Two men walk into a bar with a camera. Here’s what happens.
It’s not the setup of a joke, it’s the filmmaking technique of brothers Bill Turner and Ross Turner. To the Ross brothers, the world is a stage, and the lines between reality and artifice merely constructs. Some call it bold. Some call it chicanery. And some call it much more real than a documentary.
In Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, it’s last call for a much loved bar known as the Roaring Twenties. We float through a booze-soaked night with a myriad of somewhat-real people in a somewhat real place. It's an intoxicating cinematic experience that as a filmmaker, leaves you wondering what the hell did I just watch?
Controversially, the film was programmed in the U.S Documentary program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. According to the filmmakers, some moviegoers were so pissed after understanding how the film was made, they asked for their money back!
But if you aren’t breaking some rules, you aren’t doing anything very exciting.
The Ross Brothers first sat down with No Film School at the film's Sundance premiere to explain how they made their film and why. Dive into our interview and then check out Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets for yourself as it streams on virtual cinemas through Altavod until August 6.
NFS: How did you decide on the bar you would film for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets and on the people in it?
Bill Ross: We scouted, I think, every bar on the outskirts of Vegas over the course of 10 years in between projects. And the idea grew over that time, but no bar was quite perfect. We live in New Orleans, and there was a bar that we felt would be ideal as an outskirts-of-Vegas bar.
Turner Ross: We thought about our previous work, Contemporary Color like a puppet show and thinking about it as a stage. We took those lessons to Bloody Nose. That's really where we find the thing to be most interesting: the found moments, the serendipity, the confluence of what our intentions are, and then what happens. Then that led us to the technique for this film.
Bill Ross: The Roaring '20s is a real place but it's in New Orleans.
Turner Ross: This is the stage in which it happens.
Bill Ross: We determined that we could control that bar and cast people that are going to be in that bar and treat the interior as Vegas, and then take everybody out to Vegas once we did the initial bar shoot.
Turner Ross: Being able to have that control did away with the approach of, "Let's find the closing bar, let's spend all this time there, let's capture it as it exists." I think the things that we were after would have dissolved in that space if we didn’t have ownership. It allowed us to have authorship of what we wanted to create. It made sure that [the people in the film] had a safe space to be in, that the only stimulus existing in there was what we had. In the end, a bar can be a really dissatisfying place. It can otherwise be nauseating to spend that much time and space with all of this cacophony and noise, and drunk people.
"We started off as young guys working in LA in this studio system...what we wanted was something different."
NFS: So who are these people? How did you find them? What was in the casting description, if you can call it that?
Bill Ross: We drew up the archetypes of people. While we were researching bars, we were taking notes and notes. Who's in the room? What role do people play? Why is Norm here, what role does he fill? And they're building that space as well. Who are these archetypal characters that fill out a bar scene? We were actually casting in bars, spending time while people are drinking and saying, "Yes, this person is this person authentically." So, we sourced from our lives, from dozens of ‘casting sessions’ in bars and from all over the place.
NFS: So would you just be at a bar drinking, observing, and would you say, "Hey, you want to come be in my movie?"
Bill Ross: Well, we would sit there with a camera.
Turner Ross: And if people wanted to come talk to us about what we were doing, we would.
Bill Ross: It's a trick we have where whenever we're shooting, we always take a camera. Bring it into the bar, point it in front of us, and that will lead to conversation. People will be like, "So what's with the cameras?" We'll be like, "Well, we're doing this project" or whatever. And they'll be like, "Wow, you should film my uncle."
Turner Ross: It starts a conversation.
Bill Ross: And then there were some marquee roles, like the character of Michael who's there the entire time. It was such a marquee role that we needed to find that person. He is an actor who had played these kind of roles before, so he really understood it. There were 22 people in all who came through that space and they all have a story.
NFS: So once you knew the archetypes and then found the people to play them, how did it all come to life? What is the set up?
