Programs Fri 8.16.2013

GREETINGS FROM THE TRENCHES: Manos Sucias Producers Reveal the Ins and Outs of Shooting in a Foreign Country

Based on real events as observed by director/co-writer Josef Wladyka, Manos Sucias tells the story of Jacobo Morales, 35, a desperate fisherman from Curai, an Afro-Colombian community on the Pacific Coast of Colombia, and Delio Castillo Morales,19, a naïve kid obsessed with American hip-hop culture. As they go on a mission to travel up the Pacific coast of Colombia in a small boat, towing a torpedo filled with millions of dollars of cocaine, they must navigate their difficult relationship while fighting to survive their journey through the war-torn region.

I first met producers Márcia Nunes and Elena Greenlee, when as part of our Producers Lab, they pitched their project Manos Sucias to a panel of experts at our Film Independent Forum in 2012.  I was touched by the beautiful story that they were setting up to shoot, and impressed by their articulate presentation and knowledge of the culture and milieu in which the story takes place.  That was particularly important to me since it takes place in a small fishing community in my native Colombia.

As I heard the panel of experts “fighting” over the right to support this project, I realized I was not the only one who was moved by the story and saw real potential in these two young filmmakers to pull it off.  Weeks later, I was happy to learn that one of the experts on the panel did end up providing significant support to the project, and a few months later I was very excited when we started getting the first images from their Colombian location.

Upon their return from Colombia this summer, I connected with Marcia and Elena who had a lot to share from this international experience.

Tell us about your team and how this story came about.  
Elena: Director/co-writer Josef Wladyka, co-writer/cinematographer Alan Blanco and I met in NYU’s Graduate Film program. Right before film school Josef was backpacking through South America with a surfer friend, and they ventured off the beaten track and into the Colombian Pacific coast. Josef basically stumbled into a world full of intense, dramatic stories, and lively, urgent characters. He dreamt of making a film there ever since and teamed up with Alan, after writing several other pieces together, to find just the right story to tell.  I came onto the project because Josef and Alan told me that when they tried to think of another filmmaker to whom they would entrust this script they came up with my name; so they basically flattered me into the craziest job ever. When we were looking for a producing partner I felt very strongly that we shouldn’t look among our film school peers. When we met Márcia, who had recently been working in international sales and acquisitions at Goldcrest Films, we were certain that with her passion for the project and skill set, she should be an integral member of the Manos family.

Had any of you had any previous experience working in Colombia?
Márcia: I had been selling movies to Colombia as an international sales agent, so I had relationships with many of the main distributors and production companies there. One of those distributors, Cine Colombia, became our first official investors and introduced us to our other Colombian partner, Caracol. Cine Colombia will be distributing the film theatrically in Colombia, while Caracol will have broadcast TV rights.

What are the challenges of setting up an international shoot in general, and in Colombia specifically?
Elena: The challenges of setting up a film are always many, and we could talk about them on every level. Filmmaking is highly interpersonal and shooting abroad, as a foreign production or co-production, is like forging a cross-cultural marriage. The cultural differences are felt in each phase from talking to investors to selecting catering and craft services on set. The first and biggest challenge is finding the right co-producer, as both you and your co-producer have to understand that you are ambassadors between two distinct production cultures. If you take a flexible and positive approach to this, beautiful things can result, but if either party is too rigidly attached to their own way of doing things, it can be a nightmare. People say that in Colombia things move at a slower pace, but we developed Manos and wrapped production as a Colombian national film within 15 months of coming on board to produce. To do that we had to ignore the “common knowledge” of what can and cannot be done and press ahead at our own rhythm. Sometimes our way of doing things ruffled feathers, but we had to be very careful and honest with ourselves about when we were risking offending anyone’s sensibilities and when we were simply showing them a different way of working.

What were the advantages of working in Colombia, did you use their strong tax incentives?  Can you briefly explain how these work?
Elena: Being on location in Colombia became a necessity for us when we realized that on our budget level we’d never be able to recreate this amazingly textured world anywhere else. The locations were a huge advantage as was the hometown love we felt from the local communities who were truly interested in helping us tell their story on film.

Márcia: Once we realized we would be shooting on location, we knew we had to be a Colombian national film. This was important to us both because the story is so inherently Colombian, but also because of the many financing incentives the government provides to national films. We took advantage of what is called the Ley de Cine, which is an investment incentive program that gives the investors of national films 41% of their investment back as a tax credit. This makes investing in film very appealing to companies like Cine Colombia and Caracol, as the 41% they get back as a tax credit effectively mitigate the risks of investing in an independent production such as ours.

