If you can get there, Cuba is paradise for cash-strapped filmmakers

Director Robert Pietri found the perfect location for his independent film production. It allowed him to shoot at about one-fifth the cost, and the local government was cooperative.

The location: Cuba, the new shoestring-budget cinema paradise. At least it was for Pietri, a 42-year-old New York University instructor who made a feature film in the Communist nation while on a cultural exchange teaching program.

Semper Fidel follows a U.S. Marine investigating the life of his father, a Cuban sports star. Pietri shot the movie from Feb. 22 to March 20 in his spare time. He was able to hire two well-known Cuban actors, Mario Limonta and Blanca Rosa Blanco for about $30 a day. He housed and fed cinematographer Eric Lin, lead actor James Alexandrou of England and Honduran actor Fermin Galeano Gaekel at a hotel in separate rooms for a month at a cost of $1,500. That included a coffee service for late-night meetings. Pietri also procured an old school bus that served as a grip truck/transport vehicle. Grand total: $25,000. And a lot of that went to travel expenses for the non-Cubans.Pietri figures it would have cost him $125,000 to shoot in the States. "We probably wouldn't have made this film yet," Pietri told WalletPop. "We had the opportunity, the open window. This was the only way we could do it."

The biggest behind-camera salary he had to dole out was to a sound technician who demanded $100 a day. "Outrageous," Pietri said, given the local salary standards. But he complied, given that he was paying other crew between $25 and $30 a day.

The project benefited from an apparently tolerant Castro regime. Pietri shot partly guerrilla style on the streets from a 30-page outline. He also made arrangements to film more-rehearsed scenes in a major museum and jazz club. The only time the crew grew tense was when the production got too close to government buildings, he said. Otherwise,
Pietri felt he operated enough under the radar to avoid the prying eyes of officials.

"If they were present I never knew about them," he said. "I wondered if someone on the crew was an agent; I really couldn't tell you."

Now before you quit your day job and buy a round trip to Havana to fulfill your auteur-in-a-forbidden-land fantasy, you should know a few things: An official travel embargo for Americans to Cuba remains in effect. Pietri had clearance through
his university work. (In a more creative effort, Jonathan Hock gained entry into Cuba to film his 2009 documentary The Lost Son of Havana by arranging to be put on the roster of a visiting baseball team.) Pietri also received help through an undisclosed Europe-based organization that made connections for him.

He also isn't finished. Pietri and his collaborator and wife, Tara, have begun post-production at their Brooklyn, N.Y., home while trying to round up additional financing in the hopes of getting Semper Fidel ready for the festival circuit.

Whatever the outcome, Pietri will always have Cuba -- the surprising economical solution for an adventurous indie filmmaker. "It was fun and it gave me energy," he said.
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