mr. Sparks, who had previously played the author in a one-man Broadway show, was the right choice for the job. It was a risky choice, he said, given that financiers typically look for an established star attached to a film before opening up their checkbooks.

“I thought it was such an intimate portrayal, such a private look into his life, I really wanted the audience to be lost in the character,” Mr. Yari said of his decision to cast the veteran actor Mr. Sparks rather than a far more known star. “I wanted you to really believe you’re watching Hemingway.”

Mr. Yari recalled Mr. Sparks describing not so much playing the author so much as “channeling” him at the author’s Havana home, even keying on his vintage typewriter.

Hemingway committed suicide by gunshot July 2, 1961, at his home in Ketchum, Idaho. His father and sister had also previously taken their own lives, as later would Hemingway’s granddaughter, the actress Margaux Hemingway, in 1996. Another of Hemingway’s grandchildren, the actress Mariel Hemingway — Margaux’s sister — saw “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” at the Havana Film Festival in December, which Mr. Yari said brought her to tears.

“She was so touched by the portrayal” of her grandfather, Mr. Yari said of Miss Hemingway, to whom he even granted a cameo in the film. “She had never seen that [depiction] of her grandfather where you could actually see the human side of what he was suffering from and how he was affected by” mental illness.

Mr. Yari said it is important for people to keep in mind the very real scourge of mental illness, which has afflicted generations of the Hemingway family. Given her own family history, Miss Hemingway continues to advocate for greater understanding and treatment for the problem.

Mr. Yari hopes that audiences will walk away from the film not only with a greater appreciation of Ernest Hemingway’s place in Cuban history — especially important given the recent normalizing of relations with the U.S. — but also how the author’s identity and his public persona were perhaps not one and same.

“His public persona was really something he created,” Mr. Yari said. “He was a very different man inside — very conflicted, very complex — and I really felt Adrian understood the man.”

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