Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Our Man in Havana: Filmmaker Hugo Perez on Production in Cuba

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To celebrate the recent addition of the five-millionth clip in our collection, we gave a bunch of stuff away — a trip around the world, a camera package, the obligatory GoPro, and a DJI phantom 4. Our drone winner was award-winning filmmaker and producer Hugo Perez, who is currently helming a project in Cuba — a place where’s he’s traveled many times.

“I’ve been going to Cuba for 20 years, and I’ve been there 25 or 30 times,” Hugo tells us. “At least half the time, I was down there producing in some form or fashion. I started going in 1996, when Cuba was pulling out of what’s called ‘the special period,’an economic downturn where everything came to a halt. The ’90s were very different times in Cuba than today.”

Hugo Perez scouting the Bosque de Habana

Hugo Perez scouting the Bosque de Habana
 
“Story scouting and casting for documentaries is a lot of what I’m doing currently,” Hugo explains of his current production role in Cuba. “I’m trying to find interesting characters and interesting situations. I’ve been doing stuff in Havana for long enough that I know a lot of the locations that I want to use. The scouting that I’m doing for my clients right now is just finding interesting people to spotlight or interview. Depending on the needs of the particular project, I’m looking for people in specific fields or specific places who are interesting characters and can be incorporated into where the project is set. Then there’s also just scouting lodging and restaurants so that the next time I bring people down, I have an updated sense of what’s out there.”

Havana, Cuba. Street scene with old car and worn out buildings.
Havana, Cuba, Street Scene by frankix
 

Sites to See in the Capital

“Old Havana is beautiful and striking,” says Hugo. “The Malecón, which is the ocean-drive road that goes along the water in Havana, is a location that everybody shoots — particularly toward the end of the day when the sun’s setting. It’s really lovely. People are sitting around on the sea wall, hanging out. El Morro Castle across the harbor, is an old Spanish fortress, with the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor. From there, you have amazing views of Havana, particularly at sunset.”

There’s another, very special place just outside the old city, too. “El Bosque de la Habana, the Forest of Havana, is a large tropical forest on the outskirts of town. Once upon a time, all of Havana was a forest like this. It rides along the Almendares River, and it’s really lush and beautiful. When you’re in Havana, you would never imagine that you could drive 15 minutes out and be in the middle of a forest that looks like a fairy tale.”

IMG_5966

Eric Delgado, DP for the Island of Baseball documentary, filming b-roll in Old Havana
 
“It’s a photographer’s paradise. I know a lot of fashion photographers who like to go out there to film. Havana’s this place where just about anywhere you turn your camera, you’re going to find something great to shoot. And when you leave Havana, the landscapes are stunning. Whether you go east or west, there’s amazing mountain chains, amazing flora and fauna. It’s an amazing place to photograph. It’s a huge island. I didn’t really get a sense of the scale of it until I did a road trip a couple of times across Cuba, and you really get a sense of just how big the island is, and how many cities there are. The mountains, the coastline, the farmland — it’s pretty stunning.”

Cuba, Havana, El Morro Castle by Dualstock

Despite its reputation for being a mysterious and potentially hostile place, Hugo explains that Cuba is actually a very safe place to travel. “I would say Cuba’s probably one of the safest places to travel and to work,” he says. “As a foreigner, as a tourist, you’re very, very safe there. The biggest precautions you have to take are against theft. Don’t leave your camera sitting around. If you’re at a café and your camera’s on the table and you go to the bathroom or you turn your back, that’s just asking somebody to take your camera. I think that is an issue, but I think if you take just the most basic precautions, you can avoid having those problems. I would say in terms of violence, Cuba is very, very safe right now. And people are pretty accepting of stuff being filmed. As long as you’re respectful, if you let people know what’s going on, they don’t feel that they’re being disrespected or infringed upon. It’s like anywhere else. If you’re going to shut down a sidewalk or street, or you need people to be quiet, you need to let them know why. Generally people are pretty cooperative. I’ve never had any serious issues.”

Statue on Havana Street

Cuban artist Salvador Gonzalez’ murals fill the Callejón de Hamel in Centro Habana.
 
Hugo then proceeds to explain the intricacies of traveling to Cuba from the US. “There’s still technically an embargo in place,” he says. “However, the embargo allows for travel under a number of broad categories. Professional research, journalistic activities, religious activities — and now there’s a very broad category called ‘people to people.’ Essentially anybody can qualify. There are a couple of ways to set it up. One is to go through charter companies or travel coordinators that specialize in Cuba travel. Up until now, it’s been the only option because they’re the ones that control charter flights. If you want to take those direct flights, you have to go through them. There are a number of great companies out there. I use a company called Bespoke. They take care of everything. Your flights, lodging and helping you with a visa. It’s a turnkey operation.”

