In unscripted television, it often benefits the producer to expect the unexpected. And sometimes “the unexpected” can include being on the ground for history in the making.
In the case of California-based prodco Pilgrim Studios and its latest entry to Discovery’s automotive-themed ‘Motor Mondays’ programming block, Cuban Chrome, the twist came in the form of historic announcements made last December by U.S. president Barack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro, confirming the move to re-establish diplomatic relations.
Shooting in Cuba since July of 2014, the Pilgrim team was stationed at the house of one of Cuban Chrome’s central characters and his family when the news broke.
“They were all crying – it’s a great scene,” recalls Pilgrim president and CEO Craig Piligian, days before the series’ July 13 premiere. “We had no clue it was coming.”
Indeed, in the lead-up to the process of bringing its crews to Cuba to begin work on the series, which follows members of the A Lo Cubano Car Club as they work to restore vintage American cars into shining works of automotive art, Piligian and his team didn’t have much of an inkling as to whether they’d be able to get the project – the first American TV series to be produced entirely on location in Cuba – to pole position, let alone the finish line.
Then, the real work of handling the sharp twists and turns of red tape began. An initial application for an OFAC (Office of Foreign Assets Control) license – required for some transactions that would otherwise be prohibited – was denied, which brought Pilgrim back to the drawing board. After reviewing the original application with a team of attorneys, a new application was drafted, sent, and then… forgotten about.The idea of a program about Cuban car culture was first pitched to Pilgrim by Rhino Pictures EPs Phil Conserva, Louis Milito and Carlos Marimon. Pilgrim partnered with the team, provided a different creative spin to the original tape, and sold the show to Discovery Channel.
“This was a year-and-a-half process,” says Piligian. “We sent it off and months went by. One day, a big stack of regular mail came in, and it wasn’t until 4:30 or 5 o’clock that it was opened. And there it [the approved license] was, addressed to our attorney. We said, ‘Are you f***ing kidding me? Regular mail?’”
A month and a half later – after getting visas sorted – they were in Cuba “looking for people and casting,” Piligian says. After finding the team from A Lo Cubano and three central characters, the show was “off to the races.”
Pilgrim has a proven track record when it comes to shows about things that go “vroom” – witness the long-running American Chopper and the prodco’s current block of series for Discovery’s ‘Motor Mondays’ strand, including Fast ‘n’ Loud and Street Outlaws, among others.
“Discovery have been great partners on Monday nights for us,” he says. “We’re just hoping Cuban Chrome airs well.”
And for the record, while not calling himself an auto aficionado, Piligian does admit, “I like to collect them now and then.”