This past weekend, the Cuban zombie movie Juan of the Dead played the Miami Film Festival, selling out several screenings at theaters around town. Cuban Art News presents the second installment of our interview with the film’s creators, which took place in Havana before the Miami premieres. In Part 1, the filmmakers talked about making Juan and bringing the film to Miami audiences. Here, writer-director Alejandro Brugués and producer Inti Herrera discuss the film’s technical challenges, genre filmmaking on the island, and what Juan means for Cuban cinema.

Director Alejandro Brugués (right) on location with Alexis Díaz de Villegas, who portrays Juan in Juan of the Dead

In Juan of the Dead there is so much to analyze. On the level of aesthetics and production, there are elements that are more important than the resurgence of the zombie genre, at least in terms of Cuban cinema. The film is an accurate and even decisive step in bringing together the modernization of production, fresh ideas, and promotion needed to succeed in international markets. And in the development of a film genre that has grown in popularity, richness and variety. 

How did you manage to make such an ambitious and complicated film, independently and under real financial constraints?

Brugués: It was not that complicated. The means to make such a production were always on hand. The fact is, we didn´t study how to do things that much. We’d be scouting locations and I’d say, “What if we do this here?” or “What if we do this there?” And the producers told me, “Let´s see if we can.” They never questioned my ideas—they just echaron pa’ lante (pushed ahead). I’d say, “I want the Capitol.” They’d look at me and say, “Well, how is that going to work?” And I’d say, “OK, it’s a little cinematic trick. You take two wide establishing shots, and then shoot the rest elsewhere—it doesn’t matter where, because after the establishing shots, viewers will believe it’s the same setting.”

I thought of a location [that would work], so they asked for permission and they got it. There were always some limitations. For example, in La Rampa we could close only one lane of the street and we could only work there a few hours in the morning. So we decided to create the other lane digitally, deleting the people in the shot and creating both planes at the same time. The cameras were placed facing each other, and later both of them were also erased. So that was accomplished by a little institutional support combined with film tricks.

Herrera: The main thing was to really believe in the project. We knew that the people who promised to help liked the project and saw its possibilities, but they doubted we’d be able to do it. I don´t know if they really believed we would. That happened here in Cuba and abroad. And it was a complicated issue even for us. We spent about four and a half years finding the right way to make it. We knew it involved a co-production and external financing, because here we have a very small market for Cuban cinema. And it called for institutional support here as well.

Despite the mark that recent films like 
Shaun of the Dead have made on the zombie film genre, critics have written that, aside from having its own characteristics, Juan of the Dead has also made contributions to the genre.

Brugués: A zombie movie isn’t sustained by zombies, but by characters. That’s what’s made Juan different. The film’s characters are Cuban, with Cuban characteristics—something that many audiences aren’t used to seeing on screen. So it’s enjoyable to get to know them, to make this journey with them. There are a couple of scenes that haven’t been done before in zombie movies, and some interesting deaths, but overall, I’m playing in the same terrain as all the other zombie-film makers.

As for contributions to the genre, I just made a few—grains of sand, really. I didn’t really want to innovate in this genre because, generally, innovations are not good for it. It’s a genre in which every fan respects the classics. And I wanted to do that too. So I tried to follow the structure of a zombie movie and make it original—make it speak from Cuba.

For a long time people have been talking about major digital effects in Cuban cinema, some more accomplished than others. But the truth is that the industry has acquired some experience in this area. An example of this is Kangamba (by Rogelio Paris, 2008), which was a good step forward. Juan was a great opportunity to further develop this specialty in Cuba, but a Spanish team was chosen for this instead. What prompted that decision?

Brugués: Three things: experience, speed, and co-production. On the issue of co-production, the team had to be Spanish. Anyway, I tell you, in Cuba there is the capacity to create good effects work, but there’s a lack of organization. That is to say, there’s no group here that’s dedicated as a team to turning out special effects on this scale.

