ND/NF Interview: Bill & Turner Ross
In just three documentaries, Bill and Turner Ross have cultivated a distinct perspective on American iconography, revealing locations at once remote and familiar, if only through the prism of popular media. These sites—their hometown of Sidney, Ohio (the subject of their 2009 debut feature, 45365), a New Orleans artery on the bank of the Mississippi River (Tchoupitoulas, 12), and the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico (Western, which recently screened in New Directors / New Films)—occupy spaces in our shared consciousness even if we’ve never heard of them. The undertaking of the Rosses’ films, in their impressionistic, free-form design, is to scrutinize the cultural symbols underlying that familiarity, probing what “Small Town USA” and “the American West” actually mean and how those meanings have changed over time.
Western, which earned a Special Jury Prize for verité filmmaking at Sundance, is rich in archetypes from fiction about the West. Two aging, chivalrous mayors, Chad Foster and José Manuel Maldonado, strive to preserve harmony and a bygone way of life, personified by rugged cattle ranchers like Martín Wall. But modernity encroaches on their turf, as a drug cartel destabilizes the region, leading to a ban on livestock trade. Suddenly Wall, an adoring father to 6-year-old Brylyn, is without means of support.
Throughout it all, the Rosses’ camera unobtrusively captures the cross-currents of life in a locality that may recall Ford and Peckinpah, but is a very real place, of and at odds with its time. Bill and Turner—who will be working this summer on “a bizarro concert film that David Byrne set up”—spoke with FILM COMMENT in New York during New Directors / New Films.
Your first feature, 45365, was intentionally shot in your hometown, and your next film, Tchoupitoulas, is very distinctly a portrait of New Orleans at night. Did you have specific locations in mind for Western? Or did you just want to make a film about the contemporary West?
TURNER: It’s both those things. I think it’s a location of the mind. It’s this mythic landscape. Everybody has some contextual idea of what the West, what the western is, what the American frontier is in people's minds the world over.
BILL: Because of films. Because film language has described that place. And our dad took us to see a lot of westerns as kids. We grew up in Ohio and so that was not a territory that we were familiar with, but we were because of John Ford. So the impetus for the film was to see what that actually looks like today. We had an idea of what we wanted, but we didn’t know where it was.
TR: Then we had to go out and find that, and we knew we wanted to see what the modern frontier was. So that leads you to a specific or somewhat specific region, and because we’re relying on visual storytelling very much, you need something to tell a story visually. And when we found this place, these two communities, and the iconic Rio Grande, the river that runs through the two cities that face each other, it tells the story visually already. Then whatever happens therein becomes the act of discovery. You find that place and then all of a sudden you realize that it’s championed by the patron, Mayor Foster, who is this infallible archetype of the West. He’s a big, tall man with a strong handshake and a hat and a mustache and he speaks the language fluently and is embraced no matter which side of the border he’s on… and we landed. He was our John Wayne.
I noticed, even just in the way shots were framed, tropes from Hollywood westerns. Like the way that Mayor Foster is introduced: he’s pictured from behind, almost this silhouette in a ten-gallon hat. He could easily be John Wayne or Gary Cooper. Were you thinking about framing him as though he were a classical western protagonist?</p>
BR: Absolutely. Every film has its own language—it dictates what it wants to be and what it should be. And while there’s a style that we’ve arrived at that we employ, because of the different landscapes and because of the different territory that you’re in, it wants to be shot in a certain way. We had walls covered with reference material for how a western should be shot, and there was a lot of Gary Cooper and John Wayne on the wall, and because it’s a big landscape it asks for big imagery, so we tried to shoot it that way.
TR: We work within the genre of nonfiction, we are relying on real life, on real humans and landscapes to tell these stories, to go fishing for these images and these moments, but certainly our conception of these is very conceptual, theoretical, aesthetic. We’re spending time thinking about how the story wants to be told visually, who are these archetypes that we are not only going to capture but to confront. Yes, you introduce Chad [Foster] by showing him from behind, he’s the man in the hat being addressed—that sets up who he is. And so we understand what he represents. But do we? He’s a real human being and hopefully we give some sense of his humanity and his real presence in the time and place in which he exists, so no, he’s not John Wayne. He’s Mayor Chad Foster in a real place. Yes, he cuts a figure—but is that the truth of his experience? That’s the idea, and that’s why we send people into a theater with the idea of western. You call it Western because you frame that idea. But is that actually the truth of the modern frontier?
I kept thinking of The Last Picture Show as I was watching. Especially because you have these two very courtly, paternalistic mayors on either side of the border, who’ve now both passed on—they reminded me of Sam the Lion in the Bogdanovich film. Were you intending an elegy to the West?