Did you work with Colombian crews and cast? How did you find your crew?
Elena: Our entire cast is Colombian. Authenticity is so important to us in this film, and part of the appeal is taking audiences to a world that they are most likely not familiar with (even within Colombia) but that we feel they should be aware of. For that reason, though some live and work in Bogotá, our entire cast is native to the region where we shot, which has a very strong culture and dialect. Our crew was mostly Colombian, based out of Bogotá and Cali. All of our Production Assistants and Interns were locals from Buenaventura working on a film set for the first time; and we couldn’t have done it without them. We found the Colombian crew through our Co-Producer Mirlanda Torres. I will say there is a lot of film production in Colombia and competition for the best crew members is fierce. For several positions, we couldn’t afford to work with a Colombian crew who had the level of experience that we wanted so we brought some intrepid friends from New York to staff the camera department. Josef also brought a Colombian translator who has lived in NYC for many years and works in film. I can’t stress enough how important it was for him, as the director, to have a reliable translator who understood the script in and out as well as Josef’s style of directing. Working in translation is a very complicated thing.

Can you tell us about some magical moments of the shoot (a moment where all of a sudden all the stars align, and you can’t believe you’re finally telling the story, and it’s turning out even better than you dreamed it!)
Elena: We were working in an unstable region, battling tides in the ocean and rain in a cloud forest; and yet so much magic happened that deep moments of appreciation were actually quite abundant. I remember a scene when one character had to witness another’s violent death very close up. It was one of those awkward filmmaking moments where the production reality is so far from the truth of the characters and the story. The art director was crouching centimeters outside of frame with a handful of fake blood that she’s ready to fling, point blank onto the actor. The camera was inches from the actor’s face and much of the crew was huddled around them working as human tent poles for a tarp. I sat at the monitor and watched the scene unfold. When it was done Alan (who is our DP as well as co-writer) looked at me. We were on the verge of tears and he said “what happened in those eyes…I’ve never seen anything like it,” and I felt the same way.  It seemed something so real had happened in the frame and I knew we were really making a movie.

Can you tell us about the most challenging moments, and how did you overcome them?
Márcia: I think one of the most challenging moments for any independent production is to decide when to say “GO!” There is never a definitive moment when all the money is in the bank and all the contracts are signed to signify that it is time to start. Instead, you have to set a firm start date in order for those other elements to fall into place. We had been in final negotiations with our partners for several months when two very important things happened: our Kickstarter campaign for the last little bit we needed to greenlight production was successfully funded, and we won the SFFS/KRF production grant. With the momentum of those two events we were able to push through the uncertainty and set a start date for the shoot with the confidence that everything we needed would be in place by then (which it luckily was).

Elena: In production there were very challenging confrontations with the devastating poverty that is so many people’s reality in Buenaventura. On the worst days it was hard to keep the faith that by making a film we could be doing much to help. The best remedy for that feeling of helplessness was just to move on to the next day and let all the smiles and laughs on set remind us that for everyone involved this was a precious and unique experience, and what can come of it is yet to be seen.

What are the three most valuable lessons that you and your team learned from this experience shooting in Colombia.
Elena and Márcia:

1. Integrity comes first. Our gut instincts were never off about important decisions (even when we didn’t follow them). And we approached the job of producing a film in a hazardous environment from a very idealistic standpoint. Our ideals provided us with a standard we could always check in with when we felt lost. That got our team through production safe and sound, and proud of the work we did.

2. No one can represent you better than you. One day I was having trouble figuring out why it hadn’t worked out to delegate certain tasks to members of the production team. To help, Márcia told me of an axiom that says 85% is enough 85% of the time, which means sometimes seemingly small things require that 100% touch. It’s important to learn to identify those, and (as important as collaboration is) not to delegate them. In Buenaventura we needed to show our faces and bare a part of our souls to make people understand what we were hoping to do there, and maintaining those relationships with good old-fashioned face time was non-negotiable.

3. A true partner is priceless. As important as lesson #2 is, having a partner that you can trust implicitly is invaluable. Because we were separated for much of the shoot, there were many decisions we had to make separately, and often without the ability to talk about it first. In the months of development and pre-production, we built a relationship based on constant and truly honest communication, which meant that by the time we were doing work in different countries we both felt completely confident in each other’s work.

Are you finished shooting?  When is the film coming out?
Elena and Márcia: We wrapped principal photography on June 29th, and are now devoting ourselves fully to the editing and post-production process.

I can’t wait to see this film.  Good luck in the editing room!

By Maria Bozzi / Director of Film Education