If I’m not mistaken, the effects in Kangamba were not made by many people. Let’s see, in the end, Juan’s effects team was made up of almost 40 people. Surprisingly, [Brugués’ first feature film] Personal Belongingshad 30 effects shots. They’re quite simple, but even then we were already doing them. We did some of the same easy little things in Juan: erasing a [sound] boom, removing a reflection, or altering location details to support the art direction. Juan has 250 effects shots. And with the deadline we had for delivering the film, we didn’t have the luxury of being delicate with the effects, which were the bulk of the post-production work. Here, there’s no real sense of organization yet, no real experience with effects work. And even when both these elements are there, one more thing is needed: the ability to meet deadlines. But I hope these conditions come together soon, really, because it’s the kind of thing would make me more comfortable doing effects work here rather than abroad.

What potential does Cuba have for developing this specialty?

Brugués: There are talented people. Most of the machines used for effects work are computers, which you’ll find in the home of anyone engaged in this kind of work. Except for one or two specific things, such as crowd effects, the rest are all things that can be done here. But what happens? There’s no market demand. In other words, those talented people aren’t motivated to organize as a company or group or whatever, since the need for this kind of work is limited. I think that step will come when the filmmakers demand more effects in their own films. I am very pro-digital and I am sure that in any film, with the right tools, there are always details that can be retouched.

Inti: There is talent here, but we lack industrial capacity—the workflow. At one point we insisted on doing it here, but we didn´t win that one. We could show how individuals would work, but taking this to the film industry was more complicated. So when we talk about the co-production, our main contribution was the shooting, because the post-production had to be done in Spain, because of the experience issue.

Makeup and set design were important elements in Juan. How did those teams manage to produce such creditable work in a genre that’s not only demanding, but had never before been done in a Cuban film?

Brugués: All the zombies’ makeup was done by a Mexican team that had previous experience on this type of film. They were joined by a Cuban team, which learned how to do it using the materials the Mexican team brought with them, because there aren’t such things here. The two groups worked well together. There were seven people altogether, whereas normally for a film like this you’d have 20, 30, or 50. In the scenes involving a hundred extras, there were some people who had to be made up at 1 a.m. to film at 12 noon the next day. The knowledge came from Mexico, but there were Cubans who knew how to work with the Mexican materials or with pieces of cotton and paper, and they were able to create a zombie just as credible.

Herrera: The Cuban team knew how to make do with nothing, always figuring out how to survive. They had to find a way to substitute materials. There was a really good interaction between the techology and this other Cuban school, which emerged from the shortage of makeup materials. It’s the opposite of what goes on with digital special effects, which really do have to meet a technological standard. But for makeup, the Cubans were really good at making wounds and scars. And it worked súper bien. In the end, there was a real exchange of techniques and findings.

Brugués: Derubin Jacome was in charge of art direction. He’s a longtime star in this area of Cuban cinema. He lives in Madrid. He’s very experienced and knows what to do. He knows what has to be destroyed, and how to destroy it—he knows that maybe it´s not necessary to do it all, maybe just a bit of destruction will be enough. Our set-dressing team was also very good. They had a truck we call the “garbage truck,” which carried all the things you see on screen. I had a lot of fun with them. We’d arrive at a location and I’d say, “Put this here and there,” “cover all of this part.” So when we arrived at the Capitol I only had to say, “From here to here, destroy it all.” I showed them a lot of zombie movies, apocalyptic stuff, where whole cities were destroyed. That helped us all understand the tricks—to see that it´s not a matter of filling the whole set with debris, but knowing what stuff to fill it with and where. To analyze what’s been done before.

Inti: In a country where social discipline about garbage doesn’t exist, when it came time to getting permits, we had to convince people not to worry, we were going to clean up everything.

Brugués: We never had enough trash—he added jokingly—we had to recycle it.

In the newspaper Juventud Rebelde, a Cuban reader called Juan “one of the most daring films in our cinema.” Must the Cuban cinema be satisfied with minimal stories and little ambition about production, taking into account the usual economic constraints? Or should it more frequently attempt challenges like the ones you faced in this project?

Brugues: It’s not good to limit your thinking with possible shortcomings. In the final analysis, if you limit yourself when you’re writing or thinking about a project, you’ll never find out if it could be bigger or not. Each story asks from you certain things. If you think about doing something in a house with two people, you will not need more. It’s wrong to say “I do a movie in a house with two people because I won’t get the resources to do something bigger.” One cannot be limited at an early stage. In fact, one of the scripts I’m working on now is about two people in a house. Not because I think that I couldn’t get more, but because it’s what the story is asking for.

