The producers of Showtime’s dark comedy “House of Lies” had $3 million and a mission: shoot the first episode of scripted American television in Cuba in more than half a century.
With less than a week to shoot the entire fifth-season finale on the chaotic streets of central Havana, director Matthew Carnahan told his just-hired Cuban crew that they’d be skipping their full lunch break to make up time the first two days.
“You know what? That’s not going to work,’ ” the assistant director responded. “You don’t do a walking lunch here.”
The full lunch breaks got taken. And the shoot starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell wrapped up last week as part of a once-unimaginable surge of interest that could transform communist Cuba into a regular Hollywood location or fade rapidly due to the difficulty of working on the island.
A year after Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama declared detente, the mega-franchise “Fast and Furious” is awaiting U.S. and Cuban permission to shoot its eighth installment in Havana. There’s talk of a major U.S. car commercial shooting here. Actor Ethan Hawke said he wants to make a film in Cuba. “Papa,” an Ernest Hemingway biopic approved before detente was announced, premiered in Havana in December.
Until recently, Hollywood shooting in Cuba would have likely set off outrage among anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who say trade with Cuba feeds repression on the island.
The productions coming to Havana this year say White House staff have explicitly encouraged them as part of Obama’s new warming with Cuba. Preparing for anger in Miami was never part of the planning.
“It just didn’t factor into it,” Showtime president David Nevins said as he watched the shooting in Old Havana last week. “We’re slowly renewing relations and I think this show and the attitude that you'll see within the show towards what’s going on with Cuba I think reflects where mainstream America is right now.”
Producers of “House of Lies” and other productions shot in Cuba said the 55-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba posed the primary obstacle to U.S. entertainment companies’ hopes to turn the island into a tropical backdrop. But particularly Cuban difficulties could also prevent U.S. productions from regularly working on the island.
“There’s a lot of stuff coming here,” Carnahan said. “Whether Cuba becomes a viable location on a regular ongoing basis rather than a novelty is up to both countries.”
The Cuban government demands script approval, only accepting productions that put the country in a good light. Charter flights from the U.S. remain unreliable, although regularly scheduled flights are slated to start soon.
There are so few international-quality hotel rooms that Cuba-based producers regularly cancel shoots due to lack of beds for cast and crew. “House of Lies” stars good-naturedly described missing sheets and paper-thin pillows at the hotel where they stayed, and shooting in the streets of Old Havana without the usual amenities.
“We don’t have trailers, which I really enjoy, because it strips down the production to just its bare necessities,” said Bell, the star of the teen detective series “Veronica Mars” and the voice of princess Anna in the mega-hit “Frozen.” “Our green room, per se, is usually someone’s house, someone’s home … We just walk. We go into shops and sit with people. You just sit down with people and talk to them.”
Weighed against that are actors and production staff that “House of Lies” producers described as impressively trained and well-prepared. The Americans are also thrilled at the backdrop of thousands of colonial and Art Deco buildings, most dilapidated from years of neglect, although Old Havana’s core is being painstakingly restored.
“Everywhere you point the camera is the most photogenic place you’ve ever seen,” Carnahan said.
“House of Lies” is about a team of ruthless management consultants who zip around the world making fortunes at the expense of their greedy, hapless clients who run major corporations.
Last summer, as its writers plotted out its fifth season, they realized that the wave of post-detente U.S. business interest in Cuba make it a natural subject for the show.
“They come down thinking that if they can be the pioneers to land the business deal that they see Cuba as, that it will be this unparalleled victory,” executive producer Jessika Borsiczky said. “They come down to really take over how Cuba’s going to run its business.”
In the script, which was reviewed and approved by the Cuban government, head consultant Marty Kaan and his team end up realizing the error of their hyper-capitalist ways.
“As they’re here their assumptions get stripped away and they realize there’s a lot more to the change in Cuba than just taking advantage of it,” Borsiczky said.
A “Fast and Furious” shoot would dwarf the “House of Lies” single episode, and could prove more ideologically tricky for Cuba. One of the most successful movie franchises in history, it has grossed billions worldwide with films that pay tribute to souped-up street-racing cars and carefully planned multi-million dollar heists.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment. But ordinary Cubans watching the “House of Lies” shoot said they were happy to see American entertainers at work in Havana.
“It’s strange but good,” said Hilga Jimenez, a 58-year-old health worker who works for a state campaign against disease-carrying mosquitos. “They want to get closer to us, we want to get closer to them, and this way we get to know each other’s culture.”
Michael Weissenstein on Twitter @mweissenstein