Andy Garcia has appeared in over forty films, including The Godfather: Part III, The Untouchables, Dead Again, Hero, When a Man Loves a Woman, and Night Falls on Manhattan, as well as Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, and the upcoming Ocean's Thirteen. Garcia cut his feature directing teeth with Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos! (Like His Rhythm There Is No Other), a concert film of Cuban jazz legend Israel "Cachao" Lopez. His first narrative feature, The Lost City revisits near and dear topics for the Cuban-born Garcia: his homeland and its rhythms. On San Francisco's "Day Without an Immigrant" (May 1, 2006), over a cigar and an espresso at San Francisco's Destino Restaurant, Cuban-born Garcia told me about his odyssey to realize The Lost City.
Groucho: From the inception of the project, I guess roughly sixteen years ago, now—
Andy Garcia: Sixteen is from when I had the first draft. So obviously I would have been thinking about doing this prior to that, but I got the first draft from Cabrera Infante in May 1990.
G: What happened in the interim, and was there any kind of blessing in disguise in having that time with the project?
AG: Yeah, collecting more music. (Laughs.) I think I became a better director than I was sixteen years ago. So from that point of view, it was, I guess, maybe a blessing, if you liked the movie. (Smiles.) And secondly, but—in the interim was just the frustration of not being able to get financed. The movie was developed at Paramount with Frank Mancuso, Sr., and then he left Paramount. I mean, there was an issue—a new regime came in, and they wanted to hire a new writer. And I said, you know, "I can't—there is no new writer. There's only one writer, you know? I'm sorry, I can't do that." So I said, "Well, can I have the project? Can I have it in turnaround?" And they did; they gave to me in turnaround. And then I shopped it around, and nobody was interested. And it became an independent movie looking for financing.
G: How did that collaboration with Infante work?
AG: He'd speak, and I'd listen! No, it was, ah—I went to see him in London. You don't mind if I smoke? I went to see him in London after they gave me the opportunity to develop a script. Mr. Mancuso said, "Would you like to make a movie?" and I said, you know, "This is Casablanca in Havana, basically. He said, "Okay, great, find a writer." I said, "I have a writer...but he doesn't know me." And so [director and cinematographer] Nestor Alméndros was the one who set up a meet, an introduction with him. And I knew his work, obviously, but I hadn't met him. So I went to London, and we sat down and spoke. And he lived in a flat that was about exactly the size of this restaurant, like this. (Gesturing into the room.) And you know, the bedroom was back there, the kitchen was there, and the kitchen was incorporated—let's say, a third of this, and then this part, like this, was the apartment. It was the same height. It's an old Victorian-era flat. So he sat where you [are] sitting, but closer to the thing, and he had his table there. And the entire wall was filled with books, from floor to ceiling, like a library. But literally the entire wall from floor to ceiling. And then he had books all over, surrounding on the floor because they didn't fit any more. And I kept looking—I'm sitting, he would smoke his cigar. I'd say, "You know, I think, the guy—Casablanca, the attack on the palace," and he'd go, "Possible, possible." "And I thought, maybe, you know, Batista used to really like to watch horror movies, and maybe there'd be an interesting scene where he used to watch horror movies," and he'd go, "It's possible, it's possible." And then finally we got a little bit looser and—'course I think he was fascinated by the vibe of this young kid who was like a nut for Cuba, worse than he was, you know. And finally, when we got a look—he started playing some music, and we started kind of—we found this common ground in the music, because he was very knowledgeable and really religiously committed to Cuban music. And he wrote about it all his life. And one time I said to him, "Maestro, all these books. Have you read them all?!" And he looked at me very dryly and said, "Only once." But he had like six thousand. (Laughs.) And that's his humor. I mean, the character of Bill Murray is Cabrera Infante. I mean, that's—he's not an American gag writer, but, you know, that's the voice of Infante. And if you read Infante's novels, that's the way he writes. His point of view is in—where he can really let loose is in the character that Bill Murray plays. He can parody and comment on the absurdities that he witnessed throughout the time that he was there, because he left in, like, '66.
