Lucy Mulloy's Una Noche characterizes Havana as brimming with nervous desperation, a city buzzing with black market hustling, prostitution, unwitting tourists shielded from the grime, and denizens dreaming and scheming to escape into a better life. Enter: Raul (Dariel Arrechaga) and Elio (Javier Núñez Florián), a pair of young disillusioned teenagers who plan to embark on a 90-mile journey from Cuba to Miami, with the hope of being welcomed into a city of endless possibility—one filled with hot girls and fast cars, just like they see in the movies. Along for the ride is Elio's pesky younger sister, Lila, played by Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre.
A Politics, Philosophy, and Economics grad from Oxford University, the UK-born-and-bred Mulloy continued her studies at NYU's Tisch, where she created the short film her debut feature is based on. In 2010, she was awarded the Spike Lee Production Grant for Una Noche. She not only walked away with financial support, but also with Spike Lee as her mentor. The film made festivals rounds in 2012 and 2013, first at the Berlin International Film Festival and then at Tribeca Film Festival, where it won awards for Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinametography, before being released in theaters by Sundance Selects last week.
We got the chance to speak to the emerging talent about the struggle to film in the heavily surveilanced city, capturing authenticity through non-actors, and the limited opportunities for female filmmakers.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
What inspired you to write Una Noche?
I went to Cuba for the very first time in 2002, and I was heard a lot of stories about people leaving the island and about all of the people that had been left. I found that very compelling. I studied politics and my mom grew up in the Czech Republic under communism, which got me interested in Cuba. Everybody I had met in Cuba had somebody who had left or they themselves had tried to leave. It was so pervasive that it just stuck with me. I had been living in Cuba for almost a year and I applied to go to film school. So I went back to the UK and I applied to go to film school at NYU and I got a fellowship. When it came to me making my thesis film, I had been going back to Cuba every summer and I had decided that I wanted to go back there and make my thesis film there.
I returned to Cuba again and I started the process of applying for permits and was really lucky. There were some fantastic producers involved in Cuba. They had never produced before so this was kind of our first project, all of us. We created our own production company, set up an office—we kind of started from zero. During the time while we were waiting for permits to come through, the story expanded and it went from being a short 10-page script to a 110-page script. I was very lucky I got sponsorship from Kodak and from ARRI for the cameras. We put a lot of work into making sure that everything came together.
What was the casting process like?
I initially went to acting schools and wanted to meet with young people who had been on telenovelas and things like that. But a lot of the people who had already been trained, their acting was very theatrical. I was looking for something softer and more understated. I realized that the only way we were going to find this was by working with non-actors—then I could train them up. We held this huge casting call. We went to schools, beaches, parties—anywhere we could find teenagers—and we gave out fliers. We had lines of people down the whole street, going around the block.
I sat down and I interviewed every person and they did their improvisation. There were a lot of talented people that came through, and during this process, I was sometimes going out with the casting assistant and giving out fliers as well, because I was worried that we wouldn’t find the actors. One day, I went to a music school with a casting assistant and I saw Dariel, this young guy holding court with all these girls around him. He was being very charismatic and they were all laughing. I went over to him and gave him a casting flier. As we were walking away, I was telling the casting assistant, “We found Raul.”
Anailin, who plays Lila, she came second. That same casting assistant found her on the beach with her family. She is a tae kwon do artist in real life, which is an amazing coincidence because I was looking for somebody who practiced tae kwon do. She was very striking and very confident, this young woman who seemed to know exactly what she wanted. Her acting and the improvisation that she did was so natural that she got the role.
Then we just went and looked for her brother. We went to all the high schools. Basically the producer, Sandy, and one of the casting assistants, took photographs of anybody who could look like her brother. I looked through the pictures and chose the boys I wanted to come in. Javier, who plays Elio, he came in and was incredibly nervous. He couldn’t speak for a really long time. He just stood there. Eventually, he did the improvisation so well that I couldn’t tell if he was acting or he was just being himself.
The three of them came together and they got on really well. They were working with me for over a year and there were times when it was challenging. They were thinking, “Is this ever gonna happen?” Then the cameras came through from ARRI and we had to bring everything in from the UK, the States, and Toronto because they didn’t have to facilities to shoot 35 millimeter in Cuba. There were no labs there. Once everything came in, we got the crew. People came from Spain, from the UK, from Mexico, and we started shooting. We had over 100 locations, so we were dashing between different places to get the scenes that we needed. It was a very intense shoot.
Considering the cast were teenagers during filming, did you have to deal with any child labor laws in the country or any restrictions pertaining to them?
Their parents signed all of the necessary contracts. They were very much involved as well. For example, Dariel’s father was the chef in the film. They were there every step of the way.
Since they were non-actors, what kind of direction did you give them when you were filming?
