Catching Up With Bill Ross of Tchoupitoulas

Movies Features

In more than a few of its slim 80 minutes, Tchoupitoulas feels like it accomplishes the impossible. Tchoupitoulas, before you keep asking, is pronounced “CHOP-ih-TOO-lus,” and it’s the second movie from Bill and Turner Ross, collectively known as the Ross Brothers. It is ostensibly a documentary, but the movie lands in a hazy area between fiction and nonfiction. You won’t find any issues being discussed, or any world problems solved, only a bleary-eyed, overnight New Orleans adventure with three teenage brothers. From the very first shot, we’re inside the brain of the younger brother, privy to his internal dialogue, and he’s watching us watch him. His eye-contact is riveting and serves as the raising of a signpost: “Abandon Expectations Upon Entry.” Other signposts throughout the night include: “Narrative Cul-de-Sac Ahead,” “Yield to Environment,” and “Abstract Shapes.”

Tchoup, as the filmmakers affectionately call it, presents itself as a single, all-night sojourn through New Orleans, but the Ross Brothers actually shot for far longer. After eight months of shooting, they found the three young brothers that would become their primary subjects. So the film became an impression of the time spent in the city between two sets of brothers. Its fraternal elements are palpable. The movie is, by design, the second of three planned films shot on a low-end miniDV camera that, frankly, looks like crap. So it is all the more shocking when the Ross Brothers find the beauty of early morning haze, the drifting of harbor beacons, and, most importantly, the hilarious interaction of the three young brothers as their teenage bravado dials slowly down into annoyance, then desperation, and finally flat-out exhaustion as the night rolls along.

Documentarian Ricky Leacock said that the most important aspect of a documentary is the feeling of “being there,” and Tchoup surely accomplishes that in spades. Leacock was speaking of the environment and his subjects, though, and Tchoup may require a broader definition. The audience is present in New Orleans, with the young brothers, in any burlesque house or with any street performers the Ross Brothers find interesting, with the point of view of the filmmakers, and with the notion that this might be a “movie” instead of a “documentary.” But it is in fact a document – just a document of a broader nature than we are used to.

Tchoupitoulas came out on DVD packaged with another documentary, Only the Young, via Oscilloscope Laboratories on April 30.

Recently, Paste sat down with Bill Ross, one half of the filmmaking team, for an appropriately sprawling conversation that covers dive bars in Los Angeles, the NFL draft, and the Lumiere Brothers.

Paste: Bill, how you doing?

Bill Ross: I am doing well. In an hour and twenty-four minutes I’m going to watch the NFL draft.

Paste: [laughs] That’s why you had to get out at 7?

Ross: Well, I’m meeting my dad at a bar here in town, so that is what’s happening.

Paste: Where do you live?

Ross: New Orleans.

Paste: You guys shot the New Orleans spot for the Super Bowl, right?

Ross: Yeah, we put that together in about 3 days. The job came in and it was very fast. Very quick.

Paste: Did it come to you guys or did it come to the Beasts of the Southern Wild guys?

Ross: It came through Ben [Zeitlin, director of Beasts], and Ben and I share an office. He was like, “Hey, you want to do this together?” and I was like, “Yeah, definitely.” Because we both needed money in a bad, bad way.

Paste: Yeah, NFL money. That’s cool.

Ross: Oh, yeah. NFL money is good. I don’t know if you’ve dealt with them before. They’re very kind. Where are you based out of?

Paste: Hollywood.

Ross: Yes. I lived all over LA, but I used to live right by Jumbo’s Clown Room. You been?

Paste: On Hollywood? Hell yeah, man.

Ross: Yeah, I’ve been kicked out of that establishment several times. When I first moved out there after college, we were like two doors down. So, we were in and out of there all the time. A very special place.

Paste: I was actually going to rattle off all the tedious Tchoupitoulas interview shit you have to answer repeatedly and just get that out of the way. So, it’s pronounced “CHOP-ih-TOO-lus.”

Ross: Yes.

Paste: It’s an immersive experience that takes place over the course of one night with three brothers in New Orleans.

Ross: Yes.

