Una Noche: from Havana to New York, an interview with director Lucy Mulloy

Last Sunday, as I passed by Lincoln Plaza Cinemas (West Side Manhattan’s Mecca for independent, foreign language, and Woody Allen films), I ran into a young woman frantically taping a poster of the film Una Noche onto a light pole. Odd behavior, I thought: A film with good reviews and playing at a nearby cinema. I mean, you don’t see Woody Allen frantically hanging posters of Blue Jasmine on parking meters. I thought: Who is this woman engaging in promotional guerilla marketing on the corner of 62 Street and Broadway? I was reminded of my Off-Off-Broadway theater days when we would plaster posters of our latest no-budget play anywhere we could find a surface that packing tape would stick to.  As I read the poster, she looked up from her taping job and said: “You should go see it, it starts in twenty minutes.” So, I asked: “How are you associated with the film?”  With a roll of packing tape in one hand, and brushing a strand of hair with the other, she said “I’m the director” in a tone that sounded more like “I’m the summer intern.”
This fresh, enthusiastic new director, Lucy Mulloy, with her soft British accent and unassuming demeanor, seemed so authentic and proud of her work; her humble suggestion that I should go watch her film won me over and nearly convinced me to go buy a ticket, despite the fact that I was sweaty from running, hungry from having skipped lunch, and had my own project to work on. “I can’t make it, but I promise to check it out,” I told her.  I walked on thinking, I wonder if it’s really any good? 

I didn’t make it to the theater; but rather, in order to save time, I rented Una Nocheon iTunes. To have a proper movie experience, I shut off my phone (no IMDb-ing or texting, Tweeting or Instagram-ing) and turned off the lights.  After the movie was over, I realized I had made a big mistake. This little independent film, with a first-time director, and with non-professional actors, surprised me, transported me, and treated me to moments of visual poetry.  Beyond an engaging story and articulate script, it’s through its cinematography and bold  direction (Mulloy makes some strong choices) that Una Noche effectively captures the universally shared experiences of youthful, sexual energy; the sounds and music of Havana’s streets; the daily tensions and pain of life in Cuba—all of which beg to be appreciated on the big screen (even the limited bigness of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas’ screens). Una Noche is a strong directorial debut for Mulloy, who presents a story about oppressed people whose lives are so desperate that they will leave everything behind in order to escape to a better life in Miami.  Mulloy shows us the desperation of the people and their injustice in Havana without being didactic or angry; their oppression is the diegesis, the reality of daily life in Cuba, the world they inhabit; oftentimes it’s cruel and sometimes it’s quite beautiful (a man singing on the street, decaying buildings with tropical color, and many Cuban faces).  I realize now that I was fortunate to catch Ms. Mulloy in the act of “vandalizing” the streets with her movie posters, I’m certain she won’t be passing out postcards and hanging posters on her own for much longer.

Lucy Mullow on the set in Havana


Before Ms. Mulloy returned to her mission of blasting street posters, I had the foresight to get her contact info, just in case she might be kind enough to answer a few simple questions about her film. Ms. Mulloy was more than kind; she was extremely generous with her insightful answers as she talks about the challenges of shooting on film (rather than digital) in Cuba, the essential character of Havana, and of course her inspirations.  

