Featured in the Spring 2017 Issue | View Full Issue
Location manager Eric Hooge goes with the first American studio team ever to shoot in Cuba
by Nancy Mills
The Fast and Furious franchise has shot in some pretty exotic locales. But nothing will top its adventures in Cuba for The Fate of the Furious. Installment No. 8, about what happens when Vin Diesel’s character, Dom, visits family in Havana and gets seduced into criminal activities, opened April 14.
“A lot of independents from other countries go to Cuba, but we were the first American studio ever to shoot there,” says supervising location manager Eric Hooge, LMGI, 44. No wonder he felt like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World.
“(Producer) Michael Fottrell and I were sitting in a bungalow at Universal, just the two of us,” Hooge recalls, “when we got word that the studio wanted to shoot in Cuba. The Furious films are a very international franchise now, and they always want to go somewhere amazing.”
The men, who had worked together on Furious 7, “began digging into it,” Hooge says. “We had to start from scratch because there was nobody to call.”
Back in the fall of 2015, when their research began, the U.S. embargo against Cuba, which had been in effect for more than 50 years, was still in place. “I aligned myself with an advisor, Rich Klein, as I normally do when I go into countries that may need some political navigation,” says Fottrell, who also produced 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious and 2009’s Fast & Furious. “Rich used to work in President Clinton’s administration, but now he’s in private practice.
“He helped me navigate the D.C. waters. He can access information around the world, and he was integral at our end. We had no idea what we were doing, to be honest. Cuba is such a sanctioned place. The embargo is still in place, and it’s technically still illegal to do business in Cuba. But despite those technicalities, you can get permission to do business.”
Fottrell arranged for an OFAC license to do business in Cuba. “We also had to get a BICS license from the Department of Commerce,” he says. “That allows you to export and import all your equipment. Everything you take to Cuba has to be itemized very clearly, especially communication devices.
“I met with Jesse Moore, Associate Director of Public Engagement at the White House, who was basically, President Obama’s aide for the entertainment industry. We needed a lot of support because we had to push this through very quickly and get the license done so we could start shooting in April, before it got too hot.
“We also met with the Cuban Ambassador, José Ramón Cabañas, who resides in the Cuban Embassy in D.C. And we got advice from their state department. The Cuban government has to want you.”
Meanwhile, Hooge focused on the practicalities of working on the island. “I called some small production services that have filmed in Cuba on a limited basis,” he says. “They started vying to get our business because it would be huge.
“We used ITACA Films out of Mexico to interface directly with the Cuban government. On our level, the government entity we directly interfaced with the most was ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry). They would take our requests to different levels within the government.
The ICAIC team worked tirelessly and was the main entity assisting us in gaining our permissions,” Cuban unit location manager Matt Prisk, LMGI adds. “They would attend meetings and deliver the request to upper government offices by hand with officially-stamped letters.”
Luckily for Furious, the political climate was improving for a Cuba shoot. “Obama began to relax relations with Cuba, and Americans were traveling there,” Hooge says. “In November, four of us—Adam McCarthy (Vice President of Physical Production at Universal), production designer Bill Brzeski, Michael and I—decided to go into Cuba on ‘professional research’ visas.
“No airlines were flying from the U.S. at the time, so we got a charter from Florida. A production services company took us around. Bill and I went to look at locations while Adam and Michael went off to look at logistics.”
“We wanted to be sure we could do what we wanted to do and give the director (F. Gary Gray) some choices,” Fottrell explains. “We wanted to shoot Havana for what it is. We also wanted to see the infrastructure and what we’d have to bring in. It was great for the timing of Obama’s agenda. Breaking the embargo was looked on as a good thing.”
That initial trip opened the team’s eyes to dozens of upcoming challenges. “After leaving there, I could tell I was so naïve about the language,” Fortrell says. “A lot of people spoke English but the older regime, which deals with the permits and the bureaucracy of it all, is all Spanish and Russian. I had to put a Spanish-speaking location team in place.” He also decided not to bring in a second unit to shoot the action sequences. “Ninety percent of what we shot was the car race,” he says. “The first unit can be just as good as an action unit, so we brought down an action unit director and shot for seven days. Then we segued to the principal actors.”
On that initial scout, Hooge and Brzeski spent much of their time canvassing for locations for the film’s opening sequence—a major car race through Havana. “We drove around for an hour and then decided to walk the streets,” Hooge says. “We walked for miles and miles every day, just scouting.