Paste: But you shot for 8 months and edited about 300 hours of footage to create an impressionistic portrait of this night.

Ross: Yes.

Paste: There you go. Anything else you want to add?

Ross: That seems to sum it up just fine.

Paste: Anything else you’re tired of talking about?

Ross: [laughs] “Where did you meet the kids?”

Paste: Please, yes. Conduct the rest of this interview with yourself.

Ross: Let’s just talk about Jumbo’s, then at the end we can just be like, “Oh, yeah there’s a DVD coming out.” Have you ever been to Smog Cutter? That’s a great establishment.

Paste: Where is that at? I don’t think so.

Ross: Oh man, it’s an amazing establishment. It’s run by these three women who will be the drunkest people there and they’ll get into fights, and it’s just a beautiful thing. It’s on Virgil. It’s just down from the theater there in Los Feliz. So, it’s Virgil and Burns. Between Burns and Normal. That’s my favorite bar in town. And if you get into karaoke, it’s even better. It’s a fun place to take people. It’s a dive. Have you ever seen the movie, the Charles Bukowski, Mickey Rourke movie Barfly? It’s featured in that. That’s the kind of establishment you’re in for.

Paste: That’s a good endorsement. Barfly is good.

Ross: I love Barfly, that’s a great movie.

Paste: Are you guys in charge of your Facebook page? Or do you have interns doing that?

Ross: Oh, no. That’s just me nerding out all the time.

Paste: I saw you posted [John Cassavettes’s movie] Husbands today.

Ross: I was thinking about it recently, I don’t know why, but that might be the best movie ever made. That movie is just really something.

Paste: I was just talking to somebody about all the different cuts. Cassavettes had a four hour cut, then they dumped it down to the two-and-a-half hour cut.

Ross: Oh, I didn’t know anything about that. That’s interesting. You know there’s a Making of Husbands. That’s definitely my favorite of his, for sure.

Paste: Really, why? Finding Love Streams fans and Husbands fans is a rarity.

Ross: Why? Because people usually go with Woman Under the Influence?

Paste: Well, they’re even kind of harder to take than the other Cassavettes movies, particularly those two.

Ross: True. I wanted to make the documentary version of Husbands. The hope was, between Ben Zeitlin and I, that we would be able to put the two films out [Tchoupitoulas and Beasts] and go to all the same festivals. Now, obviously his film did some interesting things and that ended up not being the case. But the hope was to film us leaving New Orleans and going to the London Film Festival or something like that and just filming the – you know, it wouldn’t be like Husbands, but it would be a documentation of –

Paste: — you guys just vomiting in a bathroom for four hours.

Ross: Pretty much, yeah. But that never happened, because that guy had to go get nominated for an Oscar and stuff.

Paste: I was actually going to ask you about making an autobiographical movie. Because I feel like your first film 45365 is inherently personal to you guys because it’s set where you grew up, and then Tchoupitoulas – well, that’s kind of like Husbands with teenagers, right?

Ross: [laughs] Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but yeah!

Paste: I feel like the kids are surrogates for you guys. Like the camera is through their eyes maybe as much as it is yours. Is that fair to say?

Ross: Well, going into it, that’s what we wanted. Because we had those experiences as kids down here, and it is autobiographical as far as the approach. Like, wanting to speak to being kids, and this environment that we found so appealing. But it is their story, too. You know, we’re not telling them what to do. That is their adventure. But it’s not unlike adventures we had at their age as well.

Paste: I saw the trailers you put up for River,”[about a journey the Ross Brothers took from Ohio to New Orleans by boat], and I think that’s an interesting path. You have the environment that’s personal in 45365, then you have something more personal with these three characters in Tchoupitoulas, then the next one is just you guys just filming yourselves.

Ross: Besides documenting other people, we’ve always shot or filmed ourselves as well. So, there’s all sorts of weirdo videos out there of us doing something or other. But the River thing, because of the scale of the undertaking, I cut it into eight twenty-minute episodes.

Paste: Really?

