St. Vincent in a scene from "Contemporary Color"

Interview: Bill & Turner Ross on Expanding the Spectrum with “Contemporary Color”

With films — nay, experiences — like “45365,” “Tchoupitoulas” and “Western,” Bill and Turner Ross have exhibited an extraordinary ability to stretch time and space to the point where an entire world can envelope around you, whether it’s placing you in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio for a year compressed into an-hour-and-a-half, an evening in New Orleans that feels as if it’s going to stick with you for a lifetime or a trip to the edge of the U.S./Mexico border where a war of attrition that continues to be waged between law enforcement and drug lords looms large over everyday life. Given their desire to immerse, it was only natural that the brothers had long considered the possibility of tackling one of documentary’s longest running genres – the concert film – but with ideas that involved nods to “The Muppet Show,” 1960s basketball broadcasts from the start of the show, 1970s New York public access shows, 1980s wrestling and “Fantasia,” finding a good fit was not going to be easy.

Fortunately, the person they pitched was David Byrne. The former lead singer of the Talking Heads had become infatuated with the Color Guard, the flag-waving high school squads that may be long past their heyday of the 1950s as far as popularity, but are no less exciting to watch for the remaining teams that carry on the tradition, and his idea to pair their performances with musical accompaniment from the likes of musicians such as Lucius, Nelly Furtado, the Tune-Yards and St. Vincent, among others, he set out to create a concert unlike any other. That show “Contemporary Color” has been translated perfectly to the screen by the Ross brothers in a film of the same name precisely because neither they nor Byrne had any interest in playing it safe, with the filmmakers matching the daring of the musical acts Byrne recruited with their own band of filmmaking renegades including Jarred Alterman (“Convento”), Michael Palmieri (“October Country”), Amanda Rose Wilder (“Approaching the Elephant”), Jessica Oreck (“Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo”), Sean Price Williams (“Heaven Knows What”) and Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine”) to capture the action.

The result is both rousing and singular, elevating the feeling of being in the arena to watch the show to the level of transcendent cinema as you get to live in the moment with the teens who are performing with their best friends for what you realize will be their last time together on stage and feel the music surging through the intricate sound design work that distills the magic in every note played. Following a roof-raising run on the festival circuit since its premiere last spring at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Contemporary Color” is arriving in theaters across the country and the fraternal directing duo behind it spoke of how they pulled off such a magnificent reinvention of the concert film, the steep learning curve of capturing a live event, and tricking out the sound.

A scene from "Contemporary Color"How did this come about?

Turner Ross: It was the summer of 2014. One of our producers Josh Penn had been in touch with David and his producing partner about this crazy show they were thinking about and they were trying to line up a film component. We heard about the show they had been planning — they had it in the works for some time — and we took a minute to digest what that was. It was an awesome concept and not like anything we had been aware of. Given that it’s a unique situation and the canon of concert films is so well-established, we didn’t want to make a straightforward doc and we didn’t want to make the predictable narrative of leading up to the event and the big show. So we took a little time to think about what it might look like for us to make a film and we came back to them with some ideas – we weren’t sure that they were going to go for – make it more like a sporting event and have sports announcers and be moving through the space and deviating away from the show. they were really into it and we set off for the next year going around to schools and these events — private practices and the world championships with these teens — getting to know some of the performers. It was a wild journey leading up to what became the filming of the shows.

Usually, you have a small crew — sometimes just limited to the two of you embedding in a place – was it different working with an operation of this size?

Bill Ross: Yeah, it was certainly different, but we tried to plan it in such a way that it didn’t feel too dissimilar to what we had done in the past. Leading up to the event, it was similar, but the event was a new ballgame, and we hired people that we met over the years and really loved and trusted. Once the show started, it felt not unlike things we had done in the past.

Turner Ross: And also that time leading up to it [created] a great deal of intimacy and getting to know who the people were that were going to be involved in this and what the emotional tenor of the whole thing was, so that was similar to the way we had approached things in the past. But we wanted an evolution of what we were doing, so the idea of having this finite time and space in which to capture a really kinetic world was really exciting. And like Bill said, the two of us couldn’t do everything, so we had to assemble a team of people that we could trust to be directors with cameras and not just hired hands.

These are very distinctive filmmakers working the cameras – were you actually tasking certain ones with certain areas of the show based on their skills and sensibilities?

Turner Ross: We did, very much so. We recruited mostly from around the New York area for the convenient sake of having a couple weeks’ worth of filming in the area and within that pool of people, we certainly had some very talented people with very different skillsets. We needed to build an event team that was headed by Jarred Alterman [because] we needed some technical expertise to deal with lensing and to handle the shooting of performance, but then behind all of that, we very much had documentary camerawork backstage and in the arena. Someone focused on process, someone focused on relationships between people, someone focused on musicians, so we had the strong suits of people be the world in which they were asked to exist.

Since you shot this over the course of four shows, did you actually have a learning curve from one show to the next to figure things out or did you just hit the ground running and simply fill in holes from one night to the next?

