“This movie shouldn’t have worked,” Bill Ross says of “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” years removed from the film made from a 17-hour shoot that commenced just a day after the 2016 presidential election and still unable to completely stifle an incredulous laugh every now and again with his brother Turner about the fact that it did.
This isn’t an unusual feeling for the brothers, having previously sweated out the logistics of conveying the full glory of David Byrne’s enthralling and sprawling celebration of the Color Guard in the one-night only “Contemporary Color” (albeit with a camera crew comprised of some of the finest documentarians in the business) or having only themselves to rely on to capture all the machinations in their home town of Sidney, Ohio over the course of a year where they slid into every corner to deliver an immersive slice of life in “45365.” However, their latest idea was particularly pesky in terms of execution when they sought to cover no less than the current state of America and the history that led there without sacrificing the intimacy that they’ve cultivated in their films to allow strangers to become friends.
When the country was seen as an experiment at its founding, the Ross Brothers could take inspiration from the founding fathers in trying something new with “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” providing the land and a set of certain parameters for filming that was a stretch from their nonfiction roots, but hardly breaking from them entirely as they went about putting together a group of people with no advance connections to each other for one night at the fictional Roarin’ Twenties watering hole in Las Vegas, informing the patrons that the bar would be closing the next day and to process the experience accordingly. (One of those closing out their tab, Michael, was given a little more direction.) What transpires reminds of poet Emma Lazarus’ inscription on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” ironically finding fresh air in a smoky speakeasy where veterans of foreign wars and those struggling to survive the daily grind in a system stacked against them have come to drown their sorrows and find camaraderie, a final common ground in a place that appears to be coming apart at the seams economically, politically and spiritually.
It’s strangely appropriate now that with so many bars across America closed as a result of the coronavirus, the Ross Brothers have been the ones to keep the lights on with a film that so acutely evokes the experience of happy hour, joyous in bringing people together to take pleasure where they can and cognizant of the reality that waits just outside, making the last call at the Roarin’ Twenties particularly harsh. Following its premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is starting its virtual rollout with an exclusive run through Film Society at Lincoln Center that will grow to include other arthouses throughout the country with proceeds split to help in their time of need, and Bill and Turner were kind enough to talk about throwing caution to the wind with their latest endeavor, being able to showcase a variety of experiences in one timeframe and how they’re driven by the fear of the unknown.
Bill Ross: We’ve been kicking it around for probably about 10 years, but in late 2016, we had signed up to shoot a film about a buddy of ours who was making a film, and that production pushed by three months, so all of a sudden we were left…
Turner Ross: There were a few productions during the summer that fell through, so we were in a tough spot. We had no opportunities. We had no funding, we had no support for this idea we’d been trying to do for 10 years, so we thought it was the perfect time to just go ahead and make it. And like a lot of the ideas that we have, I feel once the pile of notes gets big enough to fall over on its own, it’s probably time. While the original Vegas idea had been with us for some time, it certainly evolved over the years. Part of each film is learning from the successes and mistakes of its creation and each time we’re trying to respond to that, so with “Contemporary Color,” the film before, we had made a film within four walls. It was a giant room, but it was an arena where something seemed linear and real and alive.
It was a beautiful thing, but it was also something that happened multiple times, so we constructed the movie infused with outside ideas – we programmed the Jumbotron, we told a story through the film, we had certain characters, we had so much going on there and we thought, “Alright, if we could do it on this scale, what if we reduce it back to where we really are comfortable with ourselves?” Where it’s just the two of us, a much smaller room, a much smaller footprint and we can try and create a sense of place, a sense of community, capture the essence of this moment that we’re all going through as an act of catharsis.
Vegas, for many years, had been an inspiration as an idea, and at the end of 2016, with all the political turmoil that is obviously still pervasive, we wanted to talk about the times that they’re a part of without talking directly politics. The bar space seemed like the perfect space for that — those are spaces that we love and have always been fascinated by and we wanted to create something that was not only evocative of our time and place, but of the experience of these shared spaces that we’re all familiar with, no matter what they may be.
When you were figuring out who would be inhabiting this place, would you cast relative to who you would find one by one?
Bill Ross: Yeah, here in our office, we had our walls covered with character types like who we’re looking for.
Turner Ross: We needed an anchor for it.
Bill Ross: Like Michael, we chose him because he reminded us of the Michael Jeter character from “Grand Hotel,” the down-on-his-luck guy who is given one last shot.
Turner Ross: We needed an anchor for it. And once you have that, the world can revolve around it, so we built an idea of archetype – that’s something we think about no matter what we’re working on. Who inhabits the space that we’re trying to define? What role do they play? There are an essential number of people that will tell this story, so if you get this anchor point, say the Norm in “Cheers,” this person at the end of the bar, who does he relate to? Who does he talk to? What world revolves around him? And you can start to build out from that and try to create a tapestry of experiences that hopefully we would get not only visually – old, young, sort of the breadth of experience – but people that could speak from a well of experience that was different from the other person next to them. Then when we were creating this kinetic environment that hopefully they’re in, there was hopefully some magic that would happen between them because of their different viewpoints and that something dynamic would happen if we filled their seats well.
