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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 02.20.21] drama crime

Writer, director, and producer Tiller Russell has a thing for criminals. Over the year's he has produced and directed a variety of features, documentaries, and TV series about everything from inmates on a sports team to The Night Stalker.

Russell's latest film Silk Road is a hybrid; on the one hand a well-researched documentary about Ross Ulbricht, the founder, and creator of the infamous Silk Road, the first darknet marketplace that was a hub for selling illegal drugs. Not to mention that it made Ulbricht rich and on the other, a fictionalized police account of how he was taken down.

The majority of the movie's first half focuses on Ross (Nick Robinson) and the why and how he developed the site while the second half focuses on detective Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a troubled police officer relegated to a desk job in an area he knows nothing about.

We know how the story ends but Russell's take on the events makes for an enjoyable crime drama with solid performances from Clarke and Robinson.

We recently had a chance to speak with Russell about the inspiration for the movie, how the project came together and what he's working on next.

Silk Road is now available in select theaters, on digital and VOD, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

Quiet Earth: When you first read David Kushner's article, and if at that point you knew right away, you wanted to make this into a movie.

Tiller Russell: You know, it actually even predated that [article]. I was off shooting a crime doc and I remember picking up and reading the newspaper the day after Ross [Ulbricht] was arrested in San Francisco and there were these little, kind of odd, titillating details. He was in the sci-fi section of the Glen Park Library. I remember putting the paper down and just thinking like "gosh, there's going to be an amazing story here. But what's the story, what led him to be there?" From that forward, I had this visceral instinct, like there's maybe a doc, maybe a feature film.

That piece became the springboard for the movie. Then what ended up happening was the whole second half or the other part of the story, which had not quite entered the public record, which was that there were these, corrupt law enforcement officers that were trying to bust Ross and then trying to rip him off... that was told to me by friends that I have in law enforcement and then the US Attorney's Office and suddenly then I thought, okay, that's the framework for our movie: these two strong central characters with opposing viewpoints.

Is that how the character of Rick Bowden came together?

Okay. So basically there were a couple of corrupt law enforcement officers that were involved in the real story. And the Rick Bowden character is a composite of several different characters.

I have spent a lot of time covering the drug war over the years, writing about and making non-fiction films about the drug war so my knowledge of it is pretty intimate and detailed. For example, the relationship between Rick Bowden and Rayfer is drawn from relationships that I know between a specific NARC and an informant so it's drawn very authentically from life, but it is, I guess, grafted on to this story, which was why it was important for me to acknowledge at the outset in this sort of cheeky text at the top that this story is true except for what we made up or changed because it is an interesting blend of kind of rigorous journalism and speculative fiction.

It sounds like the story really came together when Rick's side of the story started to materialize but were you always waiting for that other piece to fall into place or did you ever consider making this a straightforward documentary?

Well you know, I had written Ross a letter very early on when he was locked up in MCC correctional in New York. I knew that his lawyers were never going to let him talk to me until he'd been through the court system and until all of the appeals had been exhausted and frankly until very recently, he was hoping for a pardon, I think, which did not materialize. So I knew that it was going to be very difficult to get access to him for a documentary. And interestingly enough, now that we're on the other side of all that, I have just written him a letter and sort of put that forward to him, which is, "Hey, I've made my film, which is my portrait of you and now I'd be very curious if you would be willing to sit down and tell your own version of your story." So we'll see if he's interested in doing so or not.

Ross is this interesting character in that sometimes he's a really charismatic character and you're rooting for him and in the same instant, he turns around and does something despicable. Can you talk about finding the balance between the good and the bad, and then casting that role.

Well, I knew that it was an interesting character arc where you're starting with somebody that goes from kind of dreamer to a gangster to a legend. I probably sat down with almost every fantastic young leading man in Hollywood when the script was sort of first circulating around.

As soon as I sat down with Nick Robinson, I just loved him. And I loved him for the part because he was so sweet and vulnerable and winning, you know, likable as a human being. Lovable. As soon as I sat with him I knew he was my guy because I knew that to take an audience on a dark journey like that you have to be able to connect emotionally early on with him. And then it becomes, as you said, kind of a tight rope walk of, wait a minute, am I rooting for this guy or am I rooting against him? Hopefully, it produces some level of internal questioning for the audience in terms of who they identify with and who they're for, and who they're against over the course of the film.

I really love the editing because it almost feels like an action movie. It never lags. Could you talk about finding a rhythm for the edit?

All of the credit goes to my brilliant editor, Greg O'Bryant who cut The Report for Scott Burns which Soderbergh produced, and is this just an incredibly thoughtful, and fascinating combination of an instinctive artist, as well as a very analytical and thoughtful one. He very early on said this is all about rhythm. We have to be playing at a certain tempo and we have to be carefully weaving between these stories and the transitions between them need to be seamless and propulsive and his instincts were just so perfect. Essentially we shot it as two separate films. We shot Jason Clark's half of the movie and all of the characters that were in that. And then with a brief couple of days of overlap, then we shot the Nick Robinson movie with a whole separate cast. Then it became the art of carefully braiding those stories together, such that one is kind of catapulting you from one story to the next. All credit to Greg. He's a genius.

How beneficial or detrimental is your background as a producer to the making of the movie?

I think that it's very valuable. Somebody once said, you know, the producer's job is to build the sandbox so that the director can play in it but the truth of the matter is knowing exactly what your constraints and limitations actually oftentimes end up becoming positives. If you can turn them into tools rather than constraints, then you always have a constructive way to deal with the obstacles that come up so the more informed you are about money, about days, about the complexities of cast availability, you're able to... I couldn't do any of that left to my own devices, so that's not my skill-set but I like being educated in it because then it helps me make informed choices so that I can maximize the amount of time I have on set to work with an actor, which is the most important thing.

You always have so many projects on the go. What are you working on next?
My next feature film is going to actually be an adaptation of my documentary Operation Odessa. I've been carefully and quietly working on that in the background for a couple of years so that's going to be my next movie. And then I've got a really cool cross-section of documentary projects that are on the bubble that I can't quite tell you particulars on but that I'm very excited to jump into very soon as well.

Silk Road is now available in select theaters, on digital and VOD, and will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

Recommended Release: Silk Road

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