Through the Eyes of Zeus: Director Nicholas Brennan on Documenting Cuba's Heavy Metal Scene
Rock n' roll is arguably an international language. A new documentary, Hard Rock Havana, currently in post, went to Cuba, a land not usually associated with face-melting solos, to profile Zeus (homepage in español), the country's longest-running, most popular heavy metal band. No Film School talks to director Nicholas Brennan. Continue on and feel the noize!
Filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, an alumnus of NYU, is currently in post-production on a documentary about Zeus, one of Cuba's most popular heavy metal bands. He sat down with NFS to talk about Cuba, making a documentary in a Communist country, the process of finding financing, and, of course, heavy metal. Check out this trailer for the initial short that got everything started.
NFS: So, first off, how did you become involved with Cuba in the first place?
Nicholas Brennan: I first traveled to Cuba while on a pretty remarkable three-month documentary program with NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Somehow, the US government and Cuban government both allow about a dozen young filmmakers to spend the spring each year in Havana shooting a series of documentaries on daily life in Cuba.
While I was down there, I discovered this crazy heavy metal world -- a scene I'd been a part of while growing up in Maine -- and I knew I had a great story to share. I spent a month following the band and ended up with the short film version of Hard Rock Havana. I brought that back to the US, where it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival before playing festivals around the world.
With the doors that opened through the success of the short, I've pursued the feature film to tell the larger story about Communist Cuba's rock stars. I've now made five production trips to Havana over the past several years and captured 120 hours of footage inside this world on the margins of Cuban society.
NFS: Wow. And how were you introduced to the Cuban metal scene?
NB: I was introduced to the Cuban heavy metal scene through a Cuban filmmaker named Abel Lopez, who is the cinematographer of the film. We studied together during that first trip in Havana. He knew I was into rock music, so he took me out to this concert at the "Maxim Rock" theater in downtown Havana one Saturday night. I walked into the theater and felt transported back to the metal shows I would go to when I was a kid growing up in Maine. Except, looking around, you see Che Guevara tattoos and dudes still in their communist uniforms and you realize you're very much in a different place. But the music and the drive to express yourself is still the same.
NFS: The film is primarily focused on the band Zeus. What drew you to them, and specifically their lead singer, since he's such a focus of the film?
NB: I was drawn to Zeus in particular because these guys have been playing metal in Havana since the very beginning of the scene. They just celebrated their 25th anniversary this year and really are the legends of the community.
When lead singer Diony Arce started performing in the mid 80s, metal music was forbidden by the government. It was seen as the "music of the enemy" because of its American influence -- rock shows were broken up by police and long-haired, tattooed metalheads were thrown in jail. 25 years later, Cuba has begun to change and you can see this in the rock community.
There's now an actual government bureaucracy called the Agency of Rock dedicated to supporting -- and controlling -- the country's rock scene. So there's an opening for bands to play their music, but they also have to do it within the system, so there's a pretty difficult trade-off. Through their long career, Diony and the rest of the guys from Zeus have experienced this whole evolution.
NFS: After you made your student short, how did this transition into making a feature? What were the steps?
NB: When I screened the short at Tribeca and other festivals, people would come up and say, "This is a great story, I want to know more. What's the bigger story with these guys?" To which I'd basically say, "I'd love to tell you more! Put up some money for the feature film and let's do it."
To actually transition into the feature, we received key support from two organizations. The first, which provided us with the seed funding to get started, is the Moving Picture Institute , which is an important organization helping to get underrepresented stories told. That seed funding helped my team and I secure a major grant for NYU alumni called the Chris Columbus/Richard Vague Film Production Award, which allowed us to complete production.
NFS: Did you have to raise any other funding?
NB: Beyond the two major grants from MPI and NYU, we also raised private equity on the side. We've had recent success as well with our Kickstarter campaign, which we've launched to begin post-production on the film.
NFS: Can you talk a little about your crew?
NB: The crew is led by my producing partner John Logan Pierson and me. One of my favorite parts about the production is the opportunity we've had to collaborate with some of the top young filmmakers in Cuba, including cinematographer Abel Lopez, line producer Rossana Reyes Rosa and associate producer Sussana Ortega. On the American side, we've built a team of top industry colleagues including our executive producer Alex Gibney, Francisco Bello, our supervising editor, and Dave Lombardo, the Cuban-born former drummer of Slayer who has joined the team as our music advisor.
NFS: How long was the shoot? I understand it was spread out.
NB: Because we've been following the lives of these guys in a more vérité sense and trying to capture how things are slowly changing in the country, we've taken a slower approach to the production. We've now done five production trips in Havana over the course of four years. It's allowed us to really immerse ourselves into the community and document a much more nuanced view of what life in contemporary Cuba looks like.
NFS: What kind of gear did you use?
NB: Our primary camera that Abel used was a Canon C300. We were just pretty much running and gunning, trying to keep up with the band, honestly! Right now we're cutting down our 120 hours of footage on Final Cut 7.
NFS: What's the craziest anecdote from production?
NB: By far the wildest experience of the trip was the cross-country tour of Cuba I made with the band earlier this year. For the band's 25th anniversary they were granted permission from the Agency of Rock to make a national tour of Cuba -- their first-ever national tour. I flew down to Havana and got on a bus with the band as they bounced across the island.
The craziest show was in Guantanamo (on the Cuban side), which is the eastern most province in the country and is pretty isolated from the rest of the country. The band played in this massive square usually reserved for political marches. Heavy metal bands never play in Guantanamo City, so as a result just about every metalhead in the province was in the plaza that night. I've never seen such passion and connection with the music than I saw in that crowd. It really connects with how music can serve to give a voice to much larger frustrations.
NFS: Why do you think the heavy metal scene in Cuba is important? Also, what's it like? Thriving?
NB: Music and art in general in Cuba holds a special power because it's really the only avenue for critical thought to be voiced in the Communist country. You don't see open dissent in the newspapers, you don't see it in the political world, you don't really see it on the streets. Where you do see it is in the music, in the paintings, in the films. It's inspiring to see art being used to really push forward a country's consciousness. As a result, the metal community is literally made up of the country's loudest citizens. They're screaming to express themselves.
NFS: What is your vision for the film?
NB: My vision is for this inspiring story about Cuba's legendary metalheads to serve as a way of looking at the broader changes in Cuba and the reality of life for artists inside a restrictive society. There's a lot to learn from Diony and Zeus in their dedication to craft and to their dreams. It's certainly helped to keep me going through the production.
NFS: Anything else you'd like to tell our audience?
NB: We've now wrapped principal photography on the film and I'm excited to begin post. We're at the end of a Kickstarter campaign to fund a rough cut of the film. I'm now looking for the best Spanish language vérité-documentary-editor to join our team. We have 120 hours of compelling material and I'm excited to bring on a partner to work this down into a finished film.
Thanks to Nicholas for taking the time to talk with us!
What do you think? If you're a documentary filmmaker, have you ever shot a film in a foreign country, or under any dangerous conditions? If you have, do you have any advice for other documentarians? Let us know in the comments!