January 19, 2005

Cuban-American director shows independent spirit

By Fabiola Posted on Fri, Jan. 14, 2005 in The Miami Herald.

Filmmaker León Ichaso has an enviable gig coming up in Hollywood -- directing couple-of-the-hour Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony in a movie about the troubled life of a salsa legend.

But pan the Cuban-American director's career for dramatic effect, the way Ichaso has done with his eclectic subjects in 25 years of movie-making, and you'll find his soul in the 1998 love story Bitter Sugar.

Ichaso wrote the synopsis, about an idealistic young Communist in Havana and a dance student who dates foreigners for dollars, in just one hour, inspired by his anger over news stories coming out of Cuba.

''People, many of them in my industry, had just discovered Havana as the new Studio 54, the place to go, get laid and have fun, and what a party,'' says Ichaso, who is being honored today with a retrospective showing of his major films at the Tower Theater in Miami.

''I thought it pathetic, cruel and irresponsible, and I really wanted to say something about it,'' he says of the Cuban reality.

He did, delivering a touching movie, filmed in black and white and featuring unforgettable characters like the young rocker who injects himself with HIV.

But then -- deliberately, he admits -- Ichaso ruined the film, at least in the eyes of critics. Instead of the expected artful finale, he chose a ''patriotic ending'' in which the disillusioned protagonist pulls out a gun at a massive rally and tries to kill Fidel Castro.

''I could have ended up with a cleaner, more artful film loved by the American critics. But I wanted to inspire some kind of patriotism in the art and maybe hope that somebody would really pull out a gun and kill that bastard,'' Ichaso, 56, says in an interview from his New York apartment.

Not exactly the words of your standard Hollywood director. Instead it's vintage Ichaso -- unguarded, frank, contrarian. From 1979's El Super, which remains the quintessential Cuban-exile film, to Piñero, the 2001 movie starring Benjamin Bratt about a Puerto Rican bad-boy poet-playwright who did time in prison for drug dealing and theft, Ichaso's productions reflect his intensity.


''He's the lone wolf of filmmakers, the one who has given up everything else for the sake of his art -- and he's made it in Hollywood,'' says Alejandro Ríos, coordinator of Miami Dade College's Cuban Cinema Series 2005, which is hosting the Ichaso tribute with the three-day film marathon. "He's the most successful Cuban-American movie director.''

Born to a Havana family of ''writers and totally dysfunctional people,'' Ichaso left Cuba in 1963 with his sister and mother, the writer Antonia Ichaso. He was 14. His father, Justo Rodríguez Santos, a poet who was published alongside Cuba's greatest writers in the literary magazine Orígenes, would not be able to leave the island for six years.

In Miami and New York, Ichaso ''drifted into the '60s.'' The culture of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll suited his bohemian spirit. He was a player in the ''psychedelic Miami'' of the late '60s and '70s. He started out making commercials in New York but found his calling when he saw a play by fellow exile Iván Acosta that became his first film, El Super, the story of a Cuban building superintendent unable to adapt to exile. ''It was not a successful Cuban in Miami, but a failed Cuban in New York who longed to go back to a place he couldn't go back to and was frustrated . . by the Americanization of his daughter, by a world he didn't understand,'' Ichaso recalls.

The film, co-directed with Orlando Jiménez Leal, played to packed theaters in Miami and New York. ''It was a way of breaking through some taboo or stigma,'' Ischaso says. "It had the Bay of Pigs guy boasting about Fidel Castro himself shooting from a tank to get him, a Cuban girl getting pregnant by an unknown kid in school, all these unthinkable subjects we would never talk about.''

After El Super, ''it was less commercials and more movies.'' He filmed Crossover Dreams with Rubén Blades, about salsa musicians in New York.


Ichaso has been able to shuttle between making independent films close to his heart and the Hollywood television and movie projects that bring home the paycheck.

A writer-director for the television shows Miami Vice, Crime Story and The Equalizer, he has directed movies starring Wesley Snipes (Sugar Hill), Sidney Poitier (Free of Eden) and Louis Gossett Jr. (Zooman).

''I was the only Cuban that directed Miami Vice and knew Miami vice,'' he quips, a reference to his days as a big-time partyer. "They would bring all these people to Miami and had a fictionalized version of it. I tried to bring something of my own into the show and it worked. I did five episodes. I took Don Johnson to a cafecito on Flagler Street, and he even spoke Spanish.''

He went on to direct the Showtime movies The Fear Inside and A Kiss to Die For.

''All of a sudden you start making money in a career that's been loaded with miseries and sacrifices,'' he says.

Sugar Hill, he says, "was a very mainstream film that made a lot of money and was a good experience. It was for me a kind of branching out. It was not like they hired me to do a Cuban story. It was a fully black cast with a story about Harlem. I've lived in New York, so I know that world.''

Although Hollywood darlings like J.Lo want to make movies with him now, Ichaso still doesn't take himself too seriously. ''This is it; my dream is my nightmare,'' he says. "I'm solely responsible for my anxiety, my craziness, my joys. I've never done anything but what I want to do and I paid a big price for it because it's like sometimes it's too late for you to prostitute yourself. . . . I'm stuck with being me and doing my movies.''



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