Stranger than Fiction: Filmmaker Lucy Mulloy on Cuba, Una Noche and the Character-Driven Drama

WHEN I ATTENDED THE CUBAN PREMIERE of Lucy Mulloy’s much-touted debut film Una Noche last December, a riot nearly broke out in the streets of Havana. One week into the Festival of New Latin American Film, the buzz surrounding Una Noche — a fictional story of three teens attempting to flee Cuba by raft — had built to such a fever pitch that two thousand people had gathered outside the Riviera, a theater seating only one thousand. A half-hour after the scheduled show time, when the line still hadn’t moved and a rumor that all seats had been reserved for dignitaries wound its way through the increasingly agitated crowd, the pushing began in earnest — paunchy young men heaved their bodies against fellow film-goers while older women sucked in their stomachs and hoisted their handbags over their heads in an attempt to slip through some invisible opening. Finally, the police were called in. They extended their arms to create a sort of human tunnel, and reached out their hands to pull people through, offering safe passage one person at a time. In total, including lining-up, pushing-in, viewing, director comments, and pushing-out time, it took almost four hours to see a 90-minute film. 

It was worth every minute.

As evidenced by its abundance of awards — Best New Director, Best Actor, and Best Cinematography at the Tribeca Film Festival; Best Script at the Athens and Brasilia International Film Festivals; and Special Jury Prize at the International Film Festival of India — Una Noche is a film that succeeds on multiple levels. It is an intimate look at the complexities and contradictions of everyday Cuban life as narrated by Lila, whose twin brother Elio has agreed, after much hesitation, to rig a raft to leave Cuba with his friend (and secret love interest) Raúl. Mulloy skillfully covers an astonishing array of tough topics — from tourist privilege, infidelity, and prostitution to gay and transgender issues to disease and desperation, along with, surprisingly enough, hope and humor and sibling love, all set against the hauntingly beautiful backdrop of Havana. With its tightly cropped scenes, its nearly pitch-perfect dialogue delivered by a cast of extremely professional non-professional actors, and its stunt-like camerawork reminiscent of the opening shots of Slumdog Millionaire, Una Noche is a mesmerizing meditation on the dangerous distances people will travel in pursuit of a new life — and a new love.

In a perfectly surreal moment of life imitating art, Javier Núñez Florián and Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, who played the twins Elio and Lila in Una Noche, defected to the US en route to a New York screening of their film in April 2012. Currently the two 21-year-olds, who became a couple during the shooting of Una Noche, live in Las Vegas where Anailín is pregnant with fraternal twins.

Mulloy is the daughter of British animation and live-action filmmakers Phil Mulloy and Vera Neubauer. Before joining the family profession, Mulloy studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford. In 2002, she traveled to Cuba where she was so inspired to cinematically share the stories of those she met that she ultimately enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where her work won her a Student Academy Award and a Spike Lee Production Grant. In February of 2012, Mulloy’s thesis project, Una Noche, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

Una Noche was picked up for distribution by IFC Films this year, and soon after its August and September screenings in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles and its subsequent iTunes release, I caught up with Mulloy. Via a California to New York phone call, we talked about Cuba, taekwondo, early-morning drag queen shows, and the challenges of creating a personal film in a highly-politicized place.


Lea Aschkenas: Coming from a family of filmmakers, did you always know you would make films? 

Lucy Mulloy: It always made a lot of sense to me. I was always very creative and always thought in a visual way, but I was also quite academic and I loved studying, especially political theory and also just thinking about the psychology of society. I was very interested in people in society, and why they did what they did. Political theory was all about that, and I would have so many revelations when I read it, but I couldn’t see myself sitting behind a desk and working in an office. For me, film has been the perfect combination of theory and artistry.

LA: You have said you didn’t go to Cuba planning to make a movie. Why did you decide to go there?

LM: My mom grew up in the Czech Republic, and I’d grown up with her talking to me about her childhood. She’d mainly shared her memories and impressions — nothing explicitly political, but having studied political theory, I was interested in seeing a communist country, and Cuba is one of last remaining ones. I wanted to see a completely different system. After university, I waitressed to save up money, and then I went to Havana in 2002.

LA: How long were you there and what were you doing?

LM: I was in Cuba for just under a year. I rented a small room, and I took Spanish lessons and I studied taekwondo. That would take up about three or four hours each day and then, well, you know, living in Cuba, you spend a lot of time trying to find food and other basic stuff.

LA: Why taekwondo? Lots of people go to study Spanish, like you did, and salsa or percussion and sometimes even Santeria, but taekwondo in Cuba? In your film, Lila does taekwondo. What was the significance for you of having this character do taekwondo?