“We saw wonderful colors on crumbling buildings. It’s hard for the people to get anything fixed. Their buildings are falling down around them. Some have no running water, so they keep refilling water tanks on the roof. There are no elevators.”
Havana surprised Hooge. “I was expecting a bigger Communist presence,” he says. “I thought there would be armed police or military and that the people would seem a little more depressed. I wouldn’t say they were happy or sad, but they were super-friendly. I was also surprised to see a lot of technology. I think the country was getting the internet from Venezuela. Just about every young person there had a smartphone or an iPad. Relatives that are allowed to go back-and-forth bring in TVs. We were able to get an interesting perspective.”
Brzeski credits the Cuban people with making their work easier. “They were so jazzed to make the movie happen there,” he says. “We would have been lost without them. Local location assistant Paola Larramendi was particularly helpful. She guided us to many of our locations.”
Almost everything was shot outdoors, although Hooge notes, “We got some plate shots based on the interior of a building, but we then shot it onstage.”
During their preliminary visit, they realized that the Cuban government would be closely watching the production. “Everything we said on a phone or typed into an internet browser would be monitored,” Hooge says. “Communication is key to what we do. Being able to talk to the LM on a daily basis and by email is critical.”
And yet, that often didn’t happen. “Without the internet, it’s so hard to send and receive visual material,” says Brzeski, who found service sporadic. “Even our cellphones weren’t working.”
With Cuba being just one of several locations for The Fate of the Furious, Hooge couldn’t spend all his time there. “Once I did the initial scouting and the director was happy, I hired Matt Prisk to go down and be location manager,” he says. “I needed someone who would dig in and be relentless and make it happen. That was an unbelievable task.”
Prisk brought KALM Miguel Tapia out of Atlanta in the beginning of February. “Miguel was a great help, assisting in making the initial permits, additional scouting and setting up our support base camps,” he says. “Then he worked to prepare specific locations.”
Prisk also began hiring and training a bilingual Cuban location team. Then at the beginning of April, KALM Alex Oyarbide, LMGI arrived from Los Angeles. He injected a sense of calm. “If the cellphone didn’t work, it didn’t work,” Oyarbide says. “What can you do? You have to adapt. It was a completely different pace in Cuba. It wasn’t fast or furious.”
“We all spoke Spanish,” Prisk says of his team. “I come from a Mexican-Italian family and was raised in a Spanish-speaking area of California in bilingual schools. At first, my Spanish was a little rusty but it improved rapidly. I made location deals and talked my way out of a few traffic tickets and basically lived a daily life in Cuba for four months. If needed, there were several translators. Miguel’s family is from Puerto Rico, and he was raised bilingual. Alex spoke Spanish fluently in a Cuban dialect from his Cuban-American upbringing, and ALM Alejandro Uriegas’ first language was Spanish, native from Mexico.”
Even if there were no language barrier, moving the unit around the city proved difficult. “The size of our trucks versus the size of their streets was a problem,” Oyarbide says. “The Cuban government wanted us to go from point A to point B by caravan. I don’t think they realized the amount of vehicles we were bringing. Imagine caravanning 30-plus vehicles through these little streets. We wanted to do it in bits and pieces, like we do here in the States.”
“We had to find a way to get things done despite not having the same resources we were used to having,” Prisk says. “This took planning and backup planning. There were no last-minute calls to our favorite vendors, but we created a system that worked for us.
“Time had to be allotted to get things done the most efficient way we could in the moment, and this could make for some long days for us. If the attachment wouldn’t email, then someone would drive a thumb drive over. If the government requested 20 more permit books for the next day and the production printer was broken, we’d find someone in town with a printer and hire them to print and bind books all night. There was no Fed Ex office.”
Instead of sweating, Prisk chose to be an optimist. “There were a lot of unknowns when we started, which made it exciting,” he says. “When Miguel and I got there at the beginning of February, some things were nailed down but we didn’t always have full permission to film.
“Eric and Bill, the production designer, had done a good amount of scouting, but we had more to do in order to put together what the director wanted. We were very scheduled in terms of what we could show. We had police and buses to host our scout. Then we took a big presentation around to different government authorities.”
Furious shot in Cuba between April 21 and May 5, mostly in Havana. “Filming there was incredibly complicated,” Hooge says. “They’d never had a major production come in, so we were inventing the wheel.
