An Alchemy of the People: The Ross Brothers Discuss "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets"

The documentary duo talk about their new feature, a unique hybrid film that provides a barroom snapshot of America on the verge of change.
Flavia Dima
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
In the realm of contemporary collaborative filmmaking, the Ross brothers—that is, Turner, cinematographer, and Bill IV, editor—are some of the most interesting young directors working nowadays, using a finely calibrated approach to both documentary fiction and staples of Americana storytelling to portray stories set in the south of the United States. Their newest feature, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, was presented after its Sundance premiere at this year’s Berlinale, where it was featured in the Panorama section of the festival. The film also is conceived around a 24-hour structure, this time set in a dive bar ostensibly placed at the edge of Las Vegas, where regulars gather around for a supreme bender to celebrate the joint’s last day of activity and to send it off to bar heaven. With a cast composed of non-professionals summoned to act themselves out within a performative context, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is as much of a naturalistic comedy as it is a subtle take on the lives of disenfranchised, marginalized people in suburban America. I sat down with the Ross brothers the next day after the film had its European premiere to talk, amongst other topics, about how it is like to work within the genre of hybrid nonfiction and as a creative duo.

NOTEBOOK: I’d start out by asking you about your methodology. This is a hybrid film, eluding the classical binary definitions of fiction and non-fiction. Judging by the way that you worked on this specific project, this state of the film seems to have been there ever since its inception. What was did the conceptual phase of the film like?
TURNER ROSS: Great starting point. When we talk to each other it’s never bound by any kind of structure of classification. When we have an idea, it’s usually something that is rather abstract or something that is an act of discovery that is inherent in its execution. It’s an idea, a theme, a series of images, an intention—something we want to explore and better understand, and manifest into being. And that’s part of a trajectory as well, something that we have been learning together, building together, but there is a process involved, and so…
This is the end-result of a long period of conversations about many different things. Part of that is, for example, the framework of the outskirts of Vegas. A tangent on that is the myth-making of America. There’s also just the technical aspects behind the idea of building a community within four walls, to do something within a finite amount of time, with a limited palette. And then there is also this idea of the bar, the legacy and the mystique that that place has, and trying to… you know, also exorcise the demons of that. Those are spaces that we spent time throughout our lives, brought to them as children and spent time in them as adults, in which we found many stories from around the world. We didn’t want to overtly impose what that was, but we also knew what we wanted to elicit out of it, and that meant defining the space in a very meaningful way, to create a character out of the space. It meant to gather the archetypes of the barroom and of that specific segment of society so that they could have a dynamic conversation and a dynamic experience with each-other. Sort of creating an alchemy of the people. And then again, we know we can go out in the world and film hundreds of hours and spend years of our lives doing things—but can we condense that experience, provoke it, and still get to the heart of something?
BILL ROSS IV: Not to cut in, but with all the films it’s really just about the images in our head. It’s like—how do you get them? And the way to get this was, you know, we did it. Tchoupitoulas had its own story. Every film does, but in this case, we were a bit more nudging towards the topic.
TURNER ROSS: What do we want and how do we get it? And also, it’s just the two of us. These are hand-made movies. So it’s like, how can we do this ourselves, wrangle it, and make it make sense? With all the things that we have learned and all the things that we don’t know yet? And that’s a big part of the experiment every time. Can we scare ourselves enough to understand that we don’t know how to do this? And try to figure it out in the doing.
BILL ROSS IV: This was the scariest one. Well, I say that after every film so far [laughs]. But so far it’s true every time.
NOTEBOOK: On this note, since you’ve talked about mutual explorations, how is it like to work as a directing duo? Usually, you’re used to this idea of a director as this unique, singular, even sometimes dictatorial and torturous person who has a view that is his and only his, and so on.
ROSS BROTHERS: [exchange glances and start to chuckle]
NOTEBOOK: So how do you share the process?
TURNER ROSS: We help each other.
BILL ROSS IV: We arrived at a point—fortunately, early on—where we realized that, you know, we loved each other, we were having these experiences together, these conversations together, and we both had talents in the world. And that maybe if we put these things together we can make something greater than the singular. And that, too, is an experiment. We might have failed at this and gone into other worlds, but we realized that, through all of these years of life, choosing to spend time together, to explore the world and to be interested in that… if we can go out and do that together there are unique skill sets that we can bring to it. Where one falls off, the other can pick up. And we can build something together.