G: Did he get to visit the set, the production?
AG: No, he was already not travelling. He had been pretty ill, and he had been in dialysis. And then I sent him two cuts, two versions of the movie, the final sort of cut of the movie. With one version, and then another version where I took some things out. And he said, "I like the version better where you took the things out. And he was very taken by the movie, he was very pleased, which obviously pleased me tremendously. He said, "Make sure you tell people you made the movie for nine-and-a-half million dollars in thirty-five days. That's a great accomplishment." And I said, "Uhhh, okay." (Smiles.) And I've been meaning to always say that because that's something actually he made a point to tell me. He said, "For what you had to do this movie with, you need to—I think that's a—you know, it's a kudo." And I said, "We're very, very proud of that." Because over the years having the blessing of working in the movies, you see how much indulgence and how much waste of money there is that goes down in the movies, and never is on the screen, you know? It just, like, evaporates in thin air, with indulgences. "Just have it there just in case I need it," that kind of attitude, you know?...[Infante] was one of the most interesting people I've ever—probably the most interesting person I've ever met in my life. And he died shortly after seeing the movie....
G: The film's already caused some friction, which is, I guess, the wages of truth...
AG: That's an interesting way to put it. (Chuckles.) Truth and friction are inevitably—
G: Hand in hand.
AG: Hand in hand, yeah.
G: I guess the bones of contention would be the depiction of the middle class as the driving force of the anti-Batista rebellion
G: And the depiction of Che Guevara. How do you answer your critics on those points?
AG: Well, the middle-class was the anti...the revolution was run by the middle class. In fact, Fidel himself is from the upper middle class.
AG: The Directorio Revolucionario, they're—most of those kids are university kids from the middle class. That's the reality, that's a historical reality. Some people say, "Well, where are the peasants in the movie?" And I say, "They're in the hills!" You know. That's not what the movie's about. The movie's about this particular family and this particular movement in the city of Havana. And that's what it's about, and that's a historically accurate statement. Now, you want to tell a story about a peasant in that time period, that's perfectly valid, but the people who led the Directorio Revolucionario and the 26 July Movement were not peasants! And people tend to comment on it, but they need to do their research historicallt before they question something. But it's natural. It's a natural thing to question that, you know, because people have the misconception of the Cuban Revolution as some sort of, like, peasant uprising, the poor—that's not the case. It was an intellectual revolution. It was about the lack of pluralism in the country, and it was led by the intellectual society, the people who wanted to—and by the way, were risking their [lives.] You know, these were twenty-two-year-old kids, you know, "Manzanita"...was twenty-two years old when he died at the radio station. Twenty-two years old, leading the revolution. These were not—these were young kids, you know, who were very politically advanced and astute. So I'm up for any discussion but what's frustrating is people make assumptions when they don't know their history, you know? And then they say, then they question or try to discredit the movie, or an issue in the movie, when they don't really know the history. First know the history and then you can have a real dialogue about it.
G: And can you talk about the way the film has been censored in some countries? What are the details of that?
