Spike Lee liked what he saw in NYU film programme graduate Josef Wladyka’s story of estranged brothers in Colombia who mule a cocaine-filled torpedo up the Pacific Coast. Wladyka talks to Jeremy Kay.

Lee came on board as executive producer and the film – which took seven years to make from inception to delivery – earned the best new narrative director prize and an audience award in Tribeca last year.

Now The Film Collaborative has opened Manos Sucias in limited release in the US (April 3). Wladyka talks about what brought Lee to the project and what Lee brought to the project, shooting in the hot spot of Buenaventura and his young stars Jarlin Javier Martinez and Cristian James Abvincula

What’s the story about?
The script was always changing, especially once it was cast and we’d seen the places where we could shoot, but the heart of the story was about these two estranged brothers. The plot was based on real people who had done this work, but the heart of it was about these brothers. Alan and I knew you had to laugh with them and see them acting like two guys in a boat and be there with them through these moments of tension to make these stakes higher. It was important to have lighters moments to make dramatic moments more powerful. We wanted to take this bright-eyed naïve kid on this journey.

Tell us about the Spike Lee of it all
I studied directing at the graduate film programme in New York City and he teaches in the third year. I had been starting to put together the idea for this film and I travelled to South America and had written a short script and shared it with him [in 2011]. As I continued to go back and research and shoot footage in the area, he really mentored me and really appreciated the project. It wasn’t until we showed him a cut of the film that he came on as executive producer and presenter [in late 2013]. He’s a huge supporter. If we needed letters written he would do that and help us out as much as he could. He is extremely generous. He does this for all his students.

Where did the idea for the story come from?
It all started from a backpacking trip with a close friend of mind through Ecuador and Colombia. We’d travel through the Pacific Coast and we’d go through these towns and the locals would tell us how they were under siege from these different groups and [tell us] all about the narco-trafficking and how they were caught in between. A lot of the time it was fishermen we were hitching a ride with going down a road to a beach.

They would tell us about different techniques these people would use [to transport drugs] like the torpedoes and go-fast boats. I thought there would be a great film there. Over the course of the next few years during my summer breaks I would go back and research the area and continue to write my journal and work out what he plot and characters would be. After every trip I got together with Alan Blanco who was my classmate and helped me dramatise it. We wrote the script together and he would be my DP.

How was Manos Sucias funded?
We received a lot of grants and a lot of in-kind assistance. We got two grants from the San Francisco Film Society, who have been a great supporter. We got a grant from Film Independent for out camera package. It was piecemeal: we did a Kickstarter [campaign] for $60,000 and we had some investment from Cine Colombia and one private investor in the US.

How did you find Jarlin Javier Martinez and Cristian James Abvincula?
They studied theatre. There’s a school in Buenaventura. The way I met a lot of the actors is through their teacher. I developed a relationship with them and auditioned them. It was such a joy. It wasn’t like working with non-actors. They travel around Colombia and do a lot of plays. They have the skillset but had never done a film before. It was like a coach preparing a basketball team. We started sharing things about our own lives and went through the script. For me it was very important they told me if a scene in Buenaventura didn’t seem authentic.

The Colombian Spanish was changed into Buenaventura Spanish. There was an intense rehearsal and we locked it in. Our producer Elena Greenlee had us rehearse in the location with the crew to grease the wheels so we were ready and everybody’s the cadence came together. There was a lot of preparation. For me I’m most happy with the performances of these two guys. When we screened the film all over the world they’re the ones people most responded to. The older one’s career [Martinez] is really taking off in Colombia.

You shot over spring/summer 2013 Buenaventura. How did that go?
We shot in Buenaventura and in a few surrounding towns – that was like our hub and that’s the controversial epicentre of the drug trade where there are serious issues going on. Buenaventura is a very complicated place and there’s a constant struggle with violence and different armed groups trying to control the area. I have travelled through most of Colombia. It’s a relatively safe place but there are still a couple of hot spots that are tough.

It’s hard for the people that live there who have to experience if every day. As foreigners coming in we didn’t have to deal with it. What was most important for us was to be safe and [make it] as safe as possible for our crew. We were very careful when and how we approached shooting. For example we would call ahead before we shot in an area and we’d go there and get to know the community elders and it was like a cultural exchange. We did film-making workshops with people in Buenaventura to help them make shorts and on their cell phones. It’s a volatile place and you never know, but we did our best and talked to as many people as possible.

What’s next?
Alan and I are continuing to work on ideas and tell stories. I’m looking at scripts for possible open directing jobs. This film took seven years to make and as a director I don’t want too much time to pass before I make another movie so I’m very open to different types of films.