That’s what these films are for us. We both have our own friends, our own partners, but we are also like partners in a certain way. We’ve come this far together, and there is an understanding there, an empathy, a shared vision. It’s also an opportunity to continue to collaborate. It’s just one long-running conversation that there are documents of.
TURNER ROSS: …Sure. [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: But, for example, could you give us some insights regarding some particular decisions? Maybe in this film, or in others.
TURNER ROSS: I’ll walk you through the whole process! It’s usually a fledgling idea—together with Bill, we will arrive at this idea that I have in my head and he’ll say, “well, parts of that sound good, let’s run with that.” And we’ll engage in that conversation. I came from a background of working in art departments, and I learned in that world how to execute a vision and so, a lot of the orchestration, of the work that needs to be done in the beginning, I like to do that. And then, together, through conversation, we will enter a phase of production where we will shoot, direct, talk and try to be present for the thing. And then, on the back-end of the process, Bill’s skillset takes over as the editor—and while the conversation continues, that’s his area of expertise.
BILL ROSS IV: But, while I’m pushing the buttons, it is, again, just a continued conversation. So he [Turner] is informing the edit just as much as I am. But yeah, it’s as simple as… like, Tchoup started with this very vivid dream that I had, and I just wrote to Turner a long email about this dream and that’s how that conversation started. We wanted to bring that dream to life using the real world, so we went to New Orleans and we looked for kids for ten months. For Western [2015], I think we wanted to make a non-fiction western movie.
TURNER ROSS: Yeah! I was like, “Well, this sounds weird, so let’s try that!” [laughs]
BILL ROSS IV: So it all, you know, it will start in different ways, but once the ball gets rolling we are both excited about some things. So the conversation starts and it lasts for two to three years…  [laughs]
TURNER ROSS: Until it is exorcised.
BILL ROSS IV: Until we’re tired of talking about it and we do something new. We just started a new conversation, curious where that’s gonna go.
NOTEBOOK: Coming back to Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets: I understand that you had this idea in your minds for ten years. So, you were searching for bars around Las Vegas, which shuts down in the film, but is still functioning in real life?
TURNER ROSS: Well, there were variations on this idea for more than a decade. It wasn’t always within a bar, but it always involved a component of, sort of, the effluent of life, right? Being on the outskirts of the thing that we’re all supposed to be seeking, whatever that is. For us, Vegas stood for all that: people fly into this crazy oasis in the desert with bright lights, spectacle, fantasy. And then on the edge of that, there is real life. And in many oases, people seek out a bar to escape from, whatever. But we have these spaces everywhere, it’s just that this framing worked for us. And then, through working on several of the films, you know, the bar idea continued to be something that was very evocative for us. And it’s been a part of our conversation, the fusing of two ideas: so, technically, we came from this concert film where we had an arena—four big walls, but it’s still four walls, and a series of nights, of capturing things but also putting things into it. So we thought, okay, we can do this on a big scale, so let’s pull it back to our scale and see if we can make the handmade version of this work, and learn from that.
But then, yeah, it’s a real bar, but it’s in New Orleans. For us, we needed to find a really good stage onto which to have this happen. The best one—not that there’s not a lot of great bars in Vegas—but it was like a piece of this and a piece of that, this works here, this doesn’t—and for us, the embodiment of that was in our own backyard. And it was something that we could harness but also afford, because people were unwilling to finance what were were doing, so we ended up going rogue and saying, “alright, we can shoot this at home, we will frame it later and just start with the concept and see what we could do,” not knowing if that would work out.
NOTEBOOK: How did you find the performers?
BILL TURNER IV: So, there were a lot of different stories for everyone. Some folks we know, like Lo, the white-long-haired guy. He’s a guy, a local drinker around New Orleans, that we just love. And he’s good friends with Pam—you know their dynamics. She’s a big drinker so we knew that putting the two of them together would be a thing on its own.