Most of the direction happened before the film. We spent such a long time rehearsing, and during that time I was doing improvisation with them and getting them familiar with what continuity is, how it is to have a camera in your face, where you should look, lighting, and all of these things that they would learn if they went to drama school. They came to know the script inside out. By the time we shot the movie, it was if anything and everything that could go wrong went wrong. Resources were really scarce. There was a hurricane and power cuts. Cars broke down. People became ill. But I could always rely on these actors because we’d worked so hard beforehand. They knew emotionally where I wanted them to be. When, for example, we’d lose a location at the last minute because there might not’ve been any electricity that day, they were completely ready to go.
Had they been fans of movies beforehand?
Dariel really admired Nicolas Cage. [Laughs.] I remember him always talking about that. The other two actors had never had any opportunity to act before, but Anailin was talking about how when she was younger, she didn’t have many friends, so she would sit in front of the mirror and act to herself. She was telling me how she had always fantasized about acting. They all realized they had talent and I think that gave them a real buzz.
Reality imitated art. Can you talk about that experience?
We went to the Berlin Film Festival. They came from Cuba and got their permits. That was an incredible festival. We were treated wonderfully. It was their first time out of Cuba and they went straight to the hotel and were just treated really well. And then they went back to Havana, back to real life, and a few weeks later we got into the Tribeca Film Festival. Tribeca was very supportive of the film and they were happy to bring the actors out to the States. So they invited three of the actors out and the producer, Sandy. Two of the actors took that opportunity to make a run for it. I was in New York at the time and we were all getting ready for the premiere the next day, and I got a phone call from Sandy saying that Javier and Anailin had disappeared and they left an empty bag and she didn’t think they were coming back. I was naive and saying, “Oh come on! Yes they will!”
There was one day when we were shooting on the beach and all of a sudden out of the bushes came 20 soldiers with 20 guns pointed at us.
Sure enough, they didn’t come back and we didn’t know where they were up until Javier and Dariel won Best Actor, jointly, at the festival. The next day, I got a phone call from Javier saying, “What’s this award that I’ve won?” And he was in Las Vegas at that point, where his brother was. I saw him in Miami because we had a press day for the movie, and it was the first time I’d seen them since Berlin and they were telling me how they had planned it since they were in Cuba. They did want to come to the Tribeca Film Festival, but they just saw this opportunity and seized it.
In terms of life imitating art, Anailin is now pregnant with twins with Javier, who is her on-screen twin. How much further can it go? [Laughs.]
And they’re seeking asylum in the U.S.?
Yeah, I think their green cards have come through. They’re happy. They miss their parents, especially now that Anailin is pregnant, but I think they're much happier. Life here is different, and they’ve got to work, but they’re both 21 now and they’re getting a fresh start. I really hope that they can continue acting. I know that’s something they want to do.
Were you met with any opposition from the government while filming?
There was one day when we were shooting on the beach and all of a sudden out of the bushes came 20 soldiers with 20 guns pointed at us. They had been tipped off that we were fleeing on a raft, which was actually the prop. That was pretty terrifying. But the producer spoke to them and explained the situation. They let us carry on.
What are your thoughts on the landscape for female directors in the industry? What opportunities do you think they’re lacking?
I see a lot of my contemporaries making amazing movies, young female directors. Dee Reese, Ry Russo, Maryam who made Circumstance, Elena Burke. There are a lot of young female directors who are coming out and are working on their first movies. What I do realize is that female directors are making films very independently, outside of any particular studio structure. Even people like Lynn Shelton, she does them with her own group of people on her own production company, I think. I hope that the studio system will open up more not only to female directors but to directors of other cultures.
I think there are even fewer black directors than there are female directors. Films represent what society is like, and our society is so varied, that I think it’s very important to be able to see yourself on screen, to have role models, to have different characters that you can relate to. The state of affairs right now is that it’s mainly white wealthy men that are getting to make movie and I really hope that changes. I think there is a new generation of young female directors in the States and they are all very talented.
Has the film opened any doors for you?
Since I’ve made the film, I’ve signed with UTA (United Talent Agency). I’m receiving scripts, looking at work, and writing my own scripts, and I’m hoping that the next project will be a little bit easier to make. It’s been really life changing to a lot of people who are involved. I just hope that now that the movie’s out, the actors can get agents and get work too. That would be really amazing.
Is the rumor of an Una Noche sequel true?
Initially it was true, but that was before they defected. I felt a little bit guilty that we had made this film and the film was going to go off and travel the world and that I was just leaving these actors who’ve dedicated a year of their life to it. So I had this idea of making a sequel. I started writing the script and I loved the story, but basically since then, the actors came to the States, and they’re all in the U.S. now. Their lives are different. I think that the changes that have happened in them, even if they went back to Cuba to shoot the film, it wouldn’t be the same. When we made that first film, it felt authentic because they were living that struggle. They have different struggles and concerns now—it’s never simple.
The next film I’m making now is set in Rio and New York. There are different characters. I’m developing it now, so I don’t want to say too much, but it’s about a young man who comes from Rio to New York, and it traces his journey of self-discovery.