F. Gary Gray on Filming in Havana for ‘The Fate of the Furious’

HAVANA, April 21th (nytimes) Yes, the makers of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise have staged countless car races throughout the years. But the one that opens the latest film, “The Fate of the Furious,” is more historic than the others.

It’s the first Hollywood movie sequence shot in Cuba since the United States economic embargo was imposed more than 50 years ago. And the scene is as complicated as any other from the franchise. It features Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) in a rusted-out 1950 Chevrolet Fleetline, and his competitor Raldo (Celestino Cornielle) in a 1956 Ford Fairlane, weaving their way through the streets of Havana.

“You’ve never been to Cuba in the way that we take you to Cuba,” said the film’s director, F. Gary Gray. In an interview in New York, he discussed how he won approval to shoot there, what it took to bring in an American helicopter for aerial shots and the process of making a Hollywood movie in a country with limited resources. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
How did you decide to shoot in Havana?

There’s a natural line you can draw from Cuba to Dom Toretto, just in terms of the Cuban car culture. There, it’s just the basics: engines, motors and old-school creativity, which is how Dom operates as well. You don’t see him racing Ferraris or the newest Porsche.

How did the initial conversations about this go?

My producing team was very smart about how we approached it and was negotiating with Washington on every level, from equipment down to the caterer. We’re representing the U.S. when we leave the country, and you could very easily cause an international incident if you make the wrong turn.

I was happy that they allowed it to happen. But what followed were the challenges of bringing a film of this size into a country that didn’t have the infrastructure to support it.

Could you tell me about the preproduction process?

Fast and the Furious,F. Gary Gray,Filming,Havana,Vin Diesel,Cuba,Michelle Rodriguez

Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel in “The Fate of the Furious.” Credit Matt Kennedy/Universal Pictures

I had to give, in advance, details of every shot, every angle and every road we were going to shoot on. But they were very nice. We were in and out of Cuba quite a bit during preproduction, and you could see the improvements happening in between. One month, a location would look a certain way, and we would come back the next month, and the roads would be paved.

Where did you house the crew?

We tossed around ideas, like bringing in a cruise ship. But we booked every hotel room available in and around Havana. We rented homes and apartments and really had to be creative.

Tell me about a logistical challenge you faced during the shoot.

There are so many fans of the franchise in Cuba. We had to hire 100 locals to lock down a 20-block straightaway, because there were over 10,000 people watching us shoot. That’s phenomenal energy that you can feed off of to create, but there’s also safety considerations.

Did you have difficulty with technology?

We had a hard time sending and receiving emails. Cellphone service, calls back and forth to the States, were extremely challenging. Some of the simplest things, we needed a team of scientists to figure out. But I would say what you lose in convenience, you gain in heart and aesthetics.

What’s an example of something that is typically easy to do that you had a hard time with?

Dailies. You have a full day of shooting, and you wouldn’t be able to see what you shot for days and, in some cases, a couple of weeks. When you’re shooting digital footage, the sizes of the files are huge, and they didn’t have the bandwidth to get the images with sound processed and back to us. We would send people to the States to process them and bring them back on a hard drive. It was like sending a carrier pigeon to Florida, and you know how long pigeons take.

Was there something you wanted on set that you couldn’t have?

I wanted to use a drone for the shoot, but they wouldn’t allow us to bring drones in. Yet they did allow me to bring in a helicopter. It was the first American airship to be allowed into Havana.

What was the most memorable moment from the shoot?

We brought in our helicopter with this huge camera on it. It looks like a spaceship to the locals and is flying 50 feet above our heads at top speed, chasing the two cars driving through the streets. I set up this big screen for the locals to see what the helicopter was shooting.

We’re sending the video signal back to this monitor, and they’re watching their city from the sky. A lot of them have never been on a plane. You start seeing tears stream. Then we start to cry, because they’re crying, and it’s this moment you share where you realize how special it is and how much we take for granted.