While Hollywood is still figuring out what the warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments might mean for movie making, Ron Perlman’s Wing and a Prayer Pictures managed to be a catalyst to execute what he calls the first Cuban/American co-production on a narrative film in 60 years. They’ve wrapped the Cuba-shot Sergio and Sergei, based on a true story. Even though he shot his co-starring role in 10 days there, Perlman said he liked his Cuban experience so much that he is working with Cuban novelist Enrique Cirules on another movie on the final days of Ernest Hemingway. Perlman teamed with Cuban producer Adriana Moya and writer/director Ernesto Daranas on Sergio and Sergei, and it’s his job to get the film into festivals next year and line up distribution.
Set in Cuba, New York, and the Soviet Space Station Mir in 1991, Sergio and Sergei focuses on a cosmonaut (Hector Noas) who becomes stranded on The Mir Space Station at a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing and the new government lacked the resources to bring him home. Through a twist of fate and with only a ham radio at his disposal, the cosmonaut enlists a Cuban philosophy professor (Tomás Caos) who then turns to an American journalist (Ron Perlman) covering NASA, and the trio transcends political borders and ideology to try to save the cosmonaut’s life. Perlman exec produced with Gabriel Beristain and Josh Crook, Joel Ortega, Adriana Moya, Jaume Roures, Bernat Elias, Esther Masero and Ramón Samada. The film also stars Mario Guerra, Yuliet Cruz, Camila Arteche, Armando Miguel, Ana Gloria Buduen, and AJ Buckley, and it is a co-production between RTV Comercial, Wing And A Prayer Pictures, ICAIC, Mediapro and Vedado Films.
Perlman is best known for his work as the title character in Hellboy and for the series Sons of Anarchy and most recently Hand Of God, and his Wing and a Prayer most recently produced the Marc Forster-directed All I See Is You with Blake Lively, which just premiered at Toronto. His true passion, he said, is indie films shot in far flung locations, and the chance to be on the front end of a Cuban production was an opportunity he could not pass up, even if he wasn’t exactly sure it was legal.
“A lot of American productions are going down now to utilize what is fresh, virgin territory, for a number of reasons that include economic ones, in anticipation of what is about to explode in a new chapter for American and Cuban relations,” he said. “The table is set for that and forward thinking people are positioning themselves to test the waters for what a collaboration like that will yield. I was down there with a friend, the cinematographer Gabriel Beristain, who has been trying to put together a production services company. He’s Mexican so his ability to travel down there is unhampered. He brought me to show me the energy he loved down there, and the possibilities.”
That led them to Moya from the state owned RTV. “She told me about this independent Cuban film that had a role for an American in it, with a director who is acclaimed everywhere in the world but North America, because of the embargo. What we decided is I would act in the film and produce, and rep the film in the American marketplace, and at festivals, even though I don’t think there has been a Cuban film in an American festival in the 60 years since the embargo,” he said. “It was exciting to be part of what we felt was an inevitable change in direction. My very first independent film was Cronos, which was a coming out party for the young Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro and here was a chance to work with and help introduce here a world class filmmaker in Daranas. He is the most important person in this whole mix; this will be his coming out party and I’ve got to make sure he gets his due, because my end is to figure out the distributor.”
The long embargo made it tricky.
“Obama hadn’t gone down there yet, and I made an agreement not knowing whether this union was even legally possible,” he said. “We spent a year with them getting it together and me finishing Hand of God, and in that time, President Obama went to a ballgame there with Raul Castro and they opened an embassy down there, and opened the door for stuff like this to happen. Congress hasn’t lifted the embargo, but in my mind it’s inevitable and there was this opportunity for our culture to be turned onto one I’ve found to be so vibrant and among the most compelling of anyplace I’ve visited.’
The appeal of the visual vistas of Cuba are obvious; the embargo has left places like Havana looking like they are frozen in the 1950s. Perlman was surprised by the efficiency of the film community and the crews. “I’ve made over 60 movies on six and a half continents, and the only thing that separates the language of cinema is the amount of resources one has to throw at it, how much is the budget and how many shooting days does that gets you,” he said. “Film crews are film crews, the world over. They speak the same language. We had a world class DP and the same level of designers in every department and they were incredibly appreciative to have an American come down there, one they recognized, which to them validated what they had been doing in secrecy. The good vibrations on that set were unquantifiable.”
That led to the follow up project on Hemingway, with Perlman playing the iconic writer.
“Enrique Cirules is one of the premier novelists in Cuba, but he also writes nonfiction and one of his obsessions is Ernest Hemingway,” Perlman said. “I visited the Hemingway estate down there and did a bar crawl of all the places Papa drank and fu*ked and ate and wrote. His love affair with Havana is not unlike my own, immediate and visceral. Enrique has a theory about Hemingway’s last days and his relationship with the revolution. Since I’m around the same age Hemingway was when he put the rifle in his mouth, we’re doing a story on the last days of Hemingway, focusing on the very last day. We’ll shoot it down there, his adopted home. Now that I’ve seen it, I understand and embrace his passion for the place.”
The only downside for Perlman is that, after years of chain smoking stogies, he quit smoking four years ago and hasn’t had one since. His resolve weakened, he admits, and he had two in Cuba, renowned for its cigars. “My body has been rejecting cigars since I quit, until this last trip, when I found I was able to enjoy them again.’ he said.