LM: I enjoyed the sport, and I wanted the lead female character to be able to handle herself. It is empowering to know a martial art and to be able to defend yourself as a man or a woman. In Lila’s case, it was important to me that she was an independent thinker and did not conform. It was part of her strength. Also, it was just a coincidence, but Anailín [the actress who played Lila] did study taekwondo in real life. 

LA: I was wondering, given that, if the character of Lila was at all based on you — how she says in one of her narrated scenes that she’s most comfortable when watching people, sort of like a filmmaker. 

LM: I think probably there’s something of me or people I know in all of the characters. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to empathize with them. I had to be able to understand them. I think that Elio is the most empathetic of the three characters, so that’s why I chose to have his character be gay. I wanted to deal with that with him. 

LA: Was having a gay character something you’d always been interested in doing before Cuba or was it inspired by what you saw there?

LM: It was something I was inspired to explore while I was there because there was so much homophobia in young men. I was just thinking how difficult it would be to be a young gay man in Cuba. I think, though, that this is something else that is changing now with Mariela Castro’s [President Raúl Castro’s daughter] activism [in gay rights issues].

LA: And that scene with Raúl unwittingly hitting on the transvestite — I remember when I lived in Cuba, there would be this little informal transvestite parade every evening in front of the Fiat shop across from the Malecón [Havana’s seawall].

LM: Yes! I spent a lot of time there at 3 a.m. every morning, looking for someone who could look like Lila, whom Raúl had a crush on, so he could channel his desire to this other person. 

LA: And in real life it was actually Javier and Anailín who had the crushes on each other. Can you tell me, as a director, how it was working with actors who became a couple during the making of your film? 

LM: They became a couple just as we started shooting. Javier’s father was diabetic and he had passed away just the week before. Javier was incredibly strong about it, but it was still a very difficult time. So I was happy that he had Anailín then. But, yes, it was strange as a director. There were points when they’d be looking at each other flirtatiously, and I would tell them, “Stop it — you’re supposed to be brother and sister!” 

LA: Are you in touch with Anailín and Javier now? 

LM: I am. I think they’ve just gotten their green cards. They’re doing odd jobs. Anailín is waitressing. Javier texted me very late the other night. I thought — you should be asleep already! I guess it’s that I’ve known them since they were 16, but they are adults now — they’re 21, and they’re in Las Vegas, and I think they’re probably just having fun. I was very shocked when I learned they’d defected. I was planning to see them at the film in New York, but I’m supportive of whatever choices they want to make.

LA: I know you’ve said that when you decided to make a movie about Cuba, you didn’t plan to make a political one, that you wanted it to be character-driven. I am wondering about your experience trying to do this in a place that has been so politicized?

LM: I’ve always felt comfortable talking about relationships and human emotions. I feel more comfortable making a movie about emotions and people than about politics. I don’t like watching movies that tell me what to think in a political sense. I think as a filmmaker, any choices I make are political choices — where I choose to make my movie, what language I choose to make it in. It’s all political, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also focus on character. 

LA: As far as the filmmaking of Una Noche, were there any filmmakers or writers who influenced you during the process?

LM: I was really most influenced by being immersed in the world, so I was not really watching movies at the time I was making mine. I was putting 100% of my energy and focus into the film. In film school, one of our first assignments was to make a short documentary. In mine, I shot an argument that took place one morning between a brother and sister in foster care. I was thinking originally that it would be a straight documentary about the foster care system, but I ended up deciding just to show the two kids’ interactions and leave the rest up to the audience. I did it in a very cinéma vérité way, and this really informed how I wanted to shoot Una Noche.

LA: How so? 

LM: The way of telling a story based on observing people and their behavior, their relationships, their reactions to one another. It was very informative.

LA: In the US, there is not a lot of information on Cuba, and often what’s offered in the media is misinformation. I’m wondering if this put extra pressure on you as a filmmaker. Knowing that there aren’t so many other films out here about Cuba, were you worried that when you made a film about people wanting to leave Cuba, an American audience would assume that this was what all Cubans wanted?

