SXSW FILM 2012
By Don Simpson | March 23, 2012
Bill and Turner Ross’ Tchoupitoulas does a tremendous job of defying classification. It functions as both a surreal documentary that borrows from narrative storytelling techniques and a narrative film that paints a realistic portrait of its protagonists by utilizing documentary devices. The narrative unfolds like an improvised jazz album with various tangents that flow seamlessly away from and towards the forward-moving primary thread. The tempo continuously alternates as well; as the sublime, impressionistic cinematography alternates between running, walking and pausing. We are fully immersed into the surrounding environment from the perspective of three young brothers as they embark upon an adventure deep into the heart of New Orleans.
No one makes films like the Ross brothers — at least not anymore — and Tchoupitoulas is no exception. A cerebral experience like none other, Tchoupitoulas is certainly going to be one of my favorite films of 2012. Admittedly, I was a bit awestruck sitting between Bill and Turner in the lounge of the Driskill Hotel during SXSW Film 2012. I did my best to hold up my side of the conversation with two guys who contemplate cinema and the color purple at a hyper-intellectual level… (Check out our oblique SXSW 2012 review of Tchoupitoulas.)
Don Simpson: How do you define documentary cinema?
Turner Ross: I don’t have a definition and don’t want one. I don’t even know if we are making documentaries. We happen to exist in this documentary environment and that is wonderful. I love documentary films. I love being a part of this world. I think documentary filmmakers are an interesting breed. I think somehow we run parallel to that, but we are not trying to make genre films. We are just making the films that we want to make, they happen to involve truth and realism, and so here we are.
Bill Ross IV: We are making these things because it is an adventure. It is fun. We get to go to weird places and hang out with weird people and do things that we wouldn’t be able to do without a camera in our hands.
TR: We are assembling artifacts. It is an ongoing document. Artifacts of our adventure.
DS: The truth and fiction of Tchoupitoulas is very blurred. It feels very real, but there is something very manufactured about it. There is a directorial hand at play…
TR: Its a fun conversation but even Frederick Wiseman says that he is creating constructions. I think that is the most cold, clinical documentary filmmaking you can think of. Every documentary film is a construction. You cannot be totally objective. Even a security camera cannot be objective. We are using small pieces of the truth to tell a greater truth. We are collecting these moments; these moments are real. We are existing in these places and documenting; it is not scripted. It is not fake; it is realism. In that sense it is a document of the here and now. But we are not after conveying some sort of convention or some social truth. We are just in a time and place to convey an artifact of the experience.
BR: It is definitely a construction. We collect the hundreds of hours of footage of whatever is happening and then we write during the editing process.
TR: Then it starts to tell you what it is.
BR: We are trying to make something that conveys the feeling —
TR: — the essence of the experience. Like I said, pieces of the truth to tell a greater truth.
BR: But what is the greater truth of this film?
TR: How we can best utilize what we have captured to give the true feeling of that experience. We still have this conversation — obviously, we are having this conversation right now. What is this? I don’t know what this thing is? We are trying to convey some really ephemeral shit. It sounds stupid when we talk about it, because usually its a feeling or an idea. What is a dream like? What is the color purple? That is the motivation for the film. It is not about oil spills, it is about feelings and the color purple.
BR: The color, not the film.
DS: How closely did you work with — or direct — the three subjects of Tchoupitoulas?
BR: They walked past us — we were fucking lucky — we overheard what they were talking about and we were like “Whoa, these guys are great!” When we found them, we were like, this is it. So, we just immediately started shooting with them. We had this feeling about this place that is very childlike. We wanted to see this town through these guys. They are on all of the time. They are always themselves. Fully realized children. All you have to do is be there to experience it. No matter where we were — there were three kids in front of the camera, but there were two kids behind the camera. When we started filming with them we became kids again. We were five kids out on the town having a great time. We happened to document three of them.
TR: They were doing whatever they wanted to do. There would be points that they would sit down on a bench and start arguing, and we would say “Alright guys, let’s go do something else.” We are trying to have fun too!
DS: Tchoupitoulas has a very real-time feeling to it, but you obviously did not shoot all of the footage over the course of one night.
TR: It is based around an epic evening with those boys. After that we were friends. After that they would call us, and it was fun. And Bill and William still hang out. A grown man and a child playing video games…
BR: There was that one big night when all that stuff pretty much happened, but they’d call us up and say “We’re going across the river, let’s go!”
TR: The actuality is that we were there for eight months, and we probably spent a few nights with those guys actually filming. We spent a solid eight months going out and at the very least collecting sounds and images, while usually spending time with some of the most captivating people in the world. The footage was awesome, but there was really only one story we could tell out of that experience. I mean, the stories that we can tell are wonderful, but the film that we needed to make is what we did with those 82 minutes.
DS: I love those tangential moments, when you break away from the kids and just venture into a bar or club for a while…
TR: You see Pearl Noir, the burlesque dancer. You see as she dances on stage, then the moments of her off stage. But in reality we spent days and days with her. She is a wonderfully warm woman. She is actually a burlesque competitor. We spent time with her not doing that, driving around just talking about life. We got to see what her deal was. We used just one moment but we could tell a whole story. That goes for everybody in there. Like Little Freddie King — the last of the best — the 70 year old blues man. He is the cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins. I got to spend time with him, hanging out in his living room smoking cigarettes. I went to bars with him and there were 20 year old women who loved this 70 year old man. Little Freddie, man. We only used that one moment, though. Those stories are great stories, but this is the film that we needed to make.
DS: I also love the dreamlike visual qualities of the film…
TR: Its always a crap shoot. We are forced to deal with what we find. That was the hope though. We wanted to see this city in the way that we saw it as kids. We wanted a dreamlike fairytale quality to it. That is our basis. Those are the conversations we were having. The ephemeral ideas we talked about — What are dreams? What happens in dreams? How does that work? You do have divergences. You do other things while you are in there.
BR: It is okay to be with one person then all of a sudden that morphs into another person. You are traveling and moving around. We talked a lot about fairytales and what motivates that. What is the child’s mind like? How does your brain work when you’re in that world? Trying to use that to digest what we consumed as two adult guys in the adult world.
DS: And since William and his brothers don’t have that much parental guidance, that almost seems to free their minds to digest their surroundings in the fantastical way that the film represents.
TR: It definitely seems like a liberating experience. At that point of time I don’t think a lot of people were listening to those guys in any sort of meaningful way. But they have so much to say, and as soon as someone listens — its awesome. They just explode and become fully realized human beings. They come from a place where people don’t give a shit about what they are saying. It is a very dreary world, but we had a really bright time together.
BR: They really liked hanging out with us. It allowed them to be themselves. They don’t have to put up this guard or anything. We learned a lot from them and I hope we passed some knowledge onto them.
TR: At least some positivity. At least for one point of their lives they had a positive experience with two really weird white guys.