‘The Cuban’ chooses Breck Film Fest for Colorado premiere
BRECKENRIDGE — Film is a chance for Sergio Navarretta to play around with different mediums. The director can work with composers, actors or other creatives on the crew to scratch an itch for mental stimulation. With “The Cuban,” his latest feature film allows him to dive deep into the musical world of Afro-Cuban jazz.
The Canadian has been exposed to music since he was 5, and by 12 he was studying at The Royal Conservatory in Toronto. But the versatility of making movies pulled him in a different direction.
“It’s more suited to my character because I can’t imagine doing one thing exclusively forever,” Navarretta said.
Now he’s tapped into his love of bands like Buena Vista Social Club and Mambo Kings for “The Cuban.” It stars award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. as an elderly guitarist named Luis who lives in a nursing home. Ana Golja of “Degrassi: Next Class” portrays Mina, an Afghan pre-med student that acts as his caregiver. Also featuring Shohreh Aghdashloo (“The Expanse”), Lauren Holly (“Picket Fences”) and Giacomo Gianniotti (“Grey’s Anatomy”), the characters connect through music as they discover Luis’ talented career.
Having its Colorado premiere at the Breck Film Fest on Saturday, Sept. 19, people can see the music come to life themselves at either the drive-in at Colorado Mountain College’s Breckenridge campus or digitally.
Scoring for the movie finished relatively early, so between takes, Navarretta would play the film’s original tracks — along with a few featured covers such as “Quizás, quizás, quizás” — on set to get the cast and crew in the mood.
“Some of the compositions are sad, introspective and emotional,” Navarretta said. “Others are jovial and happy. It’s a subliminal way to get everybody on the same frequency.”
Yet the main inspiration was family. The spark came when producer Taras Koltun yearned to visit his grandfather in Russia before he died, while Navarretta also wanted to know about some stories that his late father didn’t get to tell. The actors have personal connections to the material, as well. Aghdashloo, for instance, signed up after reading the dementia-focused script because her father died of Alzheimer’s disease.
What: “The Cuban”
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 19
Where: Online and at Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge
Cost: $20 for the drive-in version and $12 for digital. Visit BreckFilmFest.org to purchase, stream and view the full schedule.
Part of the film was shot in Canada while other portions were on location in Cuba. There were numerous scheduling and logistical challenges — like finding the right period-specific cars — but Navarretta found himself getting lucky at the right moments.
One poignant scene focuses on Mina entering the water. They only did one take to get the moment they needed due to wardrobe limitations and hoped it would work.
“It was so hot that day I directed that scene in the water with my clothes on,” Navarretta said. “We only had one dress, so we had one shot to get that right.”
The Malecón, Havana’s famous busy street, also proved to be a tricky shooting location. At first, it was filled with too many people and modern cars, bumper to bumper. Then, by some fluke, Navarretta said the president of Cuba and his staff were down the street at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, drawing traffic away from the set.
“It was like the seas parted,” he said. “Suddenly, that street became available for a window of 20 minutes.”
Navarretta was also lucky he had the dream cast that he did since the parts were written specifically for the actors in mind. In particular, he knew Gossett Jr. spoke Spanish, sang and played guitar. Gossett Jr. wrote “Handsome Johnny” for Richie Havens, becoming one of the first songs performed at Woodstock.
But, like Navarretta, it was plays and movies that brought Gossett Jr. into the industry. When he saw Lena Horne, Bill Robinson and Cab Calloway in “Stormy Weather” at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it transfixed him and planted a seed.
“It had a world that, in my poor life, I could never, ever imagine that it was possible anywhere in the world for people who looked like that with those gowns and their talent and their ability to get on the screen and to have that kind of a life,” he said.
From there, his storied career has seen him on stage and screen for “A Raisin in the Sun,” for the iconic miniseries “Roots” and portraying the title role in “Sadat.” He became the first Black supporting actor to win an Academy Award for the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
Most recently, Gossett Jr. was nominated for this weekend’s Primetime Emmy Awards for his performance as Will Reeves in the acclaimed HBO “Watchmen” series. The 2019 show’s depiction of masked police and vigilante heroes has taken on a new meaning given this year’s police brutality protests. Similarly, the immigration aspect of “The Cuban,” and the fact that making intimate connections in nursing homes is difficult during a pandemic, has shifted the movie’s themes in unexpected ways.
Gossett Jr. isn’t surprised to see his work address current events post-release as diverse creators and distribution platforms become more common.
“As an artist, we have to live the truth and show that on the screen because it’s on the shelf forever,” he said.
Gossett Jr. modeled his truth in “The Cuban” off Robert De Niro’s performance in “Awakenings,” where the actor rapidly switched between moments of lucidity. It was a challenge, but he looked forward to testing his physical and metaphorical instrument.
His favorite scene was when he taught Golja music — both fictionally and in real life. He said it was possible because he was able to tweak and cut the script on the fly in a handful of minutes.
“There were some lines in it that slowed up my teaching,” Gossett Jr. said “… We were trusted by the director to teach her the Latin rhythm. She got it in less time than it was written.”
Given his body of work and own personal experiences — Gossett Jr. was once handcuffed to a tree for hours in the ’60s by Beverly Hills cops — he set up the Eracism Foundation. He said this year has been busier than ever before with public speaking engagements on social justice.
“It’s going to take mankind to save mankind,” Gossett Jr. said. “If we’re doing anything else, we may as well be in a 747 airplane at 30,000 feet and about to crash, but the people inside the plane are still fighting about who’s going to be in first class. It doesn’t make sense. It’s ludicrous. We need one another desperately for our mutual survival.”
The 84-year-old said he hasn’t truly worked a day in his life and shows no signs of slowing, as evidenced by him in the upcoming release of “Foster Boy.”
“It’s nice to still be working,” Gossett Jr. said. “I’m very grateful to be able to remember my lines and show up for work. Not many people on this planet make a living and can be successful in what they were put on this planet to do.”
His advice to young people wanting to follow in his footsteps?
“Take the word ‘impossible’ out of your dictionary,” he said. “They said it was impossible to fly to the moon and back. Another one said it was impossible to slam dunk. Another said it was impossible to run a mile in four minutes. When you take the word ‘impossible’ out, you grow.”
“The Cuban” will have a nationwide digital release Oct. 6 after the drive-in premiere. Gossett Jr. will participate in a livestreamed Q&A about the film moderated by Phil Lindeman at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24.
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