LM: I was just thinking about representing the reality I experienced when I was there. I wasn’t really thinking of an audience outside of Cuba. I was most concerned about the Cuban audience, and I wanted it to be genuine for them. A lot of movies set in other countries are made from the perspective of a foreigner going into that country and meeting someone there. I wanted to tell Una Noche from the perspective of young actors from Cuba. I wanted the audience to travel through this world with Raúl and Lila and Elio. As far as Cubans leaving the country, Cubans have very little information about the outside world. To me, as someone who had traveled since I was young with the countries in Europe all being so close to each other, I didn’t grow up with that notion of being so isolated. I think things are changing in Cuba now with people no longer having to ask permission to travel. But during my time in Cuba, what really struck me was that there was such a sense of mystery regarding the outside world. A lot of Cubans I’ve met are curious about the outside world and have a hunger to travel and see and experience more. That was my predominant experience in meeting young people. I didn’t meet many who said, “I don’t want to travel,” but that is also not synonymous with saying, “I don’t want to come back.”

LA: In Una Noche, during the scene where Lila and Elio and Raúl are on the raft, trying to leave, Lila gets in an argument with Raúl about how she hadn’t wanted to leave Cuba, how she’s just going along for Elio’s sake, and she says something about how at least in Cuba they all have free health care there. I was wondering if this was a conscious decision on your part to let the audience know that the situation in Cuba is complex and even though it’s difficult, not everyone wants to leave.

LM: I did want to show the complexity. Cuba is not what people are used to seeing. I think that Cuba is a very complex place and a very difficult place to understand and a lot of my motivation for making the movie was to try to decipher the complexity for myself.

LA: Do you feel like you achieved this, like you began to understand Cuba better over time?

LM: I think, actually, that the longer you stay in Cuba, the more you don’t understand it — you begin to see more of the contradictions, the double entendres, the hidden agendas. Ironically, the more Spanish I learned, the more I could understand literally, but then I also would begin to see all these layers I hadn’t before, and so I would become even more confused.

LA: When I lived in Cuba, I found it to be very different from how it was portrayed in the US media, but I’m wondering about your experience coming from England where the politics in this regard are very different.

LM: I think that Cuba is often held up as a heroic country in the UK. There’s this sense of mysticism surrounding its socialist values, but the reality of living within that context is very different. A lot of people from the UK romanticize that system. I think the ideals of it are very noble but the implications are very different. A lot of people who visit don’t see that. People go to Cuba for a few weeks vacation and on that very superficial level, things seem quite functional. 

LA: Well, Una Noche definitely goes beyond the superficial in its portrayal of the difficulties of daily life in Cuba, many of which are caused by a shortage of material goods. In constructing the raft, you really show your characters resourcefulness in acquiring supplies. How did the situation in Cuba affect you in making your film? 

LM: A lot went wrong and there were a lot of moments where we had to make last minute changes — locations would fall through. There’d be blackouts. There would be transportation issues and hurricanes. The cabaret scene had to be reshot completely because we planned to use big lights, but there weren’t enough. We tried to do it using only a couple but they kept casting shadows on actors, so we had to create multiple small lights to prevent the shadows.

LA: And what about the politics of shooting in Cuba? Were you at all concerned that you wouldn’t get permission because Una Noche is about people trying to escape Cuba? Did you have to show a script to anyone at any time?

LM: We did show the script to the Cuban Audio Visual Association, and they were the ones who granted us permits to make it, although it was quite a lengthy process. We didn’t use any sets. All the houses we used were actual houses. We’d just go into the neighborhoods and talk to people and ask if we could film there. We went to a lot of locations. I think in total there are over 100 locations in the film. And for some shots, like the chase scene with the police cars, some days we’d use actors and other days we’d just ask police we saw in the street and often they’d agree. So they’d go chase after Raúl for a while, and then they’d say, “Well, okay, now we’ve got to get back to work.” 

LA: Were you surprised that Una Noche got screened in Cuba because it was about such a controversial issue, and then Elio and Lila defected?

LM: I am very glad that the festival showed it. After the cultural ambassador saw the movie in the Berlin Film Festival, he sent out a press release in support of it. We spent over three months trying to talk to the people at ICAIC [the Cuban Film Institute] to see if they would let us screen in Cuban Cinemas [after the film festival], but they denied it. It’s a great shame because the movie was not intended to be a political film, more a true representation of these peoples’ lives in Havana. 

LA: The way you look, you could easily be mistaken for Cuban. Were you ever, and do you think this worked to your advantage in having access to what you needed?

LM: Yes, people did often think I was Cuban. A lot of Cubans have a funny relationship with tourists, so I think it also helped immensely that I had a Cuban crew. If my whole crew had been tourists, I don’t think the film could have been made. But then, maybe if we’d all been Cubans, the same would have been true. Sometimes we had to wait so long for permission that we’d have to start shooting before we got it. We had to do that with the night rafting scene on the water and at one point all these men with guns came out! They thought we were Cubans trying to leave for real. It was quite scary, but we explained the situation, and they let us continue.