Hugo then makes an interesting point regarding currency exchange. “You have to convert dollars into CUC, which are the convertible pesos, but there’s currently still an embargo on dollars, so that before you even exchange your currency, there’s a ten percent penalty, right away. On top of that, there’s a three-percent exchange fee, and the CUC is pegged one-to-one. With a ten-percent penalty and a three percent currency exchange fee, every dollar becomes 87 cents.” Here Hugo gives an excellent tip for the savvy traveler: “If you’re going to be spending a lot of money in Cuba, you might consider getting Euros or Canadian dollars from your bank, because there isn’t a ten-percent penalty on those. This is definitely something to keep in mind, because you’re losing thirteen percent of the value of your money with USD as soon as you touch ground there.”
 

Making Media Magic in Cuba

“In terms of gear, If you’re coming down with a backpack of DSLRs and lenses, it’s no big deal,” says Hugo. “Particularly if you don’t have any intention of publishing what you’re doing for broadcast. If you’re coming down for what would be considered journalistic or broadcast activity, then you definitely need to go down with press credentials. You can do that by contacting the Cuban embassy in Washington, DC. They’ve got a press officer who handles all these requests. I would recommend doing this at least 30 days in advance; you should give yourself enough time, because it can be a very slow process.”

A videographer in Cuba

There’s also a second option for New Yorkers that might prove more convenient. “There’s a Cuban consulate to the United Nations in New York that also has a press officer. They tend to work with the big networks and The New York Times, people like that. You can try either one of those options in terms of getting press credentials. The other avenue, if you’re going to go down working professionally — and this is more if you’re a broadcast video professional — is you hire a local entity to basically be your local producer. Then they go through a special approval process for your project. You send them a treatment for what you’re doing, your dates, and basic information, and they’ll submit it to the government agency responsible for these things. Then you’ll get approval. You can work with the Cuban Film Institute or Cuban Television, or there are a number of independent producers you can do this with.”
 

Filming Abroad

In case you haven’t traveled a lot, Hugo mentions some basic etiquette when filming in foreign lands. “Use your common sense about what’s appropriate. If you go to somebody’s house to take a picture, you might pay them something for letting you do that. It’s common courtesy. If you’re going to show up at a boxing gym and photograph boxers for four hours, you want to give them some compensation before you leave, because you’ve been making use of the facility. If you travel around the world and photograph, you should have a good sense of when it’s appropriate to pay somebody for what you’re doing, and when it’s not.”

Havana Cuba Skyline Malecón Fishermen by Atomazul

“If you are going to shoot something professionally, and you’re getting press credentials, at that point there might be location fees you have to pay,” Hugo continues. “If you’re out on the street filming or getting b-roll, generally there aren’t location fees for that. When you submit your proposal, you list where you’ll be filming. Then, if you’re inside buildings, you work out arrangements with whoever oversees that building or facility. Largely, anything is possible, but as much preparation and organization as you can do beforehand will definitely help you out. I think people run into problems when they think they can get on a flight to Cuba, get a couple of backpacks and DSLRs, and have no problem. Then they show up and someone might say to them, ‘You don’t have press credentials. You don’t have clearance.’ If you want to do an interview or if you want to film on location, a lot of people now will ask you for your paperwork. Either you show your press credentials or you show a letter saying that your project has been approved. If you don’t have either of those things, then a lot of people won’t cooperate with you.”
 

It’s Late, But Not Too Late

“This thing of everybody wanting to go before Cuba changes — it’s too late,” says Hugo. “Cuba has changed, and Cuba is changing. That being said, it’s still a very, very interesting place to go, and there’s still a lot to see. I think there would have to be an exponentially higher rate of change for things to change so dramatically that people would miss out on what I’ve come to know of Cuba. If you go ten years from now, it’s going to be a different Cuba than today, but I would say go when you have the time and the money to go.”

Seemingly all the major US-based airlines have now been given final approval for flights to Cuba — including United, American, Southwest, Alaska, Delta, and JetBlue. In fact, JetBlue Airways Flight 387 completed the first commercial flight to Cuba in 50 years last week, so it’s safe to say the floodgates have officially opened. Other major carrier airlines will begin throughout the fall. I know I’m booking my trip soon, before fares increase!

Want to see more inspiring imagery from Havana and beyond? Check out thousands of video clips from Cuba in the full Pond5 collection!

Cuba Video Collection

As a documentary filmmaker, Hugo Perez is the recipient of the Estela Award for Documentary Filmmaking presented by the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. Perez is the producer and director of the feature documentary Neither Memory Nor Magic and Summer Sun Winter Moon, which had a national PBS broadcast. His short film “Betty La Flaca” was the winner of the HBO/NYILFF Short Film Award, and his previous short film “Julieta y Ramon” was broadcast as part of the Showtime Latino Filmmaker Showcase. Perez was the recipient of the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation/Tribeca Film Institute Emerging Artist Fellowship in support of his feature screenplay Immaculate Conception and his film Seed was part of ITVS/PBS’ groundbreaking original online science-fiction series FutureStates. He has studied storytelling with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, collaborated with Pulitzer prize-winning novelist William Kennedy, and served as a guest artist for acclaimed theater director and artist Robert Wilson. He lives and works in Brooklyn.