Evolving from the idea of a short film to a full-length feature with a star cast including Louis Gossett Jr., The Cuban focuses on the power of music in evoking emotions and memories 

Some artists strongly believe that art has a language of its own. They say that art appreciation can break down the barriers of who you are and where you come from. Filmmaking couple, director Sergio Navarretta and screenwriter Alessandra Piccione bring this idea to life in their latest movie, The Cuban.

After having worked together on movies like Looking for Angelina and The Colossal Failure of the Modern Relationship besides multiple short films, the duo is collaborating once again to tell the story of how music has the power to stir dormant memories.

Filmed between Cuba and Brantford, The Cuban follows Mina (Ana Golja), an immigrant pre-med student from Afghanistan, who strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly Cuban musician with Alzheimer’s (Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr.). What unfolds is the story of a lifelong bond that grows through music.  

Understanding the importance of music in the film, the duo brought in Grammy-nominated artist Hilario Duran to work on the soundtrack. The movie has captured attention by forgoing the pandemic-induced lull and opening in a drive-in theatre format at Lavazza drive-in festival.

HOLR spoke with Sergio and Alessandra to understand how they used music to unravel this tale.

The movie talks about music beyond barriers, and you bring together a character from Afghanistan and Cuba in a Canadian setting. Does this cultural mix have any importance in highlighting the power of music?  

Sergio: Yes. Having a multicultural cast stems out of our personal experience of growing up in Toronto, where that was very much the reality. We learn in the course of the film that despite the age difference between Mina and Luis, and despite their cultural differences, they have a lot in common—particularly the feeling of having been displaced and marginalized. I think many immigrants feel this way. Music transcends that and brings them together. It is a common language they share, and that is much more powerful than the trivial things that could potentially divide and keep them apart.  

Alessandra: The culture mix in this film is definitely unusual. I’ve recently come to realize that I am somewhat obsessed with the immigrant experience. Music has political importance for both Mina and Luis. For Luis, it was his way of rising above the racial divide in pre-revolution Havana—unlike most of his peers he was playing in white bars in a mixed-race band, and, like Celia Cruz, he found himself trapped outside Cuba, post-revolution. 

As for Mina, her early childhood was spent in Kabul under Taliban rule, a time and place in which music was forbidden. Her grandfather’s love for Cuban Jazz began when he met a visiting professor in the ’60s who’d brought some records—this was during a period in history when American and other western intellectuals were taking an interest in Afghanistan and traveling there the purpose of cultural exchange. Listening to, and worse, playing western music in the kitchen with her grandfather was an incredibly risky and rebellious act. This is the spirit of Mina and Luis—two spunky, creative and empathic people stuck outside their homelands—who once again find connection and a sense of place through their memories and a common love of music.

One of the central components of the movie deals with music used as therapy for those living with Alzheimer’s. What kind of research went into creating a realistic portrayal?

Alessandra: I did quite a bit of research. I consulted with some very prominent doctors and nurses I’d met through Baycrest Hospital and the Alzheimer’s Society. In truth, however, I really didn’t begin that research in earnest until I’d already written a first draft. I drew from my own personal experiences of knowing people who had Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. My father had dementia before he passed. My aunt now has very advanced Alzheimer’s, but a few years ago when she was still communicative, I watched her mistake Sergio for a young soldier she knew during the war (WW2). 

The thing that struck me most was the way people with dementia seemed to “go away”—I often wondered where they went. I also noticed that emotions had a great impact on a person’s lucidity. Once I’d written the first draft, I was able to dig in and I knew what questions I wanted answers to—these conversations with experts in the field helped me to understand how the disease alters the brain, how memories could often be confused with fantasy and how much emotion— often depression—can aggravate the disease.

We read that producer Ana Golja waited at the back door of a theatre to ask actor Louis Gossett Jr to be part of the project. Why were you and the rest of your team convinced that he’d be the one to play the lead role in The Cuban?  

Sergio: The role was written for Lou Gossett Jr. I had him in mind from the very beginning, from when it was a seed of an idea, that developed into a short film. I had a mutual friend who knew Lou from the days when he lived in Toronto, so he reached out to him personally, and after a series of attempts, (including Ana and producer Taras Koltun chasing him down after a screening at TIFF), he finally responded, and agreed to meet with me at his home in Malibu. It was unforgettable, and the rest is history.  

