The work of filmmaker brothers Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross has always lived on the more experimental margins of the documentary form, and their latest effort radically pushes definitional notions of nonfiction to a near-breaking point. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets raised eyebrows when Sundance programmers slotted it into the festival’s Documentary Competition section, given that the film, about a Las Vegas dive bar’s last night of operation, was actually shot using a cast of hired actors-cum-barflys in New Orleans. What the filmmakers capture over the course of a whirlwind 18 hours—a day after Donald Trump won the presidency—might lack actuality, but they compensate with unvarnished authenticity.
The Ross brothers, who are based in New Orleans, have long been experts at capturing how people perform their identity within a given space and what that reflects about their humanity. Sometimes the performance is literal, as in their “dance film” Contemporary Color, a celebration of color guard staged by David Byrne at an event at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. But more often, their canvas is bigger, such as New Orleans’s French Quarter in Tchoupitoulas, their Sidney, Ohio hometown in 45365, or the Texas-Mexico border in Western; these documentaries are also populated with people going about their lives in less staged circumstances. With Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, the filmmakers narrow their focus to an admittedly synthetic setting to achieve an identical effect. Once the cameras start rolling and the booze starts flowing, the emotional honesty of the moments they capture outmuscles any concerns over genre labels or definitions.
On a Zoom call prior to the film’s Virtual Cinema release this Friday, I spoke with the Ross brothers about the intellectual and emotional journey leading up to ideating and executing an unconventional project like Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. The conversation also covered how the brothers think about performance, choreography, accessibility, empathy, and nostalgia when making their films.
Your body of work is largely about what we can learn about people from the spaces they occupy and explore. Did your ability to explore these thematics get easier or harder with such a confined location in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?
Turner Ross: We’re interested in people in the space they inhabit, people in the spaces they create, how the spaces that they occupy both relate to them and are manifested by them. So, I think every film has a bit to do with that. With this one, I wouldn’t say [it was] easier or harder. I would say we always set up a challenge for ourselves. And this was as challenging a dynamic as we could conceive given the films that have preceded it. You know, we’re always trying to learn from what comes before. And the last film that we did was a “four walls” movie, but it was the Barclays Center in New York, tens of thousands of people, several hundred participants and a crew of dozens. We wanted to take that idea of constraints and a limited palette and say, “Can we reduce that down to actually four walls, just the two of us, to a group of people assembled? Can we give a sense of being there to a place that we’ve manifested? Can we elicit an authentic experience from an intention to a scenario?” But those are imposed limitations and obstacles, and that’s what makes it interesting for us.
Bill Ross IV: In some ways, it was nicer to be confined to that space because that limitation was what it was. In other ways, it was incredibly difficult.
You mentioned Contemporary Color as another “four walls” movie. Did that experience of learning how to capture motion within a confined space help in making this one?
TR: Very much so. Contemporary Color is actually a dance film, so it involves choreography. Humans and their choreography through space is always interesting, and so we tried to create a space in which all of the corners of the room had potential. We filled it with people who would have an interesting dance with each other. The difference was we didn’t know the choreography ahead of time. We just kind of had to create the scenario, create opportunities and then follow where they led. And so that made it much more of an interesting dance partner than just observing the thing itself.
You started conceptualizing this film with your Vegas visits in 2009 but didn’t shoot the film until 2016. How did your understanding of the people, the bars, the city, the country change over time? How would the film be different if you’d shot it right away?
BR: I mean, each film is an extension of where we are as humans when we shoot it, so it would certainly have been more immature.
TR: It’s an extension of us as people, as individuals, as humans in the world. It’s an extension of ourselves as artists, the times that we’re in, what we’re thinking about, what we’re responding to. So, certainly, 10 years ago, the world we were responding to is very different than the one that we find ourselves in now. In that sense, the world being available to us as the resource that we mine, certainly that would have been different. But, at the same time, what we were looking for at that time was much more of a gritty, verité, follow-where-it-goes street film in which we were just really wanting to see what was happening in that world. Not so much as a paradigm in which the movie takes place, a metaphor for experience, a framing device—which is what it ends up being in this film—but the actuality of what it was in 2009 during the Great Recession when people were living on the outskirts of Vegas, not seeking pleasure but a place to get by in the world. That spoke to us really as an image, as an experience and as a rich resource for painting a portrait of the contemporary American experience, which, again, extrapolated into these times would be very different. And, for us, it became the backdrop for this film so that we could create a microcosmic story that hopefully spoke to something bigger in that context.
BR: We know if we had made it 10 years ago, it wouldn’t have been a bar film. I think it would have been much more like Martin Bell’s Streetwise or Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog.
TR: I’d love to see that film!
BR: Oh, that movie would be sweet. But we’ll get to that one. It just wasn’t the right time then. It’s good that we got to think about it for this long. A lot of things were reported in that bucket over the last decade, or I guess it would have been seven years.
