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INTERVIEW: Tiller Russell, Writer/Director of 'Silk Road'

Andrew Bloomenthal interviews 'Silk Road' writer/director Tiller Russell about the real-life rise and fall of cyber drug honcho Ross Ulbricht.
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As genres go, Silk Road, the new pic about Ross Ulbricht--founder of the kiboshed black market website that inspired this film’s title, is an oddity of a movie. On the one hand, writer/director Tiller Russell leaned heavily on his documentarian background to retrace Ulbricht’s rise from privileged college graduate to fallen darknet kingpin. But Russell then paired this real-life figure, played by Nick Robinson, with a fictional nemesis in the form of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), a middle-aged drug enforcement agent on loan to the FBI’s cybercrimes unit--hot in pursuit of his faceless millennial white whale, whose site let users anonymously traffic in drugs, weapons, bogus passports, and other contraband.

Nick Robinson as Ross Ulbricht in the crime thriller film, SILK ROAD, A Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Nick Robinson as Ross Ulbricht in the crime thriller film, SILK ROAD, A Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Launched in 2010, Ulbricht shrewdly timed Silk Road’s rollout to dovetail with then-nascent cryptocurrency Bitcoin, facilitating a whopping $1.2 billion in revenue over the site’s two-plus-year run. And although Ulbricht reportedly banked $420 million in commissions, the cash was secondary to the Texas native, who was more interested in promoting a deregulated marketplace where anything goes—with the natural exceptions of kiddie porn, stolen credit cards, and murders for hire. If only Ulbricht hadn’t lifted a finger to his own rules by placing a hit on a blackmailer who threatened to divulge his customers’ user data.

Although that assassination plot fell through, when Ulbricht was finally busted conducting business on his laptop in a public library, attempted murder charges were slapped atop of a long list of offenses, including narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and computer hacking. Ulbricht currently sits behind bars in federal prison.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the film’s digital divide, lawman Rick Bowden, whose old-school methods run hopelessly out of step with today’s high-tech world, wears more than a few moral ambiguities of his own. Crafted by Russell as a composite of the real-life crooked operatives who wove the net that snared Ulbricht, Bowden isn’t above embezzling a few shekels when the need arises. Hey, no one’s perfect.

“To me, this movie is about two missiles that have been fired from far apart, right at one another,” explains Russell, who spoke with Script’s Andrew Bloomenthal about creating this compelling tale of cyber cat-and-mouse.

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How would you describe the genre of this film?

That’s a complicated question because I began exploring this story the way I would journalistically or if I were making a documentary film about it, which involved uncovering every piece of information that was in the public record and talking to people who knew Ross, like his ex-girlfriend. She was a close source and consultant on the movie. Also, like, literally 99.9% of the voiceover in the film is drawn either from Ross’s diaries on his confiscated laptop or from his public postings as [alias] Dread Pirate Roberts, as well as all the information in the chat logs. So, my insight into Ross came from all of these different sources. But from the get-go, I discovered there were conflicting portraits of him, so I put all the rigorous research aside and walked into the script saying, “If I’m Ross, what’s in my head--moment to moment? What are the decisions? What are the secrets? What are the lies?”

Then I did the same thing with Jason Clarke’s character--Rick Bowden, knowing a lot of narcs and cops and crooked cops, so his character was a composite. I then poured myself into it to fill in any gaps from the inside. So, in a weird way, there are pieces of autobiography in those characters, where I’m making them true to my psyche, because in spite of the bad behavior and reprehensible decisions and fuck-ups along the way, I was deeply empathetic to both characters and the turmoil within them, and I did my best to find their spiritual truths.

Tiller Russell. Photo credit Jess Falkenhagen

Tiller Russell. Photo credit Jess Falkenhagen

When writing the script, did you ever second guess yourself? Or did you honor the Allen Ginsberg saying: “First thought, best thought,” and never look back?

Yeah, that’s a beautiful question and insight. So, I work in kind of a funny way. Before I began writing, I went and sat in the places [Ulbricht frequented]. I wanted to sit in coffee shops in Austin. I wanted to go to the sci-fi section of the Glen Park library in San Francisco in order to gather a vibe and a sense of geography and tone of these places. Then after doing all of this research for a long period of time, I threw it all away and wrote fast and intuitively. And I’ll trust that, but at the same time, I’ll go back through the script after sitting with each of the actors. Nick Robinson would say, “I read this,” or “I heard that in a podcast,” and “can we integrate this moment into the scene?” Or Jason Clarke, after spending time working with his voice coach on the Baltimore accent, would say, “No, no—THIS is the phrasing of it.” … As somebody who makes documentaries as well as narrative films, a lot of the job is listening. Not listening would be like someone bringing you a carefully considered pearl that you brush away because you prefer the shell that it’s sitting in. At the end of the day, the best idea wins. Ego and narcissism are grossly overrated.

