Ivan Garcia, 7 May 2016 — A black helicopter hovers at low altitude over Havana Bay. Meanwhile, dozens of pedestrians on the streets below wave and try to capture the image on their mobile phones.
The aircraft makes an acrobatic turn and flies back towards the port. “Mijail, hurry up and try to get a photo now,” yells a girl almost hysterically to her boyfriend, who wastes no time activating the camera from his old Motorola phone.
At the bus stop near the cruise terminal in the old part of the city, everyone has a story to tell about filming in Havana for the eighth installment of Fast & Furious.
Adelfa, a peanut vendor, observes, “A friend of mine who collects empty beer and soda cans told me that — at the Hotel Saratogo, where the actors and some yumas (Americans) are staying — they were handing out twenty dollar bills to everyone who was in the Fountain of the Indian across the street. I missed out. Now I am trying to sell peanuts where people from Hollywood might be to see if they will give me something.”
A guy with the look of a government official says to several people, “The film producers paid forty million dollars to the local People’s Power administration for any inconvenience that might be caused.”
His comments open up a debate. “Would you happen to know what the government plans on doing with this money?” asks a man who says he has been waiting an hour for the P-5 bus. “Will they fix the houses that are falling down or buy new buses?”
A black youth who is listening to music removes his ear buds and replies, “You want me to tell you what I think they will do with the money? They will put it in a bank account in an overseas tax haven for Daddy’s kids: Antonio or Mariela Castro.”
Some of those present cast sideways glances, an instinctive gesture in Cuba denoting fear, to see if someone from the “apparatus” (political police) have heard the young man’s outburst.
On Wednesday, April 20, rehearsals began and on Friday, April 22, they started shooting. From then until Thursday, May 5, when filming is scheduled to end, several streets of Central Havana and Old Havana were closed to traffic, forcing people to walk or take long detours to reach homes or workplaces in those areas.
Production trailers, parked on the corner of Infanta and San Lazaro streets, are surrounded by local residents and curious onlookers. Cuban security personnel hired by the studio are harsh with people taking photos and recording cell phone videos.
“It’s what the producers ordered,” a security guard, justifying this behavior. “They claim that anyone can film a bit of something and then post it on the internet. These people pay a lot and pay well but they always want to control the rights to the film. In Cuba we don’t know anything about this.”
Rumors about Fast & Furious producers handing out money by the fistful are spreading throughout Havana.
Osvel, a driver for a taxi collective who works the Vibora-Vedado route, notes, “They gave ONAT (the government agency that regulates self-employment) three hundred dollars to give for every private-sector worker in the area where they are filming. But the workers only got forty convertible pesos apiece. They’re taking a big cut.”
Arianna, a secretary for ONAT, says, “I cannot confirm how much producers paid. My bosses have not said anything about that, but I do not think the government got that much, as always turns out to be the case with these things.”
As usually happens when it comes to the subject of money in Cuba, the government has remained silent, which has only fed the rumor mill. Getting anything out of a movie studio spokesperson is a mission impossible for a independent journalist.
“When filming is complete, there will be a press conference,” says a man with a Universal Pictures badge. Not even the United States embassy in Havana knows what the studio’s plans are nor anything about a hypothetical press conference with the actors and director.
“Private companies do not necessarily have to contact the embassy to carry out their work. We only have access to governmental agencies,” says an embassy spokeswoman.
Nor can she confirm various Fast & Furious rumors circulating through the city. It is said, for example, that old car owners were paid eighty thousand dollars for the use of their vehicles in collision scenes and that extras were paid fifty dollars an hour.
The fact is that not since Fidel Castro’s revolution has Cuba seen so much Hollywood paraphernalia or such a waste of money.
“The last time Americans filmed here was in the mid-1959s when they shot Our Man in Havana. They paid me ten dollars to play a fruit vendor,” says Ramon, a seventy-six-year-old man who, six decades later, sells corn tamales corn from a bucket of hot water.
The movie, starring Alec Guinness and Maureen O’Hara and based on novel by Graham Greene, won a Golden Globe in 1960.
But the street vendor was mistaken. Our Man in Havana was not an American film; it was British. To Cubans all English speakers look alike.