I was briefly partnered in a producing agreement at Columbia/Tri-Star with Gary Foster (Sleepless in Seattle, Tin Cup), a man to whom I will forever owe a debt of gratitude for introducing me to my wife. During this short tenure, the studio asked me to write and co-produce a movie about treasure diving. I was a big fan of the film, The Deep. So I said yes. But soon realized that, aside from what I’d seen on screen or read in dusty novels, I knew scratch about the subject. From there I made the quick leap to this next obvious question: what better way to learn about treasure diving than to dive with actual treasure divers?
Neither Gary nor I had ever donned scuba gear. I could barely recall the last time I’d held my breath underwater for more than game of Marco Polo. I discovered that first we’d need to get certified. Before I knew it, Gary, my dear wife, and I were enrolled in an intensive course in all things scuba, training for an advanced underwater certificate in order to indemnify the studio from liability if any of us were to swallow a lungload of sea water or morph into shark appetizers whilst we satisfied our yearn to learn. That and we needed lots of the newest and grooviest dive equipment.
To which the studio jefe agreed, adding the simple reminder to not forget to “keep all our receipts.”
Because I wanted to dive on actual archeological treasure sites, we told the studio we’d need to travel to where treasure was currently being salvaged: South Florida and the Dominican Republic.
To which the studio said something like, “Whatever. Just go. And make sure you…”
Yeah, yeah. Turn in our receipts. We gotcha.
As we plotted our three-week reccy to dive for treasure in the bathtub-warm waters of the Caribbean, further study led me to discover the biggest and sexiest old world treasure wrecks had sunk in the shallows off the coast of Mother Cuba. A few diplomatic phone calls later and we received invites to the communist republic and permission from the U.S. Department of State to travel to the island nation of sugar cane and cigars. All we needed was a thumbs-up from the movie studio.
Studio boss, Mike Medavoy, agreed whole-heartedly that by all means we should go.
“Yeah, yeah,” we said. “And make sure to keep our receipts.”
“Screw the receipts,” said Medavoy. We weren’t going to Cuba on the studio’s dime without bringing him back a box or three of pure Havana smokes.
“No problemo,” we said.
Belts fastened in our first-class seats, we were wheels up to Miami, then in a rental Cadillac bound for Key West, where we met with famed Mel Fisher to receive his blessing to accompany his crew aboard the salvage ship the MacGruder. His team of professional treasure divers were still recovering the record-breaking cache of gold from the remains of the Atocha, a Spanish Galleon that was lost in the Florida Keys during a hurricane nearly four hundred years before.
From the moment I splashed into the Caribbean waters and joined in the search for golden ingots buried in just a few feet of sand, I was hooked. I even contemplated giving up the movie career for the treasure salvage life. But after seven work-hard-play-harder days in Key West, we were back in the Miami airport with our sights set on our next destination. Cuba.
Unknown to much of the American population, there are daily flights to and from Miami and Havana. Yes, there is an embargo between the U.S. and Cuba and no official diplomatic relations. Yet it is legal in Cuba for citizens over the age of fifty to travel to the U.S. for a short visit with relatives. We were hitching a ride on the return leg that departed at 2:00 A.M. Though we had prepaid for our tickets, the airline insisted on charging nearly double our fare in baggage fees for our three heavy bags of spanking new dive equipment. Our instinct was that this was a plain old third-world extortion scheme. But it was pay or cancel the Cuban portion of our reccy. The Cuban airline took neither our credit cards nor travelers checks. The only remedy left for getting onto the damned aircraft would be by maxing what we could bleed from our ATM accounts. We paid cash. We filed down the JetWay. We buckled ourselves into an aging, Soviet-built aircraft that, when airborne, sounded as it was a single rivet-pop away from coming unglued over open water.