Bill Ross: We were certainly learning stuff as each show went, but we had blocked out each show for certain things like different angles and whatnot to get on each night.

Turner Ross: We had a different shooting script for each night. [During] those first shows in Toronto, the show itself was also figuring itself out because it hadn’t been done before. It continued to get better and better and each night, it came together, which is pretty amazing because of all the component parts. We had worked for months to devise a shoot plan based around the actual run of the show, so [for instance] Jarred Alterman and his team [were] making sure they captured the choreography one night, the broader scope another night, and some of the more abstract elements another night. Then we also had set lists for each of the shooters who were filming around the show.

Bill Ross: We would review footage at the end of each day or the next morning and see what was working and there were some performances that were slowly built as we were shooting. Our initial idea maybe wasn’t quite living up to what we had hoped, so we were thinking on our feet and came up with new game plans as we went along. Some of the camera folks were discovering things that Turner and I hadn’t thought of, so it was very collaborative in that way. Michael Palmieri is one example — it was on the last night, the fourth performance where he was trying to figure out a different way into some of the performances because he had shot all four shows, so he started doing some trickery with his lens that created the language for The Tune-Yards’ performance…

Turner Ross: And also things backstage. We could have a simple directive of things to follow, areas to be concerned with, and it’s real director’s work to find things like humor. There are a couple sequences where Robert Greene really found some great moments back there that you couldn’t possibly prescribe but just have to be there in the moment. Each of our shooters did that. We really benefitted from them having a good bit of autonomy and we gave them license to do what they do well and they just found some incredible things. We checked in after each [night] to see what people got because Bill and I were invested in making sure that ultimately we had what we were after, but the directive that we gave them was this is the loose framework that you’re to exist in and this is your strong suit – just go for it and be a director.

You mentioned laying the groundwork was long before you get to the concert – what emerged in those months beforehand as being important?

Turner Ross: It was important to follow an emotional trajectory, so we tried to distill it down to the simplest things that we could. You have these enormous teams of performers and we tried to focus in and really hone in on one, two or three people on each team, [and ask] what are some of the unique pieces of not only the full performance, but in the stage performance? What’s going on in the audience? Once we could see the show in process and how the audience responded to it, we tried to narrativize how that happened. Seeing the kids backstage and how they interacted with the world, we could see where those threads might go and pick up on some of them [once we were filming the live show] because we wanted some form of continuity through it.

A scene from "Contemporary Color"There’s interstitials shown at the concert between acts that comes from that time at the schools – was that actually initially conceived as part of the show or something for the film?

Turner Ross: David knew that he wanted something to use in between [sets] because there has to be a change-out of the floor. That was the part we were able to collaborate on and it became a fun team event to figure out how to create a backdrop to the show that not only was an effective device to keep the [audience entertained during the] changeover of each set, but to give a historical and emotional context to the event and really give something for people to get a deeper concept of what was going on there. We knew that we were going to be able to use that within the film, so we structured it in such a way that it became an effective tool for us as well as a release valve for [being inside] the arena. In the shooting for the six months leading up to it, we were able to go to these events, get to know these kids and artists and it was part of our research where we got to figure out what this thing might be.

With all the footage you must’ve had and the event nature of it, was this really amorphous coming into editing or did you have a good handle on it once you got to post?

Bill Ross: It always changes and we certainly went in with an idea of what we wanted it to look like, but we all had to respond to what we actually ended up capturing, so while some things were pretty close to what we had drawn up, some of the performances more than others came together in the edit. Having 13 camera people, you don’t know exactly what everyone is getting. Somebody may have really killed a night and we take the lead from what our eye was seeing in a particular performance and that style would dictate a certain route to go down with a certain performance.

Turner Ross: Certainly, there’s a structure that’s in place given the show, but the real hurdle we had was that we wanted to be able to fluidly deviate from that and just try to find that balance of maintaining the musicality and movement of the show while also wanting to have these personal vignettes backstage and in the arena, creating a greater scenario rather than lessening it by abbreviating certain people.

What was it like to do the sound design for this? I recall “Beasts of the Southern Wild” composer Dan Romer was asked to come in to mix at the end.

Bill Ross: Yeah, he did the mixes of all the songs, so he did an incredible job of getting the most out of each song and making them sound ultimately the way they did.

Turner Ross: He really made them pop. He worked in conjunction with our sound designer Lawrence Everson, who just did an incredible job of creating that space, the atmosphere of the place and the tone of the rooms, making sure that when we were backstage, we were still sonically involved in the arena and vice versa. He really was able to seamlessly stitch that world together audio-wise.

What’s it been like to travel with this?

Turner Ross: It’s been fun. Very much like the show, you have to buy the ticket to take the ride and I think the folks that have taken that chance have had the experience that we all did going into it, which is a very positive and impactful one in seeing something new and beautiful, being able to transcend things for a couple hours and exist within this really beautiful space. It’s a very different kind of film based on a very different kind of event that was a wonderfully unique experience for us.

“Contemporary Color” is now open at the IFC Center in New York. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here.

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