Director Ela Troyano talks about meeting La Lupe in a New York City church, licensing archival footage in Cuba with the U.S. embargo and putting make-up on Dick Cavett.
What did you want to achieve with LA LUPE?
I saw La Lupe by chance in 1987, she was speaking at a church on the Lower East Side. She was at the altar telling her dramatic life story, from her childhood in Santiago de Cuba, to her arrival in NYC, meeting Mongo Santamaria and recording with him and Tito Puente. I was enthralled by her performance, unsure of who or what she was. On a purely personal level, I wanted to know more.
Once I began to research La Lupe’s life, I became interested in the visual style of the era, in the photographs, rare archival footage and record covers, and decided on a kind of “period documentary,” one where we shot interviews to match the look of the archival footage. But while LA LUPE QUEEN OF LATIN SOUL may look like a period documentary, it isn’t built like one. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said in a screenwriting workshop (or at least this is how I remember it) that he learned local stories from the itinerant musicians that passed through town recounting the area’s history. I wanted to make a film that was somewhat like that, more ballad or folk song than film, one that recounted the myth of La Lupe with the emotional soul of a bolero.
Although we shot in different cities all with different cultural positions—in La Habana, Santiago de Cuba, Miami, San Juan, New Jersey, New York—these locations are never identified and blend in as we follow La Lupe’s story.
Since there was little material on La Lupe at the time most of our research entailed interviews with those that knew her well. Many of Lupe’s peers were older now; the interviews were more like those I used to shoot myself with a 16-mm camera of my family. I wanted the family stories, the anecdotes to preserve the way this generation spoke.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making LA LUPE?
La Lupe is an icon, a legend with a cult following and almost everyone we interviewed was possessive about her. And because La Lupe created her persona, much of the factual information originates with her, especially in her own revision of her life in her church testimonials near the end of her life. While we tried to separate fact from fiction, at some point this line is blurred and we end up with myth.
But perhaps the greatest challenge was to get her performance style and a sense of who she was onstage with the rare performance footage that was available. (It took us a long time to keep digging for materials and I’m hoping new rare footage will surface with this documentary.) While there is great archival footage and photos during the ‘50s and later on in the mid-‘70s and ‘80s, the early ‘60s through early ‘70s is not a well-documented period in Latin music.
The licensing was also time consuming and costly. We found great archival footage from ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte Cinematografico) in Cuba. It took about two weeks to negotiate licensing over the phone, probably easier than with any American company. But due to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, our payment check had to be sent to Mexico. Once the check cleared, our tape with licensed archival footage was given to a friend in Cuba who kept it until I found someone to bring it to the U.S. The tape was taken to the family of one friend, picked up by another who brought it to the Venice Biennale and from there shipped to the U.S. Sending the tape back from Cuba took about six months.
What was it like researching your film and shooting footage internationally?
We had invaluable collaborators, from music producer and film consultant Richie Viera Jr., who was selfless with contacts in Puerto Rico, his photography collection and ongoing support, to the early research done by Ingrid Rojas, our associate producer.
Research involved speaking to those that knew La Lupe, to get stories that kept matching up, that were consistent, events that were corroborated by several interviewees. Sometimes we would get sent great materials, given as a gift and other time we had to beg and cajole for a piece of information, a photo, rare archival footage.
I remember Cheryl Cooper, our rights consultant (another invaluable resource) telling me that we could find similar footage when we had problems licensing—and sure enough, the footage we had was the only existing footage. Back to the licensing…
In terms of shooting internationally, one of my reasons for making this documentary was to go back and shoot in Cuba. I was born in La Habana, came to New York City in 1961. I went back to Cuba for the first time in 1989, invited to the Festival Internacional del Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. I thought this was the right time for me as a Cuban American to face the U.S. embargo in Cuba, to shoot in Cuba, to tell a Cuban American story, to bring the documentary to Cuba and the U.S.
On the plane to Cuba we heard that there had been a death in the family—Celia Cruz had just died. And in La Habana people were glued to the illegal cable transmission on their televisions of the funeral procession. When we traveled to stay overnight in Santiago de Cuba there was no “legal” place for us to stay (according to Cuban law), Fidel Castro was speaking and all the hotels for visitors like us were booked. We stayed overnight illegally in people’s houses. There was a code for the food we wanted to eat which was reserved for VIP’s, we had to call by phone if we wanted to have dinner and say we needed “little screws” for shrimp and “big screws” for lobster. We had a great lobster and shrimp dinner for our small crew.
What didn’t get included in LA LUPE that you would have liked to?
In order to stay within the PBS one-hour programming format, we were forced to cut out the stories of her childhood—these gave a real insight into La Lupe, how Lupe Yoli Raymond became La Lupe. Also the “backstage” goings on, La Lupe had rituals before and after she went onstage, anecdotes about her early success in NYC, how Quincy Jones recorded her on the Mercury label and Susan Sontag included her as an example of camp in her seminal “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Lupe’s own writing, her lyrics, and translations of English pop songs, her costume design, for example, the outrageous gold dress, turban, cape all with matching cookie basket for Dick Cavett… the list goes on and on. Hopefully we’ll be able to include these additional materials on the DVD release.
What has the audience response been so far? How have fans of La Lupe reacted to the film?
The first official screening was at the Miami International Film Festival. Norma Yoli, La Lupe’s sister attended the red carpet opening, traveling from La Habana, Cuba. Homero Balboa, her pianist from the early days at La Red, also attended together with Merceditas Rojas, her longtime secretary, all interviewed in the documentary and including the star of the evening, Olga Guillot, (our Latin Frank Sinatra), La Lupe’s mentor and a legend in her own right. The Cuban American audience reacted to nuances in the documentary, clapping every time a diva came onstage, at classic songs and laughing along with Lupe’s irreverence.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
It depends on the project. With this documentary there is a point where La Lupe sings “I was only seventeen…” in “Don’t Play That Song” that always gets to me. It is so powerful that it keeps me focused on the work no matter what crazy calls I need to make, how long I need to wait… it’s all worth it.
Putting make-up on Dick Cavett. His playfulness with La Lupe on his talk show was a daring act at the time. Meeting Mongo Santamaria and taping what was probably his last interview. Being onstage with Olga Guillot with my family and friends in Miami.
Working with Josh Cramer and Brian A. Kates. Shooting with James Carman. Being a grantee at Creative Capital. Ruby Lerner, Sean Ellwood, Colleen Keegan, Chris Doyle…
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It probably would have been impossible to do LA LUPE without the licensing agreements that PBS has with music recording and publishing houses. This was crucial for this program.
Also, ITVS is one of the only producing entities that give substantial production funds for a program with a contract in place that gives the producing filmmaker “final cut.”
What are your three favorite films?
There’s no real way for me to answer this, there are too many favorite films and filmmakers. But I was really lucky to have been friends with the legendary filmmaker Jack Smith in the late ‘70s until he died of AIDS in 1989. Early on, he asked me to take slides of him for his performance shows, but once you agreed, it would take an entire day to prepare, get dressed and go off at the magic hour to shoot near the piers in NYC. He would lie in his Sinbad costume with hand outstretched near a plastic lobster, letter to the landlord in hand, with gold glitter on the sand in the sunset.
If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Find something you really believe in; when things get tough, don’t get sidetracked, focus on the work; listen; stick to your own gut feelings.
What sparks your creativity?
Time off to think; seeing artwork, in all fields, not just films; a deadline; money in place.
Read about the life of LA LUPE >>