Best Southern Film Nominee:
Tchoupitoulas, Bill & Turner Ross
As part of our ongoing series spotlighting the nominees for our “Best Southern Film Award” at the Little Rock Film Festival, Natalie Elliott chats with the Ross Brothers, who directed Tchoupitoulas. See Natalie’s interview with Pilgrim Song director Martha Stephens here, Jake Ross’s interview with Beasts of the Southern Wild director Benh Zeitlin here, and Levi Agee’s interview with A Sister’s Call co-director Kyle Tekiela here.
You're not required to know this, but Tchoupitoulas is the name of a street that runs from the edge of the French Quarter to Uptown, New Orleans. It's a zinger of a word, an evocative title, barely pronounceable for those unaccustomed to Louisiana's esoteric language cobbling. Most of all, it sounds exotic—an exoticism that a place like New Orleans is guilty of, and guilty of as it is celebratory of.
The second feature documentary of brothers Turner and Bill Ross IV, Tchoupitoulas is a word representative of a city, a city jammed into a film, and, most astonishingly, the adventure of three young boys, William, Kentrell, and Bryan Zanders, who hop the Algiers ferry from their home in the West Bank to come in for a night exploring the Quarter. William is our narrator, if it's possible to call him that—we hear his monologuing, his questions, snippets from his life more than from the others. His logorrheic and largely unanswered dialogue sets the tone: We are entering what can honestly be called a world of wonderment, and we are as chirping and wide-eyed as he.
Because there is no conceivable plot, there is no deus ex machina, and the hints of tension are all visual: bold colors reflected on their open faces, twinkling lights on the horizon. It's impossible not to deal in classical tropes when you have young boys sailing across waters on an undefined journey through a land of thong-clad sirens, drunken wise men, towering she-males, sprightly fire-dancers. Then, just when we (and the Zanders) think we've seen it all—as William quips, “Everything I'd hoped for! Naked pictures, clubs....”—we find ourselves stranded, along with them, exhausted from our travels but still unable to return home. The night is getting pitch dark, and we don't yet know if there is anything to fear in the ever-encroaching shadows.
Luckily, there is often music to instruct our mood, whether the thumping brass band, the plinking guitar of a decrepit bluesman, the howl of a sorrowful harmonica. At one point, in a scene snatched straight from Fellini (but, recall, this is real life!), a drunken clown waltzes by herself to the sound of an androgyne's lonely accordion. When the dance is finished, she totters off, despite the intimacy of this dance, still a stranger.
In many ways, the film feels like a sentimentalized piece of reporting. The filmmakers attempt to remove themselves as much as possible, letting the content guide the way, but there are so many moments of contact—the burlesque dancer backstage donning her robe, the banter of homeless men—and so many loving panoramas of the city at night, unafraid to appear as vivid as oil paintings. It most closely recalls the 1960s Louis Malle documentaries filmed for French TV, traveling through India led by the thirst of his camera lens, that indulgent footage of sights so foreign to his European sensibilities he becomes entranced by them. Except, with Tchoupitoulas, we have no over-educated Frenchman doggedly pursuing the unreal; we have the Zanders as our guides, children and natives of the city, finding through their own discovery the same stirring mystery that New Orleans inspires in many of us, as adults. It's a perfect metaphor.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: As Tchoupitoulas is actually your second verité-style documentary (after 2009’s 45365), can you describe what got you guys into this type of storytelling? Who are some of your biggest influences? Would you ever consider making a normal narrative feature film?
TURNER ROSS: We are making feature films, just coming at it from a different angle. The impetus for what we do is adventure. The films are a form of conveyance, of articulating that experience. But it could be any number of things, really. We grew up with a camera in our house instead of musical instruments. This is our voice.
BILL ROSS: It’s the adventure. The camera allows us entrance into different worlds and situations. I get very restless sitting on a set. Lewis and Clark are motivators. So is Bo Jackson.
THE OA: Tell us a little bit about your process. Like reporters, do you establish contact and then build relationships incidentally from there? Do you come up with a concept and just hit the ground running? How do you brainstorm what your next project will be about?
TR: All of these things. From concept to completion it takes a lot of forms. Our ideas are whittled into practical applications that we can physically encounter and explore. We establish relationships and try to become a part of the environs that we’re capturing.
BR: I’m not sure we’ve ever brainstormed together. One of us will go to the other and say I want to do this. I think for 45365 we both had these lingering feelings and mental images about growing up that we couldn’t shake, so once it was brought up there wasn’t much discussion and we just went and did it. Essentially the same for Tchoup. We’ve spent a lot of time in New Orleans since childhood.
The next idea, though, is Turner’s. He came to me and said he wanted to make a Western, so we drove to Texas and started looking around.
THE OA: How did you develop the concept for Tchoupitoulas? Did you meet the Zanders brothers first, or were there other ideas for the direction of the film’s focus?
TR: The concept was most probably born out of our experiences as delinquent Midwestern kids roaming the streets of New Orleans at night. We knew that in creating a portrait of New Orleans that youthful perspective would create a certain level of detachment and clarity—a fresh look at a recognizable subject. The world suddenly becomes vivid and dimensional and alive. The Zanders happened to walk into our lives at the right moment and became our natural surrogates.
BR: We got very lucky that William, Bryan, and Kentrell showed up.
THE OA: Upon meeting the boys, how did you go about securing permission to film them? After spending that much time together, I imagine you’d have quite a connection. Do you still talk to them regularly?
TR: We did establish a very positive connection. We may have come from different worlds, but we were human beings who were interested in them and their lives. We were willing to listen.