Bill Ross: You're here because of who you are and because we see something of you that we appreciate. Here is the scenario that we would like to put you in. For the most part, we just need you to be yourself and respond to the scenario. And the people that wanted to be a part of that, brought that. For some people, it was as simple as, "Oh okay, it's a bar that's closing, and it's in Vegas, great. I'll do that." Some people built whole storylines for themselves. But for the most part, everybody's really themselves through this very basic scenario. And then for us, behind the scenes and behind the cameras, we had the armature of an idea sort of how this space would work, when people would come and go, and what would be happening in the bar.
Most of the people who are in it are unaware of any effect. They're just responding to the scenario that they're within. And they really start building their own stories over time as they arrive and interact with each other. They just kind of start their story and their relationships with each other and their relationship with the bar. And by the end of it, they're truly emotional about this space and this experience and the relationships that they've forged. There's an authenticity to that.
NFS: What were the directions for your cinematographers?
Bill Ross: It was just us.
NFS: It was just you two?
Bill Ross: We're the only people in the room besides the people on camera.
NFS: What was your strategy? What are the rules and how did you know what you were going to capture?
Turner Ross: We knew the broad idea of what we were after, but we were also creating a scenario that we could mold as we wished. No words on page, but we had a shooting script, an idea. So if it's three o'clock in the afternoon, what are the things that we need to find? Where are the things that we need to look for? Where is the light falling? What's happening on the TV? How are these people interacting? And so me, with a two camera setup, I would follow the shooting script, making sure that we've got everything we needed in order to define the space, time of day, the little elements that make up the bar and its interactions. Making sure that I'm getting this relationship between these two people, getting the relationship with the time of day. Bill was available to find what was actually happening with the other camera saying, "Okay, I'm focusing on what we think we want and what we hope that we get. So that if all falls through, we've gotten a sense of that. And Bill was there to find the moments that were just happening.
"We tried not to interrupt it as much as possible because it would break the spell."
NFS: Were they allowed to just let things roll or did you stop as in, "Everybody stop doing what you're doing so we can do that again." Where does the artifice stop and start?
Bill Ross: For the majority of that 18 hour shoot, it truly was just a living thing where we were trying to hit all our beats. Meanwhile, there's a crazy conversation going on that you could never have imagined that was really part of our film. So I would run down there and be with them for awhile.
Turner Ross: We tried not to interrupt it as much as possible because it would break the spell.
Bill Ross: Because when you interrupted it, then it would have to kick into gear again. You would break the spell because they'd be like, "Oh right, we're in a movie."
NFS: With only the two of you shooting it seems crazy that you could be able to get all the storylines that you got.
Bill Ross: It is. But we missed a ton. We also had all the security footage and I tied all the audio to the security footage so you could basically just pop around the room and hear what everybody was saying. And we missed whole storylines where somebody was off in a corner with somebody else and we were off filming at the other end of the bar.
Turner Ross: There was so much going on.
NFS: Who was outside the bar?
Bill Ross: We had folks making sure if anybody left, that they were getting taken care of and they got home safe.
Turner Ross: Food and water and transportation, and making sure that people weren't trying to come in the bar. For the day it was a closed set, so they turned people away who were coming just to drink.
NFS: You obviously know each other well.
Turner Ross: We've been dance partners for a long time.
NFS: How do you operate? We were talking about coverage essentially. What were you guys shooting with?
Bill Ross: For Contemporary Color, we bought Sony FS7s with zooms and we use those. We own them, so every project since Contemporary Color has been shot on those.
Turner Ross: They have the ability to be really polished, high-end cameras. But really, what we like is there's so much leeway in the image. So we can do a lot. And we rigged them out to be handheld cameras. Ergonomically, perhaps they're not the most ideal thing for that.
Bill Ross: We've broken them many times.
Turner Ross: And we use Sony zoom lenses so that we weren't changing lenses.
NFS: Did you guys light the location? It’s not a dark grainy bar look?
Bill Ross: We popped some areas that were a bit too dark.
