Our Man in Havana

Making a movie is always hard. Making a movie under Cuba’s strict state guidelines is much, much harder. Director Alejandro Brugués, whose debut feature Juan of the Dead hit UK cinemas this month, knows all about the difficulties of making a movie in Cuba. When asked about how the Cuban film industry works Brugués explains, ‘there’s actually an argument about if there’s really a film industry here or not. And I really don’t care anymore. The truth is it works like this: there’s only one “official” production company, the ICAIC, run by the state. You want to make films with them, you stand in the line and wait for your turn’.

This reality makes Brugués’ breakout success all the more surprising and impressive. Juan of the Dead was shot in only 44 days and utilized hundreds of zombie extras, who swarmed the streets of Havana. It was a massive production for the country and Brugués points out that it had a budget ‘ten times bigger than the average production in Cuba’. The scale of international production would have been an enormous feat for even the most experienced directors and producers.

Surprisingly, Brugués’ background isn’t in directing, but in writing. After becoming frustrated with the limited options available for screenwriters working in his small island nation, Brugués decided to forge his own path. ‘When you’re a writer, on set, the director’s work doesn’t seem so difficult! I decided to try. Turned out I was wrong, it’s hard as hell!’ Though the work was challenging, it also proved to be instantly rewarding. Brugués found the process of systematically destroying his hometown onscreen to be a profound experience. ‘I loved arriving to a street that’s usually crowded with thousands of people and having it closed just for me. I’d just smile and say “destroy it”. There aren’t many things better than that in life!’

The zombie movie, as a genre, has had as many re-imaginings as vampire movies have had sparkly bloodsuckers and six-packed werewolves, so Brugués felt like he had to be cautious when approaching such a distinctly ‘genrified movie’. ‘Can we do something original? Sure. Now, do we want to see it? I’m not so sure about that.’ Taking its basic premise from George A Romero’s 1978 classic Dawn of the Dead (which was famously resurrected in the UK in Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead), Juan of the Dead sets out to, as Brugués describes, ‘change the settings, characters and make them do a kind of unique business. As a zombie film fan, there are some rules you can’t just break, or they’ll eat you alive.’

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So Juan of the Dead ended up being a traditional zombie movie, albeit located on the tropical streets of Havana. Whilst Brugués is willing to acknowledge the role that other films played in its conception, he is also cautious about drawing excessively close parallels to the social metaphors informing classic zombie movies.

‘I wanted to make a film that would be hard on social subtext, so Romero is a big reference. But Juan was always it’s own thing. It has a very peculiar tone. The balance between the social, the comic, the zombies and the charac ters was the hardest part.’

The reception for the film has been staggering. It opened at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, ‘with a packed theatre and an audience that laughed and clapped throughout the film’ and then, when it opened on home turf back in Cuba things really got exciting.

‘In Cuba, at our first screening in the Havana film festival there were 15,000 people trying to get into the theatre!’ The adoration for the film in Cuba might be inspired by local pride but with a UK cinematic release on the cards it’s clear that the admirers of this little zombie movie stretch far beyond the Caribbean. ‘It’s been great. It has gotten a lot of love,’ Brugués says, and there’s little doubt that his infectious enthusiasm for the project has been a massive factor in the film’s success.

When I ask him what project he will be undertaking as the follow-up to Juan, he is somewhat coy. ‘Well, I’m writing right now. I have a new script, which is not a horror film. More like an adventure. You’ll probably be seeing lots of weird stuff from me in the future!’ Weird or not, his next project is likely to have the significant foreign studio backing that Juan of the Dead lacked, and could propel Brugués’ name to the top of the list of South American film directors, alongside Alfonso Cuaron, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Fernando Meirelles.

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For the time being, however, Brugués is keeping his feet on the ground and focusing on making sure that people around the world get the chance to see Juan of the Dead. He counts it a blessing that the film has even been made, let alone that it has managed to reach such a large audience, possibly on a scale never before seen for a Cuban movie. ‘I always think of all the ways this could have gone wrong’, Brugués says, ‘I mean, just think about it: a zombie film from Cuba called Juan of the Dead. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was playing with fire! But it turned out fine, thank God.

Thus, the famously isolated island nation has been opened up to international movie-going audiences. It might have taken a tremendous amount of perseverance and dogged determination but, finally, Brugués and his team have a film that glorifies Cuban life through the classic medium of rampaging undead corpses. Whilst he might be reluctant to predict the future or over exaggerate the effect that Juan of the Dead will have on his career, it is certain that Brugués’ star will be burning brightly in his homeland for as long as his cult movie continues to be seen.