“I was my life’s work, and come hell or high water, I wanted to make it,” Andy Garcia said of his dream project, “The Lost City,” a film set in Havana in the waning days of the Batista regime and the initial stages of Fidel Castro’s. The picture was shot over only thirty-five days in the Dominican Republic, but it took a bit longer than that to prepare. “Sixteen years from the day we got the first draft,” the actor and first-time director said with a slight smile during a recent Dallas interview. “But it started before then. I’m only counting from the day I got the first draft, and from then on it was really an uphill battle to get it made.”

But the idea for the film went back even further, Garcia explained. “What happened was that Frank Mancuso, Sr., at the time was the head of Paramount Pictures, and I’d been doing some movies there. He asked me if I had an idea for a movie–he wanted to support me on it if I wanted to develop something. I mentioned the idea of a sort of ‘Casablanca’ in Cuba. And he said, ‘It’s a great idea. Do you have a writer?’ And I said I’d like to approach this gentleman, one of the most important writers out of Cuba, and also in Latin-American literature–his name is G. Cabrera Infante. And he said, ‘Okay, check him out and see if he wants to do it.’

“So I went to London and I met with Infante, and he seemed a bit taken by the idea that a young kid would be interested in that subject matter and was crazy about Cuban music–or at least as crazy as he was, he wrote a lot about it in his novels, about the night-life and the cabaret world. So he committed to writing the screenplay, and he got the screenplay in May, 1990. It was more like the Bible, because it was three hundred and fifty pages long, really like a novel in screenplay form, a mini-series.”

At that point, Garcia continued, there was a change in the executive suites of Paramount. “The new regime wanted to hire a new writer,” he recalled, “and I couldn’t endure that, so I asked for it in turnaround, as they call it, and I got the script back. From then on I just was trying to find a home for it. I never got any support from the traditional American distribution [system]. So it became an independent movie looking for money.” It would take more than a decade of effort to get “The Lost City” made, but the finished product is true to the original script, although a good deal of trimming was clearly involved. Garcia said, “The movie is [in] an Infante genre, with my take on it–but it all stems from that first script he gave to me….The movie is what I wanted it to be, and what Mr. Infante wanted it to be. And the cut was not influenced by anything other than the people who made the movie. All the decisions were made by the filmmakers.”

It was intended from the first that Garcia would play Fico, one of three brothers in a prominent Cuban family and the one who runs the Havana club that’s the hub of the action. “The part was written for me, specifically,” he said. But he added, “He started out as the middle brother, and ended up being the older brother. And I was prepared to play the father if that was the case” because of the delay in getting the film produced. “Luckily, I came in just under the radar!” There was another change the long gestation brought for Garcia. “When I got the script in 1990,” he explained, “it said Fico plays the piano alone in private. I’d never played the piano. But I was always interested in the piano, so I brought a piano, thinking I’d have to fake this so I’d better get familiar with it. But the movie took so long that I taught myself how to play the piano!”

Garcia also was determined to direct the film. “It’s just a story I wanted to tell,” he said. “I had a very personal connection to it, and very early on, when I started making films, I knew that I wanted to make movies, not only act in them.” He added: “You know, ‘The Godfather’ would have been a totally different movie is Francis [Ford Coppola] wouldn’t have directed that film. I really believe that. And I think the fact that he was inside the culture and he brought all those cultural elements to the picture made it beyond just a gangster picture. It had a different tonality, like peeking inside a world, the world of this particular Italian-American family.”

It was Garcia’s first time as a director, but he had a clear notion of how to do the job. “Your most important job as a director, the most delicate job, is the casting,” he opined. “Once you cast it right, most of the directing, I think, is done. If you have a great actor and he fits the part, well, they’re going to take that part and run with it, and it’s just a question of giving them the space to come in and play. If you need to conspire with him in a direction, or try to explore a certain emotional thing, you do it together. But most of the time if you give an actor a piece of direction, you’re going to do him a disservice….I try to set it up where the actors can express themselves without feeling that they’re being judged.” Garcia looked back on the example of Hal Ashby, who’d directed him in “Eight Million Ways to Die” in 1988. “Hal always used to say, ‘We got that–do something else.’ He would never judge what you did. You say, ‘That’s great–try something else, keep working.’ Keep exploring the material, you know?

“People just stepped into the parts–we inhabited these parts. Most of us relish to be involved in films like this, because sometimes the bigger sort of studio fare can get very impersonal, and no matter how much money you have, you don’t have the ability to rekindle the feeling you had when you first got into that bonding together to put on a play sort of thing, you know? It kind of gets lost in the different reality, you know? And people like to get back to that in movies they feel they want to be a part of, and that mean something to them. And that’s the feeling we all had with this movie. [Directing] was taxing work, it was difficult, but it didn’t feel difficult to me, because it was such a joy to be doing it–so invigorating that it didn’t feel like a difficult task….What I’m searching for is the emotional resonance in a scene, something that strikes, that’s original, that’s real–something that really happens. When you have that, that’s where the power is. Like with a Hal Ashby film–I worked with him, and I know how he worked–you watch them, and there’s this resonance with his movies, because he worked in a way where he was always searching for this spark, this thing to happen that wasn’t planned. And those things, he put them all in the movie, and you have this human behavior that’s very natural. That’s what I search for as a director.”

One of the actors Garcia cast–as Fico’s younger brother, who becomes a revolutionary in Che Guevara’s brigade–was Enrique Murciano, a star of the hit CBS series “Without a Trace,” who accompanied him to Dallas and described working with him. “Andy was extremely passionate about it, and that passion was contagious,” he said. “There was a sense of magic on the set. That magic was sparked with Andy Garcia, and it sort of seeped down to the rest of the production, the rest of the cast and crew. He had a really special way–and maybe it’s because he’s a fantastic actor–of forcing me to go inside and pull it out and do it within three seconds. My death scene was one take! And I’d look at Andy and say, ‘Good?’ And he’d say, “You’ll never be better.’ I don’t know if that was a compliment or not, but that sense of magic existed on every level, from the transport guys that were local Dominican people to the Mexican special effects people and the Israeli cinematographer. There was an international medley of artists that came together to help him realize his dream.

“It was the best time I’ve ever had on a movie,” Murciano enthused. “I grew up watching him and I grew up loving him and I grew up respecting him, so the opportunity to work with him and to learn from him, especially since I share the same love for the craft, was to me like an honors course at a college. I got to learn so much about what it really means to be an artist–not so much just an actor.”

But the effect of making “The Lost City” on Murciano was even more intensely personal. “I grew up in America,” he said. “Now I have a very rich picture [of Cuba]. I see the beauty that existed there. I see why the word ‘patria’–homeland–means so much more than a geographical location. I see my whole family, my upbringing, myself in a very different light. I look in the mirror now, and I see a very different person than I saw three years ago.

“I’m a different man because of this film.”