“The Cubans didn’t have a permit process. Matt put together from scratch a book as big as a telephone book because of the demands of the government. The simplest little things had to go into the book. They gave us a timeline. ‘If you don’t have this done by this date, you’re not going to have the location.’”
Making sure every government department knew what the others were doing was key. “The government was being very strict,” Hooge says. “It was hard to work with them to invent a permit.
“Once we chose locations, we had to figure out how logistically to keep the thousands of Cubans who wanted to watch from getting hurt. We created a very secure perimeter. Guys on trucks would jump out and put barricades up, and then we’d put a police officer, a PA or a security guard to hold everything down. It was very complicated to put together.”
“The book detailed every single day and every single thing we’d do on that day,” Prisk adds. “Because we were not able to bring all the people from L.A., we hired and trained locals. They learned fast and were really excited to be on the project.
“We were able to hire a security vendor, but some of the things we had to do in Cuba would normally have been done by vendors. We hired location assistants to carry around hair and makeup and all the pop-up tents. We hired others who had trucks. People weren’t familiar with the needs of a large film crew, so it took a lot of time to make sure it went well.
“On some days, we had a couple thousand people on set, when you count the police, the Cuban crew, the U.S. crew and the extras. Part of our prep was getting ready to support that many people. On some days, we had 200 PAs and 160 cops around the areas.”
Hooge moved back-and-forth between Furious locations. “I had Ian MacGregor in Iceland, and I felt very comfortable with him after the initial scouting. I knew he’d get things done while I was bouncing between New York, Cleveland, Atlanta and Cuba.”
The SLM was involved with one sequence shot in the southeastern part of the country. “It’s called Broom of the Witch,” Hooge says. “It’s like the Cuban Keys—a big winding snake from the mainland out to a little resort island. I spent two days doing a second unit plate shot and a helicopter shot of a car driving along this road to the mainland.
“I also came out for a week before shooting to help the location team. I didn’t have to do that, but I was there to be a utility knife.”
That’s how Hooge found himself in charge of handing out water. “Craft Services usually handles water distribution to the crew,” he says. “But our Craft Services person was completely overwhelmed by the size of our crew. We had water stations, but it was hard for the crew to get to them.
“The producers asked us if we could figure it out. I hired three able-bodied kids watching the shoot. We cleaned out trashcans, lined them and put in ice and water, and these kids became our own water boys. They’d go out with water in their hands. There was a shortage of water on the island, so we had to be careful showing how much water we had. We couldn’t flaunt it.”
Hooge’s down-to-earth approach to problem-solving has endeared him to Fottrell. “I used to be a location manager,” the producer says. “That’s why Eric and I get along so well. He is a solid individual and looks out for a movie’s best interests. He’s very calm. When things start to go wrong, he doesn’t get tightly wound and create a lot of drama for unnecessary reasons. He keeps his head down and focuses on the job.
“Eric’s creative. When he reads the script, he doesn’t take it literally. Instead, he comes up with different ideas. ‘Maybe it says “warehouse,” but this other location could be more appealing,’ he might say.”
Before getting into location work, Hooge was a ski racer in Colorado. “The day I was done with my skiing career, I packed up my bags and went to L.A,” he says. “I thought it would be cool to be a stunt guy.
“I took whatever jobs I could as PAs and ended up at a commercial production company. I constantly bugged the crap out of the location manager. Eventually, he made me his assistant and brought me into the Hollywood Teamsters 399 union in 1999. I had been doing nonunion commercials, and then the window opened up for commercials people to join the union. I did a stretch on TV shows and then feature films.”
Brzeski worked with Hooge on Furious 7. “Eric’s team is basically my team too,” he says. “We came up with a strategy to work on the island using the assets of the local crews. We broke down the scenes into different areas of Havana that would represent what was going on in the scene we were going to shoot there. We raced cars all over the city!”
The car factor had a huge influence on local cooperation. “The Cubans’ love of cars is something I have never found anywhere else in the world,” Brzeski says. “They truly love our classic cars. It has become an obsession with them. Our movie’s roots are about cars and racing, and the Cuban people love that in their souls.”
The production team brought the hero car with them and used local cars as background. “We put out a general casting call across the island for cars,” Brzeski says. “We also held a party to find the best clubs in town for basic classic cars.
“We were very much involved in picking the color palette for each scene so we would not have repeats or all one color. We hired a Cuban car coordinator to help manage all this. The first day of shooting, I remember how many people showed up with each car to show them off. Entire families would come all packed into the car, and it turned into a large street party with music and food.”
