“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” is an incredible piece of direct cinema that captures the last 18 hours of a Las Vegas dive bar before it closes its door for good. Except that in reality, that bar is still open, it’s in New Orleans, and the patrons gathering for one last hurrah were cast by the filmmakers Turner and Bill Ross.
The night before the film premiered to rave reviews at Sundance, the Ross Brothers sat down, at a bar over beers, for a 70-minute interview with IndieWire to discuss how they made “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” and the inevitable questions they knew it would unleash. From the Ross Brothers’ perspective, this, their fifth feature film that has everyone at Sundance talking, is simply the natural evolution of their process as filmmakers.
“With our first film we cast a broad net, we spent 100 hours and a year of life with people until we realized you could fish, how you could wait for these moments, find these moments, and then as we got further and further along, how can you can feed a situation where you create a dynamic situation that might be conducive to what you are looking for,” said Turner. “And we’ve gotten further along into this fifth feature. Well actually can we create a dynamic scenario where we could provoke or create situations where we might elicit these authentic found moments we’re looking for.”
© 2020 Sundance Institute / Pho
That their work has been embraced and supported by the part of the documentary community that sees nonfiction filmmakers more as artists using form than documentarians practicing journalism, has given the brothers a supportive community and place in the filmmaking world. The flip side is that it’s an association that puts them on one side of the increasingly useless binary of nonfiction vs. fiction that defines most film festivals, and that their latest film confounds.
“We didn’t set out to be documentary filmmakers, our process has always just been the vehicle to make the film we wanted to see and how to capture authentic found moments,” said Turner. “There’s nothing about us trying to disguise how we made this film.”
In truth, what might be the most radical thing about the Ross Brothers is the “not hiding” part. In the short history of documentary film, filmmakers have often used the prescribed cloak of “journalism” and “the real” to make their films, while in practice embracing techniques that were anything but fly-on-the-wall observational.
The roots of “Bloody Nose” dates all the way back to when the brothers’ grandfather used to bring them as children to a dive bar in Ohio that had a real sense of community. The concept of a shared space where people chose to commune and communicate has remained a constant source of fascination. Later in their travels, and early explorations that led them to striking out to become filmmakers, they became fascinated with the dark bars on the outskirts of Las Vegas.
“Outside that bar door you see the great manifestation of American excess. You see American affluence,” said Turner. “Why are these often transient people in the bright lights seeking the shadows of a dark bar? For us that was intrinsic in what we were after and the great framework of the film.”
It’s a framing device they failed to find after years of scouting Las Vegas bars. No one bar contained the vital ingredients they needed.
“There’s this great essay by George Orwell called the ‘Moon Under Water,’ and it’s about his favorite bar and it has the checklist of the 10 things a great bar has,” said Turner. “And after he lays out those aspects, he writes something like, ‘Of course by now you realize this bar doesn’t really exist, I’ve found a few that may have eight, but none of them have all 10. And for us, that’s what this place was and we had to create our 10 things that would be the most evocative thing that would have truth in it.”
They found the perfect container, “their stage,” in New Orleans where they live. It looked like the old Vegas bars that we wanted, with the added benefit it was a space they could take over, set dress it and turn it into their perfect bar. The obstacle was money and time.
“It was a wild idea and we didn’t know if it’d work, so it was impossible to convince anyone to give us any money,” said Bill. “I realized today that what we’re paying for our condo to stay here [at Sundance] was more than what it took to shoot the thing.”
Funding would only come in after three years, in the weeks prior to Sundance, to help with the finishing costs. In 2016, with only enough money to take over the bar for two days for the shoot, the most important ingredient for their 18-hours continuous, largely real-time shoot that would anchor the film was “great casting.”
“If you see a really great fiction scripted film, like ‘Marriage Story’ is completely a scripted movie, but those are really real moments, but they are still actors performing those moments,” said Turner. “For us something about seeing people who are not just inhabiting that character, but are that character in their real lives and emoting something if given that opportunity, for us there’s just so much more weight to that and that’s what we were trying to do with this movie — to try to find people who might not be in the specific truthfulness of the scenario, but in a greater truth are those true characters themselves, and within that scenario are willing to [reveal] those authentic elements of character.”
There was one character played by Michael Martin who the Ross Brothers assigned a specific narrative arc for the film. Martin, an actor who in real life sweeps up a local New Orleans bar, plays a former actor who sweeps up the bar, except in the film he also sleeps at the bar and will lose his home when the bar closes at the end of the evening. The Ross brothers talked with Martin extensively about the character, revealing he was based on the character Michael Jeter played in the Broadway version of “Grand Hotel,” and during the shoot would give small notes (“pull back a little”).
The rest of the bar patrons were a product of street casting via many evenings spent in New Orleans dive bars, focused on finding the archetypes they desired, while still allowing people to largely play themselves. To help make the process feel more natural and give each performer an anchor, the directors would often try to recruit that performer’s real life drinking buddy to be in the film.
