[Author’s Note: This 2017 feature was written as a result of a press trip to Cuba with Universal — part of the Syfy family — in support of F8: Fast and Furious 8]
Dom Toretto is back in the car.
Though he intended to enjoy a quiet honeymoon in Cuba, the character played by Vin Diesel in The Fate of the Furious ends up challenged at a tune-up party in the Malecón esplanade in Old Havana. He takes the challenge, and zooms through narrow alleyways and broad streets, speeding in a muscle car through the colonial buildings of Old Havana, and flanked by motorcycles trying to ghost him.
And in the film’s rapid-paced opening sequence, he earns the respect of a local street racer and – this being Fast and Furious, after all – looks after his family.
The Fast and Furious franchise is as known for its exotic locales (e.g., the ultra-modern glass and steel skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi in the previous film) as its insane automotive stunts that would fit right in with the spectacle of a superhero or James Bond movie.
But with the eighth installment of the film series – available now on home entertainment – the most impressive stunt is, indeed, the locale. The first major Hollywood production to shoot in Cuba in 60 years, F8 also made movie history — along with $1.2 billion at the box office.
During a recent trip to Cuba to tour F8 filming locations (and just days before President Trump rolled back the Obama-era easement on travel restrictions to the country) it became clear the Fast and Furious franchise was uniquely suited to shoot in a city populated by colorful classic cars.
For those able to own and maintain one, a car is a prized possession among Cubans, and is indeed passed down among families. And those who have a classic car are part of their own unique family. Proud owners beam as bright as the paint on the vehicles as they talk up their rides, and garner respect from peers and pedestrians alike.
At one point I found myself driving past the colonial buildings of Cuba in a 1961 hot pink Ford Fairlane. It is reportedly the only one of the model in the Communist-ruled country, which — if legend is to be believed — was already on a boat to the island nation as the U.S. embargo kicked in. In my broken Spanish, I joke with the owner that he has a bit of a rockstar rep amongst other drivers for his ride, and replies that Dom Toretto would approve.
Still, while a good fit, production was not without its challenges. Namely, nothing of this scale had been done in the country before.
“No one in Cuba had ever experienced something this huge,” said Paola Larramendi, a Cuban resident, and Key Location Manager’s Assistant on The Fate of the Furious — which is something of a fixer and cultural ambassador.
“We shut down 12 blocks for three days, and it is the Malecón, the street that is used for people to go home, go to work, go to school,” she added. “Explaining to people why they could not get home until they got the shot; that was really hard.”
Speaking to Larramendi on an afternoon crowded with bustling traffic of commuter buses, motorcycles, cars, and pedestrians, one gets the sense that shutting down a big chunk of the Malecón would be like plugging a major artery in any city.
“It would be a lot easier if this was a small walk-and-talk movie with two characters on the Malecon on the sunset,” said Richard Klein, managing director with the McLarty Media firm, and International Political Advisor for the film. “This was chases, crashes, explosions … not only was this the first American movie coming here in three generations, it was a big one.”
Klein applauded the “vibrant” film community in Cuba, but admitted that F8 had a whole other set of needs. As such, the production had to bring everything in on a barge from the United States to allow filmmakers to make the film they wanted to.
“We had to bring cameras, lights, traffic cones, stop sign paddles, our own helicopter – everything you could possibly need — and you want to make certain you didn’t leave anything behind.”
“A large amount of Cubans I know had never seen a helicopter before, and not even one with a camera,” Larramendi agreed. “There was an aerial shot, and they wanted the rooftops to be clean of people, but they wanted to see the helicopters, and they didn’t move!”
She also said part of her job was to get the locals to embrace the idea of what they were trying to do, and that also involved discouraging people from stepping out of their house to see Vin Diesel driving by at 100 mph, thus blowing a take — and risking their own safety.
Oh yeah, and the movie had to bring Diesel into Cuba.
Speaking with Klein on the streets of Old Havana – surrounded by buildings at least half a century old, flanked by a mural of a Cuban flag and the infamous Che Guevara image, with the dome of El Capitolio behind us – he told me there wasn’t a political problem in setting up production. Instead, the Cuban government was receptive, and he said traditionally it has been the American side that would have blocked a project such as this.
However, in his first meeting with the government, Klein said an official appeared noncommittal – until he went home, had dinner with his family, and mentioned off-handedly about an American production called Fast and Furious.
“His kids went off like pinball machines,” said Klein.
While American movies are not legally distributed in Cuba, they are still seen. People purchase the paquete semanal, or “weekly package,” which is a hard drive with a terabyte of movies and television shows from America, and around the world.
And the Fast and Furious films are a hit in a country with an impassioned car culture. (There were about three times while I was in Cuba that a local fan showed me their downloaded copy of a cell phone.)
Said Larramendi, “People in Cuba know the film, and love the franchise.” Plus, “There’s a lot of family feeling, and that’s something that matters for us.”
So the reaction of a government official’s kids paled in comparison to when Vin Diesel arrived on set.
“People knew a movie was coming, and this was not a normal day in Havana with the streets closed, and trucks coming in from all over the place,” he said. “Then Vin pulls up, and gets out of his car, and the neighborhood explodes – even people watching from their windows, balconies, and rooftops went wild.”
“It was like Mick Jagger came to the edge of the stage, and started playing ‘Start Me Up’,” said Klein.
And while Klein and Larramendi are proud of the massive accomplishment of bringing a major Hollywood tentpole to Havana, it may be a one-time performance considering re-instated restrictions.
Even still, Cuba will remain the latest sibling city in the Fast and Furious family.
The Fate of the Furious is now available from Universal Home Entertainment on Digital HD, 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD and On Demand.