Alessandra: Ana Golja and Taras Koltun approached Sergio with a short film idea based on Taras’ dream of reuniting with his grandfather back in Russia one last time. The idea struck a chord, and even though the story evolved significantly from that initial seed, it remained a driving force behind The Cuban. There was something so touching and poignant about the notion of connecting with our elders to listen to their stories before it’s too late. From the beginning, Sergio told me he wanted to cast Lou Gossett Jr. as Luis. In hindsight, it’s probably a good thing that I chose to watch some of Lou’s old interviews instead of re-watching his previous films. His charismatic nature, his profound artistry, his background in music, and his activism convinced me he was the right fit for the role. I could see what Sergio saw in Lou: his gentleness, his deep love for his art, and commitment to the creative life as well as that spark of joy that just lights up the room. These are the qualities I wanted for the character of Luis.  

Did the shoot involve a lot of traveling to Cuba? How did you soak in the culture of the place to represent it in the movie?  

Sergio: I believe I spent more time in Cuba prepping for that short shoot than I did prep for the whole movie. Spending time there definitely was eye-opening and taught me a lot about living in the present moment, and really surrendering to the gods of creativity. I went there with a clear and specific plan, but I quickly learned I would have to throw it out the window. I really had to think on my feet once we were on the ground ready to shoot. Working on low budget films most of my career, I have some experience in that. 

To be honest, I wanted to dislike Cuba at first, but instead, I was enchanted and seduced by it. I didn’t feel the general anxiety that we feel here or racial divisions that are still very much a problem in Canada and the US. The culture and the music transcend all that, and that is what is so beautiful about Cuba. The people are generally highly educated, warm, and genuinely good. There is a lot we can learn about ourselves spending time there. What you see on screen has a direct correlation to what we were experiencing off-screen. It does have a way of working itself into the narrative for sure.  

Music is a very personal experience and is rather subjective as well. What was the process to get the entire cast and crew on to the same page to make sure that the meanings were conveyed right?  

Sergio: Music is what I used from the minute I woke up, to the drives to set with my assistant and crew, to playing the soundtrack of the day on set between takes. It is infectious, powerful, and indisputably clear. When I played a certain song, every single person on set that moment would know what was going on. In a sense, we used music therapy while in prep, shooting, and during post-production. What’s better than Afro-Cuban Jazz at 5 am when you are getting ready for a long and exciting day ahead!  

Alessandra: I used music as I was writing. I listened to some of the songs I’d written into the film—Guantanamera, and Quizas Quizas, Quizas, for example—over and over. I think I’ve listened to every possible version of each by now! I also consciously wanted the film to feel like a piece of music, one that starts quietly then swells, then gets quiet again, etc…until you reach a climax that makes you want to dance. We were so lucky to have such incredible musicians, particularly the remarkable Grammy-nominated Hilario Duran, compose and record many of the songs for the film before shooting. The tone was set right from the start.  

You have mentioned that the post-production was lengthy, especially the sound design. Since the movie revolves around music, could you please shed some light on working with the sound crew from The Shape of Water?

Sergio: When you work with collaborators who are experienced artists, it elevates your game. Working with Nelson Ferreira and his team was a dream come true. They have the instincts and experience to problem solve, and really push all the auditory elements to support the narrative. Sound design is a powerful and subliminal tool, that if used correctly can make you believe that there is a massive shark about to eat you alive, or that two complete strangers are falling in love. 

People have been confined to smaller screens for a long time because of COVID-19. What are your thoughts about the new viewer experience as The Cuban is one of the first Canadian films to be released at a drive-in?

Sergio: I am thrilled to have the opportunity to screen The Cuban on a big screen, with hundreds of people present, during a global pandemic. I grew up near a drive-in and I spent a lot of time thereafter band practice or just hanging out and watching double-bill Elvis movies. The old has become new again, and it’s cool to see a whole new generation of moviegoers experiencing films in this way.  

Alessandra:  It is a dream come true to be able to show The Cuban in this way. Because of the music and the images, it is the kind of film that works best on the big screen, and I hope that lots of Canadians will be motivated to come out and enjoy the film communally at the drive-in. Even though the industry, in general, is moving towards VOD and streaming platforms now more than ever, there is still something special about the communal experience. I believe there will always be a place for films on the big screen, at least I hope so.