Ross: Yeah, they’re all online. But [Director of Programming at HotDocs Film Festival] Charlotte Cook saw them and she said she wanted to play the all of them as a whole at HotDocs.

Paste: Whoa, dude, you are on your way to making Husbands.

Ross: Oh, yeah. It’s two hours and forty-five minutes or something.

Paste: Do you guys have another movie in the can waiting to cut, then?

Ross: Yeah, that’s what I’m working on right now. It’s in the can and we are like two months into a probably year and half long edit.

Paste: Just watching footage right now?

Ross: I’ve watched the footage and now I’m going back and pulling selects of for consideration. Pulling selects for each character, you know, stuff like that. Stuff that I will revisit again and start cutting scenes with.

Paste: What’s the process like between you and Turner when you’re editing?

Ross: I, for the first six months, just deal with it. He and I will have conversations. We’re not in the same place, so we’ll talk on the phone just about broad ideas. And after six months I’ll report in and show him something. And at that point it’s very, very rough but it at least gives us something to talk about.

Paste: I was at The Cinefamily screening of 45365, I don’t know how many years ago now, three maybe?

Ross: Oh, wow. Yeah, that was a great night.

Paste: And you screened some early footage of Tchoupitoulas. I just remember thinking, “What the fuck is this?”

Ross: [laughs] Yeah! I remember the footage we showed didn’t make it into the final film.

Paste: That’s what I thought. All I remember is maybe a street band and a lot of cross-fades, maybe some palm trees. Very bizarre.

Ross: I mean, at that point that was just me pulling footage from something that we hadn’t really cut yet.

Paste: I felt like it was a total step up from 45365.

Ross: That was a cool screening. We went to a bar down the street, can’t remember the name of it now. It was the first and last time I was in there. The only thing I remember about that evening was, I was sort of courting this girl that I had gone to college with who was really, really out of my league. [laughs] We made out. God, wow! That was a great night! She ended up being really horrible, but at that point I didn’t know that. It was a great time [laughs].

Paste: When I met Turner, the second question out of his mouth was. “Do you have a day job?” And I thought that was so cool. I usually try to hide the fact that I have a day job, and he was so unpretentious about it that I was like, “Yeah I do have a day job!”

Ross: You know, there’s no hiding the fact that this ballgame doesn’t provide much financial stability.

Paste: He said he might be working as a line cook or something like that this year.

Ross: Yeah, working kitchens has been good to us. Usually the way I get by is editing or shooting other people’s stuff.

Paste: Did you get into editing as a necessity?

Ross: Well, as a kid I remember we were shooting stuff on VHS tape and Hi-8 tapes and at that time editing was like: press play on the camera, press record on the VCR. That kind of stuff, and I loved doing that. There was something about putting one image next to another and just being incredibly fascinated by that. But even though I loved it, in college I would have other people edit my stuff. And after a while I was like, why? I guess I was scared of it in a way. There were people in film school that would say, “I’m an editor.” And you’re like, “Oh, you’re an editor? OK, cool. You want to edit my project?” And I was totally capable of doing that myself, but for some reason there’s that insecurity – or I had it at least – of not knowing what part of that world you should exist in and what you’ll be good at. And so I sort of spent college doing everything: shooting, editing. But when it came to the bigger projects, I’d have other people shoot it and other people edit it, and I would just do these side projects on my own teaching myself stuff. But then after college I moved to LA, and my first real job was an Assistant Editor at a trailer house. I started off as a runner, then moved up to an Assistant Editor and then eventually Editor. And that was where I really learned the craft. And now I can’t imagine anyone editing my shit. I wouldn’t let anybody touch our stuff.

Paste: It’s just another form of writing the movie.

Ross: Definitely. That’s what I think the editing process is for what we’re doing. You know, it’s like you’re writing. It’s backwards from fictional stuff.

Paste: How long has each of the movies taken you?

Ross: Shooting for a year and then editing for a year. And that’s been pretty consistent. The only reason this River trip came together so quickly is that it’s straightforward, point A to point B. We leave Cincinnati and we go to New Orleans. There’s really no way to maneuver that.