Filming the car race took nearly a week. “Most of the Cuban part of the script is based on this particular race,” Prisk says. The company zeroed in on the Malecón, Havana’s main thoroughfare. The road itself is five miles long and hugs the Havana coast. Locals and tourists like to congregate on its esplanade. Getting approval and then preparing the location was one of the production’s great coups.
Wanting access and getting access were two different things. “The government kept saying ‘NO. It would cause too much chaos in the city,’” Hooge says. “We needed a mile-and-a-half lockup in the middle of Havana for the car chase. It would be like closing off a mile and a half of Wilshire Boulevard.
“Although it’s more efficient to get the whole thing, we thought we’d only get bits and pieces of it. I’ve never seen a lockup that long. It was the equivalent of 28 city blocks, and we had to lock up all the side streets. This was in the middle of Havana, and we needed it for three days.”
It was a big ask, but ultimately, they got a yes from an official known only as Leonardo, who was in charge of the Cuban National Police. “Leonardo was the guy who made things happen,” Hooge says. “He was the guy you didn’t mess with. He was a tough, machismo guy. When people saw him coming, they either obeyed or else.
“He was a big deal. He had power, and he wanted you to know he had power. You had to ask for permission.
“Leonardo would say ‘NO,’ and Matt would explain with respect the reasoning behind why we really needed something. Matt developed a really great relationship with him, and he came to trust Matt. Leonardo did us a favor and let us do this big chase sequence on the Malecón.”
Prisk got to know Leonardo fairly well. “My assistants were assigned to different locations,” he says, “but I would open all of the sets with different assistants each day. Leonardo was the constant for me from set to set. Very early in the morning, we would be the only ones out there in the dark setting up the closures. Sometimes he’d be waiting there before I arrived.
“He was very dedicated to making sure everything worked out. Sometimes if I had a request, he would say, ‘Let’s go look at it.’ It was a good feeling having him in the car while I was driving because I knew I wasn’t going to be pulled over.”
One potential problem involved Cuban President Raúl Castro. “Raúl reached out to Karl Lagerfeld to do a Chanel runway event in Havana,” Fottrell says. “They closed a section of the Malecón, and I was worried about how we would work alongside them.
“It was a big challenge for our location team. The event was just one night, and we had to work around their lighting, their stages and their bleachers.”
Out of necessity, the Furious team found another nearby spot to shoot. “On that day, we filmed a lot on Reina Street,” Prisk says, “and it ended up being amazing.”
Flexibility seems to be the key to getting things done in Cuba. “There was no infrastructure in place,” Hooge says. “I never knew how much things would cost: the police, the permits, the road closures. I didn’t know how to budget because I didn’t know how they were coming up with the price. Somehow we ended up being on budget.”
Everything required special attention. Getting a helicopter approved for aerial shots “was a whole to-do,” Hooge says. From Day One, we were told we weren’t going to be able to bring an American helicopter into Cuban airspace, so we weren’t going to be able to use our camera ship to film sequences. They also wouldn’t let us use drones.
“Michael and I talked about how we were going to get around this, and we suggested, ‘Why don’t we put one of your air force people in the helicopter? That way, you’re in control, and you can monitor us.’ After a lot of running around, they finally agreed to put in the head of their air force. That was monumental to us.”
“It’s one of the first times a U.S. helicopter has ever flown in Cuban airspace,” Fottrell adds. “When the President goes to Cuba, they put the helicopter down there just in case he needs to be evacuated. Once they reassemble the rotors, the Cubans only let them turn it on to see if it operates properly, and then they shut it down.”
Hooge remembers the Furious helicopter’s first official appearance. “We locked up the road, and here would come a very sophisticated camera ship, flying in low over the capitol building,” he says. “The Cubans had never seen anything like it. They were crying and cheering.”
The 11 actual filming days of The Fate of the Furious were the culmination of long and arduous planning. The initial scouting effort in November made it clear that anything the cast and crew might need would have to be brought into the country.
“We got a cargo ship,” Hooge says. “We had to build the manifests for the Cubans so they would know what we were bringing and for the U.S. government so they’d know what we were sending. Everything we brought, we had to bring back.
“That was a lot of stress. Departments had to provide detailed manifests. Once that ship sailed, anything that couldn’t go on a flight, we weren’t getting. Every few days, we had a runner coming from the U.S. with things like printer ink. You can’t just go down to the corner store and get paper clips and pens.
