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Tiller Russell On 'Silk Road' and Creating Fiction From Reality

February 25, 2021
3 min read time
Tiller Russell is no stranger to delving into the minds of detectives and the criminals they hunt. His storied career as a director, writer and producer includes the hit Netflix docu-series Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.
While his latest film, Silk Road, also delves into a true story, this time the journey of dark web drug lord Ross Ulbricht's rise and fall while being chased by a DEA Agent, the fascinating dramatization is just that. The film even opens with a heads-up: "This story is true. Except for what we made up or changed." And with that, the viewer is taken on a ride, constantly wondering what is truth and what is dramatic license.
When discussing the balance between fact and fiction, Tiller says: "This is a really interesting example, because there was a rich historical archive [on Ross]. Everything having to do with him: public posts, journal entires on his laptop, chat logs that were entered into evidence... There was an archive of material to draw from."
Conflicting and contrasting portraits emerged over time as he was writing the character of real-life Ulbricht, and Tiller muses, "The job became how do I triangulate him as a character? To keep him spiritually true to who he was, and at the same time, be open to tell the story in the most dramatic and compelling way possible?"
Ross' antagonist, DEA Agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), is a composite in the film. "There were several crooked lawmen who were involved in finding and fleecing Ross," Tiller says. "But [Bowden] is just one character instead of many. I've spent a lot of time knocking around narcs and informants and crooked cops, so I'm privy to this intimate world with its dynamics and relationships, which I was able to draw specific knowledge from of people I know to keep authenticity present, but still create a fictionalized character. I thought that was important to acknowledge at the beginning of the film."
"What struck me about him," Russell says about his characters' development, "was that Ross has a real dramatic arc. This guy enters the movie as a dreamer; a young person who wants to make his mark in the world; a bomb-the-system Libertarian, but he's still relatable, in some way. He goes on this deep, dark twisted journey in a short period of time. From the time the Silk Road was launched to when Ross was arrested at gunpoint, it’s less than two years. There was so much compression involved in his story. This kid went from dreamer to gangster to legend, so a goal I had while writing his character goal was to really establish the building blocks of his trajectory — can you see his transition?"
DEA Agent Bowden’s character is also incredibly complex. Crooked cops are a fascination of Tiller's,. He created Bowden to be sympathetic enough that we are compelled to follow on his journey into the cat and mouse game he’s about to enter with Ulbricht, but enough of an antagonist that we still love to hate him. "He's a character out of step with the times: A door kicker and gun slinger, one of those 'Jurassic Narcs' — and the world has changed underneath him," Tiller says. "He is stuck in an era where what cigarette you smoked or what gun you used, to what kind of laptop you have and how much RAM does it have defined you. Bowden's been kicked aside by the world that he had once been a shark in the water in, and the volatility of his character is what really drives him."
Regarding working in the narrative space after living in the documentary space for so long, Tiller says, "I love both docs and narrative, I will continue to do them both. At the end of the day, it’s just conjuring a performance. In the documentary space, I spend a lot of time developing relationships and maneuvering it so that you are getting non-actors to perform. Perform who they are, themselves, but still perform."
When it comes to separating writing from directing, Tiller says, "When I'm in writer mode it’s all about scene construction and word-to-word specificity and dialing in on it on the page. As a director, suddenly everyone's on set and those words I wrote are a living, breathing thing. No matter how much careful crafting you do with your script, as a director, you have to stay open — this actor has to live and inhabit your words and the character they're helping you bring to life, so things change. As a director, you need to listen to their ideas."

Silk Road is not only partial truth, it's an adaptation from a Rolling Stone article written by David Kushner. "Kushner is a brilliant reporter and writer," Tiller says. "He has a nose for story and an uncanny ability to get access — access is precious. It was a fun process to take the material and trampoline off of the facts. I was able to enter into it emotionally and make the story personal. That was the most joyous aspect of writing and directing Silk Road, the ability I had to pour my experience into this story."

Fate plays a huge part in the characters' journeys in Silk Road. When asked if Tiller believes in fate, he says, "I suppose that I do in a way. I don't think life is categorial and unelectable, but I do think that people come in on a journey and cross paths for a meaning and a reason."

To aspiring writers, Tiller says, "Don’t give up. I’ve had my teeth kicked in seven thousand times. In my experience, the people who get the chance to work have heard no and seen doors close in their face a thousand times. The ones that don’t give up are the ones that make it, so don’t quit."

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