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First-time writer and director Greg Kwedar describes the six-year process of creating Transpecos like a proud, but deservingly exhausted, father. The Texas-set border thriller is as much character study as it is a certifiable nail-biter; a politically-minded meditation with a throbbing pace and tightrope tension. Kwedar’s preternatural ability to blend high drama with explosive pressure cooking won him and his film the Audience Award for Narrative Competition at this year’s SXSW Film Festival and, arguably more importantly, near universal praise.

From our SXSW review,

“Like a lens flare cast from No Country For Old Men or an arresting never-before-seen side plot from Breaking Bad, Transpecos sets us on the belt buckle region of the Mexican-American border. In a diminutive shanty of a migra outpost – in essence, a tollbooth and boom barrier – three glorified crossing guards witness hell break loose when a cartel scheme goes belly up. Greg Kwedar’s daring debut is part sun-scotched moral meditation, part adrenaline-fueled character thriller, handsomely brought to life with crisp, concise storytelling and effective, affecting performances that casts a meaningful glance at border politics and the wolves that lie in wait.” [Full review]

I chatted with Greg about the magical act that is filmmaking, the symbiotic relationship between writing and directing, the current state of the independent film industry, the college experiences that led to Transpecos‘s story and where the merry-go-round will let him off next.

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So, let’s go back to the very beginning and talk about where the germ of the idea came from from this. What was the very first starting point for Transpecos?

Greg Kwedar: For sure, man. So, in college I ended up starting an organization, I went to this big state school in Texas, called Texas A&M. A lot of students in my class and throughout the school had a real desire to see other parts of the world, but didn’t have the means to do that. And yet, from our campus five hours away, you could cross over the Rio Grande river and land literally on the other side of the international bridge in a different world. Initially, it was kind of just that. We wanted to take students across the border and find service opportunities. At night, we drank a lot of beer and ate tacos and kind of examine what our role is as a global citizen and what that looked like. Right from the experience, the discussions were really amazing. We worked in a girl’s orphanage most of the time. It was girls aged 6 to 22 that were really a by-product of the border conflict. Families were getting torn apart, and the children were often abused. It’s an awful thing, but these kids were finding a way to survive. They still had all their humanity and dignity despite all that, but yeah, that was the first time I saw a real border conflict.

Every trip you go back across the border, you wait in  line on the International Bridge. And at the end of that line, a border agent will lean in my window and asked if I was an American citizen, and that was the extent of my understanding of border patrol. Honestly, I didn’t have the most respect for them. I thought they were pretty robotic and I really couldn’t see past the symbol of the uniform.

But I always knew when I got the chance to make my first feature, I was going to come back to this place and to the border and try to tell a story that can engage people in conversation, but I never thought it would be about border patrol agents. There was this one moment when my wife and I were camping at Big Bend National Park in Texas. The Rio Grande goes through this one part of the park where the Rio Grande river has literally cut a canyon over a million years. It’s peaceful there. I walked up to the shore and I started skipping rocks on the Rio Grande river, and I was kind of laughing at the irony though, doing this child-like activity on an international boundary. Nobody was  trying to tackle me or arrest me for doing it.

And there was no one around. One side of this river is Mexico and one side is the US, and they look the exact same. And while I wasdoing this, these two border patrol agents came and saddled up next to me along the river. We never said a word to each other, but they were just watching the river as I was skipping rocks. It was this really quiet moment. I remember driving away and I had this image in my head of what if these agents weren’t wearing uniforms that are so contested and signify so many different things to different people, and we were in this human act of skipping rocks on the Rio Grande. And from that point, I started learning everything I could about Border Patrol. My writing partner and I really wanted to tell a story from the ground up to reveal through their eyes and to understand them as humans, and perhaps get their different views on the job they do. Somewhere in the middle of that is the truth about our border that people haven’t seen before.