You’ve described bars as almost liminal spaces where people go to be someone other than themselves. Is that realization part of what led you to view the people in this film as actors performing characters?
TR: We’re always performing as people, and that comes into the genre-framing conversation. Our awareness of a camera has become a real factor in the world, but that’s not what we’re after. What we were curious about is what are these spaces that we choose to inhabit, that we seek in which to commiserate, that we seek in which to make stories, to tell stories, to put on airs, to be ourselves, to let go of things. Through all of time, people have found these types of spaces. And at the time that we made the film, we felt it was the most conducive space in which to observe and be curious about the conversations people are having with each other when they aren’t talking about something in particular. And, so, if we can all share a drink and have a conversation, what does it sound like? That’s in parallel to our interest in these spaces in general, and as a visual and cultural space, but also as a useful space. Who are we? Why don’t we talk to each other like this? What stories do we tell what stories we tell ourselves? And what are we saying to each other in this moment in time?
Do you see your other films as having performances in their own way?
BR: Always, yeah. In a lot of ways, I don’t see this film being much different than the others. They’re all constructions. There’s a camera in the room and we’re all performing. We’re all presenting what we wish to be seen as. I think that’s been cranked up here, but by how much I don’t really know.
TR: Our films are an amalgam of an experience. How can we distill it down to its essence, to make it sensical when it’s shared? I think that’s part of being a person in the world, what are you going to share with others in order to give them an idea of who you wish them to see? And that’s performance. So, in that sense, our films are also performative. In this sense, we’re just more acutely looking at that.
How were you all navigating the need to be specific to get the precise sense of place but also generalizable enough that anyone could see their own truth or experience reflected in the film?
BR: A lot of it is casting. We’re casting a wide variety of folks for a lot of different reasons, but one of them being that folks will see themselves in someone there. Or pieces of themselves throughout. And that seems to have been the case so far, which has been great. But the beginning of the question was Vegas…
TR: We wanted to tell a specific story that was also universal. That’s what Bill was talking about with casting. We wanted to make sure that there was representation in there so that there were different voices heard, which were authentic [and] would not [convey] an inauthentic experience, some sort of staged experiment, but something that spoke to an authenticity that we had perceived and experienced on our own. So, yes, we did a lot when it come to the framing of that world. We spent a lot of time in Vegas, certainly scouting and considering that and wanting to be authentic to that locale. But we also wanted to create a boundary in between so that when people watch the film, it isn’t so acute that they feel removed. We want people to have this experiential opportunity. We spoke today with a woman in Moscow, different people all over the world, different age groups, different backgrounds, and [even though it] may not be [their] space, they know something like it. Those may not be your people, but you might know folks like ‘em. And we wanted that to be the overriding idea, and not so much that this is a singular, specific story. We hoped that we would get to something that was more universal, even though it is a singular milieu.
We sometimes see the camera in the bar mirrors. Was it just too logistically complex trying to hide its presence? Did you just embrace your visibility?
BR: This is our fifth feature, and at this point, I think I’m just done trying to cut around us. We are there. If we weren’t there, there wouldn’t be a film. More and more, we have embraced the fact that we’re just in the room. It’s very intentional, but we’re not focusing on ourselves. Because it’s a mirrored room, we are popping up. We are leaving ourselves in there to say that this was a collective experience. This is all something that we experienced together. And we’re shooting not at these folks, but with [them]. We are together.
A moment that really struck me in the film is the really heartfelt conversation at the end of the bar between Bruce and Pam, both older and of different racial backgrounds. We see them at first in close-up, then you zoom out to see from other people’s vantage point from the other end of the bar in long shot. Throughout much of the film, we’re in a moment so thoroughly, and then it evaporates. Why linger here a bit and change perspectives?
BR: There’s two parts to that. One is, editorially, we needed to condense the scene timewise. But, also, because of that perspective, the scene becomes richer because the folks that you bounce around to are having trivial conversations when they are having a big life moment down here. And that’s the way a bar works. Now, you’re totally oblivious that somebody is having a life-changing, cathartic moment down here, and you and your buddies are talking about Olive Garden three seats down. I thought it was very telling what those spaces can be.
TR: And we wanted that inclusivity of the myriad experience and how the same situation, even within a small tight-knit framework, is experienced differently. And, as a viewer, that was Bill speaking to the cinematic intention. We realized that it was much more accessible as a film if we used the language of cinema to move around the space and to allow the viewers to say, “I have my own stream of consciousness in this space and can move around to the different conversations at will. I’m privy to all of the things in a way that even the people within the bar [aren’t].” The omniscience is in favor of the viewer.
BR: There was one cut of this where we would just stick with Pam and Bruce for, like, eight minutes uninterrupted and not bounce around the room. We love that cut, but nobody else did! So we had austere intentions, and then realized we need to revert to the language of the movies.
