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How do American programs get footage of Cuba?
August 29, 2012 11:55 AM   Subscribe

Cuba featured heavily in last night's Covert Affairs. How does a film company feature Cuba without hitting the USA's anti-Cuban financial rules?

I know that the actors didn't go to Cuba and that the footage of people in carribean locations was interspersed with footage of Cuba to give the flavour of Cuba without the travel, but...

How does a film / TV studio go about getting the footage in the first place?

By definition, filming in Cuba is going to involve financial transactions with the Cuban government or Cuban system. Using a 3rd party (a Canadian or European) studio to film the footage for you doesn't sound like it would be allowed either.

Is there some sort of allowance for these things, or do studios have to rely on "out-takes from a documentary" or somesuch pretense?
posted by sodium lights the horizon to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Information and informational materials such as books, films, artworks, posters, photographs, tapes, CDs and certain artwork are statutorily exempt from regulation under the embargo and may be transported freely" Cuba information on Travel.State.Gov.
posted by mskyle at 12:05 PM on August 29, 2012


Information and informational materials such as books. . .

That's not going to cut it. We're not talking about moving books or movies in and out of Cuba, we're talking about making a movie in Cuba. Oliver Stone was fined in 2006 for shooting a movie in Cuba. There are companies that exist purely to help foreign production companies shoot in Cuba, but it doesn't look like they work with Americans, just Canadians and Europeans.

My guess? They didn't go to Cuba at all. The footage of "Cuba"? No reason to believe it was actually of Cuba. Hollywood, and especially TV production companies, do this sort of thing all the time. I mean, seriously, Homeland? The award-winning Showtime series set in and around DC? Mostly shot in North Carolina. There was an episode supposed to have been set in Farragut Square which was actually set in some random, much larger park that would be totally impossible in DC. And there's no way anyone on an E-6 salary can afford anything like the Brody's house in the Brody's neighborhood within a few dozen miles of DC.

Oh, and for what it's worth, journalists are generally allowed to travel to Cuba.
posted by valkyryn at 12:19 PM on August 29, 2012


Years ago I worked in the law department of a major multinational insurance company. One of their insureds, a major TV network, wanted to send a team to Cuba to cover the Pan-American Games. We had to go to the Office of Foreign Asset Control to get a waiver to insure their equipment while it was in Cuba. The network had to get one for themselves to send their people and their equipment as well.

It's not something the government is thrilled to do, but it is possible to get a waiver if you have cultural/educational reason to go.
posted by ambrosia at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2012


That's not going to cut it. We're not talking about moving books or movies in and out of Cuba, we're talking about making a movie in Cuba.

It's naive to think a budget conscious USA network program would do anything more than buy some stock footage filmed in Cuba from a stock footage company that is not itself Cuban.

The production company of Covert Affairs would not itself have show a frame in the country nor were they contracting anyone to do it for them. They were simply purchasing already shot film that was owned by a non-Cuban entity.
posted by inturnaround at 12:26 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I mean, seriously, Homeland? The award-winning Showtime series set in and around DC? Mostly shot in North Carolina.

Covert Affairs itself is shot in Toronto. Sometimes they do a really bad job of hiding that fact and do things like film with a Scotiabank in the background. (Plus stuff like it's hard to pass subway systems that aren't Metro off as Metro, which is obvious to anyone who's been to DC. BART actually has the same rolling stock. MARTA would probably look plausible. But not wherever they're filming.) In all likelihood, like valkyryn says, they found some bit of Southern California that vaguely resembles Cuba or vaguely resembles what they think Cuba looks like and shot there.
posted by hoyland at 12:27 PM on August 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's naive to think a budget conscious USA network program would do anything more than buy some stock footage filmed in Cuba from a stock footage company that is not itself Cuban.

Possibly. But knowing what even stock footage costs these days, it'd probably be cheaper to just send a B-camera to some plausible alternative location and shot it themselves.

This is why the History Channel shows tons of stuff about WWII and has a bunch of original programming but does almost nothing between about 1950 and 2000. It's cheaper to shoot an entirely new show than to license footage most of the time.
posted by valkyryn at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Purchasing existing footage of Cuba taken by someone from a country like Canada would probably be allowable without an OFAC license although hiring a 3rd party to shoot new footage (on the assumption they would have to transfer some of the funds to someone in Cuba) would require one.

As the travel.state.gov page shows, there are lots of grounds for getting an OFAC license although it doesn't seem as if there is anything specific on movie making. The real sticking point is that such licenses are purely discretionary on OFAC's part and they can reject a license or simply fail to act on a license request without explanation. It would be quicker and easier to buy/fake such footage in most cases.
posted by tommasz at 12:29 PM on August 29, 2012


It's not something the government is thrilled to do, but it is possible to get a waiver if you have cultural/educational reason to go.

ESPN got a waiver to show a Cuba vs. USA football match a few years ago, where there was obviously no way to work around it. I think it was the first time that I'd seen contemporary footage of Havana on American television outside of news broadcasts.

I'd assume that, as with USA Networks's Royal Pains, they went to Puerto Rico for "Cuba" location footage, and perhaps used some of the same B-roll; for anything that had to include Havana's landmarks, they bought stock footage from a third party.
posted by holgate at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2012


Was going to make tommasz's points.

In most cases you're going to cheat (i.e. fake the scene, not break the law). The James Bond film Die Another Day had a budget of US$140M, but its scenes set in Cuba were all filmed at locations in Spain, or at Pinewood/Aldershot in the UK.