But some screenwriters reject external feedback. If an actor attempted to change lines of dialogue in The Sopranos, he’d be fired.

David Chase would chop off your hands, man.

Ross Ulbricht came from a privileged upbringing, without any real hardships to rebel against. What motivated him to venture into illegal territory?

There’s a beautiful quote by Carl Jung that says, “I am not the things that have happened to me, but who I choose to become,” and in a weird sense, that applies here. You don’t choose the circumstances of your birth. You don’t choose your upbringing. You don’t choose the material comforts of your existence. And yet, at some point, you do make a choice as to who you’ll become. And I think that whatever the shortcomings of his character are—which are innumerable and landed him in prison for double life, plus forty years, without the possibility of parole, which I think is a Draconian sentence, for what it’s worth, there are people that are visionaries and disruptors, who see the world in a different way--whether it’s a God-given splinter of genius that’s being touched, or whether it’s a defiant, go-your-own-way, bomb-the-system contrarianism, or whether it’s some combination of the two. But in a weird way, I also believe in destiny, and Ross was somebody who felt that he was going to change the world.

Through unregulated e-commerce?

He believed every person has the right to choose his own destiny and that government does not belong in your decision-making. So, that was his guiding principle, and he was profoundly driven by that. And then he also had the genius to combine technologies—the anonymity of Tor* with Bitcoin as a currency, that permanently and irrevocably changed the war on drugs and the illegal dope game. It was a visionary genius--regardless of what end it was used for.

* Tor, short for “The Onion Router,” is open-source software that cloaks user communication by directing internet traffic through a volunteer overlay network.

But he did allegedly attempt to commission murder, even though he was actually dealing with an undercover operative that didn’t carry out the mission. So, how does that factor into your opinion of him?

I want to clarify something. It’s not that I admire him or that I support his actions. It’s that I’m fascinated by his character. My job as a writer and as a storyteller is not to pass judgment one way or another. My job is to enter into and understand the characters from within, and it’s the inherent conflict within each of them that makes them so fascinating to me. On one hand, Ross is a dreamer and a visionary. On the other hand, he’s a gangster who’s reportedly ordering hits. Whether or not the hits actually happened, and whether or not he was entrapped into them, you have to argue the intention once you’re willing to cross that line. So, for me, it’s not a question of moral approbation or condemnation. It’s the same thing with Rick Bowden. This guy’s also crossing the line, essentially becoming a crook because he’s getting marginalized by his own system and because the world is leaving him behind, where he becomes almost like a Peckinpah character who’s out of step with the time, for whom this is his one last shot at redemption.

Jason Clarke as Rick Bowden in the crime thriller film, SILK ROAD, A Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Jason Clarke as Rick Bowden in the crime thriller film, SILK ROAD, A Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

I liked how Bowden was so out of his technological depth that he relied on instructional videos to accomplish basic computing tasks, like sending an email.

They call those kinds of guys “Jurassic narcs.” Once upon a time, [lawmen] were defined by the sidearms they were carrying. “Is it a SIG Sauer? Is it a Glock?” But then it became: “How much RAM is on your laptop?” So, these guys got left behind with the changing of the guard and the changing of the culture, and yet they have an accumulated knowledge of how the streets work and the psychology and dynamics that motivate people. As a screenwriter, that conflict was fascinating to me.

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Was it hard to nail the tech-speak like, “High-security low-latency internet anonymity?”

No. Because my whole approach as a writer and a filmmaker is to surround myself with incredibly bright people and use them as a resource. I have a whole cadre of tech people who are able to check the accuracy of the phrasing of these words, as well a network of cops and DEA agents to help me nail down the tactical end of things, like, you know, the “Ghost One to mobile!” jargon on the radio during the takedown scene, when Ross is arrested in San Francisco. So, there’s a documentary level of groundedness.

Finally, did hubris lead Ross Ulbricht to conduct illegal business in a public library rather than operating behind closed doors?

Well, I think he was undeniably brilliant, and the fact that he’d been beating the system and defying the odds gave him the hubris to think that he could continue to do so. At the same time, he was hunted and chased while carrying his entire life in a backpack, on his laptop, as he roved from place to place. This is a cautionary tale—a Frankenstein story, where he unleashes the monster that grabs him by the throat.

Lionsgate will release the crime thriller film Silk Road on Digital, On Demand & Select Theaters on February 19, 2021 and on Blu-Ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.


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