Paste: I like docs that don’t impose a structure. That’s one of the many things I dig about Tchoupitoulas, is that the structure is a night. I know you shot for more than a night, but that allows it a structure.

Ross: I mean, it gives it a box to operate within. Just like with 45365, the idea that the city is the parameter, and you can do anything within that sort of box.

Paste: I feel like that was a series of mirror or counterpoints. Cop, then Criminal. Inherently searching for a balance.

Ross:That was a very conscious – going into it with our checklist of people we wanted to exist with, it was very generic like that. Cop, Criminal. Young Woman, Old Woman.

Paste: I dig that. It opens up the audience more because it’s simply an archetype. Then once you break the archetype down and say it’s a real person, that’s more personal than having a name on the bottom left corner of the screen that says, “Grandma,” or whatever.

Ross: Yeah, exactly. I remember I was working for this real dumb guy at a post house and 45365, had just come out and I was working there. And he’s like, “Well, let me see this movie you got.” And I showed it to him and the next day he came in and he was like, “That was cool man, it was kinda weird. You didn’t put any name plates on it or anything.” And I was like, “Oh, right! I forgot to put those on! Yeah, the graphics are on the way.”

Paste: So, I watched a festival Q&A you guys did, and you talked about The Rule of Woo! Would you like to explain that?

Ross: Well, the mind wanders when you are shooting for a year in a strange place and the only other person there is your brother, and so you start thinking weird thoughts. Aside from the self-loathing and doubt and depression about whether you’re truly meant for this line of work and if it’s going to be any good. Once you get all that out of the way, you get thinking about your craft and how it works and how it has worked in the past and how other people might have approached it and whatnot. And especially shooting in New Orleans, you’re walking around in the center of one of the greatest collection of drunkards on the planet. And everybody, once they get a couple cocktails in ‘em, wants to talk to a camera. And so going through the footage, so much of that footage was garbage because you have a good moment going, and all the sudden someone jumps out and goes “WOO! ALABAMA!! FOOTBALL!! WOO!!” And it’s like, what possessed someone to do that? It’s not simply because they’ve had some beers. So, I get to thinking about that. 1. Why do people do that? and 2. When did it start? Did the Lumiere brothers have this problem, where people in three piece suits and bowler hats, were they jumping out in front of their camera being like, “WOW!! Can’t wait for that train to come!”

Paste: [laughs]

Ross: “Just got off work! I’m gonna have a beer!” When did that become a thing? And so I continued to think about that. And this has actually sparked some interesting conversations, I know it’s funny to think about.

Paste: I think it’s very interesting. Seriously.

Ross: Me too. So, I thought – and I have since changed my perspective on this – first I thought it was the advent of local news. When that came in, and people knew that they could jump behind a reporter and then go home and see themselves on the TV, and once that’s possible, maybe it started then. But I talked to Steve Bognar; he makes films with his partner Julia Reichert. They did A Lion in the House, which was a doc that came out in 2006 and they got nominated for an Oscar. But the reason I know them is that they live very close to where I grew up, so we’re friends through the Ohio connection. Anyway, Steve is one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met. Really soulful, wise thinker. And he and I were talking about this and he seemed to think that it wasn’t local news, but it would have come much earlier. People want to be remembered. People want to put their stamp on their life and say, “I was here.” And this is why we’re able to do what we do. It could be a weird thing if I approached you and said, “Here’s what I’m doing, I want to make this movie about you.” That could come across weird, but it never does.

Paste: And I think that’s what’s so cool about the verite in Tchoupitoulas. You keep in the sidelong glances that the kids make to the camera. I mean, the kids are looking at the camera a lot.

Ross: And that’s not something we’re trying to hide. It’s very obvious they’re people witnessing this thing.

Paste: Exactly, and I think that’s more true than trying to cut it out or edit around it. That’s kind of rare that you see that. It’s rare that the usual form of documentary is broken, let alone in a way that’s consistent and subtle. It’s kind of like TVTV in a way.