“When that ship docked and dropped its gates, it was like the storming of the beaches at Normandy. We had every giant truck you can imagine stuffed with equipment—vans, 53-footers, camera trucks, the personnel vehicle. We brought everything and 300 crew members to go with it.”
Portable bathrooms were also onboard. “Because Cuba doesn’t have the kind of bathrooms we’re used to, we brought some VIP restrooms,” Hooge says, “along with basic Andy Gump portas.”
Toilet paper became an issue. “The Cubans have a hard time getting the simplest things,” Hooge says. “Take paint, for instance. If your house is blue and you need blue paint, they might not have it, so you take red paint because that’s what’s there.
“As Americans, we don’t think about these things. At a restaurant restroom, you sit down and oops, there’s no toilet paper.” Hooge laughs. “You look up on the shelf, and there’s a magazine with pages torn out of it.
“That’s one thing I remembered from our initial scouting experience. Cubans have a hard time getting toilet paper, so we brought pallets of it. But it would disappear. We had to hire people to stand outside the bathrooms and break off pieces for people. Otherwise, it would get stolen.”
Keeping the location crew comfortable and as rested as possible was a prime concern. “We worked six days a week, often 12 to 14 hours a day,” Oyarbide says. “We’d start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m. and sometimes have meetings until 9 p.m., just to get ahead and prep for the next day. I was the only one in my department to stay in a hotel: Memories Miramar Havana. It was easier for me if I had to go down to the office and work late.” Others stayed in Airbnbs.
Housing the entire crew turned out to be a major worry. “Everything was booked because of tourism,” Fottrell says. “We found a small cruise ship that had an infirmary and a kitchen so we could feed the crew. We figured out where it could dock, but as time progressed, the stabilization device went out, which meant the boat had to be dry-docked and would be out of service for three months.
“Then through our travel people, we found 200 rooms that had been booked by a Spanish travel agency. They didn’t put down a deposit, so we cut in line a little bit.”
Finding suitable base camps required diligence. “Our main base camp was at the port,” Prisk says. Parque Marti, an old stadium, was another, and we housed tons of our extras there. The third we called Dragoness because that was the street name.”
Making sure onlookers were safe fell to the location team. “Some of the assistants and I would run up the stairs and tell people to get off rooftops when the helicopter was flying,” Hooge says. “Hundreds would be watching filming. It was something to see.”
“It could be dangerous just standing on the ground,” Prisk says. “Rocks fell from buildings next to me twice. One was the size of a bowling ball. The police said, ‘That’s why we don’t stand in gutters.’
“One night, we were putting some of our base camp stuff back in the fenced area. It was the night before our last shooting day, and a big storm came up. A window and window frame fell and exploded 15 feet from me. Rain was pounding my face, so the person who was helping me said, ‘Let’s go into this building,’ which was a courthouse. Another window started shaking, and a tile fell off the roof and exploded.
“We went into an apartment to wait for the rain to stop, and a bunch of electrical wires were on the wall. I said, ‘This is like one of those movies where someone’s trying to kill me today!’
“But Cuba is probably one of the safest places I’ve ever visited. I think it’s safer than L.A. I never felt I was going to be robbed or someone wanted to hurt me.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for all those who were involved. It was more than just making a movie. It was a team effort between the Cuban government and crew and our U.S. crew to make this all happen. Everyone was very hard-working and dedicated to the project.
“While I was there, the Rolling Stones played and Obama visited. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.”
“That’s for sure!” Brzeski says. “We had so many firsts on this movie—from flying a helicopter down the middle of Havana to closing down entire neighborhoods for shooting.”
Working in Cuba had a major impact on Oyarbide, who was born in the U.S. one month after his mother fled the island. “I have family in Cuba that I’d never met,” he says. “I had my first contact with my sister from my dad’s side while we were shooting. I’d seen her on Facebook, and we’d talked on the phone. It was quite an emotional experience.”
Hooge’s memories are more practical. “I lost 15 pounds during production, and it probably took a year off my life. But it was great!”
CUBA LOCATION TEAM:
Supervising Location Manager:
Eric Hooge, LMGI
Location Manager Cuba:
Matt Prisk, LMGI
Key Assistant Location Managers:
Miguel Tapia, Alex Oyarbide, LMGI
Assistant Location Manager:
Paola Larramendi, Roque Nunez, Ariel Montenegro,
Alvaro Careaga, Liuba Esperon Otero
Magdelin Rojas Rosales,