GregKwedarSSR4And within all that, all the commentary on border politics, which is definitely an important part of the film but it’s also encapsulated in this really gripping, really driven political thriller, we have these three really well-defined border patrol characters. You brought up a really interesting point when you said we typically our interactions with these kinds of people are usually restricted to, “Yes, I’m an American Citizen.” Kind of just like this acknowledgment. It’s the same with TSA agents, you know: we don’t typically think of them as people, but more robotrons. I’m curious like where did these specific characters come from?

GK: Yeah. So, oddly enough, I drew a lot of inspiration from the Social Network and Aaron Sorkin’s script. I remember reading an interview where he was saying, “I wanted to tell the story of this place, Facebook, but then I realized how it’s almost like a Greek tragedy in a way.” And here, you have these three parties that are being deposed, and all three sides are swearing they’re telling the complete truth, and all three sides of this legal battle told a completely different story. And somewhere in the middle of all that was the true story of Facebook. But through these three different viewpoints, through them, you know, in their core what they believe to be the truth wasn’t necessarily the truth. But between these people, between their points of view, the truth came out. And so, in our story, border patrol agents also have a pretty conflicting view of the job they do. It’s sort of hardwired into their identity as people, and this is what makes them friends and also what creates the drama  as well. When they get put into a moment of crisis, choices have to be made, because they’re operating from all these different angles. It makes it rich for new discoveries between characters when they challenge each other with  their point of view. And, we really tried hard to not generalize, though, you know?

I mean you can simplify the characters  down to the old school black and white cowboy, the do-good boy scout and the empathetic agent trying to keep the family together. But hopefully it goes deeper than that, and it’s hard to do in the first ten minutes of a movie. Those ten minutes are just beginning to show the challenges of the job and explaining the day to day stuff. I think it’s the most important work we do on the film. We wanted to establish that you would want to watch these three agents retire together.  When that gets ripped apart from us is the real tragedy of the film.

A lot of young, new filmmakers these days emerge as a  triple threat. They’re doing multiple roles on the job, often writing, directing and producing. And in this case, you’re doing producing, directorial work and you helped write the thing.Do you think nowadays in terms of the current culture of cinema that it’s necessary for a real artist to also have a hand in writing their own material? Or is that  something that as you have more leeway and more of a voice and say in things that you’ll maybe shy away from the writing aspect and focus mainly on directing?

GK: That’s an interesting question. It’s definitely the phase we’re in now. Okay, now, you’ve made your first movie, and usually in your first movie, you’re sort of carrying the whole thing on your back and finding any possible way to bring it to life, you know? You’re in the engine room of your story, and now, it’s kind of like, “Okay, you made it through one film. Can you make this a career?” You do more of these, and you keep making films, and you try to keep making ones that ultimately, you can see yourself in the material you create. That’s the new challenge, but I think there’s a lot of power in writing our own material. I see myself certainly as a director who writes, you know, rather than a writer who directs.

And I also produced. All those aspects around the writing and producing for me is about the chance to direct. That’s my true love. I lovethe whole process. I love getting to  intimately work with craftsmen and artists and trying to encourage the best possible work out of them. I’m just amazed by artists and I think that’s really what I love as a director. I get to provide vision and see what they can create with that vision. The writing process is just exciting for me. I have a co-writer, Clint Bentley, and we researched this all together. We wrote it all together. You know when you get to do it with someone else, you discover what can happen there. It makes you feel a little bit more like it’s part of the process as a director rather than you’re putting on a completely different hat. You’re still shaping, you’re directing as you’re writing it, you know.

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You say you don’t know where the future will be with this. Looking through your bio, you left behind a life of sure things when you dropped out of an accounting degree to pursue filmmaking. Do you feel now at least a little reassured and reaffirmed after winning big at SXSW?

