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Hollywood Rediscovers Cuba: Is It Too Soon To Call It Havanawood?

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We all know about the lumbering, old American cars on the roads in Cuba. But right now, it's very fast cars and motorcycles getting the attention. The latest installment of the enormously successful Fast and Furious franchise is shooting in Havana.

Fast and Furious 8 is the second U.S. movie, and the first big-budget Hollywood film, to be shot in Cuba as relations between the two countries improve, easing tensions that date back to the 1959 Cuban Revolution.

American filmmakers are eager to take advantage of the island's distinctive look and feel and its cheap labor.

On a recent day of shooting, crowds gathered on on street to watch the kind of American production they'd never seen. Camera operators were flying on a helicopter while motorcycles and classic American cars screeched past past the capitol building in Havana.

"We're at a place that nobody ever thought would be possible. We are in Havana, Cuba. And you can see how beautiful it is with all these beautiful people," the movie's star, Vin Diesel, says in a You Tube greeting while on location.

The production brought in big Hollywood trucks, cranes, cameras and lights. And they hired Cubans like Alexis Alvarez.

"I thought that Hollywood was some sort of monster," says Alravez, an assistant art director. But he says the shoot has been incredible, and that he's been treated with great respect.

And the pay is good by Cuban standards — double or triple what he might make on a local production. The films he usually works on have such limited resources, he ends up having to sweep the floor and paint the walls himself.

This kind of Hollywood work is a brand new opportunity for Cubans and Americans. Until recently, the island was off limits and other locations had to stand-in for Cuba.

Over the years, James Bond's adventures in Cuba were shot in Puerto Rico and Spain. The Godfather, Part II was filmed in the Dominican Republic. So was director Sydney Pollack's 1990 film Havana, starring Robert Redford.

Cuban filmmaker Manuel Perez Paredes, who's 76, recalls what a difficult time all the American filmmakers had for decades.

"They couldn't film here and Cuba couldn't buy the American films to show here," he says.

But that didn't stop pirated movies and TV shows from getting to Cuba. Thanks to the black market, Cubans have been able to watch all kinds of American films, TV shows and music. They get it in "la paquete semenal" -- or the weekly package — of illegally downloaded entertainment in the form of a hard drive.

"We get films from everywhere," says Perez, adding that he would like to see more American filmmakers to Cuba.

Fast And Furious 8 is the biggest by far, but not the first American feature film shot here since the 1959 revolution. That would be the recently released Papa: Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, which has been widely panned.

American director Bob Yari it took two years of lobbying to overcome red tape with the U.S. Treasury Department before he could shoot on location.

"We had to pretty much convince them that, like a documentary, our film was a docudrama about actual events happening in actual locations and preserving that history," Yari says. "And that's what finally got them to reverse their initial denial."

There was red tape on the Cuban side, too, he says.

"Obviously, you have to submit your script. It has to be approved. Getting access to those locations was not easy," he notes. "But they were very cooperative. And one of the things I have to say that they didn't do, which was wonderful, was censor in any way shape or form, our story."

Yari says there were other challenges. The U.S. limited the amount of equipment they could ship to Cuba, and it was hard to get money to the island. There were no film catering companies, and they had to create their own makeup and wardrobe trailers.

But Yari says Cuba did allow them to film at Hemingway's home — which is now a popular museum. The Cuban government also lent military weapons for some scenes. Yari says he was impressed by the Cubans he worked with.

"They're very skilled at what they do. they have a terrific crew base down there, and I look forward to watching them make bigger and better movies," he says.

With Hollywood coming to Cuba these days, some are starting to call it Havanawood.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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