Austin Filmmaker Greg Kwedar On His Acclaimed Thriller Transpecos

Blood on the border

Gabriel Luna in Transpecos

Like many Texans crossing the border with Mexico, Austin native Greg Kwedar's experiences with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers were very simple. He said, "A border patrol agent would lean into my car and ask if I was an American citizen." His understanding of them was "very one dimensional. I thought they were robots. I never thought I would make a movie about them."

Yet they are the subject of his debut feature as a director, Transpecos. The drama, which took home the Audience Award for best narrative feature at SXSW 2016 and opens this weekend, focuses on three Border Patrol agents working a Texas checkpoint. Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr., Pacific Rim) is the jaundiced old hand who has seen every trick. Flores (Kwedar's fellow Austinite Gabriel Luna, recently announced as the new Ghost Rider in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) is experienced enough to know he's falling prey to Hobbs' cynicism. Davis (Johnny Simmons, Discovery Channel's Klondike) is the new kid, technically trained but still green. When a traffic stop goes horribly awry, the three find themselves at odds and bound together.

Having spent time volunteering in poor communities along the border, including a girls' orphanage in Nuevo Laredo, writer/director Kwedar said he initially wanted to tackle "the migrant plight and the victims of cartel violence." However, he said, "every time I tried to write it, I felt numb as a storyteller, and I felt I couldn't access, with authenticity, that struggle."

Increasingly, he found himself drawn to the agents' side of the story. He said, "Border Patrol agents represent one of our nation's largest law enforcement agencies, but it's the least understood. It's a very secretive agency, it's very protective of its story, of its people, of its image. But when you look into it, it's fascinating."

His aim was, in part, to dispel and explore some of the popular misconceptions about the agency and its agents. So while the story tackles many of the more dramatic elements of border life – coyotes, drug smuggling, corruption – his aim is to reach a more personal truth. By treating patrol life as a 9-to-5 job, Kwedar said, "You can sidestep the political minefield. Through their work, we can get a lens into maybe our closest understanding of what's really happening down there."

Kwedar and his co-writer Clint Bentley crafted their script through long conversations with working border agents stationed in the desert. They discovered that, like any job far away from oversight, much of their work comes down to complicated judgment calls. "A big thing they talk about is, 'We are upholding the laws enacted by the citizens of the United States.' A lot of old-timer agents, they see it as black and white. But then you press them on it a bit, and they go, 'Well, there's the letter of the law, and then there's the spirit of the law.' 'Oh, so the spirit of the law is the gray area?' 'No, that's a black and white issue.'"

For Kwedar, those seeming contradictions are resolved within the closing lines of "The New Colossus," Emma Lazarus' poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty: "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" He said, "It's never been more relevant than it is today, and I think that is the spirit that should be behind the law."

Transpecos opens Fri., Sept. 9. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Transpecos, Greg Kwedar, Gabriel Luna, Johnny Simmons, Clifton Collins Jr.

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