I didn´t think about doing a big movie: Juan was a big project from the very beginning. You have to let every idea be the way it´s conceived, and not limit yourself beforehand. You shouldn’t, but there are many people here who do.

With digital technology, many Cuban films are pirated even before their release. How did a small production company like yours fight this, given your need to recoup your investment before the film started circulating in this way? 

Herrera: Not making DVD copies—the same thing we did with Personal Belongings.

Brugués: If a buyer is interested in seeing Juan, she or he has to get in touch with our sales agent. He gives you a link and password to view it online. But a DVD of the film has never been made. Even so, the film was shot illegally in a movie theater in Spain. Fortunately, it was the worst movie copy I’ve ever seen.

We can keep the movie unreleased on DVD, and it will remain so for a while longer. But in the end, this kind of pirating will always find a way. In Cuba, it’s how people stay up-to-date about coming films. Unfortunately, especially for the Third World and Spain, where piracy is well established, at the moment it’s a losing battle.

Herrera: Our goal was always to delay, at leat for a while, the copy falling into the pirates’ hands. We did not win the fight.

How have you designed your international distribution strategy?

Herrera: The strategy was focused on different areas, taking into account that we’re not doing this alone. In other words, there’s a co-producer; there’s a sales agent who works hard, and so on. But there was a strategy based on looking for possible distributors to make some pre-sales, etc, etc. By the time the movie took its final form, it was a matter of taking advantage of the buzz it had created among distributors, so we could take things a step further. Especially in the film markets, because the festivals are more focused on making noise in the media.

Generally, Latin American films, Cuban films, which aren’t that well-equipped when it comes to marketing, are bought by distributors who take them straight to video, television, etc.—skipping the theatrical release, which is usually very expensive. One of our first decisions was to declare that anyone who wanted to buy the film had to give it a theatrical release. So it will premiere in theaters in Japan, England, Germany, Poland, and Russia. In Spain, it’s already been released. Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America are also possibilities. All of this lengthens the commercial life of the film, because it goes through different distribution cycles, each one generating a bit more buzz, criticism, and press coverage—that is, if it’s well received…

Cuban filmmakers are making real progress with genre films. In addition to the films of Jorge Molina [who plays Lázaro in the film], we can also mention Omerta by Pavel Giroud, Juan, and other upcoming titles in production or soon to be released. What do you think is the main reason for this, in a country where the auteur film has always prevailed? 

Brugués: It has to do with the kind of movie you’re used to watching. The traditional Cuban auteur film was made by cineastes who grew up under the influence of European directors, so it’s logical that their filmmaking owes a lot to that type of film. That´s not the kind of movie I grew up watching. The world has changed a lot. I remember some American movies when I was a kid, but now there’s a lot more variety, a great explosion [of films]. Influences come from other places, and it makes sense that the filmmakers have other concerns. And if the technological tools at your disposal permit it, it‘s logical to experiment.

Herrera: Also, Cuba is entering into a more diverse, more dynamic course, and it makes sense that films we make resemble each other less.

Brugués: There’s a general tendency in Latin American cinema to give genre films a twist. That’s something I’ve been seeing at all the film festivals I’ve attended. It has to do with my generation, which talks about Star Wars as if it were the Bible. Another key element is the social issues that are addressed in genre films. They don’t push aside the issues that interest us. There are themes and topics in our countries that are permeating our genre films, and that makes for an interesting combination. It’s a way of incorporating the themes that matter to us into a type of movie that’s more accessible for viewers.

For behind-the-scenes photos of the making of Juan of the Dead, visit the Cuban Art News Facebook page. 

Carlos Eduardo Maristany Castro (Havana, 1984). Graduated from the Faculty of Communication, University of Havana. He has also completed professional studies in acting and filmmaking. A member of the Union of Journalists of Cuba (UPEC), he has received several national journalism awards. He belongs to the Hermanos Saiz Association (AHS), which brings together young Cuban artists, and has directed several audiovisual productions.