LA: At the end of Una Noche, as the closing credits come up, it says, “Inspired by a true story.” Tell me about this and the genesis of the screenplay you ultimately made it into. 

LM: A young boy I met along the Malecón told me about three kids who’d left on a raft at dawn. In this story, there was also a girl who got her period and attracted the sharks, so I began from there. The characters were formed and the relationships forged through my imagination. Location scouting, interviewing people, casting and rehearsing fed into the script as I spoke to more people and heard more stories.

LA: Your film is very unique, but this topic — of people trying to leave Cuba by raft — isn’t. What made you want to try to tell it? Given all the coverage such stories have received, why did you feel it was important for you to tell this story? What did you want to illuminate that other stories hadn’t? 

LM: I was unaware of all the other stories. I wanted to tell a story about people and their relationships. That’s what was interesting to me. I wanted to look into the motivations behind their wanting to leave.

LA: I know you used non-professional actors. How did you make this decision?

LM: At first, I thought I would use professional actors, but I didn’t find what I was looking for. I was looking to represent real people, to show the real life for young Cubans. I think it’s important that people see people who speak and look like them on the screen. As a filmmaker, I think you need to be really aware in this way of who you’re casting.

LA: How did you find your actors, and what was it like to work with non-professional actors?

LM: Anaílin I found on the beach with her family, Raúl at a music school, Javier came in for an audition, but he was so nervous he couldn’t talk at first. I did a lot of acting exercises with them. Javier didn’t have a sister and Anaílin didn’t have a brother, so I’d set up scenarios and I’d have them act them out, get them to be playful around each other. I tried to familiarize them with the ins and outs of movie-shooting: what it feels like to have the camera right there in your face but to not be able to look at it or even acknowledge it. I tried to train them to be able to handle being on set and being with a camera crew and feel confident in that context. I wanted to let them know how good they could be, to give them a sense of ownership and self-esteem with their acting. Javier really came around. He has a particular ability to play a variety of different characters. I would be excited to work with him again.

LA: I know that you’d been planning to make a sequel in Cuba before Javier and Anaílin defected. Do you have another project that you’re working on now?

LM: Yes, and this one is set in Brazil.

LA: So you’ve spent time in Brazil too?

LM: No, not really. But I just went to Brasilia and Rio for film festivals with Una Noche, and a lot of people were talking to me about possibility of shooting there, and it began to make sense to me. My passion at the moment is this new script. I’m in the process of writing it now, and it’s a story I’m really excited to do. It starts in Brazil, and it’s a young man’s journey to find himself, and he has to go to a lot of dark places to do that.

LA: You spent nearly a year in Cuba. Does it feel strange, after having done a film in a place you know so well, to set one somewhere you’re not that familiar with? How will you keep this new film authentic and genuine in the way Una Noche was? Does it feel liberating in that since you don’t know everything so intimately, you can use your imagination more? Or is it limiting because you feel obligated to focus on getting all the details right because you don’t intuitively know them? How do you find a balance between knowledge and imagination in your writing and filmmaking?

LM: I am very excited about the next script. The story is very different and also very personal to the characters. I will be spending some time in Rio to develop it, but again, it is coming from my imagination. I feel like I went through such a steep learning curve making Una Noche that I cannot wait to apply everything that I have learnt to my next project. 

LA: You have really traveled around the world showing Una Noche. I know when I saw it in Cuba, people liked it and it definitely resonated with them, but there was a point in the rafting scene when the sharks come that several people got up and walked out. I’d never seen that happen at a film in Cuba before. I think it was just too close to home in a very traumatic way for those people. I’m wondering about the reaction in Miami.

LM: We had an amazing screening in Miami. There were a lot of people in the audience who could speak Spanish, who really got it and were laughing at a lot of the more subtle moments. But, yes, there were also people who’d had relatives who’d come over this way or who had come over this way themselves, and I do remember during the Q&A session afterwards, someone said, “I can’t take it. It’s just too much.” But in general it’s been pretty astonishing how it’s been received in different countries — in Istanbul or in Italy, people have connected with it. When the medicine cabinet opens [a scene revealing an enormous stash of black market medicine hidden in a bed], when Lila’s kissing the mirror [in anticipation of an encounter with Raúl], those moments seemed to resonate across cultures. That was one of most inspiring things for me to see how they could relate to a story so specific to a place. I realized that in a movie about emotions and people and relationships, context isn’t the most important thing. What’s at stake for the characters is what matters most.


Lucy Mulloy is a screenwriter and film director. Her debut feature film is Una Noche.