Director Bob Yari on 'Papa: Hemingway in Cuba' (INTERVIEW)

The new movie, the first shot on location in Cuba since 1959, reveals a side of Hemingway not often explored.
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The new movie, the first shot on location in Cuba since 1959, reveals a side of Hemingway not often explored.
Adrian Sparks and Joely Richardson in Papa Hemingway in Cuba Courtesy Yari Film Group

Adrian Sparks as Ernest Hemingway and Joely Richardson as his wife Mary in Papa: Hemingway in Cuba. (Photo: Courtesy Yari Film Group)

Bob Yari’s Papa: Hemingway in Cuba, portrays Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) through the eyes of Denne Bart Petitclerc (1929-2006), in real life a reporter for the Miami Herald when he interviewed Hemingway in Cuba in 1954. At the time, the author was living at his winter residence, Finca Vigía (Lookout Farm), a banana plantation he and his former wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, had first leased in 1940. Petitclerc, in his twenties when he first met Hemingway, remained close to his idol, later becoming a neighbor in Ketchum, Idaho. He went on to author three books, and several teleplays and screenplays, including this one, based on their friendship. 

The first movie to be filmed on location in Cuba since 1959, Papa is photographed in vibrant color, and is replete with historical locations. In April, Yari took time to speak with Biography.com about a movie that for him reveals a side of Hemingway not often explored, except in documentary. “I really wanted to show Hemingway’s true self, something that I don’t think we’ve seen before, which is the darkness he struggled with,” he says, “and the mental illness that ran in his family, depression and possibly bipolar disease. There were nine suicides in his family, including his father’s.” 

Hemingway (Adrian Sparks) lived and wrote in Cuba on and off until 1960, and then, in failing health, returned to the United States. He received shock treatments for depression, and afterward committed suicide at his Idaho home in 1991. He is seen in Papa from the perspective of Ed Myers (Giovanni Ribisi), Petitclerc’s doppelgänger, who like Hemingway had been a war correspondent, and had felt the sting of emotional abandonment from his father. (Myers is the maiden name of Petitclerc’s mother.) The curious sobriquet of “papa,” one that Hemingway encourages Myers to use in the film, had definite psychological overtones in real life. Hadley, his first wife, once told an interviewer that Hemingway liked it because it conferred on him the status of patriarch in the lives of his friends. 

Papa begins with Myers as a 4-year-old at the height of the Great Depression. His father leaves him at a toy store, and authorities later take the boy to an orphanage. In real life, Petitclerc’s distraught mother gave up her children. “When I first read the script, I thought it had this great character arc in which Petitclerc, or Myers, resolves his fear of allowing himself to love,” Yari says, “a result of that childhood abandonment.” After the opening scene, the film fast forwards to an adult Myers, working at the Miami Globe, a man who has trouble making an emotional commitment to his girlfriend Debbie (Minka Kelly). 

Myers is fretting over the letter he has written to Hemingway, the author who inspired his career. It is Debbie who finally mails it. Hemingway answers the letter with a phone call, and invites Myers to go fishing in the Bay of Cojimar where, he often confessed, he learned to love the sea. “It is not hard to immerse yourself in that era in Cuba because it is almost as if time stopped there,” Yari says. “The cars are mostly American and from the 1950s, and of course we filmed in Finca Vigía, preserved as a museum, and the places Hemingway frequented that are so iconic, including the Malecón and El Morro.” (Yari refers here to Havana’s coastal road, completed in 1952, and to its fortress built in 1589.)

Giovanni Ribisi in Papa Hemingway in Cuba Photo Courtesy Yari Film Group

Giovanni Ribisi plays Ed Myers, a reporter who befriends Ernest Hemngway, in Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (Photo: Courtesy Yari Film Group)

Cojimar is also the name of the fishing village where Hemingway docked his boat, the Pilar. Finding it beyond repair, the filmmakers searched for a similar craft, and then fashioned it as an exact replica. Yari’s attention to historical detail included shooting at Floridita, the Havana club where Hemingway’s bar stool was always reserved. Filming on-location had a profound effect on Sparks’s performance. “I remember Adrian standing in exactly the spot in the bedroom that Hemingway used to stand while he was writing,” the director says, adding that the museum let Sparks use Hemingway’s typewriter. “He came to me later and said: ‘That is when I stopped acting and starting channeling Hemingway.’”  

Floridita in Havana Photo By Hmaglione10 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The exterior of Floridita, the Havana club where Hemingway’s bar stool was always reserved. (Photo: By Hmaglione10 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Papa does not shy away from portraying Hemingway’s persistent need to prove his masculinity. The thorny issue of his appalling attitude toward women in general, and in particular in this film toward his wife Mary (Joely Richardson), is apparent, although Petitclerc unfairly blames her for that abuse. Robert Manning, who also interviewed Hemingway in 1954 (for The Atlantic), wrote that Mary was a “bright, generous, and energetic woman” who “cared for him well,” an opinion shared by others who knew the couple the last years of Hemingway’s life. Philip Kaufman’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012) traverses similar territory. Gellhorn, a brilliant writer, left Hemingway after she realized that he was undermining her.

Yari sidesteps the question of Hemingway’s relationships with women. “The image that he portrayed as a macho guy was largely a facade that he created very deliberately,” he says. “I believe that he probably had some issues with masculinity, yet he’s such an iconic character.” 

The director hopes that audiences for the film are left with the impression of having watched an archetypal story. “To find all of these issues in him that so many of us face all the time, that Hemingway was not infallible, is just a fascinating story.” Certainly Papa is required viewing for Hemingway fans who will undoubtedly appreciate a new wrinkle in his legacy, in the scene in which the FBI board the Pilar to search for guns. Petitclerc claims Hemingway was gun-running for Castro’s rebels.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba opens in theaters today.