Turner Ross: But it’s all practicals. No hidden lighting. A lot of Christmas lights. Tap lights. Because everything is in that space is 360 degrees.
NFS: It’s a noisy environment, but in the film you can hear every conversation. Is everyone mic’ed, is someone mixing all these things?
Bill Ross: We had a great sound mixer on this who's a buddy of ours in New Orleans and he planted mics everywhere he possibly could.
Turner Ross: He sat in a closet in the back of the bar and listened to it as it happened.
Bill Ross: He tried to get everybody mic’ed and along the bar there's mics, so you really could, no matter where the camera is, hear.
Turner Ross: And then I mean Post certainly played a major role in that.
Bill Ross: Post, yeah. Because of the jukebox, it was a disaster.
NFS: Why is this your filmmaking style? And what do you consider this style in the conversation of how people talk about what's reality, what's fiction, nonfiction?
Turner Ross: You're asking us to sit in a box.
NFS: Pick a box and sit in it! No, but I want to know is about your philosophical perspective on non-fiction and your style?
Turner Ross: We've arrived at it naturally and practically. We started off as young guys working in LA in this studio system, and watching how that thing is done. And what we wanted was something different. To be able to just go, as two people who are curious about things, and find and make things by hand without all of the trappings that surround bigger productions. And so the two of us, with two cameras and some basic editing equipment, could go out in the world and dream big about what we wanted. We could find really fascinating things and make movies together. And when that worked the first time, we've continued to build on that, to the point that we have developed a language together.
So at this point when we have ideas, we dream within that framework. We say, "Okay, this is how we execute things. This is the language that we've built and that's going to be our starting point." And it continues to evolve. To your genre thoughts, we've ended up in the nonfiction world, which has been very kind to us because we source our things from reality, from realism, found moments of real life. But behind that, we think about a lot of things just as most filmmakers and artists do, about bigger ideas and this is how we're arriving at those ideas at the present moment.
And it really isn't as interesting to me, although it can be a fun conversation to be had, What is documentary? What makes a documentary a documentary? What makes nonfiction nonfiction? And there's certainly a lot happening within that realm, but it's not the conversation we're leading with.
"it's great to know the rules that people have made up...it's important that we all find our own as well."
NFS: Do you get hate mail from documentary literalists? Because the conversation for some people about that non-fiction line is very black and white.
Turner Ross: It's very important.
NFS: Do you ever have someone feeling betrayed at the end of your film, finding out it wasn’t made in the way that they consider documentary
Turner Ross: That's why we're open about what we do. We're not trying to pull the wool over anybody's eyes and we're not trying to sneak into any framework. It becomes interesting because here we are at Sundance in the U.S. documentary competition. That makes that conversation relevant. And so we have to have it and I'm not opposed to it. I'm not opposed to the interesting things that are happening there. And I'm also not afraid and going to be stopped by what somebody thinks.
Bill Ross: We've gotten that throughout.
Turner Ross: A man the other night wanted his money back because he thought he'd been duped by what we did. And that's just missing the point. There's no duping going on. We're making movies and every documentary, every movie, period, is a construction. And so if you're starting from some place of ethics within that, even the most journalistic pieces, even talking head documentaries, you're bringing somebody into a studio, lighting them, putting them in front of a camera and asking them to tell their version of things. That's a performance. Those are intentions. There's a framework by which you're arriving at this. So it's what keeps the conversation going over all of time because there's never going to be a conclusion. You're going to get in a circular argument about this. And I love seeing other people's results. But again, we're in it because the tools that we use are traditionally out of the documentary realm, verite shooting and subject matter sourced from life.
NFS: So for filmmakers who want to make something that is throwing out the rules, but what's your advice?
Turner Ross: I mean, it's great to know the rules that people have made up. It's great to understand how people arrive at the conclusions that they do, but they're all people arriving at conclusions. And I think it's important that we all find our own as well.
Bill Ross: Whatever that image is in your head, do whatever it takes to get there. That might mean breaking rules.
Watch Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets here and see if you love it, hate it, or just want a drink.