Fast, Furious, and Delirious in Havana

The Fast and the Furious is a movie juggernaut that will not be stopped. The eighth installment of the series, The Fate of the Furious, finds Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) at the mercy of the psychopathic cyberterrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron) who forces him to go against his crew and aid her in stealing an EMP device. Before this predicament, Dom and his wife Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) are living a calm, low-key existence in Havana, Cuba. Well, except for the occasional high octane drag race.

To celebrate the Blu-ray release of their latest billion-dollar baby, Universal invited Fandango down to Havana to see where the epic street race from the opening of F8 was filmed. We also got to chat up Tyrese Gibson (whom you know and love as Roman Pearce) about the future of the franchise. Havana is certainly a study in contrasts: poverty rubbing up against burgeoning tourism, well maintained buildings leaning against dilapidated structures, and people with little money but plenty of heart.

Universal Pictures and director F. Gary Gray wanted to tap into the best aspects of the city, shooting at varied locations in La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) for the opening sequence where Dom faces off against a local racer named Raldo who is repossessing his cousin’s car due to late payments. Dom challenges Raldo to a race but is pushed into driving his relative’s shabby wheels. Naturally, our hero has a turbo boost up his sleeve, but it threatens to explode the old engine during the fast paced showdown,

TRACING THE RACE

The start of the race takes place at Parque El Curita where many people like to drive around the square and show off their classic American cars such as those seen in the film’s tuner party. The park was shut down for three weeks to prep for shooting the sequence. The crew spruced up the park – empty planters were given plants, park benches were painted – then the crew came in like an “invading army” with people and gear, according to Richard Klein, managing director of McLarty Associates. He is a tour guide and an international security expert who has advised Hollywood studios on foreign relations for a decade through McLarty Media, helping them negotiate political and cultural sensitivities on various productions. The F8 production brought down 200 crew members to Havana and hired 600 more locally. It was the first major studio film shot in Cuba in 60 years.

“Extras casting found every women in a 100-mile radius that was 5’8” or taller who could fit into the shortest shorts you’ve ever seen,” says Klein when we stop off at the park at the beginning of our tour. Even though filming can be laborious and time consuming, “with all the cars and music thumping, it was a party here whether the cameras were rolling or not. It was easy to find the cars. People were proud to show them off.”

Klein says he will never forget the day that Vin Diesel showed up to the set, rolling up in Dom’s cousin’s car. “People are on their balconies and rooftops and they see Vin get out, and it explodes,” recalls Klein. “He’s just waving and blowing kisses, and it’s just overwhelming with the excitement. I think he was actually surprised. He didn’t know what to do. They didn’t know it was going to be Vin Diesel coming. It was totally cool.”

The entire production in Havana took three months for advance prepping. By the end of filming, crew members were invited to the homes of local crew and bonded with their new friends. “People here don’t have a lot, so them bringing you to their homes for dinner, with rations being what they are, that’s a big deal,” notes Klein.

Twelve blocks were shut down for the big race, with crane-mounted cameras on cars racing behind the stunt driven vehicles. “It looked like I Am Legend,” remarks Klein. “That street was nothing but us. You couldn’t close down a street like that in a major city anywhere else.”

A few more blocks were also closed down for the sequence where motorcyclists try to force Dom out of the race. Those parts were shot along a street named Cardenas, where we also stop, with the dome of the newly restored National Capitol Building looming in the background. (Just as there were people on their balconies for Vin, we have a few onlookers checking out what we are doing there.) Klein explains that the motorcycle stunt riders were Cuban while the stunt car drivers, including Vin Diesel’s longtime body double, were American.

SECURING THE STREETS

The third location we visit is the intersection of streets named Vapor and Infanta – the main street Vapor shoots off to the right while the short throughway Principe splinters off to the left. This is the spot where Dom and his rival split apart, with Raldo’s cycle henchman shadowing Dom to take him out of the race. Both streets ultimately intersect with the Malécon, a famous, five-mile strip of boardwalk along the coastline highway, where the race ends.

Here I speak with Paola Helen, a Cuban native and the film’s assistant location manager, about the challenges of closing down a dozen blocks to shoot the race. “It was a lot of people to deal with,” recalls Helen. “They want to be a part of it and want to see it, but they have to be safe first. So you tell them they need to be inside their place.”

Cuban locals were advised to watch from their doorways but not step outside since there would be cars and motorcycles racing by at high speed. Crew members sometimes had to inform people that they could not go to their homes because they were filming. “It took a lot of protocol,” explains Helen. “They got it, but some people needed to get home – they had to work, they have a kid, they needed to pick their son up from school. It’s their home. I think it helped a lot that it was Fast and Furious because people were excited about it. For any other movie, it would have been like, ‘No.’” (Many Cubans are very aware of the Fast franchise. While American films do not get released in Cuba, there are no piracy laws preventing bootleg videos from being distributed across the island.)

