Watching first-time feature director Ben Chace's Sin Alas is like a stroll through the streets of Havana. You weave through crowds in a pedicab, hang out on street corners to hear the latest gossip and meander on the majestic Malecón, the historic esplanade along the city’s coastline. But it’s not just a cinematic travel brochure. Sin Alas is the story of an old man, witness to the rise of the Revolution in the ’50s and ’60s and spectator to the island’s modern-day malaise, as he revisits his past life with a passionate dancer. “It’s really a story of generations,” Chace says, “of every generation’s relationship with the Revolution. Whether you stay or go, the Revolution is involved with everyone’s family problems.”
We asked Chace about the development of Sin Alas, the experience of filming in Cuba and what Americans should know before planning a production there.
As someone without family ties to the island, how did you become interested in Cuba?
I got Cuban vibes growing up in Miami. My first trip to Cuba was with a Cuban-American friend from high school. His dad was my Spanish teacher, and he had been one of the “Peter Pan” kids. They were upper-middle-class families in Havana whose parents shipped them off right after the Revolution. It was amazing to witness my buddy’s experience, finding all the places his dad grew up, running into cousins who were still around. I thought, “Man, we should have filmed that!” So we went back the following summer and made a little documentary. It was me and a camera, filming him walking around.
How did you choose which sites to film?
Centro Havana is probably the least preserved neighborhood, so I wanted to shoot that in 16mm. It just seemed like a disappearing reality. One of my good friend’s family in Cuba are all architects, so they knew about the different cool buildings worth checking out. Then we went out for location scouting, and that became character research, too. You go into these old buildings and talk to the people there. You meet the old man who lived in the building that used to belong to his family who all left, and he was living in one apartment 50 years later not in touch with anyone in his family. It was like he was living in a shell of a former life.
What were some of the differences about shooting in Cuba instead of the United States?
You have to get your script approved. I had a Cuban producer who lived in America, and he doctored the script before sending it to his people down there [eventually, the Cuban Audio Visual Association would approve him for permits]. Like anywhere, it’s about knowing the right people. It’s not like you can go online to the mayor’s office website and get the permitting. You need to find someone who will get it to the right person.
The dollar goes a long way out there, so as opposed to a New York shoot, you actually have time to rehearse. I had two weeks of rehearsal with my principal actors. If something didn’t feel or sound right, they would help me make me it work.
What are some of the mistakes you want to help future filmmakers avoid or be aware of?
If you’re not accustomed to the way things work in Cuba, you may never be able to understand it or nip it in the bud. People there are hustling to get by every day. No one can survive on the legal state salary. Everyone has to work the angles to keep the lights on and put food on the table. There’s not enough apartments for everybody, people have to live with their parents, half the family has left and the family that has stayed has to live there. It gets very complicated. People will try to shave off a little from your budget, especially in the art department. If you’re on a small budget, you need to learn what the real prices of things are.
What surprised you during the production?
We were shooting in the countryside, and people asked us to pay us ahead of time. Out there, you could get really fresh produce and seafood. One person asked, and then another. Soon, people were missing during the day when we needed to get our shots. Next thing we noticed, they’re slaughtering a pig next to a house we were shooting at. We had to stop for an hour while this pig is wailing. I go outside, and I see they’re loading the pig into the art department truck.
I ask, “What’s going on here?” They were like, “Oh, don’t worry, we’re just buying this pig for our New Year’s celebration.” It’s hard to get a pig in Havana, and they’re all good people. Only later did we find out that all these people were not buying for themselves but they were buying food to sell on the black market. They were using our pre-approved trucks that we licensed with the government for the production to smuggle some back into Havana. They knew because they were licensed for production, no one would search the back of the trucks. If they asked us, we would’ve said OK.