“Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” is a new film opening in theaters Apr. 29, 2016 starring Adrian Sparks as Ernest Hemingway, Joely Richardson as Mary Hemingway, and Giovanni Ribisi as the journalist who befriended the famous novelist.
The film is a true story that is followed to the letter in the script, which was written by the man who lived it – the character played by Giovanni, Denne Bart Petitclerc. While the story is an absolutely true account of Denne’s relationship with Hemingway, he chose to change the name of his character to Ed Myers. Denne, who became a screenwriter best known for television scripts for shows like “Bonanza,” passed away in 2006 without seeing the film come to fruition.
The movie was shot in Hemingway’s actual home, now a museum, in Havana, Cuba and is the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the 1950s.
At a recent screening of the film in New York, Peter Travers interviewed director Bob Yari and star Adrian Sparks. Full disclosure: I have known Adrian for more than 30 years. We’re not close friends but have been in touch off and on over the years. Be sure to also read my interview with Adrian, who has an encyclopedic knowledge about Hemingway.
Below are highlights from the Q&A with Peter Travers.
Bob on the origins of “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba”:
About 10 years ago, when I read the script for the first time, I fell in love with the story. But one of the things that struck me immediately was that Cuba itself was a character in the movie. It was so visible and so iconic in the film that I didn’t really see a way of shooting this film without going to Cuba.
So, it’s a long story, but once I got the rights to it, it took many, many years. Things are changing now, very happily they’re changing, but back when we were trying to shoot it, we had a very, very strict embargo. It took about two years to get our government to give us permission to shoot it there.
Bob on the fact that the film is almost a documentary in terms of its accuracy:
That documentary component is what finally sold the State Department and the Treasury Department to let us do it because the embargo does have an exemption for documentary, news-gathering journalism. They initially turned us down flat. Then, it was a two-year process of going to Washington, having senators write letters, and really educating them about the docudrama, which is basically a true story depicting real events much like a documentary but dramatized with actors.
We brought the example of “Lincoln,” the Stephen Spielberg film, and how that was a docudrama…. That’s how we finally got them to give us what’s called a special license to go film this in Cuba.
Adrian on Hemingway:
He’s a very complex human being. The process of the film was pulling the mask down and showing people who he really was. Of all the films made about Hemingway, this is the first film that deals with this stage of his life. Yet, this stage of his life is what everybody thinks of when they think of Hemingway. They think of the old white-bearded man in Cuba.
The time that Denne was there with Ernest was a very magical time because he [Denne] saw the unraveling that was happening, and in some ways, the unraveling [of Hemingway] happened as Cuba unraveled. One thing I like to think is that when Hemingway left, the doors between our countries were closing, and here he is, he’s coming back, and the doors are starting to open.
On the protectiveness of the people running the Hemingway museum in Cuba:
Bob: We started bringing lights in, and they said, “No, oh no, these animal heads are taxidermy from 60, 70 years ago. They’re just going to melt. So, no lights. No bright lights.” We had to improvise and have lights outside the windows and smaller units inside. It was a challenge shooting in basically a museum. We were not allowed anywhere without someone watching us and monitoring us.
Adrian: Everything in that house is exactly as it was the day Hemingway left in 1959. The bottles of booze on the tables – everything! So, interestingly enough, when you get to Cuba, one of the things you’ll notice is the Hemingway Museum is run by women. There was an attitude there, almost a reverence like you were entering a convent, and these were the nuns.
And when they first met me, the attitude of who is this man and what does he think he’s going to do was palpable. I was very intimidated. And it was after we’d been filming about five days. We were about to do the scene where Hemingway can’t write anymore. Bob then brought props to replace because it was a museum, and Ada Rosa who runs the museum came in just as we were about to start shooting and said, “We’d like Adrian to work with this.” And they gave me his typewriter to work with.
After feeling very intimidated like, “Oh my God, I’ve really trespassed on their space,” it was a very, very personal, thoughtful thing to do and very powerful as well.