TURNER ROSS: It had to be people that know how to have a really good time but also have very deep wells, if they choose to access them. So it was a lot like that, you know, creating mini-dynamics within the greater dynamic of finding little comradeships within that space. But then, also filling it out, and thinking about archetypes like—who’s the guy by the end of the bar, who’s behind it? When does this person come in and why, and who is that person, and how do they all fit together? How do they speak for something different and unique so that each person is truly a unique contribution to the whole?
BILL TURNER IV: It was a lot of bar-casting that we did. I don’t know how many bars we went to in order to cast...
TURNER ROSS: We did at least a dozen casting sessions in bars. A couple of hours in each space, meeting lots of people, hundreds of people—and just looking. And then in the end we distilled that down to “you know that guy in this bar, these two at this place,” “this would fit together, this would make sense.” And there was just some crazy serendipity. We wanted Pete—that wild, tattooed guy, who’s a rocker and a big personality—who did a sit-down with us and talked about it, but he showed up with his own personal cab driver, which, uh… we found was hilarious.
BILL TURNER IV: And that ended up being Felix, the Einstein-looking dude in the film!
NOTEBOOK: And did they spend some time together before the shooting, or…?
TURNER ROSS: A lot of that was forged just in the happening. We spent time with them ahead, just to do an interview and to talk about what we were thinking, about what they were thinking, to get to know them so we have a sense of what to look for. But beyond those pairings and some localized “hey I know you from this-and-this,” it was a lot of people for the first time together. And they forged a sense of community in that small amount of time.
BILL ROSS IV: They’re folks which are all familiar with being in a bar, so, you know, just sitting there was very comfortable for them. And so yeah, they had this common frame of reference. It was a little shocking that it worked, like immediately, because… people would just walk in, they knew how to move and shake in that space, so…
NOTEBOOK: I think that one of the film’s big implicit themes is alcoholism and how it takes its toll on the lives of individual lives. And how alcoholism has its own communal structure, in a way. How did you work around that really sensitive topic? There’s some very strong moments in the film that address it head-on.
TURNER ROSS: Yeah, I mean it’s a wrought and complicated thing, and it’s not something that we are unfamiliar with, having access to these worlds and seeing how this can be a celebration, but also a burden on people’s lives. So while we wanted to tell a story from within a communal space, it also is inherently a space for people that are imbibing, who are using that to, what, to feel good, to celebrate, to hide, to… forget, to remember. It’s a multitude of things, and for some people that goes too far and it becomes a crutch in their lives. But those are real people too, with real stories. Alcoholism is obviously inherent, but we also sort of wanted to see how that looks like. You have the kids hanging behind the bar and that one day will be in the bar. The young people coming around to the bar because it’s a cool dive bar. But some of those people will come back and they will be the people who drink there. Some of them will drink there during the day and have a great time, that’s just how they wanted to end their deal. Some of those people are there and looking back on their lives and seeing how the actually the time they have spent in this space has sucked—“I’m not drinking this place, this place is drinking me”. So it’s complex. But we took such care of these people, you know, there is empathy. We come from a place of love, with them. It’s not an expose on drinking.
NOTEBOOK Definitely. It treats these people as very human, living beings, who for some reason ended up in this place, for a longer or shorter span of time. I also found it really beautiful that the characters find solace in each other, that there is this unspoken rule that here you can let go of your emotions, in a way. Tying in with your methodology, I assume that the vast majority of these moments were ingenious emotional reactions. Does this kind of context elicit such an emotional response? Why do you think this happens?
TURNER ROSS: Well, that’s a point of intrigue, that’s part of the query—something to explore. These are spaces of shared solace: why do we seek these spaces out? Some people do it through sports, some people do it through religion. People throughout the world, for the most part, understand that there’s spaces you go to commune with other people. You’re leaving one space to go somewhere where you can be another. And it’s a space that you can come and go from, for the most part. But yeah, in the time that we were making the film it felt like such a divisive time in our country where people were choosing sides, and if you’re on one side you're an idiot, and if you’re on the other side, you’re an idiot.  And it’s like, where are we getting at? Nowhere. So let’s go to a source, to a place where people come together, to try to figure this out. That was a big posit in this thing—why do we choose these spaces? What are they? Why do they endure through all of time, of art and history? Why do people laugh? And I don’t think we’ve answered that question and, frankly, I don’t want to. I would love a continued conversation. Let’s go for a drink and talk about it. Like, what’s your takeaway,youre experience? What does this place mean to you? What is your place? And that’s been the really fun thing, meeting up a lot of people after we released the film who would come up and say, “Dude, that’s just like my place!”, “I know that guy—that’s my dad!”, “I’ve been through that! I’m one of those people!” So yeah, we all know this.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
NOTEBOOK: The premise of having this bar which is throwing a closing party is definitely something that invited the performers to go all out. But beyond this element, why did you go for this specific framing?