Beyond just the difficulties of getting someone to watch or program something that’s four-and-a-half-hours long, which is the length of your original favored cut, why whittle the film down to an hour-and-a-half? What’s lost and what’s gained?
BR: An audience is gained! [laughs]
TR: We always say that we make movies for ourselves first. We make movies for each other, and we try to solve that thing. Well, that four-and-a-half-hour movie was the movie that we made for ourselves and for each other. It turns out that what we loved about it was not translated to people outside of our own peculiar bubble. What we needed to do was distill that down to something that allowed people in and wasn’t so cold and obstructive as to pull people out. It’s not about observation, it’s about inclusion for the people within it and the viewers, and we had to eventually really lean towards the viewer. Because if we’re not successful in the end, if we can’t share this, there’s not an act of empathy. We can’t create an artifact and then share it with an audience to have them have their experience. And so that is why it’s 90 minutes.
Was it an intentional decision to shoot the day after the 2016 election or just a happy accident?
BR: I don’t know if it was “happy,” but it just sort of turned out that way.
TR: Generally, we’re reflecting the state of the world at the time, what we were feeling and thinking. We were feeling sort of divided as a country and in terms of perspectives, and we were feeling pretty lost and like we should be able to do better than our vote on Election Day allowed. As artists, it was time for us to go to work. We set out to get the film in motion before we knew the results of the election. It wasn’t about us making a film about our politics, but it was about the body politic. What is the state of people and what are they saying to each other? Let’s not make an election film, but let’s make a film about who we are during this time.
Trump is this kind of looming, mostly unspoken presence undergirding a lot of what’s happening on screen, just as he has been in pretty much any bar for the last five years. How did you go about navigating the elephant in the room?
BR: It was just like a bar, with folks just getting into it, and that didn’t feel quite right. So we’d move elsewhere. But that balance was struck in the edit. We didn’t shy away from shooting all of it. It was present.
TR: But it also was a motivating factor in terms of why we chose to execute the film the way that we did: to create a container, a safe space to bring in a broad swath of people to choreograph the inclusion of those types. In scouting actual bars, there were some bars that, because of the way that Bill and I look, we would walk in, we’d turn the cameras on and they’d start chanting: “Trump, Trump, Trump!” Just assuming a certain point of view, and that’s not the film that we wanted to make.
BR: To be clear, he is not talking about the Roaring 20s! [laughs]
TR: We scouted 100 bars, and we interviewed hundreds of people to be involved in this film. And there were certain spaces that certainly did have a limited viewpoint, and people found their own corner to back into. That’s just not what we wanted to explore. We didn’t want to have a space that spoke to a singular experience. We wanted myriad viewpoints and the opportunity to feel like you belonged in a space. That’s both why we chose to shoot at that time and why we created our space the way that we did.
I’m sure you’re getting this a lot, but obviously the film has evolved to take on additional meaning when being released in a pandemic where almost no one can congregate in a bar, or at least enjoy one like the Roaring 20s patrons are. Do you think it might change the meaning or reception of the film given that the audience is likely in a state of heightened nostalgia for the environment of a bar?
BR: That’s funny because nobody’s asked us that yet! I thought people would. You have to think it’s going to. I mean, it’s got to!
TR: We’re as curious as you are. On the one hand, the themes in the film are still relevant and resonant. And, on the other hand, they change their articulation because of where we’ve ended up at this moment.
BR: Not just about your feelings on bars, but so much of what’s brought up in the film has been heightened because everything is heightened right now.
TR: And not only what they’re talking about, what the people are actually saying to each other. The context of the film, this idea of the end of things and uncertain futures, wrestling with identity and where we’re all headed, these sort of existential themes that are intertwined in the conceit of the film and in the way that people are having discourse with each other. I’m super curious. What a bizarre fucking time to put out a film at all! Especially this one, where we’re on edge about everything, we can’t share space in this way. Who are we? I think that’ll be reflected in the kind of feedback we get.
It strikes me that you didn’t make this as an explicitly “nostalgic” film. Would you be okay if people received it that way?
BR: My biggest fear would be if they were just like, “Okay.” Any sort of reaction, if they want to argue with it, great! People are free to do what they want to do, I just hope it’s not just like, “Okay, honey. Well, we watched that.” As if it’s just one more piece of content.
TR: In the moment that we made it, our concern was not to date the film, to say, “Let’s let it be of the world that it is, but let’s also not fix it in that for all of time, hopefully.” At the same time, it’s already in the rearview, so you can’t help but have some sort of nostalgia for it. Or, I don’t know, maybe there’s a hope for moving on. I think, inevitably, we make these things together to go through a catharsis together and with the people that we make them with. Then, it’s left up to the audience, and I’m fascinated by what an audience does with it once it’s theirs. I’ll be super curious to have those conversations.