GK: Yeah. It is affirming. I was one of those people who had friends who are like you’ll do it, but now that it’s happened and I’ve made a feature film, it doesn’t feel like an earth shattering event has taken place. It won a big award, went to a big film festival, but in the moment, it just feels like a new part of a continuum. I felt that way when I finished my first short film. Just like, “Wow, we’ve made it.” This is us. Yeah, not that we’ve “arrived” as much as the belief that we were doing magic. You just pulled off magic. Just like a magician– we pulled off a trick, you know? Immediately  the box around you of what’s possible has grown wider, and that forces you to dream bigger. The next thing was being just involved in a feature documentary and working as a producer. That expanded my box even bigger for what was possible, but I was always aiming at a star, to be a  feature filmmaker.

Directors try to control every detail, but really, directing a feature film  felt like I got on a rocket ship and it took you 2,000 years in the future. You buckle up and you’re riding it, you’re making it, but there’s so much happening beyond your control and you’re kind of just trying to hang on. But at the same time, you get through the ordeal and marvel at what transpired and feel incredibly grateful. It was affirming. Just to finish the film. South by Southwest was affirming and extraordinary and certainly opened a lot of doors, helping me dream bigger than I possibly could. But at the same time, for me it’s all about the process of making something. At the point the movie World Premieres, it’s a transition in a way. You’re now handing the movie off to the audience now to have their own relationship with it. What I have– the memories I have– are sharing with the people I made the film with and the journey of actually making it.

In terms of the continuum of making films and kind of recreating yourself as an artist as you amass these experiences, what is your take on the current state of independent cinema? More specifically, the trend that we’ve seen with first-time filmmakers who go to festivals, they win awards, and then they’re swept up into some massive studio blockbuster movie right on the heels of their debut? Do you think this trend is hurting independent cinema? Is it like robbing us of interesting voices?

GK: It’s really interesting, and it’s certainly something I’m curious about, but don’t quite understand. It’s just so hard to fathom having made one film and what that took to accomplish and what you learn and what you don’t know or understand yet. But then being thrust from a low-budget independent film to a hundred million dollar studio film is astounding to contemplate. You see an opportunity like that manifest itself  in different ways. Some people do extraordinarily well with that big studio collaboration, some people don’t fare so well. It’s a scary level of failure to deal with.I’m grappling with the prospect of that. I’m someone who enjoys sophisticated blockbusters. There’s the great tradition of Star Wars and Indiana Jones and James Bond films and everything else. I miss seeing more of the movies made that truly meant something to the artists. It is alarming to watch the trends in cinema.These massive movies are entertaining, that’s why they keep getting made because people keep showing up– but I hope the pendulum will swing closer to the middle. I think it’s got pretty far down this road that there’s going to be an appetite for original voices again.

One of my film heroes is Jeff Nichols and he’s definitely been an inspiration to me as a filmmaker. Watching the way his career progressed and how he was able to maintain the blockbuster level of the way his films are being made but with a wholly original voice. You know, it’s like some of the early Steven Spielberg stuff, particularly his new film Midnight Special. He’s found a way to tell his own stories. So, yeah, I’m just figuring it out. I’m interested in, you know, developing original work. Our original scripts will hopefully always fuel the engine room of our careers. We’ll keep coming back to them. There’s a lot of things we’re trying to get off the ground presently. We’re also interested in collaborating with people whether they have a concept or a book or an idea. It’s a new creative challenge. Can you find yourself in other people’s material? It’s a really interesting time right now.

But what choices should we make? It’s almost harder because for me, my first film, I was so obsessed with it and there was no other possible movie that could have been made as my first film other than this one. And now, I’m interested in a lot of different things, and the cool thing about making a film that people respond to is you get sent a lot of interesting material. It’s a filtering process now rather than like a singular obsession. That’s the new challenge, and you’re filtering from a lot of different scales, and you have to work even harder to remember what your values are and what your vision is as a filmmaker, so you don’t get lost and you don’t get pulled away from that core of who you are.

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So– in a completely hypothetical world — if you were approached by a producer that said, “Hey, we want to hand you this two hundred million dollar film and pay you exorbitant amounts of money.” How would you resist that urge?