Ross: Yeah, I love TVTV. You feel them in the room, you feel – there’s a transparency to their work where you feel like you’re a part of the gang that’s doing the filming, and you’re in on it. You’re there with them because they don’t try to mask the fact that they’re there. I think, if I remember correctly, Steve had brought up this documentary where some explorers or something had gone into the Amazon and they had found this tribe that was very isolated. It’s the first time they’d ever seen white people, first of all, so it’s a bit shocking. But they had a mirror, these explorer people did. And these tribe people had never seen themselves. And so they gave the mirror as – you know, they’re trading and they gave the mirror as a gift to the chief of the tribe – and he just stares at himself. He doesn’t blink. He was seeing himself for the first time. So, I bet the Lumiere’s did have to deal with that, you know? Because people will want to see themselves. People want to be noticed, want to be remembered. And whatever that is about our psychology or whatever, it’s in there somewhere. That our lives are meaningful. And as documentarians, because of that being part of our nature and you do take interest in somebody, the initial reaction is sort of confused. Like, “Why? I’m not that interesting.” But then they accept you there because they do want that. They find it interesting that you find them interesting. You play into that, in a way. Have you ever read Wim Wenders’ The Logic of Images?

Paste: No, but I really like his photo books.

Ross: I seem to remember him talking about capturing the fleeting moment before it’s gone. Anyway, anyway. Little diatribe there.

Paste: Perhaps it was even a bigger problem for the Lumiere’s, you know? Because it was a new thing. You have this giant bulky box you’re lugging around.

Ross: Right, and people didn’t live in a camera culture where everyone has a camera. Yeah. Anyway. Tchoup, comes out on DVD, uhh…

Paste: [laughs] Yeah, gotta keep this on track. Well, the other obligatory – but I’m also interested – question is how you guys got hooked up with Only the Young? I missed it like an idiot at AFI Film Festival but I heard it was just incredible.

Ross: It’s a brilliant film. It’s my favorite film of last year. And we both got picked up by Oscilloscope. And they were going to go all digital with the thing, but I think it’s very smart what they’re doing. They saw an opportunity to bring our audience to Only the Young and Only’s audience to us. And because they’re two films about youth and discovery and growing up, it seemed like in a very strange way they were related. I think it’s really cool. Their packaging is always very wonderful, and this, I think is on par with everything they’ve put out.

Paste: I think it’s cool that it’s not like one or the other is the bonus film. They literally blend the covers together.

Ross: I also think it’s cool that, having grown up in the age of rap double albums, it’s sort of a throwback to Biggie, 2-Pac, and Wu-Tang. That was the original thinking behind that.

Paste: [laughs]

Ross: That might be a lie, but we’ll go with that.

Paste: I think the whole kids-looking-into-the-camera thing and the Rule of Woo that you have to deal with, kind of got me thinking about documentary ethics. I don’t think you guys interfere with your subjects, but do you feel like rearranging the timeframe of the footage or creating an impression of something, do you think that’s somehow a different kind of movie than a straight documentary?

Ross: Well, who wrote the rules to this whole thing? It seems as though this conversation’s pretty popular right now, but where’s the fucking rule book that says we have to do things a certain way? You know? Yeah, we’ve written our own rules. We do things our own way. And that’s something that works for us, but to be used as an example of, “Oh, they’re breaking rules!” Well, which fucking rules are you talking about? If there were any rules to this shit I know that my brother and I would not be in this business. But, look. I want to be invited back to the homes that we’ve shot in. So, there’s a fairness with which the footage is treated, but the point of the constructions that we make – and we’re very clear that these are heavily constructed films – is to not tell you the definition of something, but to create a feeling that we felt while we were there. And that’s much truer to what we’re after than if we had just done what so many people want us to do. You know, “If it’s one night in New Orleans, then it better be just one night.” OK, that film would blow! So just go with it. We’re creating fictional non-fiction. Somebody said that at some point and I like that. The moments are true, but they’re built to be a heightened truth.

Paste: A way to get at the truth when the truth isn’t adequate.

Ross: Yes. That’s great.