BR: The day we met them they took us to their parents place and we talked with them. We went out the same night, and that’s the majority of the movie. I became very close with William. He and I, up until recently, would go out once a week and see some action movie and check up on what was going on with the other. In the last couple of months, though, he’s gotten to a point where it’s not so cool to be hanging out with an older white dude.
THE OA: Obviously this film is a masterpiece of editing. Can you reveal how much shooting was done, especially outside of the brothers?
TR: The film that you see is a representative slice of a massive effort in filming. Every blip in the film represents weeks and months of filming, creating that environment. The boys end up being our focus, but our actual time with them was extremely limited.
BR: I’ll take all the credit for the edit.
THE OA: Can you talk a little bit about William’s voice-over? It serves as an interesting parallel to Hushpuppy’s voice-over in Court 13 compatriot Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. Was there ever any version of the film without it?
BR: While filming, we recorded all these conversations with William because they were so wonderful, but I never thought I’d use them. I didn’t want to. I usually like to let the images talk. Quickly, though, I realized that what I had recorded with him was too special not to use. You’ve got to be malleable and not let yourself get in the way of what the footage is telling you.
THE OA: New Orleans is one of those tricky places—for the non-native, if you have any artistic inclination, it’s hard to resist appropriating some of its magic as your own. As outsiders, did you guys ever confront hesitations about how faithfully you could represent this dynamic, mysterious, all-encompassing city?
TR: We went in with a pretty healthy dose of New Orleans already behind us. We’d spent a lot of time in that city. But New Orleans is always surprising, always evolving, because it is in perpetual motion—it is alive. That said, we sought to find experiences that were not comfortable to us—to find the new. It’s the same way we approach anything. You have to let the experience direct the story. So in that sense, we were always faithful.
BR: Getting it right is always a concern, no matter where we are. Not right in a Travel Channel “this is this place” kind of way, but getting the tone right. We’re always thinking about that—what does this place feel like?
THE OA: Was there any truly mind-boggling footage that didn’t make it into the film?
TR: My heart breaks every time I think about the archives that we have—the material that just won’t ever make it into the public domain because it doesn’t fit. You have to learn to let it go, and appreciate it for the experience.
BR: Always. I witnessed Turner get what I’d bet would have been his best shot to date. Very intimate. It was very late, a burlesque dancer drunkenly dancing her heart out by herself in an empty bar. She and Turner connected. Cameraman and subject. Beautiful. He came over after smiling and I said, “Grab a drink—you never hit record.”
THE OA: In this industry, we often encounter serious collaborative relationships, even sometimes between siblings, but it’s admittedly rare to find co-directors. Can you talk a bit about what that relationship means to you, and how you’ve developed it over time? Are there any duties that you don’t share in the filmmaking process?
TR: We don’t look at this as a business enterprise—never have, never will. If it becomes that, it’s over. This is a creative exercise between two people who have shared their entire lives and their brain chemistry. We work better together... but certainly, we have our own unique areas of expertise. Most importantly, Bill is a magician of an editor.
BR: We got the “hating each other” thing done with by the time I was fifteen, so now we just focus on what we’re doing without any BS.
THE OA: Was Tchoupitoulas largely financed through Kickstarter? What about grants? Can you speak about what kind of support network you guys have cultivated in Court 13, or, more generally, about crowd-sourcing and securing funding as quasi-guerilla documentarians?
TR: Tchoupitoulas was produced with the money Bill and I could squander out of credit cards. Later on in the game we received a generous grant from Cinereach which allowed us to stay afloat. The Court 13 boys came in post-production to help us with the business end, which they’re good at, and were able to guide us through a very successful Kickstarter campaign to clear the music.
THE OA: You’ve recently had your New York premiere of the film. Can you describe what that experience was like? The crowd reception? Any anxieties about the French Quarter premiere coming up on July 20? Can you tell us what kind of festivities you have planned for that homecoming screening?
TR: The New York premiere was great, but I’d say the same for the majority of the screenings we’ve had for the film. Doesn’t really matter whether we’re in Nowheresville or the Big City—the audience is still showing up to see what we’re doing, and that’s an incredible honor. We actually did a free screening with NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) a couple months ago and the reception was great, so that popped the top on the hometown. Our screening in the Quarter in July should be a bombastic throwdown of epic proportions. Bringing it to the streets.
THE OA: I recently watched that pretty incredible mashup, “A Brief History of our Childhood Filmmaking Attempts.” So, it was clear that from very early on you two wanted to be filmmakers, and it seems that your family has always supported those ambitions to some extent. Do you have any advice to other young, prodigious, aspiring filmmakers?
TR: Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it. Nobody’s gonna make it for you. If you want it, go get it.
BR: We were always running around with a camera, but I don’t think it was until I took an elective course freshman year of college that I heard the word filmmaker and someone said you could actually do it for a living.
THE OA: When Bill spoke at the LRFF screening, he mentioned you were having trouble clearing song rights in order to distribute the film. (This is an agony that we at The Oxford American are perilously familiar with—every year we hunt for gratis clearance for twenty-five songs for the annual Southern Music Issue.) Any updates on that front?
TR: We had an incredibly successful outpouring of support during our Kickstarter campaign, and the film is in clearance right now, after being acquired by the outstanding folks at Oscilloscope.
THE OA: Your website obliquely refers to an “Untitled Texas Project.” Is that the next film? Tell us what you have in the works.
TR: We’ll keep it close to the vest for now, but it’s been filmed, and we’ve started the editing process. We’re making a Western.