TURNER ROSS: Well, that sense of loss is important, cause it has a lot to do with identity, which are huge things in America right now. You're either trying to reclaim your identity or you feel like, “what has happened to us?” And so for us that was a really easy armature that could speak to that and invoke it, but also to the participants. Most of these people are not familiar with the camera, they’re not familiar with the conceptualizing of themselves, and so we wanted to create a framework which they could exist in and was easy to understand. “I am me, this is my place, and it’s going away.”
BILL ROSS IV: While I was cutting it, I had this thought—that all of our films are about endings. And I don’t know why that is. Maybe we have a melancholy heart [laughs]. But it’s like, Contemporary Color [2016]: it’s their last show before they reach adulthood. Western: it’s like wrestling with this new reality as old ways are being left behind. Tchoup: end of innocence, nostalgia. And 45365 [2009]is us, leaving that behind. I don’t know. Maybe we should consider beginnings. But aren’t endings just beginnings, though? [laughs]
NOTEBOOK:The character of Michael is very interesting—and as far as I understand, his situation in real life is basically the same.
TURNER ROSS: He’s a working actor. I mean, I think he’s speaking from his id, or whatever he’s channeling, as someone who is an actor and does understand how to tap into those resources. He’s giving really wonderful stuff, but he also prepared for it, like he would for an Eugene O’Neill play. He thought about it, wrestled with ideas, was conflicted about it, a great many things. But in the end, whether it’s a performance or a true invocation of himself or some muddy thing in between, it’s incredible.
NOTEBOOK: He’s arguably the protagonist of the film.
TURNER ROSS: He starts it and ends it.
NOTEBOOK: And he has these very interesting moments, on the topic of social divisions, saying that he perfectly understands younger people and their anger at the system, and their resent as his generation. He’s basically “ok, boomer”-ing himself and his own generation. Was that his own input?
TURNER ROSS: We didn’t put any words on page for Michael.
BILL ROSS IV: That is what he brought and wanted to express at that time.
TURNER ROSS: In a sense, it’s improvisation, but it’s also reaction and response. He has some general understanding of what we’re after, but we’re all exploring it together. And he’s also responding to his fellows around him, and also realising that “whoa, this guy has a lot of emotion about me and my generation,” and he’s just speaking from a place of that. So all that is happening at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: How much raw material did you have?
BILL ROSS IV: I don’t know exactly, but for our first movie we had 500 hours of footage so I, um, stopped counting. ‘Cause, you know, I didn’t wanna be overwhelmed again by that [laughs]. But the majority of the shoot, or what ends up in the film, is one 18-hour stretch, two cameras, so, double that plus other stuff.
TURNER ROSS: We shot a ton of shit on the streets of Vegas that didn’t make it into the film, sort of on a tangent.
NOTEBOOK: And then you have these insertions of clocks throughout the film, which is a nice nod to the history of cinema. What was your structuring principle, beyond the notion of time passing in a limited space and period, and the concept of building sequences?
BILL TURNER IV: Tough question. I think we broke it down to—over the course of two years of editing—the level of drunkenness, among other things.
TURNER ROSS: The five stages of grief too. And time of day.
BILL ROSS IV: The color wheel [laughs]. Anytime there’s text on screen, that’s basically a new chapter, a breath before we get another 10-15 minutes. The jukebox helped quite a bit in building these, like, pockets.
TURNER ROSS: Maybe say something about your initial impulse to make unbroken scenes and where you arrived at.
BILL ROSS IV: Yeah! So I wanted to do this since Tchoupitoulas: to make a film that’s just like, ten shots, seven-minute-long. So we shot it like that, in veeery long takes throughout the bar, so the first cut was like, three and a half hours, and it was just from shots that would last from thirty seconds to, like, eight minutes. The fight at the end was actually one unbroken eight-minute-long shot, so we tried to get away from that. But our friends told us that didn’t work.