It was dark when we landed in Havana. There was no taxiing to the gate. The aircraft came to a stop on an acre-sized slab of dark tarmac about three hundred yards from the terminal and was instantly met by military vehicles bearing what appeared to be fifty uniformed men armed with machine guns. We deplaned and were ushered into a hangar where we were reunited with our luggage and dive gear. We then patiently waited for our diplomatic passports to impress the English-challenged soldiers. Clearly, they hadn’t read the memo that we were Hollywood filmmakers on a research reccy to best figure out how to romanticize their iconic island nation. Instead, they inspected the contents of our bags with the zeal of Israeli guards on the hunt for explosives. Their attention was piqued when they found our drugs.
At the recommendation of a physician with vast experience traveling in third-world countries, we’d packed a load of prescription meds—mostly antibiotics and such—for worst-case scenarios. Of course, one of those scenarios didn’t include getting hauled off to a Cuban gulag for entering the country with illegal meds. So here we were with this cliché’d Sarge-in-Charge as he shook baggies full of prescription bottles in my face, spitting a fusillade of speech so intense I was cursing my lack of attentiveness in high school Spanish. It felt as if our research holiday was going to turn from bad to worse in a matter of microseconds.
Then about as quick as I could say “political prisoner,” we were rescued by a smooth and handsome customer in civilian clothes. This was Tony, our government-assigned propaganda officer. He instantly took the soldiers to task for harassing “Cuba’s special filmmaking guests.” Talk about a breath of fresh mints. That and despite the awful hour of five in the morning, Propaganda Tony was groomed, smiling, and speaking English more perfect than the Duchess of York.
We were summarily delivered from the airport to our hotel for a quick shower and change before our first official government meeting. Upon checking in to Havana’s (if this were still 1950) finest hotel, we were greeted by a gorgeously coiffed desk girl. At the moment I expected the desk girl to swipe my credit card in order to guarantee room charges and (thinking of a mini-bar filled with baby-mojitos) incidentals, she informed me that because of the embargo they couldn’t take our Americano plastic. No problemo. I’d wisely brought thousands in American Express Travelers Cheques.
“No, señor,” she said with a fixed smile. “From Americans, we can only accept dollars or Cuban pesos.”
Right, I nodded. But we had no pesos. And we’d emptied our money clips of Yankee greenbacks paying the damned baggage fees.
“ATM?” I innocently asked.
The clerk shook her head. Not because the hotel didn’t have an ATM. It’s because she hadn’t a glimmer what an ATM was. I swallowed my concern with a polite nod, headed with my wife up three floors to our room, then as the door clicked shut behind me, began to loudly wonder how the hell we were supposed to pay our bill without access to cash. Karen waved at me, bringing her index finger up to her lips.
“The room could be bugged,” she mouthed. “They could be listening.”
“Why would anyone want to listen to us?” I mouthed back.
“Because we’re Americans.”
“From Hollywood,” I said. “They wouldn’t waste their time.”
My wife gave that dismissive shrug she usually reserves for when certain I’m being ignorant and/or naïve. As a student, she’d spent some time traveling in the former Soviet Union. Before Cuba, the closest I’d ever come to experiencing life under a dictatorial regime was during my two-year deal at Disney.
When we rejoined Propaganda Tony in front of the hotel, he introduced us to our official translator, our personal driver, and the thirty-seat school bus we’d be touring the country in. Of course, it went without saying we were expected to pay for these additional personnel plus the rickety coach.
“How are we gonna pay all this?” I whispered to Gary.
“Not our biggest problem,” said Gary.
“Really? Then what is?”
“Cigars for Medavoy,” he said. “I know Mike. We come back without the smokes, we’re screwed.”
“At least our priorities are in the right place,” I yucked.
“I’m serious,” said Gary. “All the money the studio’s paying out before we even give ’em a first draft? The least Medavoy can expect is that we come back from Cuba with a box of Cohibas.”
“And how hard can that be?” I said.
After all, we were in Cuba. Cigars probably grew on tobacco trees. Ripe for the picking. The government would probably give us crates of Cuban smokes as party swag just for surviving the twenty years in prison we were going to be sentenced to as deadbeat diplomats.
No matter. I still had a movie to research. Jail would have to wait.
Next week: Rum Guns and Cigars Part 2