“All of them were primed: This is the bar you drink at, you know it well, this is the last night of the bar,” said Turner. “Just basically a straight forward primer, nothing too much. Some people took that and were like, ‘I’m an actor now and I’m going to create a backstory.’ And some of these guys would show up with these great stories. Either way, once they get in there, they know what to do – they’re all drinkers, this is just a different bar.”
The goal was a prescribed event, but with natural outcomes. The filmmakers didn’t stage any conflicts or stories, but they created unannounced cues to give the arc of the last day some structure and allow their cast to sink into themselves.
“We spent so much time thinking about what happens at certain times of day and what is the arc of a drunk, of the closing night, and of the themes we want to get through,” said Turner. “So, if there are five people in the bar who don’t know each other well at 2:00 in the afternoon what’s the greatest and most honest thing bringing them together? ‘Jeopardy.’ Give them some drinks and turn on ‘Jeopardy’ and they’re going to find common ground and find things to argue and talk about. Just little things like that, like ‘John you’re going in at 10:30am with a bag of donuts, go.’ And it just goes from there.”
The brothers would announce, “This John” right before the character entered, which gave the characters license to pretend they knew him. Regardless, 20 minutes later over drinks, they would know each other for real. The biggest stimuli to get at real moments came in the form of Donald Trump’s surprise election victory.
“How do you provoke and find these things, well that was a moment where everyone was feeling something, emotions were so close to surface,” said Bill. “We had already primed the pump on this and were pretty much ready, and the surprise of the election was what made us finally press go.”
Filming started the day after the election. And while in the edit they pulled almost completely back on the election and Trump. The shock of the election, on both sides of the political spectrum, helped spark countless natural conversations as people revealed themselves to each other in way beyond the brothers’ wildest dreams. Two veterans crying at the end of the bar, a heated generational argument, someone dropping acid — none of which were planned, but filmed in the handheld direct cinema language that defines the Ross Brothers’ work.
© 2020 Sundance Institute / Pho
One thing the filmmakers did try to carefully plan out was the use of music coming from the jukebox, which would only play at certain moments to let the drunks let loose and release some steam.
“What would happen is we’d go through long spells without music and there would be a mutiny,” said Bill. “After a few too many drinks, ‘This isn’t a good damn bar without the jukebox on.’ And they would turn it on.”
The problem being the well-known pop, hip-hop, rock and country songs would be underneath the characters’ dialogue on the soundtrack. At first it wasn’t a problem, as the Ross Brothers imagined an “austere” approach to the edit, where the film would play out in long takes.
“At first we couldn’t cut because of the music in the background, so it’d be like these long takes of a minute or two, up to eight minute long takes,” said Bill, who edits the brothers’ films. “And the only ones who liked that movie were Turner and I. It was a four and half hour cut we loved, but it was not digestible.”
The breakthrough in the edit — which took place over three years, with breaks for other collaborations and jobs that paid the rent — was embracing the two-camera nature of the actual shoot. During the 18-hour shoot, Bill and Turner would each be exploring different aspects of what was happening in the bar at the same time. Taking advantage of the fact that the bar was extremely well-mic’d, some arduous sound work, a reliable fair use lawyer, and keeping shots where each of the brothers filming would end up in the frame of the other, the filmmakers started to explore cutting back and forth between simultaneous actions, even if the moments didn’t always happen at the same time.
“In letting it play out in long takes, what we realized was that’s not how you would experience it,” said Turner. “It’s more dynamic to bounce around, check in on different characters. This is all happening and I’m allowed to be privy to that as a viewer so I can go where I want and be invested in what I want to be. That’s what became exciting and the 98 minute cut that people are seeing at Sundance.”
A second day of shooting involved the night-time bartenders’ real-life teenage son and his two friends hanging out, getting high, and riding bikes around the bar. Later, the Ross Brothers would also take each of the principal characters to Las Vegas to film what would happen to their characters after they left the bar. The mere discussion of the footage of this two-week Vegas shoot, which only appears in brief snippets in the 98-minute cut, causes Turner to bury his face in his hand in agony.
“He’s still upset that footage isn’t in the film,” explained Bill. “But every note we ever got was, ‘Take me back to the bar, why the fuck did you take me anywhere outside of the bar?'”
Turner, recovered, then chimed in, “The film told us what it wanted to be. We’ll figure out how to use that footage one day. It’s incredible.”
The Ross Brothers are clear that the decision for “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” to play in the U.S. Documentary Competition at Sundance was made by the programmers.
“We were like, ‘Whaa?'” laughed Bill. “And we said, ‘Well, you should know some things.’ And to their benefit, they got more excited about it playing in the Doc competition the more we told them about how we made it.”
Turner and Bill don’t think there’s an easy answer to what category their film should play. There’s concern if it played in NEXT that people would assume the film was scripted and the film would lose some of what’s most interesting about it.
“I don’t care what people call our films as long as people want to engage with them and as long as what we’re doing is good and alive between the two of us,” said Turner. “There’s the matter of framing, and does someone going into a theater benefit from thinking this is documentary, or benefit from this is a fiction, or benefit of having any knowledge at all? Does advance knowledge detract from the experience? I’m really curious, I don’t know, but we’re about to find out.”