Tomorrow night, the Cuban comedy-horror film Juan of the Dead makes its Florida debut at the Miami Film Festival. The hottest ticket of the festival, it sold out its initial 1,700-seat screening weeks in advance, and additional screenings have been added, including one at a movie theater in Little Havana.

Juan of the Dead has been an underground favorite among horror- and zombie-film fans since it premiered last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Winning praise for its offbeat humor and deft manipulation of the horror genre—especially as a satirical commentary on contemporary Cuban life—it picked up the audience award at the 2011 Havana International Film Festival. The film now has a U.S. distributor, Outsider Pictures, and will open in theaters later this year.

The story of Juan of the Dead begins in 2004. A small group of young Cubans—Alejandro Brugués and Inti Herrera, joined by Claudia Calviño and Alejandro Tovar in 2006 and 2009 respectively—decided they didn’t want to wait 40 years to make their first feature film through official channels. Instead, they created the independent company “5th Avenue Productions.” Their first film, the dramatic feature Personal Belongings, was completed in 2007 and released a year later. Before 5th Avenue Productions, numerous independent short films had been made in Cuba without the support of ICAIC, the Cuban national film institute. New technologies had spurred the explosion of promotional genres, such as video clips and TV commercial on video, and influenced fiction filmmaking.

The members of 5th Avenue Productions thought of themselves as a “small industry” and pushed further. They made their own films and decided to finance and produce works by other Cuban and foreign filmmakers, especially younger ones. They went to film festivals to find support for their projects. Juan of the Dead, for example, was a co-production of 5th Avenue as the lead producer with La Zanfoña Productions, ICAIC and Spain’s Canal Sur / TVE.

A few weeks before the Miami screenings, Cuban Art News caught up with the film’s director, Alejandro Brugués, and producer Inti Herrera in Havana for a lengthy conversation about independent film production on the island, genre filmmaking, and the making of Juan of the Dead.

5th Avenue started with practically nothing, and now with Juan, it’s the lead producer of a feature film.

Brugués: We never stopped to think about it in those terms. It was more like: “You have an idea!” “You have to shape it!” What that means is, you’re constantly looking for more opportunities to seek funding, more contacts, and the power to keep the project growing. The power to know, from the time you start writing the script, who you’re likely to work with, co-produce with, and how to move it along. It´s the way things go when you’re developing any career—the people you meet and how you’ll manage to shape things. It’s also nice to have a base to work from and to know you’ll be heard.

Audiovisual cooperatives producing the new Cuban cinema have already emerged with a different kind of power and influence. But as “independent” as a project can be, at some point it needs ICAIC´s support to succeed. Does 5th Avenue’s modus operandi stretch the term “independent?” 

Brugués: You can do a painting independently, but not a movie. A film needs the support of many people. If ICAIC hadn´t given its support it would have likely been someone else, the National Video Movement, for example. ICAIC helped with permits and gave institutional support. We shot in Cubanacán Studios. We have always had a good relationship with ICAIC. They have the expertise and resources. They have their own way of doing things and we have ours. This creates a combination, a middle point where you use the best of each party and that gives the best results.

Although it’s an independent film—which usually means less access to international markets—and the zombies genre is pretty much saturated, Juan has had significant success around the world. It is clear that the film’s many satirical references to everyday Cuban reality and the country’s history have been a factor in that success. Was this one of the hooks you had in mind when you started out?

Brugués: In Juan, there was a coincidence. First, it’s a pretty decent zombie movie. Horror-movie fans like it, but you can also enjoy it as a comedy and have a good time. Then, there’s everything else. A viewer who’s unfamiliar with Cuban life can learn about the politics and social issues while they’re laughing at the rest of it. Our goal was to make something universal, to try to make films with universal conflicts.

In the case of Juan, what was really important was humor rather than conflicts—a kind of humor that could work here in Cuba but also elsewhere. In fact, there are inside jokes in zombie movies that the Cuban public doesn’t get, but that audiences elsewhere do. And there are jokes that are more for Cubans than for other viewers. The key was to make it work as a movie, to make it a funny comedy. If we’ve gotten into the U.S. market, it’s because the film is good, because it works, and because at it was well-received by the public at previous festivals.

All the social and political jokes in the film–what was your intention? 

Brugués: I wanted to make a very Cuban film, not a zombie movie that could happen anywhere. Because that’s been done thousands of times. The whole point is to combine the zombie genre and the Cuban reality in an original and appealing product. And I also wanted it to talk about us. That’s my goal when I’m producing.

I never saw this aspect of the film as a commercial hook—I was trying to make it original. I wanted the movie to be as close as possible to the Cuban reality, to things I already knew and had seen in life. And that, in turn, could be combined with zombies and result in an original movie—something that, as a fan of the zombie genre, I hadn’t seen either.

[Brugués has his own theory of how Cubans react in difficult times, which is useful in understanding what seem like the only options that Juan (portrayed by Alexis Díaz de Villegas) could pursue—to which the character responds with a new and highly original option. Brugués himself acknowledges that Juan´s final decision—which is obviously his, as writer and director—Is “his vision of what is right.”]

Brugués: It´s not elaborate as a theory—it’s what I see every day. I think that when things get bad, Cubans continue living as if nothing was wrong. Or they use their business sense and try to make money out of it, as everybody does, living here or there. Or they try to leave the country.

I think those three ways of coping with problems are wrong. Juan takes a fourth option. I´m not going to mention it, because I don’t want to give away the ending. Mulling over the problems, or running away from them has never been the solution for anything. I always feel sad when I see an acquaintance taking one of those roads. The movie put an apocalyptic situation in my hands, and allowed me to play in a totally fantastic field, and exaggerate that reality to include it in the film.

Zombies are a metaphor for the stagnant part of society. They just live life that way, without stopping, without questioning, not allowing the country to progress. I think that immobility is what needs to be faced.

Juan has already had non-commercial screenings in Cuba with strong audience acceptance, and has worked well with other audiences too. Before winning the Coral Audience Award at the 33rd Havana International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, it won two other audience awards at festivals in England and the U.S (in Austin, Texas). Now it’s returning to the U.S., this time to Miami—not only where many Cubans live, but a place that’s mentioned several times in the movie. What do you expect to happen there?

Brugués: I hope to have fun. The public everywhere has had fun, and I’m eager to see how it will be with the Miami public, both for their sake and Juan’s. But Juan is a funny movie. You can see without any prejudice and have fun.

In Miami, there will be many questions for you. As a Cuban artist, what message will you and the film carry to that public?

Brugués: I don’t think we bring a message; each film has its own message. In Miami, It´ll be a matter of letting Juan speak for itself a bit. I had a very good experience as a director with Personal Belongings at the Miami Film Festival, and I will try to repeat it now—having a good time there, watching the movie with the audience. I think it´s a very nice audience for a Cuban movie.

What would you like viewers leaving a theater to say after watching the film? 

Brugués: Well, I could think of other things, but with this film, if they say, “I had a good time and laughed a lot,” I’ll be happy.

Herrera: Here’s a good example. I was leaving the Payret—a movie house in Havana—and I happened to bump into the two actors who played the roles of Juan and Lázaro, the other main character. I was still immersed in the movie, and they made me jump! That made it worth it. It’s the best you could ask for.

Coming in Part Two: Digital effects, make-up, genre filmmaking in Cuba, and more about Juan.