- “Silk Highway,” written and directed by Tiller Russell, will likely be launched on Feb. 19.
- It is primarily based on the case of Ross Ulbricht, the Westlake Excessive grad who created the Silk Highway.
- “Love, Simon” star performs Ulbricht, who’s presently serving a life sentence.
- “Silk Highway” was partially filmed in Austin, together with on South Congress Avenue.
Earlier than he was the mastermind of a darkish internet drug market, Ross Ulbricht was an Austin-area teenager. His path to creating the Silk Highway — and the string of deaths and the thousands and thousands in cryptocurrency on the way in which — grew to become a nationwide crime story, coated by retailers including the American-Statesman.
Now, it is a characteristic movie: “Silk Highway,” written and directed by Tiller Russell. It is out in theaters and accessible on demand on Feb. 19.
Ulbricht began the Silk Highway on-line market in 2011. Prosecutors later stated he collected $18 million in bitcoin as commission on more than 1 million drug deals via the positioning. He operated underneath the alias Dread Pirate Roberts, a reference to “The Princess Bride.”
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He was arrested in 2013 and presently is serving a life sentence, which a federal appeals court upheld in 2017. Prosecutors pointed to the deaths of individuals from medication bought by way of the Silk Highway, and the sentencing decide took into consideration proof that Ulbricht, who graduated from Westlake Excessive College in 2002, tried to have five people killed because he deemed them a threat to the operation.
Russell, whose work additionally contains the docuseries “Night time Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer,” discovered concerning the case from a Rolling Stone story by David Kushner and says he researched Ulbricht extensively.
“I by no means met with Ross, although,” Russell stated after we talked on the telephone just lately. “I’d very a lot like to — truly simply despatched him a letter yesterday with the film now popping out, saying, ‘Hey, man, I might love to take a seat down with you and listen to your model of what occurred and what it was like for you from the within.'”
Within the movie, actor Nick Robinson (of “Love, Simon” and “A Instructor”) performs Ulbricht as an aimless idealist who finds an outlet for his radical libertarian philosophy within the Silk Highway. The illicit undertaking quickly grows out his management, resulting in battle together with his girlfriend, Julia (a model of Ulbricht’s real-life ex, performed by Alexandra Shipp of the “X-Males” movies), and an unscrupulous luddite of a federal investigator (performed by Jason Clarke).
Russell thinks “there is a little bit of a Frankenstein factor to the story.” As he understands it, Ulbricht went into the creation of Silk Highway with the intention of adjusting the world and giving folks freedom to do what they need. “However then at a sure level, he created this factor that entered the zeitgeist and have become a monster and acquired out of his management and ended up grabbing him by the throat,” stated Russell, who provides that he is empathetic towards each Ulbricht and those that died.
We talked to the director about fact, fiction and filming in Austin. These excerpts have been edited for size and readability.
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You began out as a criminal offense reporter, is that proper?
Yeah, within the San Francisco Bay space, Berkeley.
Lots of people can get burned out on that subject material. What retains you curious about digging into the darker facet of human habits, now within the movie world?
I used to be magnetized to this world a bit as a child. My dad was within the DA’s workplace depicted in Errol Morris’ movie, “The Skinny Blue Line.” In order I grew up, he dragged me round to precincts and the courthouse and jails. I feel his intention was that I’d be scared straight, however as a substitute, I form of imprinted like a duck on the world and have been embedded in it ever since.
What concerning the Ross Ulbricht case spoke to you as one thing that might make an excellent film?
I used to be fascinated by this story from the very first day I examine his arrest within the sci-fi part of the Glen Park Library in San Francisco. Even from the preliminary thumbnail reporting of it, I had a powerful intuition, like there is a film behind this. Who is that this man? What was his arc and expertise? As a result of it was this extremely compressed story the place he went from launching Silk Highway in 2011 to getting arrested in 2013. So in the midst of 18 to 24 months, he cycles via from dreamer to visionary to gangster to legend.
When the Rolling Stone article got here out, it was a profile and portrait of Ross. On the time, the second half of the story had not but damaged, which was how legislation enforcement labored the case, and the malfeasance of among the investigators. However I had fairly good connections by way of my background and supply community into the D.E.A. and the U.S. Lawyer’s Workplace, and so I had folks giving me some inside details about what was happening.
Then I started to see it because the story of the collision course of those two characters who had been on opposing arcs and had been nearly missiles that had been fired at one one other.
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There’s this technologically savvy character in Ross, versus this actually analog, form of dinosaur character within the investigator, Rick Bowden.