Bob on the fact that Denne did not use his real name for Giovanni’s character in the script:
By the time we started shooting, Denne had passed away. I don’t know his reason why he chose to use a different name. The name Ed Myers comes from a combination of, I believe, his father’s first name and his mother’s last name. He chose to use that in the script, so we decided to honor that choice he had made.
Adrian on how he thought it was for Denne to meet his idol and discover the man’s shortcomings:
It’s one thing to meet an icon; it’s another thing to get to know the real person. As you can see, it must have been shocking, disappointing to him, but in some ways, they had a bond that lasted for the rest of their lives. He [Denne] stayed friends with Mary [Hemingway] until she died.
Bob on Denne’s wife’s protectiveness of her husband’s script:
When he [Denne] passed away, his wife, Wanda Petitclerc, was very, very guarded of this piece of work, and she would not let it go. It took me a long time to convince her to trust me with it…. But part of it was that it was so important to Denne. It was his baby. Therefore, it was to her. She was now the guardian of his work. So, one of my promises to her was to stay true to what he had written and experienced.
On Adrian’s nude scene (from the back) in the film:
Bob: Adrian is very shy. [Laughter] Other people ask for body doubles. I remember the first time he was in his robe and was going to get naked for the camera. The wardrobe came with this little thing to hide…
Peter: I can guess.
Bob: He was like, “I don’t need that.”
Adrian: I think what I said was, “It’s too small.” [Laughter]
Adrian on visiting Cuba:
Havana is a time capsule that has continued to degrade with time. So, you have literally the entire downtown area – not a single building has been painted or repaired in 60 years. So, you see all this grand, beautiful architecture, but in this mystical state of disrepair. One of the fears I have about things opening up is that they’re going to be replaced with glass and chrome and just made to look too nice.
I’m very thrilled for the people that it’s opening up, but there’s a whole biosphere in Cuba that is very fragile and has remained undamaged because of the lack of contact. I have concerns about what will happen.
Bob on the challenges of filming in Cuba:
It was interesting. It was challenging. But ultimately, I think we were very, very fortunate that the subject matter of our film was someone who was so dear to them, dear to the Cuban people. That basically permeated to the government as well. They gave us really amazing access to locations, the museum most of all, but other places that are government-controlled that he used to frequent….
They also provided us with a Coast Guard cutter and military weapons and things that are very tough to get close to in Cuba. We had very good experiences. We had our challenges at points, but they didn’t censor us at all, which surprised me. I thought they’d be poking their nose in the script and trying to adjust things. But they never did….
They do not want people getting on boats because as soon as they do, they’re out of there. So, the customs people are very, very guarded with who gets to get on a boat. And we had the whole crew – about 100 people – out on the ocean on barges and boats waiting for the actors to come from shore. And we even had the Coast Guard there and a Coast Guard cutter, so we thought, yeah, the government’s got it all covered.
Yet, the customs people wouldn’t let the actors get on a boat. They looked at some list and said, “They’re not on here, and they’re not getting on.” So, we lost half a day on the ocean, which is precious time, while we tried to figure out how we can get these … actually, ultimately, we put them on the Coast Guard cutter and snuck them out until we resolved it.
Adrian on meeting people in Cuba who knew Hemingway:
There’s a woman named Gladys Ferraro. She’s actually known as Hemingway’s widow. She’s maybe in her 80s, I would think. And her life has been devoted to Hemingway. She ran the museum for many years. So, while we were shooting, we did some behind-the-scenes stuff. I’d take off with Gladys and the film crew, and she’s taking me to various Hemingway locations….
And I hear, “Ohhhhhh!” And I look, and it’s this old woman like this [puts his hands on his cheeks], and we go up and she grabs me and she starts touching my face. And she says, “When I was a little girl, I was crying by the gate of my house, and you told me I was a beautiful little doll.” So, he had an impact on these people.