The fourth and final location on our visit was along the Malécon to the Monument to the Victims of the USS Maine, whose sinking in the Havana Harbor was the precursor to the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule. “After the [Cuban] Revolution, it was remade into a memorial to the victims of imperialism,” says Klein. “This is the whole U.S.-Cuba history and relationship right there.”

The statue had a big eagle its wings spread seated atop the monument, but it was dislodged during a hurricane. Klein says that someone then took the head of the eagle and threw it over the fence of the nearby U.S. Embassy; the current ambassador still has it. With the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations in recent years, the monument has been restored to its original purpose.

It is by this monument that Dom, despite being victorious in the race, has to jump out of his cousin’s now fire-consumed car, which flies over the side of road and into the sea. “The majority of our time was spent along the Malécon because that had the big crash at the end,” says Klein. “It took days to rig that.” Considering how movie-related supplies would be unavailable in Cuba, the production team brought everything they needed, from orange traffic cones to generators, which they stored on a nearby barge.

Klein recalls when pilot Frédéric North flew above the action. The presence of a helicopter was disarming to residents. “We were here for a couple of days, and there were people who have lived here their entire lives and never seen a helicopter flying over the city,” he notes. “People came out on their roofs and balconies to watch this American helicopter with a camera flying 20 feet off the ground. Fred is a fantastic pilot and was having a ball. The fact he could fly that low, right on top of the cars, the sea, and the extras – I’ve never seen aerial photography done that way.”

TALKING WITH TYRESE

The next day I sit down with Tyrese Gibson in a plush, comfortable room on the top floor of the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, the first five-star hotel in Cuban history. Gibson is serious and thoughtful, a contrast to the wise-talking bravado of his onscreen alter ego Roman Pearce. “I like being funny, man, but every day I’m just so intense and serious,” he admits. “When I do the movie, they want me to do what I do with the humor. I guess I’m Kevin Hart in this franchise.”

He emphasizes that despite understanding the continued success of the franchise, he and his co-stars are still humbled by the loyalty of their fans and the fact that they keep coming to see the movies. “I just hope we keep going to places and highlighting cultures, traditions, and countries that most people will probably never find themselves wanting to shoot in,” says Gibson. “As much as we were the first [major] movie to shoot here in 60 years, we realized quickly how much more we did for Cuba and the people of Cuba as far as their confidence and putting Cuba back on the map. We haven’t seen Cuba in this capacity in 50 or 60 years. First it was about us, then it quickly became all about them and the fact that we brought all these jobs here. People could feed their families.”

Obviously the world of Fast and the Furious resonates with fans on different levels – the sense of family loyalty, the excitement of fast, customized cars tearing things up onscreen, and the attractive stars. But the thing that Gibson is most proud of with the series is the heterogeneity of the cast.

“It seems that diversity in Hollywood is a new concept that everybody is talking about, but we’ve been singing that song for 16 years,” he says. “It’s really amazing to know that people enjoy this franchise on the level that they do. They relate to it around the world and are not saying, ‘There’s too many black people in the movie, too many Latinos, so let’s not go see it.’ It’s a movie that’s been embraced around the world and created new standards and inspired other franchises and TV shows to diversify because we live in a very different day and age where, whether white, black, gay, or straight, everyone just wants to go to the movies and see TV shows and see someone that they relate to. That’s what it’s about.”

When it comes to the future of his character Roman Pearce, Gibson has love on his mind. “Honestly, man, I think Roman deserves a girl,” the actor declares. “I’m a romantic at heart. It was cool that they had me on the private plane with all the girls, but I think I’m long overdue to get into something romantic. I wouldn’t want it to be anything super serious, but I want to get a shot at a girl and then actually show that I’m nervous. I want to be able to trip and fall and land on the floor and act like I was just dancing poor or something.”

As far as the franchise itself, veteran Fast screenwriter Chris Morgan has joked about a moon racing sequence, but Gibson envisions a very terrestrial and plausible direction that the series could veer in. “We’ve done well with the Latin community – we’ve done Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Brazil,” says the actor. “I think it’s about time we go to Africa. Let’s get some Capetown and Johannesburg in there. We’ve done Europe with 6. We’ve done Abu Dhabi and put the Middle East on the map in the franchise. I think it’s time to take this thing to Africa. That would be exciting.”

(The Fate Of The Furious is available now on Blu-ray and DVD. All on-location photos via Bryan Reesman)


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