Paul Laverty: Tell the story of Yuli in English? Over our dead bodies

'I, Daniel Blake' writer Paul Laverty explains why he broke his own biopic rule to tell the story of Cuban ballet superstar Carlos Acosta

It smelled good; like fresh coffee, like a sweet malt. Cuba. Close your eyes and say it slowly. Even the sound of the word cheers up the soul, and stirs up all five senses.

How many times have we seen terrible biopics about fascinating lives? Biopics you might think should be easier, as it’s all there after all. One damn thing after another, no matter how fascinating, is like quicksand, swallows you up before you know it, and you begin to suffocate as one more intriguing incident squeezes the life out of a life. Cinema is hungry for relationships, and that takes time. How to manage time is a critical question in any story, but especially a biopic.

I had always studiously avoided biopics; much less hassle to have characters invented or long dead, but the problem with Carlos Acosta was that he was very much alive and still dancing. An old friend, producer Andrea Calderwood, asked me to read his autobiography and meet Carlos down in London. I did. We laughed a lot at my Glaswegian Spanish and his Cuban English. It’s always great fun to kick ideas around at the beginning before you have the responsibility of delivering. I told Carlos I didn’t have a clue how to do a biopic but that I would ask Iciar Bollain, the Spanish director whom I have the good fortune to work with now and again [Laverty and Bollain are married], to see if she would travel to Havana with us and see if we could find a way.

We were rescued from confusion by a young dancer in Carlos’s company, based in Havana, during a break in the rehearsals. She held a cigarette in her right hand. In her left, with shin to her forehead, she held her toes above her head as she chatted casually about her life. As the rehearsals continued over the two weeks I was mesmerised by the artistry, the physicality, the wonder, of moments of inspiration and the mind-numbing, boring repetition of it all.

And Carlos was there, in his mid-40s, working as hard as they were. Ice, sweat, sinews, leaps, groans, “Even my eyebrows are sore,” one told me. They were superstars, Champions League.     

So why the hell not dance the life of Yuli, Carlos’s nickname, and take advantage of all that raw talent dangling there like ripe fruit. Use real dancers, and not have some actor on a crash course for three months and faking it with the aid of a good editor.

Let me tell you about Edilson [Manuel Olbera Nuñez] and Santiago [Alfonso]. Edilson is 11 and plays Carlos as a child. Casting was held two blocks from his home. He heard rumours about the casting for “some film” and asked his dad if he could go. His father told him not to waste his time. So he came on his own. He stunned Iciar by his natural talent. He’s special and it broke my heart when we arrived in the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana for the premiere 18 months later, along with the 5,400 crowd and the thousands outside the cinema who couldn’t get in, to learn that Edilson would miss the opening because he had moved to Miami with his mother.

I love it when filmmakers not only take chances with the material, but the casting.

Santiago, who plays Carlos’s father, is 78 and looks 20 years younger. He never acted before either, but was a choreographer who went on to be the director of the iconic Tropicana dance company. He told brilliant stories of the mafia before the revolution whom he knew. When he says his prayers to his African gods in the film, I felt nostalgia for belief again. I love it when filmmakers not only take chances with the material, but the casting. The Cubans were magnificent.

The film was in prep as Hurricane Irma decimated Caribbean islands and affected Cuba too. It took the art department three months to find enough wood to lay down for the dance scenes. The same wood had to be laid, and relaid in three different locations as the film progressed. Another reminder that the illegal embargo by the United States imposed now for almost 60 years continues its vicious collective punishment against the Cuban people.

Isn’t it ironic, and very revealing about the world of cinema, that we would have raised more money to make this story in English. Over our dead bodies, of course.

Yuli is released on April 12, following an exclusive Live Film Event at the Royal Opera House on April 3 with a Q&A from Acosta and filmmakers, live streamed to cinemas nationwide. Tickets are available at acostafilm.com