I’d be curious how Shay and her son Trey came into the picture when she’s such a big character inside the bar as a bartender and he takes you outside the bar with his friends, bicycling around – it changes the production. Were they a packaged deal?
Turner Ross: Yeah, we were profoundly affected by Shay because we were working with our buddy while he was casting his film and she did a reading for him that we happened to be there for. She was incredible — she really pulled out of a diner here in [New Orleans] to read for a film, so the authenticity she brought was remarkable. When we started talking to her about our project [and she told us], “I’m here with my son, I’m a single mom,” it was like you are that person [we are looking for]. You are quintessentially this person’s caretaker that could be our bartender who could be in this role. Also we’d love to include your son because the people that inhabit these spaces all start from somewhere. It’s not just the people at the end of their road, it’s the people who are just at the beginning. [As a teen] you can’t even go into this bar, but you’re spending time on the outside and we understand there’s a trajectory of people and we wanted that concurrent storyline of these kids who are set adrift as well as these adults who are all seeking companionship and commiseration. For us, that was a nice escape valve to have these kids out in the world and [see] where their futures might go.
You’re probably pretty exhausted at the end of this 17-hour shoot, but had anything happened immediately that you could recognize as the kind of alchemy you were looking for?
Bill Ross: Yeah, I remember after that, it was like seven or eight in the morning [when we finished shooting], and we went to Waffle House, I remember, because we were starving. [laughs] There was relief that this marathon was over, but also we felt like we did something because we didn’t know if it would work.
Turner Ross: It was the exciting part of the whole experiment. We set up a scenario that we thought would work, but we didn’t know if it would work and that’s the exciting part of it. What made it interesting as a project is it was always going to be an act of discovery. In order for there to be any rhyme or reason for any of this, something needed to evolve and unravel throughout the experience that we could be present for and document. So [the fact] that it worked at all was incredible, but then that it worked so profoundly and people truly had a resonant experience with one another and had emotional trajectories coming out of that, there’s something truly humbling about that, realizing the gratitude that not only was it successful in terms of its execution, but all of these people had come together knowing that we didn’t know what was going to happen. They had all contributed and were willing to share that with us, so it’s not two guys in a room pointing at something. Everyone was complicit in this for it to work. All of these people showed up for us and really gave of themselves towards this end and that was profoundly affecting.
You’ve been candid about the fact that this took a while to edit, but it seems like a fascinating inverse of how you started out with “45365,” when you embedded in a town for a year – you’re spending less time filming, but more putting it together, without sacrificing any of the narrative richness. Has the process actually changed where you know from post how to go about the production upfront?
Bill Ross: You know, we shot “45” in 2007, so you’d like to think by this point we’d have it all figured out. And man, we do not. [laughs] But that’s the excitement because it’s a constant adventure. We’re growing as filmmakers, we’re growing as human beings, and with this one, yes, the production was much, much shorter than the first three films, but the post-production was the longest and most difficult we ever had. It took almost two years to cut and for the longest time, I thought it would likely never see the light of day, and that perhaps we had run out of gas as filmmakers and we might just need to find something else to do. [laughs]
Turner Ross: But that’s an interesting question that we do talk about a lot. We’re always trying to improve on the last thing that we did, expanding in all directions. The conversation we always have is how can we do this better? How can we learn from what we’ve done? And at this point, we’ve been doing this thing together for all of our lives and professionally for thousands of hours, so there is an understanding that we can execute certain things, but I never want to be comfortable in that. The only thing that really excites me and really excited us about this project was just the fear that was implicit in doing something that we didn’t know how to do.
Bill Ross: That the wheels totally could’ve come off.
Turner Ross: If we set ourselves up in a scenario where all it is is execution and we already understand how this works, it’s not interesting. The experience isn’t exciting and so much of this is about the experience for us. There are certain things like we prepared for this better than any other thing we’ve ever done, but we prepared for something that was scary. Rather than going out and saying we’ll fish for a year until we find it, like you said with “45365,” where we really just didn’t know what we were doing, we knew what we were after with this one. We knew then we had to create a scenario that would be spontaneous enough that we would still have that same experience of not knowing. But there was just terror going into this thing because we were trying something we hadn’t done before and we weren’t sure what would happen. That’s what was so exciting because then you have to be entirely available to the experience and hopefully you have something worth sharing.
Bill Ross: It’s beautiful. It touches people that I wouldn’t have thought, like a grandma would come up to us and just be like, “I know that bar. I have a bar just like that…”
Turner Ross: “…And I know I seem like just a kind old lady, but I’m one of those people too!” [laughs]
Bill Ross: And college students really get into it. Kids that I don’t think are even old enough to go into bars. It’s been very touching to see themselves in it. It was shocking to me at first that people — even one — liked it, but people really have an emotional response to it. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever think we’ve made.
Turner Ross: And it’s certainly satisfying to have an intellectual conversation about the art that we’re making, but it’s so much more satisfying for someone to say I’ve had a profound experience here and what you’ve done here resonates with me in a personal sense. Hopefully if this thing is successful, it’s not about painting a portrait of specificity, but creating a portrait of something that is universal and can be extrapolated into people’s personal experiences. When somebody comes up afterwards and says, “That’s like my place” or “I’m like that person,” that is fucking awesome.