Over 60 percent of all U.S. Border Patrol Agents are Latino.
“Just think about the dramatic implications of that for a person realizing that they might be stopping someone who might have been their grandfather or grandmother coming across,” Transpecos co-writer Clint Bentley says. “It opens up the whole drama for a character to dig into.”
First-time narrative feature co-writer/director Greg Kwedar became a filmmaker after having volunteered at a girls’ orphanage just across the border in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. He began documenting these trips to the orphanage and particularly a story of six-year-old Juanita that eventually lead to Transpecos.
“When we’d go through the checkpoints and meet these Border Patrol Agents,” remembers the recent Austin-transplant, “there’d be this very one-dimensional interaction where they’d just ask if I was an American citizen. I thought they were just robots, but when it came time to make my first film, I wanted to come back to the source of why I started as a filmmaker. It was to tell stories that brought people to a place they didn’t understand; that helps [us] understand the human connection.”
Transpecos is a thriller that was shot for 16 days in 120-degree weather in the desert of New Mexico. The story takes place over 24 hours and weaves the personalities of Border Patrol Agent (BPA) veteran agent Lou Hobbs (Clifton Collins Jr.), newbie agent Benjamin Davis (Johnny Simmons) and steady-handed agent Lance Flores (Gabriel Luna) into a tale of desperate circumstances. While the drama is fictionalized, the story so deftly pulls the curtain back on a profession we so often only hear of in a negative light to show us people we’d otherwise never have occasion to interact with.
“The subject matter is important to me,” says Collins Jr., who’s great grandmother bribed her way across the border into Texas with a nickel, as was custom back then. “I think any films that address social injustices, acts against humanity and things of that nature and that raise those kinds of questions are important films [to make].”
Collins Jr. is one of the most talented chameleons in the business, able to morph into characters that stick in your mind for decades. With his breadth of experience and dedication to the art of acting, he’d rally the Transpecos team together after the long days in the high heat.
“Thirty-eight of our 40 scenes were in the middle of the desert,” Kwedar explains. “Every night we would come back and [Collins Jr.] would bring us all in to his room and we’d run the next day’s material. He’s so deep about his material […] that walking into his hotel is a little like walking into John Nash’s studio in A Beautiful Mind.”
Part of Collins dive into the depths of his character took place with technical advisor Sam Sadler—a retired BPA who had held the number two post at Demmings Patrol Station, where they filmed. He leaned on Sadler heavily for information about being a diehard BPA—which Agent Hobbs most certainly is.
“It’s important to have a tech in these kind of films,” Collins Jr. says, “because as soon as you break the laws of reality, you start to lose your audience. Conversely, you get them completely invested when they start to learn something that feels real.”
Simmons—whose boyish looks belie his immense capabilities as an actor—took preparation for his role as seriously as Collins Jr., though his methods were a bit different. For prep, he drove through border crossings dozens of times. He tested their reactions to his differently toned responses. During filming, he stayed in a trailer (no, not the nice Hollywood kind) miles from set in isolation except for Romulus, a german shepherd he rescued to keep him company. He had no Internet access, no cell service, and rattlesnakes practically circled the trailer, but for Simmons, it was necessary to get his emotions to a place that matched his character’s.
“My brother is in the military,” he says, “and people who put on a uniform and take a code of honor that they’re going to follow with their life potentially, are incredible. I come in for 16 days and then kind of leave it behind, but these people dedicate their entire lives; Sam Sadler would literally take a bullet to protect somebody who’s innocent.”
Simmons’ character follows that code, but is faced with a life-or-death dilemma when his family is caught up in dangerous situation involving the drug cartels trafficking across the border.
“What happens when someone you love enters into that picture?” he speculates. “That code of honor starts to become a little gray. That’s what’s so fascinating to me, confronting something like that. I don’t know that I would be so noble. I would like to think that I would. I believe Sam Sadler would. I believe my brother would, but I know myself, and I’m just not sure.”
For both Collins Jr. and Simmons, premiering a film they care for so deeply in Austin is doubly exciting for the Texas natives—they’re also SXSW virgins.
“Secretly I am also very excited for the Dallas Film Festival,” Simmons says. “I grew up there and so all my friends will be sitting there watching the movie with me. That’s so exciting to me. As corny as it sounds, I really have always loved acting. And I loved this film. This is all icing on the cake.”