The filmmaking duo of the Ross Brothers (Turner and Bill) have had quite a bit of success with their first two films. “45365,” their debut, won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2009 and an Independent Spirit Award in 2010, and their second, “Tchoupitoulas,” played to raves at SXSW this year as well as other festivals, and has since been picked up by Oscilloscope Laboratories and will be hitting theaters soon. Our own review from SXSW says “Tchoupitoulas” is “a fascinating development in the filmmakers' experiments with documentary storytelling, and a damn good time exploring the sights, sounds and sensations of New Orleans at night.”
We caught up with the Ross Bros. recently to talk about what it was like shooting “Tchoupitoulas,” the philosophies they apply to their creative process, and the scoop on their third film, which is the final installment in their “Americana” trilogy.
Documenting the world around them is something they have always been doing. Though they don’t always consider their work to fall into a strict category of documentary or narrative.
Turner described the experience of how the brothers caught the filmmaking bug at a young age. “As little kids, when people in the neighborhood started to get their VHS cameras and camcorders, instead of filming family Christmas, we started using those to film the colorful people in the neighborhood, to make war epics, to document our experience," he explained. "As we got older and Bill went to film school, we were traveling together, we were still documenting ourselves, we were still documenting the people in our lives, and still documenting the travels and the places that we were in, so it seemed a very natural extension to make that the way in which we captured our first feature film… we delved into something that intrigued us, and was familiar to us, and we’ve been riffing on that theme since then.” However, he also said about documentary form that, “the more that we proceed with that endeavor, the more that we stray away from that theme, although that is technically what we’re doing.”
The shooting process on “Tchoupitoulas” was nine months of roaming the streets of New Orleans at night, with several happy accidents that truly made the film.
“We set out with very silly hopefulness that we would find kids in this town to follow around at night and see the town through them. And for seven months, we looked and we found no one, but through that whole time we were shooting around town and filming landscapes," Bill said about their approach. "After seven months we didn’t have anybody, and we got extremely fucking lucky and those three guys walked right past us.” As for how they knew the three brothers who serve as our perspective in the film, Bill said they knew they were the right ones almost instantly, “when they walked past, it took 20 seconds of looking at them and how they were interacting that we knew just listening to William we had something there.”
As for the way they shaped the story during the filming process, Bill said, “What we wanted to do what create a landscape both visually and aurally that these kids could walk through, a sensory environment where, everywhere you turn, that is where you are, and those are the people that would be there in that quintessential time and place. The kids themselves we only spent a few days with, and they were allowed to exist in that place as they would, and we just captured them in their natural state.”
As for the other happy accidents that offer some framework to the film’s narrative, they were just lucky to stumble upon them as they prowled the city. “Every night was interesting, and there’s a thousand stories to be told, and that’s why we make films the way we do. We have a story to tell and we get to go on these adventures. There’s countless stories of us getting in trouble and whatnot. Nine months up all night,” Bill said.
After the extended shoot, the film faced another lengthy process of post-production, with editing and clearing music rights, which proved to be a learning experience for the brothers.
Bill described the editing process as “slow, breaking everything down, finding the right moments, put together something that was close to what we hoped for when we looked at each other and said let’s make a movie in New Orleans.” While shooting, they wanted to be in the moment, but knew that clearing some of the popular music in the film would be trouble in the end. However, they were lucky to be able to find support for the film’s release. “We actually had an extremely fruitful and inspiring fundraising campaign this year and learned a lot, and got a lot of support, and we were able to clear the movie and sign with Oscilloscope, and it will be out there," Bill shared. "And as we make the next one, hopefully we will be more considerate about the amount of music we put in.”
But ultimately, it had to be done because, “If you’re gonna make a movie about New Orleans, you can’t extricate the music, it’s gotta be in there. This is the movie that we wanted to make, and we did everything that we could to make it right, so it showed the depth. Even though we don’t exist in the multiplex world, there are a lot of people that support what we’re doing. It was very awesome, heartening and real.”
The brothers draw inspiration for their creative process from music and writing even more than film influences.
“It’s Bill and I having a conversation, and having an experience and trying to articulate it in the best and most obvious way possible. So far that comes out in a documentary sense. But I think moreso, for me, when I think about it, a lot of music, a lot of writing is more synonymous with what we’re doing than being able cite a film influence," Turner said about how he works with this brother. "I look at really great albums, and really great novels where you have someone who’s a third party to the action, who is witnessing this thing and experiencing this thing and rearticulating that to an audience so that they can experience that thing.”
He continued, “We made 4 a.m. really real and that’s the idea, to capture the night in all of its essence and try to rearticulate that.”
Their new project, the third piece in the Americana trilogy will be titled “Western” and was shot on the border between Texas and Mexico.
Bill said about the title, “We figured we’ve been walking around talking about this project and talking about it as our 'Western' for so long, we’d just call it that.” They are just starting the post-production process on the film, after having shot on the Texas/Mexico border for 13 months. Bill described the film as “in the same vein of our other two, it’s kind of part three of our Americana trilogy, we wanted to make this three-part, lo-fi, same palette, same cameras, vision of three distinct regions in America, and then move on.” As for the story the film, he said, “The approach was the same, but the writing of the film happens in the editing… it’ll be a portrait of that time and place that we had there, 13 months on the border.”
“Tchoupitoulas” opens at the IFC Center in New York on December 7th.