TR: It became that in a way. It’s also a story of an uncertain future. The fading of a “once was,” people grappling with changing times, and people moving into a future that is yet to be told. It’s a simple story, but because these people’s real lives are what tell that story, these characters don’t quit, these characters don’t walk off a film set, these characters’ lives go on. The little girl, Brylyn, obviously her story goes on, to what future we don’t know. She grows up with a father who has very much embraced the aesthetic of where he is, the personality of where he is. And Mayor Foster represents what is becoming a bygone era. Certainly, The Last Picture Show is a wonderful reference. We think about that kind of stuff all the time.
I want to ask about your style. In a word, it’s unforced. You don’t lay out a thesis or insist upon a narrative, you just kind of accumulate atmosphere as you go along—although that makes it sound more accidental than it probably is. How much is forethought and how much is contingency?
TR: Forethought lands us in a situation, and contingency is the evidence. We’re throwing ourselves into thoughtful situations so that we may receive the truth of that experience.
BR: There’s nothing interesting or adventurous or soulful about going in and demanding what it should be. We go in with a movie in our heads, but of course that’s going to change the second we start, and that’s what’s interesting.
TR: There’s a lot of serendipity, there’s a lot of allowing the things to happen, but you set yourself up to receive very intentionally. So we create a framework and try to be present in the most absolute way possible, where you become a part of the landscape, and things that are happening are natural and you are simply a tuning fork for those things. That’s the goal.
You don’t force a narrative but one emerges nonetheless, with the cartel situation. Was there a balancing act with respect to how much you should emphasize that versus your original vision of John Wayne’s place in the 21st century?
BR: Your hand gets forced… We’re sitting on Martín’s ranch when he gets the news that the border has been shut down. You can’t avoid that, and you’re an idiot if you do. That is his existence, and to force whatever thought you may have had going into it would be ridiculous at that point.
TR: It was a balancing act, because we went down there with a major intention to not do the one-dimensional journalist thing: to not do the fly in, fly out, let’s point a camera at you and have you tell me about this issue and avoid everything else. What I hope we did with the film was to convey the experience that we had and that we felt was the more collective experience. To have these looming shadows, these specters of things that perhaps are not always on your doorstep but everyone is aware of. They do affect the general comings and goings, and for someone like Martín it actually shut down his industry. And for someone like Chad who is a major proponent of the border and trying to always preach the gospel of community and no spillover violence, he has to confront that. That’s a very real thing.
Do you try to make yourselves invisible? In all of your films you’re privy to exchanges that feel very private—and yet there you are, filming them. Is it part of your modus operandi to efface yourselves?
BR: I always prefer to listen to somebody’s story rather than talk at them, and that’s just a personality trait, but we’re there, and we’re making friends with these people as we’re shooting. Whether they’re a good guy or bad guy, whatever. We’re trying to see who these folks are and really spend time. So they know we’re there.
TR: It’s a byproduct of the approach.BR: We get comfortable with people and they get comfortable with us, and so while we’re in the room, they feel like they can let that guard down and really reveal who they are. There’s no hiding that we’re in the room with the camera.
Tell me what you each bring to the collaboration. I’m interested less in the division of labor than the division of perspective, things that one of you is attuned to that the other might not be.
BR: [laughing] We both love people. We love to meet new people and we both love new experience and the adventure and the travel. I think that’s probably why we work together, because we want to have big life experiences and be able to be old men and have good stories to tell. So we start there, but I think the approach is very different in the field when we’re shooting. I like to sit back a little removed and watch. I don’t get very close. Turner does—he gets very close and he gets these shots which I’m deeply envious of, where you can really feel someone thinking, and you see the ticking going on and you really get inside somebody’s head. That shit’s nearly impossible to film. Very few people can do that and Turner can do that. I do it rarely. I would rather be back and see the environment where the people exist, because I find that very interesting. I guess it comes out of our different personalities, but that’s contrary to what our personalities are. Socially, I’m very loud, and I’m interacting and running around the room, just wanting to get the most out of the room, and Turner will sit with you in a corner and talk to you all night.
TR: I think that’s generally accurate. But I think we also do the opposite occasionally. You’ll throw yourself in the bullring and sometimes I’ll sit back… But Bill is fascinated with the patience with the thing, and watching and being there in awe of the thing, and making sure the fleeting moment does not pass uncaptured. And for me, it’s an opportunity to actually be invisible and completely invest in whatever it is with an intensity that is unwarranted without the camera.
BR: It’s competitive between the two of us. You want to come home at the end of the day and say: “I got the best shot.” Whether it’s a brother thing or whatnot, I don’t know.
Your films are discussed as a trilogy, and maybe that’s accurate or maybe it’s marketing, but are you interested in making more of these diagnostics of Americana? Or are you eager to move in a different direction?
TR: Both. Bill and I discuss this as a trilogy when we talk to each other, but it’s not a packaged deal like, “Here’s this marketable trilogy.” First of all, our shit isn’t marketable, so that’s not really a good device. But we talk about things as a piece. If we can explore ideas, maybe it has to happen over time with multiple projects. We had an approach to making these first three films, and now we’re thinking about an inversion. And all of that is to say, it’s not about the individual pieces. It’s an ongoing conversation.