TURNER ROSS: Or they just weren’t responding to it in an emotional way. It wasn’t inviting.
BILL ROSS IV: At one point we will make that film, I hope.
TURNER ROSS: This was not the time. You have to feel like you’re present in the bar, that you can just turn your head and you’re there.
NOTEBOOK: So, not the time to be Bazinian.
BILL ROSS IV: Yeah. Eventually the film told us that that’s not the language we should be speaking. So then we started cutting it to be, like, bouncing around the room, from one end to the bar to the next and back. And that way you felt the space, you would check in with people all the time and it took us a long time to get to that.
NOTEBOOK: There is a brief glimpse of the camera in the film in a mirror, but aside from that and some profiling shots of the performers, would you say that the camera is a character in itself?
TURNER ROSS: That’s interesting.
BILL ROSS IV: We didn’t want to hide the fact that we were there.
TURNER ROSS: Yeah, we never talked about the camera as a character. But we always talked about—and intentionally included—ourselves. Because we wanted to acknowledge what was happening. We were in the room with all of these people and we are all here together, and this is it. And anything can happen within that. We are not trying to hide that. So if we happened to be together in some scenes, that’s great. It’s not a focus—we didn't hone in on that—but we wanted people to know what it’s okay that we are here, because everyone in this room is seeing us, so that’s their experience. We’re not creating that degree of artifice where we’re trying to hide it.
NOTEBOOK: Coming back to the archetypes that you mentioned, the film was shot and created during a divisive period in American history and in divisive times, archetypes may become stereotypes. Did you consider these ethical risks in relation to the characters?
TURNER ROSS: That, again, is why we’re letting life play itself out within our framework, because no, we do not want to create stereotypes. These are conversations that we have internally, hatever tools or resources we can utilize or mine to better understand the execution of this. So when I talk about archetype, what I’m really saying is: let’s make sure that we have a spectrum of people here, that they’re not only representative of age, rage, sexual orientation, but also of the demographics of a bar—who’s the norm at the end of the bar? The dancer? Who are these people? Why do things like that work? It’s because they become unique identities which then interplay with each other so, it’s not like typecasting—like here’s this stereotypical person here—it’s saying, “let’s make sure we fill out this space so that there is an opportunity for a diverse conversation.” It also is what we happened to find when we were scouting—there’s people from all over, representing a whole lot of different backgrounds. And so while it may not be a journalistic social survey, for us it was imperative that we get representation from some voices. And then just to see how they would play with each other.
NOTEBOOK: Specifically related to the female characters, usually bars are considered to be this very male space.
TURNER ROSS: Well, you’ve never met Pam then!
NOTEBOOK: That is very refreshing, actually! To see female characters in this milieu, without the pressure of being unwomanly women.
TURNER ROSS: I’m the father of a daughter, so I want some strong women in the world, and everyone to have their equal say. That’s some bullshit, that some think that bars should be places of males, of maleness. We certainly thought a lot about that—these ideas of masculinity and the energy of a space. I mean, Pam has the biggest balls in the bar! If anybody is throwing their weight around, it’s her. And we wanted that to be true, but also considering that in advance : “we will put women in this space and they will own their spaces, have an ability to interact.” It’s something that we intentionally considered.
NOTEBOOK: There is an insistence on media in the film: a continuum of media cycles on the TV set in the bar that sometimes reaches the people in the room, sometimes not, but it’s definitely there and it’s part of the climate outside the cocoon of the bar. How do you think that these wounds—tied also with those of poverty, because that’s also evident in some characters, that they have a diminished voice in society—where do you think that a place of healing could start?
TURNER ROSS: Listening, and that’s it. And that’s why we made this film. There were things that we were hearing that made it seem like the world was not hearing some things. Like people stopped having conversations and listening to a whole segment of society. And so, let’s create a space where we can learn something as filmmakers and as people, from having a communal, cathartic experience with other human beings. There are no disposable people: all people are equal in some sense or another, but power is a problem. But yeah, just being able to listen, to hear, in order to arrive at a space of common understanding and some degree of empathy. That’s what we felt we needed as people in that moment and that’s why this manifested itself so profoundly. 


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