AG: I'm not aware of any censorship in any country. I've heard that someone on the internet said the movie's been banned in South America. I'm not aware of that. If that's true, then there's censorship in those countries. What can I say? (Laughs.) You know, I can't—there was censorship before my movie arrived, you know what I mean? My movie didn't cause the censorship. If the movie's not going to play in Venezuela, well, obviously there are issues in Venezuela. But I'm not aware of those. It could just be somebody saying it. It's possible, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not aware of that. And there's always been also the polemic of the depiction of Che Guevara in the movie. Well, you know, that's history! I wish—I wish that Che Guevara did not do those things in Cuba. Then that wouldn't have happened, and many people would still be alive. But that's a reality—it's a historical reality. A lot of people don't know that, obviously, but the movie's not about that. It's an element in the film; that's a historical element in our movie. And if it tarnishes the image of Che Guevara, well, that's Che Guevara's fault, you know? It ain't my fault....Obviously, not so many people know about Cuban history 'cause, you know, they don't teach it and stuff like that. And you get what you get. You can't expect people to know. In fact, there's a lot of misconception of what the revolution was about...but the movie to me is a movie like Schindler's List is a movie. I mean, it's made in homage—Schindler's List, I'm sure, was made in homage and a respect to the struggles that went on and what happened. But it was a movie made for everybody, just like my movie is. My movie has, for me, a universal theme of impossible love, about having to leave the thing you most cherish, and what happens in a world where a dramatic change in the pediological structure of a country can separate a family, and what happens to that family. And those are themes that are in Doctor Zhivago and in Casablanca, and the Bertolucci films like 1900 or Visconti movies. You know, that's what I'm aspiring as a film maker. The movie is about that. I'm just stimulated by the subject matter, so that's what I choose to—is what I know. I wouldn't begin to make a movie about the Holocaust, even though I know a lot about it. You know, it's not where I would choose to work, the tapestry in which I want to work as a director. Because I want to work with the things that I actually know about, that I can offer some insight. So, if people learn more about what happened there, I think it's a good thing, because there's a lot of misconception about it....Listen, there's a lot of people who don't know about the American Revolution, let alone the Cuban Revolution. Here in America. You can't expect them to know it, but they do get fed a certain propaganda that comes out in certain things. So there's a lot of misconception about it.
G: From growing up in Cuba, are there images in your mind that are kind of snapshots in your mind, or do you have photographs—are there images from your personal life in Cuba that you brought into the film? I know you were very young when you left.
AG: Yeah, yeah. Well, there's a combination of all those things. I have the initial images, and some video that I brought from Cuba—not video but 16mm—of my family, that I have, that's very vivid to me. And also the memories that I have. I think as a young boy, I quickly realized that we might not be going back any time soon, and I think you kind of go— (Pause. Looks.) "I'm not going to see that again." And you kind of go, "Boom, okay, I own this," and you kind of crystallize it in your mind and you empower it, to protect those images. But as I grew up, I started researching Cuba, and also the stories from the grandparents and all that. And I was very stimulated by those stories, and I started collecting the music, and reading books, and reading photography books. And I really grew up, as I was growing up in Miami Beach, I also grew up in Cuba. Never—I mean, it could have been 1968 in Miami Beach, but to me it was still 1958 in Cuba. I was a thirteen-year-old in 1958. I never left the '50s. I would just go—I would place myself, at the appropriate age that I was, what would I be doing? And it would be connected to the things I was reading, to the songs I was listening to, and to the stories that I heard. So all of a sudden now I was also swimming over there, or I was also playing basketball in that tournament that my brother told me about, or I was also at the farm, my father's farm, as a young adolescent. I think it's the nature of exile: you have these profound nostalgia for where you come from. And that's what motivated this movie. That's why I made this movie. And I didn't know I was going to make a movie at that time, but that kind of sentiment is what created my desire to tell this story...
G: To put this film in a context of how Cuban culture is portrayed in American cinema, what would you say are the best and the worst portrayals to date of Cuban culture?
AG: I think El Súper is the first movie that I saw that got it, that was a real reflection of our existence, you know. That was basically a movie about Cuban exiles in New York City. I think Before Night Falls is a very accurate depiction of the situation in Cuba. Bitter Sugar. [The] Godfather: Part II.
G: What are the ones that get under your skin?
AG: All the other ones. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) All the other ones.
AG: I might have left some out. But these are just the ones at the top of my head. I mean, there's movies made in Cuba. I'm talking about the movies made outside of Cuba, yeah....Thank you for coming.
G: Thank you.
[For Groucho's review of The Lost City, click here.]