TBI Scripted: ‘Cuba Libre’ creator on show’s 20-year journey to screen

Cuba Libre

Henrique Oliveira, creator of Portuguese historical drama Cuba Libre, tells Mark Layton why good things come to those who wait, as the show is screened at Berlinale Series Market Selects this week, two decades after he first set out to make it.

For more than 20 years, Portuguese producer, writer and director Henrique Oliveira harboured a dream project: to bring the true story of beauty queen-turned revolutionary Ana Maria Silva Pais, to the screen.

After two decades captivated by her story, Oliveira finally achieved his ambition with the September 2022 launch of six-part drama series Cuba Libre on local broadcaster RTP. As he tells TBI: “It is the project of my life, because I have made a lot of series, but this is the one that I love most, always.”

The series, which is distributed by Keshet International, has now been selected for the Berlinale Series Market. Taking place in Berlin, Germany, this week, the annual event showcases series that are expected to perform well internationally – and that buyers are well advised to keep their eyes on.

Cuba Libre

Time to mature

Oliveira, who was also behind the 2017 RTP and TVG historical drama co-pro Vidago Palace, first attempted to adapt Pais’ story 20 years ago, working with a team of four writers for around two years, but admits that he needed to ‘mature’ into the project.

Produced under his Hop! Films label, the period piece stretches from the 1960s through to the 1980s and spans events taking place in both Portugal and Cuba. Oliveira says it was too ambitious a series for a Portuguese broadcaster to take on at the time and those intervening years also helped him gain the experience he needed to do the story true justice.

“When I write now and when I direct, I [am] a lot more prepared to do a series like this, you know. Sometimes it’s necessary to wait,” he says. Furthemore, he adds: “Only now [have] we found the correct person to play Ana. So now the cosmic alignment of the stars has happened,” with the casting of Beatriz Godinho in the lead role.

Pais (Godinho) was the only daughter of the director-general of the PIDE, Portugal’s secret service. She was a legendary beauty who loved music, dancing, and French culture, but possessed a rebellious spirit with strong-held political opinions that often clashed with her family’s. Thrilled to escape the Portuguese dictatorship with her Swiss diplomat husband when he is posted to Havana, she abandons her life to dedicate herself to the Cuban revolution, all the while being secretly in love with Che Guevara.

“Something in this story captivates me, because it deals with everything – the search for a place in the world,” confesses Oliveira.

Henrique Oliveira

Portuguese financing

Now that Cuba Libre has finally screened, Oliveira says that the response has been “absolutely incredible.” As well as heading to Berlinale Series Market, Oliveira was thrilled to learn that RTP is also putting the series forward for the International Emmys. “I’ve never had anything like this,” he says.

Good things, then, clearly do come to those who wait, and it’s not only Oliveira who has matured while waiting the past 20 years, but the Portuguese industry too, and its ability to finance projects of such scale. While his previous historical drama, Vidago Palace, was a co-production with Spain, Cuba Libre was an entirely Portuguese financed venture.

The only real co-pro option was with Cuba and as Oliveria notes: “They don’t have the money.” So funding was split between the the broadcaster RTP, the Portuguese Institute of Cinema and a tourism fund. “So that was the glue for the project. With these three, we managed to do the series.”

Portugal, of course, is as much impacted by the rising cost of producing scripted drama as other countries and while Oliveria says the price of making a historical series has certainly escalated in the five years or so between Vidago Palace and Cuba Libre, the team did not want to compromise on production value and “managed to fit the budget.”

While Oliveria accepts that rising overheads means that creators must increasingly seek co-productions, he says it should only be when the story demands it. “I’m basically a creative. The most important thing is to respect the stories to make them as good as possible. So if it demands a co-pro – then let’s go! But if it doesn’t, then that’s fine.”

Cuba Libre is being screened at the Berlinale Series Market Select screenings on Tuesday, 21 February at 2.45pm and Wednesday, 22 February at 3pm.

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