This is the first of several planned interviews with filmmakers featured at this year’s BAMcinemaFest, which begins tonight and continues through July 1.
In Tchoupitoulas (screening Thursday, June 21 at 9:30pm), brothers Bill and Turner Ross document the sights, sounds and wonders of the New Orleans night, soaking in all the music, lights and half-naked bodies through the eyes of three young brothers who take the Canal Street ferry in from the West Bank. The film is sporadically narrated through the youngest brother Wiliam’s inner monologue, and so through his eyes it becomes about the inevitable disappointment of lassoing a limitless imagination. I had the pleasure of speaking with both Ross brothers about the second feature they made together. I first spoke with Turner in Santa Fe.
What do you think the difference is—in a documentary—between having a story and a narrative arc?
Turner Ross: I think a narrative arc implies a traditional structure, which has the basis of literature or a stage play. And it’s become something I think we’ve all grown to anticipate, and maybe there’s a feeling of unease if it’s not apparent. And while what we’re doing doesn’t necessarily have an overt narrative arc, it certainly has story. Whether it’s disjointed scenes, which are moments within their own stories, or whether we look at these films as slices of an ongoing stories that existed before or after. I think that’s an interesting conversation and one that I wish we could have more often, because we’re more often relegated to the art film category, where it’s just this sort of ambient experience. And it doesn’t mean it’s without context, or an emotional barometer.
You said we’ve begun to anticipate that sort of play-based arc in a documentary. So in going into making this movie, you wanted to react against that expectation?
It’s not so much a reaction as it is just a natural extension of our life experience. I guess what’s more important to us is not the story that’s onscreen but the greater subtext, which is our story in terms of capturing these experiences. We’re creating artifacts; we’re creating documents of a time and a place. And giving people a chance to experience something they may otherwise not. But really, in the greater subtext, these are our stories, these are our experiences: these are the people we found in this time and this place. Behind these stories are our stories capturing them. The stories of these people began before we got there and they continue far after. I guess if there’s any reaction to what we’re doing it’s because we’re steering away from the forced didacticism of creating a story out of someone’s moment. That just seemed dumb, I think.
But what was the impetus to focus on these kids? Did you discover them or did you go into it expecting a story like that?
It’s pretty much both. There were a lot of motivators that brought us to New Orleans. We have an affinity for that town and spent a lot of time there, and a big part of that was growing up as little kids. So we had our own experiences and in a way these kids are surrogates for those experiences. But in the way we’re doing these this, we’re trying to capture what really exists. You can have all the preconceived notions that you want, but if you want to really be open to the experience then you have to allow what exists and what happens when you turn on your camera, and just allow it to unfold. So we went down there remembering this wide-eyed wonderment that we had experienced as kids, the ghosts and colors that you still experience there, the sensory overload. And knew we wanted that perspective but we weren’t going to cast the film, we weren’t going to force that. So it was really seven months into creating that environment [and shooting every night] that we found that—we didn’t even find it, they just walked past us one day. And they had such a beautiful dynamic that we just started filming. So it was really an act of serendipity I guess.
We’re these corn-fed boys from Ohio, so there are going to be some dissimilarities too. But being little kids going into an adult world like that, you’re going to have some of the same reactions: “New Orleans, man, it’s everything I want: music, clubs, naked women.” I’m sure we had that conversation, too.
Are these Mark Twain Americana river adventures a continuing interest? I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard about this riverboat adventure you shot, when you all went down the Mississippi from Ohio.
We did take the river trip. But really all of this shit is adventure. You know, going to New Orleans and creating this film, it wasn’t trying to be some intellectual asshole and convey the “zoo” of New Orleans, it was to have an adventure, and see what kind of lifestyle we could find, and see how much we could fall in love with a place. It’s an extension of our personal lives. There’s really no barrier in between. So, yeah, this fall we took a dilapidated tool shed down the Mississippi river, so while we made home videos it’s not something we want to use for artifice, to make a movie and make money. There’s also life. We should also just be living. So we cut out a little corner for ourselves… But the film Tchoupitoulis, those kids are on their own odyssey. So I guess adventures and odysseys and Lewis and Clark and all that shit, I’m sure that inspires us.
That’s good that you prioritize life. I feel like real world vitality can be last on the list of many films that feel sort of in a vacuum from life. Do you know what I mean?
Yeah, I do. So we try to throw ourselves in the world.
Are you thinking about narrative films for these docs, or mostly other docs? Or fiction stories? Are there genres in the back of your head?
Lots of references. I mean inspiration comes from a lot of places. I wouldn’t say we’re stringently evoking film. A lot of time we get our inspiration from music, and most especially literature and history. And painting, especially with this film. Painting and photography. I mean, I trained as a painter. Bill went to film school. But I had to teach myself how to do all this stuff. Fluid images and colors and just allowing things to not be static, to be full of movement, a lot of that comes from the art of New Orleans.