Paste: I was thinking about Jesus Camp and Hell House, which is a great double feature. But Jesus Camp is interesting because it’s extremely balanced. You could show it to either side of that issue – somebody who’s appalled by it, or someone who is an attendee, and they would both say, “Yes. That’s exactly what I’m seeing.” But I don’t know if it necessarily gets at a feeling like Tchoupitoulas does. It’s rare a documentary documents not only the external, but also the internal thoughts of not only the characters but also the filmmakers.

Ross: Right. I guess when people say there are rules to this, that’s just narrow-minded thinking that documentary has to solve a problem or shine light on this critical story. That’s journalism. That’s a different thing. We’re not writing an essay here about how we’re going to solve our financial woes. That does have rules and that needs to be treated differently. We’re not doing that. We’re making movies. We’re not trying to solve all the world’s problems, because we would not be very good at that.

Paste: The supposed rules are interesting. When’s the last time I saw a documentary with a narrator? Or at least straight narration to it.

Ross: Well, I guess you haven’t been watching enough Ken Burns. And that is not talking shit about Ken Burns, I love that dude.

Paste: I love Ken Burns. But is there another?

Ross: He has his own style.

Paste: He has his own style so much that you can do a Ken Burns effect in iPhoto.

Ross: Yes you can. I wonder if there was a Ross Brothers effect, what that would look like. Probably some out of focus image that was shot on mini DV or something.

Paste: The photo would actually reveal itself to be three photos.

Ross: [laughs]

Paste: Sounds like you guys get bugged about this shit a lot. Do a lot of people want you to play by the rules?

Ross: I just think people go in with expectations to a ‘documentary,’ and once you’re not being spoon fed the standard approach, people start to ask questions. And yeah, it gets a little old having that discussion. But, fuck it. Who cares? It’s cool. I understand why we are programmed as documentaries, but if we could just say, “Look, you’re just watching a movie. It’s just a movie.” It’s all about expectations, I guess. And I don’t want to dog on other people’s approaches. I watch more talking-head documentaries that I do art cinema documentaries. That’s the reason I read mostly non-fiction. I want to know what went on behind the scenes in Elliot Spitzer’s situation. That sounds cool.

Paste: Absolutely. I dug that documentary.

Ross: Yeah it was great. At the end of the day, after editing for 16 hours, I just can’t sit down and watch Leviathan. I need to be spoon-fed some information. Give me the details, I’m going to turn my brain off, and tell me why the stock market crashed. I don’t need “art” right now.

Paste: It’s genre conventions. You guys are a documentary, technically, but then that spirals into a conversation about “What does that mean exactly?” Which we seem to be having.

Ross: But no, this is much more satisfying than having to defend yourself.

Paste: It’s kind of like Red Tails, the George Lucas movie. I think that movie is so awesome because I know way more about Lucas’s brain watching that than I do watching something like Star Wars. I’d rather know that. It’s interesting.

Ross: It is indeed. But I tell you, sometimes you just want to talk about something else. [laughs]

Paste: [laughs] Well, yeah. What else you feeling?

Ross: What else am I feeling. Growing up in Ohio I had no choice, I had to root for the Cincinnati Bengals. So, that is my one guilty pleasure. It’s not a guilty pleasure, it is a pleasure, but the Bengals have been the laughing stock of the league for so long it’s a bit painful. The best part of the Cincinnati calendar is the draft, because it allows you some hope that the future might be brighter.

Paste: I’d love to see you guys do a Bengals documentary.

Ross: There are so many films I want to do under an assumed name. There are some topics that I really, really want to get into, but I don’t want to put our stamp on it. And I’m not going to tell you, because I’m going to keep it to myself, but there’s one right now that we’re really trying to get going that we’ll put under a different name.

Paste: You’re serious.

Ross: Oh, my God, yeah. And it will be so good. It’ll easily be our best film, and the funnest to make, by far.

Paste: It’s going to be a two month stint at Jumbo’s?

Ross: Well, now that would be interesting. I have thought about that film. Sort of do a Frederick Wiseman treatment of the Paris Review, kind of thing. Crazy Horse, or something. Yeah, that would be wildly entertaining. I would watch the shit out of that.

Tchoupitoulas came out on DVD paired with Only the Young on April 30. Order here.

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