Heck, most TV and movie productions do at least some cheating. How well they perform is largely up to the location scouts. Southern California is chock full of places that routinely ape someplace else. These days, with cheap CGI, even a low-rent series like Monk is able to afford to shoot at a random beach and digitally insert a 10-story hotel.
posted by dhartung at 12:39 PM on August 29, 2012


Plus stuff like it's hard to pass subway systems that aren't Metro off as Metro, which is obvious to anyone who's been to DC.

They're no worse off than anyone else in that regard at least. Metro doesn't cooperate with any movie or TV productions so nobody actually shoots there.

My favorite example of this is the late 80s Kevin Costner thriller, No Way Out (which is a nice little movie, by the way). Costner is being chased around Georgetown on foot by a couple of ominous Men In Black types, and he evades them by ducking into the handy Georgetown Metro station - which doesn't exist. There is no Metro in Georgetown. And when he gets onto the train and leaves the angry Men In Black pounding on the doors, it's obviously not the DC Metro. Even though they really were shooting in DC, they still had to take a day trip and do that scene in the Baltimore subway.
posted by Naberius at 12:47 PM on August 29, 2012


There are parts of Miami that could double for Cuba. Caribbean setting, signs in Spanish, older buildings. Calle Ocho for example, much of Hialeah.

Besides, how much like Cuba does it need to look? Who in the US has been?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:10 PM on August 29, 2012


If we're saying "how was this episode of Covert Affairs made" then I would say, yes, it's entirely possible that the "Cuba" footage was shot in Puerto Rico or Miami; if we're answering the OP's specific question "How does a film / TV studio go about getting the footage [of actual Cuba] in the first place?" then the answer is that it's perfectly legal to buy footage of Cuba and not part of the embargo at all. (You can't *commission* art in Cuba, FWIW - the art has to be made already. So sending a crew out to get specific shots would presumably require a waiver.)
posted by mskyle at 1:25 PM on August 29, 2012


They film it wherever else. It's very easy to pass of almost anywhere for anywhere with the judicious use of art direction, casting, and dialogue.

I used to work on one of the Law & Order series, and we once passed Staten Island off as Somalia. A few weeks later, we went back to Staten Island to shoot "Mexico City". Later the same season, we used Westchester County for North Carolina.

Anytime you're watching an American TV show and there are a few scenes in some far-flung location that is neither Los Angeles nor New York, it's some exterior location in one of those cities carefully doubled for said exotic location.

(With a few notable exceptions, of course -- I once did a few weeks on Treme when they shot chunks of a few episodes in NYC, and Royal Pains has a tradition of spending the first few weeks of shooting in an exotic tropical locale. I think Ugly Betty went to Bermuda at some point, too. But mostly those are specific situations where the logistics make doing so worthwhile.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:39 PM on August 29, 2012


Oh, and to answer the truly specifically specific question for the OP, no, they did not send a film crew to Cuba. At best, they may have purchased some B-roll footage of Cuba and spliced it in as needed. But probably not even that.

Most likely, they found that one street near where they shoot that could maybe pass for Havana with a lot of help. Then they added palm trees, wrought iron in tropical colors, and old cars. They hired a bunch of Latino extras and dressed them in guyaberas. They probably used lighting effects that lent a tropical look, and had the post-production people color correct to the same end. Maybe, if they had a lot of money to blow, they might have done some CGI work in order to splice in a beach off in the distance or footage of some well-known Havana landmark.

Most importantly, the script likely included LOTS of references to Cuba and whatever important info about Cuba they want the viewer to perceive in the scene. They'll completely hit you over the head with it, because if they remind you enough times that what you're looking at is Cuba, you'll suspend your disbelief for the next half-hour or so and let them tell the rest of the story. Which is really the only goal, here.
posted by Sara C. at 1:48 PM on August 29, 2012


I recently worked on HBO's Hemingyway and Gellhorn. We shot that movie entirely in the SF Bay Area. A boys school in San Rafael is not the Spanish countryside. An abandoned church in SOMA is not a bar in Miami. An abandoned train station in Oakland is not a hotel in Spain (nor is it in New York--the same location was used in the filming of RENT). The beach at China Camp is not the beach in Miami. I could keep going.

Film is not real, set dressing is a huge department that can work magic.
posted by mollymayhem at 1:55 PM on August 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hollywood, and especially TV production companies, do this sort of thing all the time.

Generation Kill was filmed in South Africa, Mozambique and Namibia, because they were shooting a war movie during the war. Or at least while people were still shooting people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 2:14 PM on August 29, 2012


Sorry for abandoning my own question - I posted just before I crashed from lack of sleep.

There was footage in there that was indesputably Cuba - I have photos I took of the same locations.

I also know that the actors never went to Cuba. They drove up and down a random tropical coastline a few times then filmed the rest in somewhere unlikely.

My question was more specifically about how they got (and used, and presumably paid for) footage that was definitely of Cuba.
posted by sodium lights the horizon at 2:27 AM on August 30, 2012


There's Stock videography of Cuba available pretty widely. Non-Americans can shoot it, and then sell it to Americans.
posted by grudgebgon at 6:04 AM on August 30, 2012


Well, I did wonder whether or not we were answering your question. The truth is that the answer you say you're looking for is trivial -- Cuba still gets a million and a half tourists every year from countries other than the US despite our US embargo. Only from the Yankee perspective is it isolated -- there are regularly scheduled flights to Havana from Toronto, Montreal, Mexico City, and of course numerous Latin American cities. From anywhere but the US (but especially from Canada), traveling to Cuba is trivial and commonplace. So the actual footage question? All you have to do, as a TV producer, is find a company that already has some.
posted by dhartung at 5:24 PM on August 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


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