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.
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.
We’re trying to evolve with every film. We set out initially to do a trilogy, this Americana trilogy. And use the same palette, use these standard def workhorse cameras in three disparate environments. And what can you do with same palette? What can you do with the same format? I mean, how can you make these different? How can you make these environments interesting and really speak to what they are? And for New Orleans it was this very dreamlike kids journey and that needed to be the focus.
I heard the next one is a western, about Texas.
Yeah, we’re making a western. When you watch John Wayne in Rio Bravo—and we grew up with my dad in Mississippi, watching all those classic B-westerns—it’s the American myth, but what does that really look like? What does the reality of the modern frontier, the west, look like? So we’ll see what comes out. We spent 13 months down there.
Then I spoke to Bill Ross in New Orleans.
So, at what point did you come to the conclusion to make this film, of New Orleans at night through the kids’ eyes?
Bill Ross: We spent quite a bit of time down here, when we were kids, and I think we were just wanting to speak to those images that we still have in our heads. So going into it, we were hoping that we would find kids to act as our eyes and ears. But it took seven months before we actually found those kids. And they were perfect. We got very lucky.
Ok, but did I hear you say at another screening that it was inspired from a dream?
Yeah, I did. [Chuckles] Well... you say stuff like that you can risk coming off as a little silly. But I did. I had this very vivid dream of kids running through the night in L.A., where I was living. So I wrote it down and I sent it to Turner. And that’s when we started talking about making the kids film, and that led to our talking about when we were kids, about being in New Orleans.
Well I think the dream origin is interesting because it has such a dream feel to it. Do you think that carried over to the way you edited it?
I think the dream was just a jumping-off point to start a dialogue about what are dreams, and what do dreams look like. Yeah, I was thinking about that stuff when I was editing. What does that feel like, and how does that move, and take shape… Yeah, I was thinking about that stuff.
Turner talked a little bit about limiting yourselves to one specific palette. So I’m interested in what you chose for that palette in the edit, lights, for instance. Did you go into it wanting so much abstraction, or did you just find that?
Well, we’re always looking for something that’s interesting. At night with all those lights and stuff, we sometimes couldn’t help it; the abstract imagery was there to begin with. But you know, it’s also from being up for eight or nine months, all night. Being delirious, you sometimes just start shooting some really weird shit.
But, you know, when I edit, sometimes I don’t get too excited about narrative or whatever, sometimes it’s as simple as this image looks nice against this image. I think the editing is pretty organic, it flows. These images flow well with one another.
It is pretty organic, and dreamy. But there’s also story. I’m curious. Were you looking at more documentaries or fictions stuff while you were editing?
I don’t know, I think once we found the kids and their story, once they cross the river and they have this big night in this foreign but familiar land, different themes started to emerge. So I started reading stuff that echoed similar themes. So a lot of reading…
Like Pinocchio and Huck Finn?
Yeah. Stuff like that.
The story also becomes so sound-centric, with the music or bird sounds. It feels like most of the transitions are based on lights or sounds. Can you talk about that?
Back to the dream conversation, there really aren’t any hard edits, no smash-cut-something-or-another. Everything kind of bleeds.
That’s what a dream feels like?
Yeah. But I haven’t really thought about this stuff since I finished editing.