I feel that there are these very sturdy dualities that the film is exploring. There may be the generational divide between them, the millennial upstart and, what they name them within the D.E.A., “Jurassic narcs,” these form of knockaround guys who know the way the streets work and know the way folks’s psychology works and have that very old-school horse sense. …
They’re each obsessive. They’re each fully dedicated to what they’re doing. They’re each mendacity to the folks round them and have this burning ardour and want that is a secret on the middle of their lives. It is these conflicts and dualities that each separate them and unite them that made them each fascinating as characters for me.
The movie begins with an epigraph that the story is “true, aside from what we made up and altered.” Inform me just a little about your method to fact and fiction on this movie.
By way of methodology, I approached this like I do the documentaries on the entrance finish, which is working down every thing that is within the public file: each article that is ever been printed, any of the courtroom filings, every thing that is within the evidentiary file, from the chat logs, to statements at sentencing, to you identify it. … Ross’ ex-girlfriend (Julia Vie) was a supply and a contributor, in some methods, into him as a personality.
Then there’s additionally, in an attention-grabbing vogue, these breadcrumbs that Ross had left behind, whether or not it is his public postings as Dread Pirate Roberts, to the diaries that had been later uncovered when his laptop computer was confiscated. There was a variety of supply materials to attract from. Then on the identical time, there’s all these gaps within the public file, proper? … I feel one of many issues that’s fascinating about Ross as a personality is that there have been so many various vantage factors and views on him.
What are a few the largest issues that you just needed to change from the actual occasions?
It is a sophisticated query for me to reply in some methods, since you do all this very rigorous analysis and journalistic engagement with the story to start with, so that you just’re deeply steeped and mired in all the information and the info. Then at a sure level, you need to form of set all of it apart and re-enter the story emotionally, and make it make sense as a human being. What does it really feel prefer to be Ross Ulbricht? What does it really feel prefer to be Rick Bowden and make these selections and pressures? At a sure level, the divide between what’s factual, what’s their story, what’s my story and what’s fictional turns into porous, I feel.
I suppose the best reply to your query is, the Rick Bowden character performed by Jason Clarke, who’s a completely astonishing actor on the peak of his energy, he is a composite character. There have been a number of corrupt cops, folks from legislation enforcement who had been concerned in, primarily, bilking and hustling in addition to attempting to bust Ross. That character is an amalgam of among the precise people who’re on the market and never primarily based on anybody explicit supply.
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You filmed in Austin. I caught pictures of South Congress. How a lot was filmed right here?
The majority of the manufacturing was shot in New Mexico, after which we did a smaller splinter unit in Austin, in San Francisco, just a little bit in Baltimore. It was actually nice filming in Austin. I am a Texas man; I grew up in Dallas. One of many producers is an Austin resident, too, Duncan Montgomery. …
I ought to say, once I first sat down to jot down the script, to the preliminary drafts of it, it was actually essential to me to take in place in a elementary method. I really feel prefer it’s so informative of character, and so even earlier than I ever started to jot down, I went to all the locations that I might discover that had been signature for Ross in a roundabout way or one other. … We ran round and shot throughout, in every single place from Jo’s to South Congress and Sixth Avenue to the San Jose. A few of them had been explicit locations that had been both talked about by Julia or locations that that they had been or had been simply evocative of Ross’ world and the time he spent there. He went to Westlake rising up after which later went to (the College of Texas at Dallas). It was form of getting a really feel for his world, what it is prefer to get the breakfast taco and a cup of espresso.
There is a scene the place Ross is at a bar, and he meets Julia. It actually does have this sense of, like, being out on Rainey Avenue. It appears like an actual time capsule of a sure youth tradition in Austin. How do you assume that setting that he grew up in informs him as a character?
Austin is that this vibrant, youthful, form of edgy however enjoyable and open city. It is a distinctive nook of the Republic of Texas, proper, from the keep-it-weird vibe, which you might say is cliché at this level, but it surely’s true. It is defining of Austin. There may be this openness and this capacity to be an outlier and be a weirdo and form of discover your personal method. There may be the breath of life that helps that, from the throngs of scholars at UT to the youth tradition that spills over into all of the bars. I feel that fermenting hotbed of concepts and ambition and enjoyable and goals, proper — it is a bunch of younger folks with a dream, and Ross needs to make his mark on this planet.
It is a spot the place you are able to do that and the place folks consider, and are hopeful of the longer term. I needed to seize that and to evoke that pleasure and that freedom.
Eric Webb is the Austin360 leisure editor for the American-Statesman. Electronic mail him at [email protected] and comply with him on Twitter @webbeditor