Good things come to those who wait.
Case in point—writer/director Lucy Mulloy. The NYU grad (and former Spike Lee pupil) spent the past six or so years crafting what would become her debut narrative feature, Una Noche, a Spanish-language drama centering on Raúl and Elio, a pair of disenfranchised Cuban youths who dream of defecting from their meandering existences in Havana to a better life in Miami, Florida. Their situation grows more complex when Raúl finds himself on the run from the law and demands the two put their plan into action immediately. For Elio, such a swift departure means facing rough decisions, including the possibility of leaving his twin sister, Lila, behind. Set mostly during the course of one day and starring a cast of non-professional actors, Una Noche earned Mulloy merits at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival and the Gotham Awards. Now playing in select cities, the film is also available via iTunes.
Paste recently got the opportunity to talk with Mulloy about the ups and downs that led to the completion of her award-winning film.
Paste: Obviously, you come from a family where filmmaking is a popular art form. [Mulloy’s parents—Phil Mulloy and Vera Neubauer—are both renowned animators and her brother, Daniel, is a BAFTA-winning shorts director.] What kind of film education did you have growing up in that environment?
Mulloy: Well, my mother and father are both animators, so they were always making films basically. They had a studio in the house, and they would be drawing and painting and doing their work and filming. So it was something that was very much a part of my daily life. My brother is a filmmaker, too. He does live action. So, it came very naturally. I studied politics [at Oxford University], thinking that possibly I would go into doing something that would be a little more active and maybe help make things better. I realized I couldn’t sit in an office and work that way. I was brought up painting and drawing, so I was always very visual. Film just made the most sense as a combination of bringing together theory and a more cerebral exercise with imagery, as well. It seemed like the perfect match. I kind of knew since I was younger that I would always end up being a filmmaker.
Paste: In deciding the kind of filmmaker you wanted to be, were you influenced by any particular films or filmmakers?
Mulloy: I remember seeing Down by Law by Jim Jarmusch and really being influenced and thinking it wasn’t a usual Hollywood hack narrative. So that was really refreshing. And then Scorsese’s movies like Taxi Driver [and] Raging Bull I really liked.
Paste: Very character-driven material?
Mulloy: Yes, character-driven and, kind of, more psychological and maybe more interesting characters—films where there’s not a clear-cut goodie and baddie.
Paste: When you discovered the whole politics route wasn’t going to work for you, is that when you decided to take a trip to Havana? And did that in turn inspire you to go into filmmaking?
Mulloy: I don’t think I ever made a clear-cut decision like, “Politics isn’t for me.” I basically had been working at Oxford, and I had been doing very intense, academic work and studying really hard and writing essays every week. I worked at a gallery, and I waitressed and made some money to get a ticket to go to Cuba. My friend was studying photography there at the art school, so I got a small apartment next to her and I just moved up there. I ended up extending my ticket five times and staying longer and longer. That was in 2002, so since then I’ve been traveling to Cuba for the past 10 years. I spent a lot of time there, so I really became familiar with the place, the country, the people—I have a lot of friends there.
It’s funny because a lot of people, when they go to Cuba for the first time, have the same impression that I first had when I went there. I went to find out what the politics was like and had an optimistic point of view about socialism. Upon first impression, it’s a very upbeat place, and it seems like quite a simple life. But as I stayed there for longer, everything became more complex, and I started understanding more about the nuances of Cuban society and realizing more of the contradictions that existed there. That’s really what I wanted to investigate [by] making Una Noche. It’s funny because a lot of people go there for a couple weeks or a month on holiday, and they can get quite a superficial image of the place. To me, it takes living there a while and knowing people to really have a more in-depth understanding of what life there is actually like. People have a tendency to simplify it and to polarize it—to bring it down to being something that’s good or bad. It’s not that simple. It’s very complex.
Paste: You definitely point that out in the film. You show a lot of tourists who seem oblivious as to what’s going on around them.
Mulloy: Yeah. There are a lot of people who go there, and they can remain pretty out of touch. But that’s what I was like when I first went there, so I can identity with that point of view. Una Noche was really just trying to portray the reality that I was living and seeing and what people I know are experiencing on a daily basis. That was my prerogative.
Paste: How was your Spanish going in?
Mulloy: When I went there, I didn’t speak Spanish. But you quickly pick it up because no one spoke English, so you have to learn to get by. I was taking Spanish lessons with one of the university professors. She would come meet me in the park and speak with me and go through some basics. I learned a lot of my Spanish in my taekwondo classes. I did three months with this taekwondo professor that was really amazing, and [the class] was all these little kids. So every day I was doing three hours of taekwondo practice with these kids. That’s really how I picked it up. Also, working with the actors. My Spanish is a very slangy Cuban—it’s the way teenagers speak, I think [laughs].
Paste: At what point did you decide to apply to NYU and pursue making films?
Mulloy: When I came back from Cuba that first time, I sent my application in. It was the only film school I applied to. I knew Spike Lee had been there, and Scorsese and Darren Aronofsky—all these filmmakers I admired. It seemed like an incredible opportunity to be in New York and to be making movies in New York. I didn’t really think it would happen, and I knew it was crazily expensive, but I got a fellowship. If I hadn’t got that, I wouldn’t have been able to go, basically.
