'WESTERN' Filmmakers on Creating Context, Condensing Time & Being Real With Your Subjects
Bill and Turner Ross' new film WESTERN turns their curious vérité gaze into the border tensions between Texas and Mexico. In our interview from SXSW they talk about form, the brother/filmmaker relationship and decidedly not being "answer people."
Awarded at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with a Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking, celebrating "the restraint of filmmakers letting image and sound speak for itself," the Ross Brothers are filmmakers that immerse themselves fully into their subject matter in an attempt to discover a unique context for their stories to exist within. I was drawn to the Ross Bros' work and decided to sit down with them at SXSW to chat about their process.
"We are presenting neither the problem nor the solution. We are presenting the context."
NFS: The film confronts us with the idea that there is all this fear and violence that's happening right across the border and it's seeping into life in America -- but we're so padded from it. I thought it's just a really interesting time you guys were able to capture; here's a place that's right on the edge of all that and we're literally seeing what spills over. Some people say that Mexico is a scary place right now while I've heard from many people it's just great.
Turner: It's a wonderful country. It has some problems, and yes, you don't want to get in the way of those problems. A lot of those things steer towards the border because that's the giant wall across which those things are thrown. That's why that whole thing exists. That's why the trade exists. That's why the problem exists. The industry that has been created is an illegal one that exists outside of the bounds of normal society. So yeah, it has to be this backwater. It has to be this murky backwater. It's very unfortunate but it's the simple economics of supply and demand. That is where the wave breaks and it's troubling to see, but life goes on as well.
NFS: When you recognized the window of this story opening up, what were the elements that made you want to jump on it?
Turner: The story that was told is the story that we were able to receive. We didn't go to seek a story. We didn't go to analyze an issue. Its inherency is conveyed through what we captured. In creating a portrait of this place and spending time with these people and digesting the lives, the moments, the cultures, the landscapes of this place the dramatic backdrop of the moment is what's happening.
What we experienced is that these things are external forces. Whether it’s the US government imposing things, fences, legislation or the American media creating a different sense of what this place is, or whether it's the drug cartels and the lack of policing and the lack of government oversight on that. It's these other worlds that are descending on what should be its own region. You can't look away from that.
NFS: It's frustrating when there are external forces that are coming down in your life. No matter what it is, whether you're a cattle trader or whether there's a producer that doesn't understand what you're doing, or whatever it is. It's stifling. It's upsetting that there's just this nebulous almost unreal thing that's having a real effect on your life. The film felt drenched in frustration with where things are at and lack of control.
Turner: And it is. We are not trying to be answer people. We are presenting neither the problem nor the solution. We are presenting the context. We are on an ongoing journey to create these pieces that are part of a body of work and this happens to be in a region that is steeped in stuff that you could create political discourse out of. So this context encapsulates those things. I hope we present that well. I hope it’s a contextualization, allowing the humanity of the experience to be known. Hopefully that's as close as we ever get to some sort of political discourse.
"In terms of watching western films I've always been much more fascinated with the gray films. Not the black hat, white hat, but where you struggle with who's a protagonist."
NFS: Just the title, "Western" I found interesting too. For me just recalled the genre of western. Cowboys vs. Indians and the conflict of different cultures trying to coexist. I felt that that was an interesting way to contextualize the film.
Turner: Not only creatively are we thinking about the legacy of that medium which is so, so many things, but it's an interesting way to go in. If you're thinking about the genre and all of your preconceptions of what that is and then you look at real people, then what you project onto them becomes a fascinating conversation in your own head. Yes, it's about archetypes and landscapes and yes, it is part of the tradition of all these things, but it's also the method of the west and what you project onto a region that is a very real place with real people. Also, in terms of watching western films I've always been much more fascinated with the gray films. Not the black hat, white hat, but where you struggle with who's a protagonist and antagonist and who the good guy is and if he's a conflicted good guy.
"If you've got $100,000 that you want to blow on movie making you probably shouldn't give it to a college."
NFS: How did you guys start making films together and what's it like working as brothers? What are your skill sets that complement each other?
Bill: We started making stuff in the backyard of the house we grew up in. Before we knew what documentaries were, we were documenting things.
Turner: It's not a forced partnership. It's easier together; it's better together. We're having fun. We get to share space and we manage to get along. We got over the fights a long time ago.
[interjecting] Turner: Why No Film School?
NFS: That's a good question. It's not some sort of knock on film school. It's just a website for people who want to do it themselves and there's a lot of information there. The idea is there's no film school required to do this.
Turner: I think it's fucking fantastic. If you've got a $100,000 that you want to blow on movie making you probably shouldn't give it to a college. The information is out there and it's trial by fire. I'd rather have that trial by fire outside of the bubble.
NFS: In terms of finding your subjects and creating an environment where they're willing to give to the lens, what kind of steps do you guys take to make them comfortable and bring the best out of them and bring the truth out of them?
Bill: We're very clear up front about who we are and what we're hoping to do. Just very honest. We try to be warm, friendly people to be around. I think it’s helpful that if you continually ask somebody to be in their life they want you to be around so you better be a positive agreeable human being.
Turner: If you're face forward about it you certainly avoid a lot of headaches down the line. No hemming and hawing up front. If this is not going to work, if this engagement is not amicable, you're wasting time when you could be doing something else. We just try to be very, very honest with people. You're asking somebody to be intimate with you right away. Here I am, please expose yourself. That's a lot. You probably ought to not be shady.
NFS: Have you ever started a project and then had to cancel it or stop because you realized that it wasn't right?
Bill: I don't think so. It really comes down to who do you want to be in the room with, and if you don't want to be in the room with somebody then you don't shoot it. If you don't want to be in the room with somebody, if you're not intrigued by it, then why in the world would the person on the other side of that screen be? That doesn't make any sense.
NFS: I noticed the coverage in this film is interesting. It seems like there are cameras everywhere, but I know there's probably not. How do you choose where to put the cameras and when, and how have your instincts for that evolve?
Turner: It's condensed time. Obviously it's not news that it is all an illusion. We spend enough time with these things to hopefully understand them enough to understand what it takes to convey the thing. If we're needing to convey a sense of space, absolutely, but then again it comes down to the, how do you put the camera in the right place at the right time thing. Which again becomes --
NFS: Just instincts.
Bill: Yeah, and they do get better. I hope that's true for me, but I see that editing [Turner's] work. After doing it for so long, you come into a room and you're like, all right, that's how you shoot that.
NFS: How do you guys make sure that you're evolving as filmmakers?
Turner: Our party line is that everything ought to be exponentially better every time. The craft needs to get better, the business needs to get better, the conversation needs to get better. If we're not learning and moving forward then what are we doing? We didn't get into this to create stasis. We got into this to create a conversation that is ever evolving, hopefully, getting better.
Bill: When we're not shooting, doing homework, staying up until the middle of the night on the website. Just out of curiosity, how would you shoot a large form concert film? Being deeply nerdy about it. We talk about it continually. And now surround ourselves with people who can help us do the other things better.
Turner: It's like exponential growth. Outwards and on-wards, always in all directions.
Thank you, Bill and Turner!