It’s the last day of business for Las Vegas dive bar the Roaring ’20s. Patrons come and go, talking about their lives and commiserating, all with that countdown clock ticking away in the background. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a brilliantly observant documentary about these people and this bar. One hitch is that the Roaring ’20s is actually located in New Orleans, where sibling directing duo Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross live. They have not captured a situation that plays out as described in the film itself, but rather constructed that story as a way to document real behavior.
This philosophy is in line with many of the unique films the brothers have made since their debut, the quiet small town study 45365 (2009). In Tchoupitoulas (2012), they follow a trio of young brothers exploring New Orleans late at night, similarly constructing scenarios for their leads to operate in. (One breathtaking sequence has the boys exploring a derelict ship.) Contemporary Color is a dazzling series of color guard performances. Ahead of the virtual release for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, I talked to the Rosses over Zoom about their filmmaking practice and how it makes room for discovery in documentary.
Hyperallergic: How would you explain the way you went about setting up this film before shooting?
Bill Ross IV: We set up a scenario, and then documented that scenario. We rented this bar and then went around asking people if they were in, Oceans 11-style. They were pulled from folks we’ve come across throughout our lives. We would also go to bars and just talk to folks, and then tell them this crazy thing we were up to, and either they were in or they weren’t.
Turner Ross: It’s a theater of people. Hopefully we arrived at some greater truths, but the truth of the scenario is that we created a space with an intention, and everyone involved was complicit in that. And then a scenario unfolded that we documented.
H: How did you ‘cast’ the bar itself?
BR: The one we got worked out perfectly. But there were some others we really wanted. There was one joint where we tried for months to convince the owner. I would show up at seven in the morning because I knew that’s when he emptied the register, just to try to convince him to let us use the space. He was a real …
TR: His business was so illegal.
BR: Yeah, there was a lot of underhanded shit going down there. That’s why he wouldn’t agree to it.
TR: It was a much grittier space than the one we ended up with — a nasty, cinder block bar. And there were some other strong contenders around Vegas, but nothing ever was the Goldilocks scenario; the conditions weren’t right for filming in, or it was cost-prohibitive, or whatever else.
We finally decided on the Roaring ’20s in our own backyard, where we could have some ownership of the space. There were little embellishments we could implement to make it perfect. We could outfit it with audio channels, make it into this container within which this thing we wanted to do could happen — not only aesthetically well, but also in terms of safety. We could have a closed set, put people in it under these conditions, and let it be uninterrupted with no pressure from the outside world.
H: What other embellishments did you make?
TR: We had to light it. It’s a very dark bar. We used a lot of Christmas lights, and little spotlights here and there to achieve the right look. And then there were 14 mikes all over the bar. We also had a group of wranglers outside to make sure everybody got home and got fed. We had to create a safe space.
BR: So we could all go off the deep end.
TR: Right. Yes.
H: This film shares a lot with Contemporary Color, which is also about capturing a singular event. Did anything about making that inform the production of this film?
BR: So much of Bloody Nose is based off of conversations we had while making Contemporary Color. We were just talking to [Contemporary Color producer] David Byrne the other day — we would continually sing his song “Heaven” while we were thinking about Bloody Nose. It started with, ‘Okay, so we’re going to make this movie within these four walls.’ Now, the four walls of Contemporary Color were enormous. And we were like, ‘What if we boil this down even further?’
And there’s so much of our hand in the show, because we put it together with David. There’s a narrative playing out on the Jumbotrons, and we planted the announcer backstage doing all the interviews to further it. In all our films, we’re fucking around. We’re manipulating situations to achieve a greater effect.
TR: One of our big goals with every film is to improve upon the last experience, based on what we learned from it. In Contemporary Color, we produced the narrative of the show within the show itself. The show also happened four times, so we could think about how to best execute it, to make one amalgam of it. We choreographed the backstage, with the announcer. We learned that having these little character plants and time and space limitations, that was all deeply interesting.
And then we tried to extrapolate that further. If we can do it on a giant scale, can we reduce it? Can we go back to the basics of where we started, where it’s not a big production? Where we know the structure, but what’s happening within it is just happening? We’re choreographing the space, but not what’s happening within it.
