4 December 2022 The Irish Film & Television Network
Interview with Emer Reynolds—IFTA-winning editor and co-director of ‘Here Was Cuba’
06 Oct 2014 : Seán Brosnan
Directed by Emer Reynolds and John Murray and produced by Crossing The Line Productions, ‘Here Was Cuba’ tells the inside story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, exploring how in October 1962 the world teetered on the very brink of nuclear holocaust. In the first major feature documentary on the subject, the film brings to life the three central characters Kennedy, Castro and Khrushchev and explores how the world’s most powerful men fell into an abyss of their own making and what courage and luck it took to climb out again.

Editor and co-director Emer Reynolds, who won an IFTA for editing for her work on the film, speaks to IFTN about her feature documentary directorial debut.

Here Was Cuba’ is surprisingly the first major non-fiction feature ever made about the Cuban Missile Crisis, astonishing really when you think of all the American filmmakers that could have done something over the years. What drew yourself and co-director John, two Irish people, to this project? Tell us about the research involved.

Although there had been a few TV documentaries over the years, we were surprised to learn that there had never been a major feature documentary on the subject- surprised and happy! John, in particular, was kind of obsessed with the Crisis, and as the 50th Anniversary drew closer we kept talking about what an amazing moment in history it was, how dramatic and utterly scary, and how frighteningly prescient it is for today in terms of current nuclear brinksmanship. We approached the Irish Film Board and PBS and the research phase began in 2010. Many interviews were shot for research at that stage including Ted Sorensen, Kennedy's key advisor and speechwriter during the crisis, who sadly died shortly afterwards. We were so lucky to have his first-hand account of events from deep inside the White House. That set the tone for how we would approach the rest of the filming- we would try to hear and tell the story through personal experience and in doing so perhaps be able to tell the events as though happening live. After a very intense research period, during which John and I wrestled with getting a handle on the chronology of events, and a perspective on the complex and conflicting political judgement calls; we tried to map out the story and visualise as dramatic and engaging a film as possible. Our wonderful research team went on an intensive and ambitious archive hunt for a whole range of film, audio and documents from the US, Russia and Cuba, including exciting, recently de-classified material. We also dug deep to find interviewees who had been actually involved in the Crisis- whether as soldiers, politicians or civilians- and put particular emphasis on talking to people whose story may not have been heard before. I then spent some time drafting a guide story script, which included the chronology but also the adjacent political, personal and philosophical ideas we wanted to try explore, and also drew up a visual map of sequences and scenes we would plan to film. This 'script' served as a kind of road-map but then, as always, ultimately got torn up and thrown out, as the shoot and edit progressed.

The film was hailed by the Hollywood Reporter as a ‘classy piece of work with solid appeal as both history lesson and gripping true-story thriller’. Even though we all know the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the tension of those 13 days in 1962 is felt, can you explain how you successfully turned the documentary into a tense thriller of sorts for the audience?

As you can imagine it’s not an easy task to keep an audience on the edge of their seats, wondering about the possibility of tomorrow, when the event's outcome is already widely known! We decided to try to tell the story as a Cold War thriller. One of the reasons we were so compelled to make the film, was that this was not a dusty old event from the dim and distant past- it could happen today! If the film was to work, we would need to hopefully time-travel the audience back, deep into the heart of October 1962, and experience the events as though they were unfolding before our eyes. A kind of real-time immersion into the Crisis. So our approach centered on that key principle, whether in interview, in archive selection, or in shooting style and music. We then put it together as though we were watching the drama play out in the present. This approach in the film I think, I hope, is one of the reasons the film feels so frightening- for although we, as the audience, know the outcome - the world didn't end - we are able to experience the days in the film as they happen, and almost forget how it turned out…

You also doubled as editor for this film, and ultimately won your fourth IFTA for editing for your efforts. Can you take us through what must have been the torturous editing process of the huge amount of archive footage and recordings for this film?

Not torturous at all! It was certainly very intense, but fun! And amazing! To be able to listen in on the White House secret recordings of Kennedy’s advisors ruminating on whether they would launch a nuclear attack? Chilling and exciting and terrifying! History happening live! I’d say the biggest challenge I faced in the edit was that we filmed, and also sourced archive, over many, many months, so the material was flowing in constantly, and we were endlessly re-defining how we might approach the story, for maximum drama. I would take some weeks alone in the dark wrestling with the narrative and archive, and John was able to act as very fresh eyes and lend perspective. We also shot in Cuba very late in the process, as it was difficult to get permissions, so that was a particular challenge! I really enjoyed the edit and was very happy with the finished piece.

Your film last month got nominated for a Grierson Award and has received critical praise but did you have any doubts or reservations about taking on such a big issue and project at any time?

Not at all. I mean, obviously we wanted to do the story justice, and it’s a huge, complex and knotted tale to cover in 90 minutes without oversimplifying it; but a very big part of our desire to make the film was to explore and lament the human cost of war. It's very much a history documentary, but at its heart it's an anti-war film! There is no doubt in my mind that had a nuclear weapon been launched, ANY weapon, from any side, all out Nuclear War would have unfolded. There were enough nuclear weapons at that time to wipe out humankind many times over. Still are. So that wish to be part of a wider debate about nuclear disarmament, overcame any fears we might have!

Director collaborations are rare and seem reserved just for brothers or relatives like the Coens, or the Dardenne brothers. Does it take a lot of trust and belief in the other person’s ability to co-helm a film and how do you avoid conflict?

The trick is not to avoid conflict, but to embrace and learn from it! Compromise and difficulties will come- that’s the nature of film-making- so trust, obviously, is huge and key. Not just in each other’s abilities but in knowing that you are both committed to making the same essential film. John and I had worked together before, and had had a very respectful, lively, and collaborative relationship, so I instinctively knew we would work well together as co-directors. We both bring different skills to the table, and complement each other’s talents and specialities very well. We give each other a lot of room to play and explore and fail, if necessary! We are also good friends so can deal with any conflict or differences, with openness and humour (eventually!)

Finally, you have a very wide ranging CV with writing, directing and editing credits in many different formats such as TV, film, documentary and shorts. Is there anything you want to zone in on in the future or is variety the spice of life for you?

I certainly feel very lucky, to be able to work in all these areas and I thrive on all the different challenges and variety! I love to edit - am currently editing ‘My Name is Emily’, Simon Fitzmaurice’s first feature, and hope to be cutting Alan Gilsenan’s adaptation of ‘Unless’ immediately thereafter- and I really respond to the adventure of editing features, both drama and documentaries. But at the same time, I totally adored directing ‘Here Was Cuba’; I found it very stimulating, to create and dream up the film from the start. John and I are deep into development of our next feature documentary ‘The Farthest’, about the Voyager spacecraft, which has recently become the first manmade object to enter interstellar space, 13 billion miles away! It’s a big, ambitious cinema film and we hope to shoot that next year. We also have a number of documentaries and series in various stages of development, so are busy setting up films and projects for the future. Ideally, if my luck holds and if I can find enough months in the year, I’ll continue to do it all!

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