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‘Humanist portrait’: ‘Silk Road’ looks into creator of infamous darknet market website

Nick Robinson as Ross Ulbricht in “Silk Road.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Oftentimes, points of inspiration pop up.

One is forced to pay attention.

For Tiller Russell, the idea for the film “Silk Road” came from a series of events.

He was aware of Ross Ulbricht, creator of the darknet website Silk Road, and his arrest in 2013.

“The story caught my attention the day after Ross was arrested; I started to read the headlines and felt there was a compelling story,” Russell says during an interview from his New Mexico home.

In 2014, Rolling Stone published the article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall,” by David Kushner.

“What I found so striking is this piece was a humanist portrait of Ross,” he says. “There was a way into this story.”

Years later, Russell’s film “Silk Road” is available to the masses for rent or purchase.

The crime thriller follows the rise and fall of Silk Road, the infamous darknet market website that sent a seismic shock through the internet.

Nick Robinson plays Ross Ulbricht in the movie “Silk Road.” (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

It follows Ulbricht, played by Nick Robinson, as he creates the internet’s first unregulated marketplace.

But when it becomes a multimillion-dollar pipeline for illicit drugs, Ulbricht is set on a collision course with Rick Bowden, played by Jason Clarke, a disreputable and dangerously unpredictable DEA agent, who will use any means necessary to take him down.

According to the New Mexico Film Office, the production employed 80 New Mexico crew members, 25 New Mexico actors and 400 New Mexico background talent workers.

Production also took place in June and July 2019 in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The film is set in Baltimore, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

Russell made the home base in Albuquerque and took small crews to each of the locations.

“It ended up being a wonderful place to shoot the movie,” Russell says. “Several key members ended up collaborating with me. Every day is incredibly hard, but shooting in New Mexico gave us the opportunity to do more.”

Russell is now based in Santa Fe, having moved there a few years ago from California.

“I was going back and forth for a couple of years,” he says. “Since the pandemic, I’ve been based in Santa Fe.”

“Silk Road” has a stellar cast, and Russell was relieved to get such strong actors.

“I felt an amazing set of actors come on board once it was anchored with Jason and Nick,” he says. “Those two were the centerpiece of the movie. I felt like I was at the poker table and just kept getting lucky. Then Jimmi Simpson walks in the door and rounds out the cast. I really lucked out with this one.”

Russell quickly adapted to shooting in Albuquerque.

“Albuquerque is a really wonderful place to shoot, and there’s a diverse range of locales and looks. By anchoring the production here, we were able to take smaller crews to shoot exteriors,” he says. “Suddenly, we were able to give the movie scope. And you are doing it in such a way that it’s efficient.”

Russell says it was about a 30-day shoot. The production also used the Albuquerque Publishing Co. as a location.

Russell says that, at some point during the process of making the movie, people began asking him which parts had actually happened and which were invented.

“This was a story I had to wade into in order to make it my own,” he says. “Ross Ulbricht was a kid from Texas with good bull—- and an epic dream. Once upon a time, that was me. Back in the day, I ran some amateur criminal hustles, blessedly got pinched before s— went supernova, then parked my dreams inside a movie theater. Someday, I swore, I would become a filmmaker. In Ross, I had finally found a subject that was, in Mick Jagger’s immortal words … ‘just a shot away.’ So, this movie is a portrait drawn from multiple and conflicting accounts. Different versions of Ross emerged from different sources. No two were the same.”

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