H: Was the setting always a bar? What other ideas did you float around, if any?
BR: Well, the Vegas idea had been floating around for about 10 years. So was the bar idea. We had scouted the Vegas idea 10 years ago, though it wanted to be something different at that time. We actually used some of the footage we shot back then in the movie. But with Contemporary Color, we were like, well this would be number one, and then we should make two more films that are within four walls. In our first three films, the sandbox we’re playing in is rather large — whole cities. And now we’ve condensed down to a smaller space, but without losing the scope of what we’re trying to do.
BR: Yeah. We were little kids when we saw that broadcast, to give you a sense of how long some of our ideas have been with us.
TR: Grand Hotel was on Broadway, with Michael Jeter as Otto Kringelein. [Jeter won the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical that year.] He’s been an accountant all his life, he’s never really lived, and he’s gotten to the end of his rope. He’s sick and he’s going to die, so he decides to just go on a wild bender in the Grand Hotel. The show consists of all of these stories that inhabit this space, all revolving around this one lonely character. And that character has always stuck with us. This idea of loneliness and loss, of finding a home in a place of transience.
As a kid, for whatever reason, I also went with my aunt to see a revival of The Iceman Cometh. This four-and-a-half-hour play, all taking place in a bar, with a bunch of alcoholics. We’d been to bars with our uncle, and we knew these are places of stories. But what I saw in Eugene O’Neill’s writing, and which has resonated throughout my life, is that on its surface it’s one thing — a bunch of drunks in a bar — but underneath it, all of humanity is present. All of these people’s pipe dreams, all their motivations for life, the ways they interact, the stories they tell themselves and each other. There’s something deeply affecting about that.
There’s also the style of filmmaking of the ’60s and ’70s, when people were trying to reject the Hollywood idea. And the look, feel, tone, the practice of making films in that era.
TR: Yeah. And Cassavetes and all the other things that were going on then. They all felt deeply gritty, deeply human, and handmade.
H: With those theatrical influences, did theatrical staging come into play with your approach?
TR: Yes. [Both laugh.] We have the wonderful opportunity to be two minds on the same idea. A lot of my pursuit was thinking about people inhabiting the space, and how the space was a character itself, how the people move through it, and thinking about their entrances and exits. I made a little maquette of the bar, to help visualize the possibilities for shooting there. Still, once the folks walked in the door, it was up to them what happened. We had hopes and intentions, but we also wanted to be available to whatever happened. And with the cast, mostly of non-actors, we didn’t want some sort of stagey situation where people were aping an experience. We needed them to truly live through this experience, and not be thinking about, ‘What do Bill and Turner need me to do right now?’
H: Did filming in that space present any challenges once things were underway?
BR: It was one 18-hour shoot. So it was exhausting. It was very athletic. At one point I set my camera down for two minutes, just to take a break and have a cigarette. And it got knocked over and the lens shattered, and we thought the shoot was over right there. We had another camera, but that wasn’t going to be enough to document the whole thing. Luckily, our producer Jesy Rae [Buhl] went and found a new lens.
TR: So for one hour — I’ve never been more mad at my brother in all my life — I had to take care of the production by myself.
BR: No, we shared the camera for that hour!
TR: No, we did not. [Both laugh.] And then when you came back, you got the best shot. You made it count. It was messy.
BR: It was a mess.
TR: And that’s the exciting part. We want to make messy things. We want to be available to surprises, because that serendipity is always better. The act of discovery is always the framework for our films. It keeps you on your toes.
H: You mentioned doing three four-wall films. Do you have an idea of what setting you want for the third?
TR: I think Bill sets up these ideas just to fuck with me, so that my brain hurts all the time.
BR: Yes. Lots of ideas where we haven’t figured it out yet. We were going to go scout some areas before quarantine. It’s all up in the air now. These are fluid, fluctuating times. But we were talking about this last night, the really difficult part is that I know we already have the answers. And in the future I’ll look back and say to myself, ‘You already knew what you were doing.’ But at the moment I don’t know. And so I just feel absolutely stupid while depressed.
TR: Yeah. But we’ll get there.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets will be available to stream via Film at Lincoln Center’s Virtual Cinema starting July 10.