GK: You know, I would want to see the material. I had a mentor say to me once, “Greg, stay in the hand.” What he means by “stay in the hand” is that to survive as a filmmaker, you need to have the capacity to entertain a lot and then be discerning in the ultimate choice you make. Knowing movies will always happen on their own time and never when you think they’re going to happen. So, there’s a balance of not taking on too many things to where you lose quality, but having enough going on that something can always be happening, you know? That’s what I follow. So, I would want to meet the team behind the project, I would want to learn everything about what it is, but ultimately it really comes down to the material. For me, personally, knowing how long a movie takes to make and how much it takes of you, you have to love the project in a deep way. Transpecos, took 6 years of my life to complete. It’s got to mean something to me I wrote down a mission statement when I first became a filmmaker in 2008. I couldn’t get the business school out of me I guess. And the mission statement was, “I want to make films that are a journey in the making, that reveal conversations  essential to the human experience. Because while the human experience is vastly diverse, it’s connected, and I want to show those connections between people and bring people together through my work.” So, anything I work on needs to ultimately resonate with that core mission.

And after that, there’s a lot of other questions and things that you’re asking about the project itself. Can you provide for your family? Do you get to work with your friends? Do you get to learn about your craft? Are you empowered to make decisions? It goes through a filter like this. Ultimately for me, it’s making some kind of impact in our society in a positive way through the theme that the movie’s grappling with and the questions that it’s asking. And, you know, can a blockbuster $200,000,000 film do that? I think it can. I’ve seen some films have done that, but I think many miss out on that opportunity.

It’s the exception rather than the rule.

GK: There are exceptions to that. This is a massive platform. You’re going to reach millions and millions of people with it. What are you communicating through that platform?

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Circling back to the physical shooting of this film, what was the most challenging aspect that you faced or  scene you had to shoot? And, on the flip side, what was the most fun to shoot?

GK: Yeah, that’s a good question. For one thing, we shot the movie in 16 days. That was crazy. That’s a lot of days even for a family drama that takes place around a dining table. Shooting a movie like ours in a remote location with big action, in 16 days is insane when you break it down. Somehow for our story, it gave it the whole production and performances a sense of urgency that I think works for a movie like ours. But it is in itself grounded by these boundaries of a 24 hour storyline, you know? For us to move that quickly lent itself to the DNA of the story itself. One particular crazy thing that was really tough; we shot a week on that check point road. It was 120 degrees. The soles of our shoes were melting off on the blacktop.

The scene where [spoiler] — the turning point– was 8 pages of dialogue, which is generally a day of shooting. It was around 8 pages, and we shot that scene in about 45 minutes to an hour, so. Yeah. I mean we had rehearsed, and we wanted to wait for the light to get it a little more dramatic to that moment. When we started rolling, we only had an hour. So, each actor only had one close-up and we shot the whole thing in one take. And Jeff our DP is like “Eh. We can’t shoot another.” It was literally like that. And one of the hardest scenes is that at the end of the movie, we actually had written a different ending than what we ended up shooting. And what happened was we had written it for a different weather event to happen than did actually happen. We had all these dust devils out in the desert and they have like a spiritual significance to the Native population there. They actually believe they’re spirits of the people who have died and haven’t gone on to the next world yet. But what ended up happening was a full on dust storm hit us out in the desert instead of dust devils and the sun was spinning in this really strange, otherworldly magical place. I looked at Gabriel (who plays Flores), and I was like, “What if this is the way it’s supposed to end?” Gabriel improvised and found this amazing piece in the end that we used in the movie.

It was pretty spectacular, and it was so intense. It was like 45 mph winds. It doesn’t really translate on camera to how intense it really was. The electricity was out in the entire town for the 4 hours while we were out there.  There’s so many beautiful serendipitous moments. You have to give yourself over to what the desert is going to provide to you. At times, it can be very oppressive and that serves the story in an interesting way. And in other times, it turns into the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen.

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