West:    There’s a line in the movie, “I was more comfortable watching people than talking to them.”  As a director and a writer, I’m sure you watch people; you spent a year in Havana observing people, how does this line relate?
Mulloy:  I was always a bit shy so maybe it does relate to me, but this was subconscious because I was really thinking about the character, Lila when I wrote the line. She says it before she meets Raul for the first time. I wanted to take the audience a bit deeper into her personal psyche, how despite her hostility towards Raul she’s just covering up her real interest in him.
West:    One of the film’s strength is its strong imagery. There are brief moments of visual poetry. What influences your visual aesthetic?
Mulloy:   My primary inspiration was the city itself. There is so much to draw from and always something unique happening. City life in Havana is a visual tapestry, anywhere you look at any time, night or day, you will find a story, whether it’s in a kid playing alone or an elderly woman watching lovers meet or cats fighting. Havana is always active and that was my main inspiration. Each moment is so specific, subtle and unique that it can hardly be replicated or acted. That is why I used documentary footage and why this movie had to be shot in Cuba. It is also why Havana is arguably the most important characters in Una Noche.
West:     I watched Una Noche on iTunes and I ultimately regret that choice; I feel that I missed out on experiencing the beauty of film’s powerful cinematography. This is an experience that we can only have in a dark theater, full of people, where we can be totally immersed in the film’s world. How do you feel about Una Nochebeing simultaneously shown on VOD while it’s currently in theaters (where it should be seen)?
Mulloy:     We shot the movie on 35mm film. That was a choice that I had to fight for. I love the way that film looks. It is much more costly than shooting digital. We had support from Kodak and Arri, who lent us cameras, but we had to bring well over one hundred heavy cans of film to Cuba and over a literal ton of camera equipment, multiple times. We used short ends and many different stocks, for someone who is reading this, who does not know about film stock, it was hard to match and have all the scenes seem seamless because each film stock has a very different look. It was an obvious choice to me to make the best possible film, but it was a lot of sacrifice pulling it off. Film has a magic about it that can surprise you. We shot in Cuba, where there is no laboratory to develop the film stock. We had to ship it back to Toronto and we would only see it, at best, a week after shooting each batch. Film has a quality that is very hard to replicate, if not impossible, in digital. Digital has its place and suits certain films if you are going for that look, but I really felt that Havana deserved to be shot on film.
We also spent a long time working on the sound design and I was extremely lucky to work with the amazing Lezlie Shatz, in LA and Roland Vajs who designed the sound. It is clearly better to hear the movie in a cinema with 5.1 surround sound as it was designed to be heard. I made trips back to Cuba just to collect ambient sounds to create the layers that you hear in the background so yes… I would much rather people saw it in the cinema. But, to be perfectly honest it makes me very happy that they are watching anywhere! The story and characters are the main thing and the other elements are details that enrich the movie for an obsessed director like myself, but you can get the essence and enjoy the ride on your laptop or phone!
West:     After watching the film, I felt like I been in Havana. You’ve effectively captured the liveliness on the streets, stress of life, and youthful sexual energy. I’m reminded of City of God (one of my favorites). Who and what has influenced you? Why did you choose this story? 
Mulloy:     I wanted to tell a Cuban story that young people in Havana would want to watch. I also wanted to tell a story that I would want to watch.  I went about trying to incorporate all the elements that I would want to see, that also reflected the life around me that I witnessing. I was making the film for the kids in the film. I wanted it to move and to grip them, to keep their attention and to seduce them. My main intention is that the characters should feel real and that the audience should empathize with them and relate to them, without judging them, rather, feeling and understanding their choices.
I was inspired to make a story about these kids who could not see themselves on the big screen, talking in their language, with their slang, living in their homes. It seems unfair to ignore such amazing stories of bravery, love and emotion. Everyone wants to relate and see a movie that represents themselves and that just does not exist in Cuba. That was essentially why I made Una Noche.

Final Thoughts
Five days later after watching Una Noche on iTunes, I returned to Lincoln Plaza Cinemas to give the film the Big Screen vs. VOD test. When I arrived at the theater, no surprise, Mulloy and crew were in front of the box office passing out postcards. She was there for a Q & A following the screening (a brave undertaking considering the cantankerously aggressive patrons of Lincoln Plaza Cinemas). As expected Una Noche was a better experience in the dark theater with an audience. Mulloy’s 35mm film looked rich, adequately deep, and alive on the Big(ish) Screen. However, following my VOD viewing five days earlier, the story and the characters had stayed with me through the week. That’s the sign of good writing and directing. I’m handing out my own (virtual) postcard. Go see Una Noche in the theater.
–John David West

  WEBSITE: www.moviefiednyc.com
Twitter: @moviefiednyc
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