Paste: Did you take classes under Spike Lee?
Mulloy: As soon as I got there, I snuck into Spike Lee’s class. I would just sit in the back and listen. I kept on going, and he later became my professor and my mentor. He read the [Una Noche] script. We got the Spike Lee Grant to make the movie. That actually came true when I was already out in Cuba. I’d already started making the film, so it was a huge help. Then, when I came back, I would show cuts of the film. I was editing myself and doing the rough cut for about seven months. It was a crazy amount of work, and it’s hard for a director to edit their own work. So, I would take the cuts to Spike and he would give me advice and was very helpful. Then, [editor] Cindy Lee came aboard. Andrew [Dosunmu], the director of this movie called Restless City, met Cindy at Sundance and put me in contact with her. Cindy was a complete dream to work with. She was an amazing collaborator. She kind of cleaned up all the things that I was a little bit too attached to in the movie. We worked on it for another seven months together. Meanwhile, we recorded an original soundtrack in Cuba as well as ADR. Anytime anyone gave me a roll of film, I was going to take it back to Cuba and shoot it for anything we needed or was missing during the edit [laughs]. It was, in a way, a luxurious way to make a movie. It was really tough, but we had time on our hands because we don’t have a studio or a production company telling us we had to have it by a certain date. We were working on it probably every day.
Paste: I wanted to talk a little about the casting experience. I read that you saw anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people for the lead roles. What qualities were you looking for?
Mulloy: I had a very specific idea of what I wanted the actors to be like—character-wise and looks-wise. It was very surprising because I knew instinctively when I met all three of [the lead actors] that they were perfect. I had been meeting so many young people, but they really stood out. They were naturally talented and they had the attitude and the vibe I was looking for in the characters. For example, in his school, Dariel [Arrechaga, who plays Raúl] was surrounded by all these girls and the character was supposed to be a bit of a player and very charismatic. I went over to him and spoke to him, and I just knew instantly that he was Raúl. He came in for three auditions and then I cast him. Then, Anailín [de la Rúa de la Torre, who plays Lila] came through. I was looking for someone who practiced taekwondo. That was her major in school—kind of unbelievable. We’d seen so many different girls come through, but when she came in we didn’t even need to say anything because it was obvious she was the character.
With Javier [Núñez Florián, who plays Elio], we went around all the high schools in the area taking pictures of anyone who could look like [Anailín’s] brother. So the casting assistant came back with hundreds and hundreds of pictures and I just picked out which ones I wanted to see. From the photograph alone, Javier stood out. You could see he had a kind of different attitude [and] was kind of reluctant in a way. When he actually came in, he was really, really nervous and very quiet for a really long time. I was selecting people on the basis of an improvisation, so I was giving [the actors] situations that they would play out with each other. When he did his scenario with this one girl, I couldn’t actually tell if he was acting or if he was being serious [laughs]. That’s not common because when people act they tend to put on a different voice and a little bit of a different persona, and he was very natural and that’s what really appealed to me. So, he got the part.
Then, we all started rehearsals together and they got to know each other. They got along really well. It was a very intense, productive time because we were rehearsing late every day of the week. At this stage, we didn’t have cameras, we didn’t have film stock, I just had this idea of the film I wanted to make, but there was never a moment when I didn’t think the film was going to happen. There were all of these people who started believing in it, so I had a responsibility to make sure it happened then. People were coming in and rehearsing every day and putting all their time and energy into it, so it had to become a reality.
Paste: Did you work to develop the screenplay with the actors or did you give them a tight script to work from?
Mulloy: Initially, I was improvising and I was still working on the script when I’d cast them. My laptop actually got stolen with all my notes on it, so I had to sit down and, in the space of about three weeks, write the whole script out. It was kind of a good thing that happened because everything was in my head, but I had pages and pages of notes that I was thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to go through all this’ [laughs]. But I didn’t have to because my laptop got stolen in London. I just had to sit down and write it.
I definitely incorporated aspects of them and things that they were going through, elements of their real characters into the scripts. It was really important for me that they felt comfortable, that they were using their own voices, that nothing was alien to them and nothing felt fake or as if I had imposed it upon them. It was important that it felt like how young Cuban people would actually talk to each other.
Paste: In Latin-based cinema, there’s a tradition of immigration stories. You have El Norte and, more recently, Sin Nombre. Do you look to any of those when starting your film?
Mulloy: No. As a matter of fact, Cary [Fukunaga], who did Sin Nombre, was in the year above me at NYU and I didn’t watch the movie until [after finishing Una Noche] because I didn’t want to be influenced by seeing anyone else’s story at that point. I was also in Cuba, so it was hard to access other movies, so I was just going off what I was seeing around me and hadn’t seen an immigration movie, which might be a good thing or bad thing—I don’t know [laughs].
Paste: Well, you certainly brought in a fresh perspective. Thank you for your time.