The Ross brothers don’t have anything to hide. They want to be as transparent as possible about the way they made their new movie, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.” So this is how they made it:
In November 2016, Bill and Turner Ross rented a bar in New Orleans called Roaring 20’s. Use of the location cost them most of their $10,000 budget. The day after Donald Trump was elected, they told the 22 people that they’d cast for the project to show up at the bar. These people were not actors. They were people the filmmakers had met at other bars, people who had relationships with alcohol.
And when these people arrived at the filming location, where they’d all spend just one day, they were given this direction: Pretend the bar is closing at the end of the night.
Over the course of the day, the Rosses — the only two camera people inside the bar — gave little other instruction. They filmed as their cast, who had never met one another prior, laughed, cried, flirted, slept and got very, very drunk.
But if you showed up to watch “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival after only reading the description of the film in the program guide, you would not know any of this. That’s because the movie premiered in the festival’s U.S. Documentary competition, where it was described as a film about the regulars at a Las Vegas dive bar coming to grips with its shuttering.
“That’s the premise, at least; the reality is as unreal as the world they’re escaping from,” the Sundance material reads, only hinting that the film isn’t exactly nonfiction.
Bill, 39, and Turner, 37, did not expect the movie to end up in the documentary category. But after they submitted it to Sundance last year, the brothers said that festival programmers “petitioned” them to include it in the nonfiction section.
“We said, ‘OK, if this is what you want to do, let’s have a conversation about what we actually did here, because we’re not gonna lie about anything,’ ” explained Turner. “So we told them about it, and they said, ‘That is more exciting. We still want to move forward.’ ”
The decision has upset some documentary purists. Others have rushed to the defense of “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” pointing to other reality-narrative hybrids that have been included in the documentary competition in years past, including 2016’s “Kate Plays Christine” and “Casting JonBenet.”
Harry Vaughn, one of Sundance’s programmers, wrote in an e-mail that he and his colleagues decided the film belonged in the documentary competition because “it constructs situations in order to invite a level of chaos and candor that feels more fitting for the nonfiction space.”
“We were fascinated by the boundaries they pushed in ‘Bloody Nose,’ and how they playfully confront and subvert our assumptions of what truth and reality should look like in film,” Vaughn continued. “There’s real life, real scenarios happening in ‘Bloody Nose,’ much of it in real time. It simply exists within a constructed setting. It pushes us to consider what the nonfiction sphere can look like in the most unconventional of ways.”
The Ross brothers, who moved to New Orleans after a stint in Hollywood more than a decade ago, have always been fans of dive bars. Turner says alcohol is “a world we are very familiar with.”
So when they were searching for people to appear in their film, they wanted to find individuals who had real connections to watering holes.
“We’d go up to people, offer to buy them a drink and ask: ‘What does a bar mean to you? Why do you come to a bar? What do you get out of it?’ ” recalled Bill, who said he and Turner spoke with hundreds of potential subjects.
Ultimately, they settled on a motley crew of characters that included a war veteran, a drag queen, a character actor and a truck driver. Right before shooting began, Turner said, he and Bill told them: “You are here for a reason: Because you are you. So however you want to show up to that — whoever you want to bring to that — just come and be yourself within that. And they were incredible.”
Over the course of the 18-hour shoot, “there were certainly nudges here and there,” Bill admitted. “If they got on a topic for way too long, we’d be, like, ‘All right, guys. Let’s move on from that.’ ”
They also had to intervene when a few people got too drunk. At one point, one cast member got so intoxicated that she fell over. “There were a couple of instances where we were like, ‘OK, maybe it’s time to go.’ It made us uncomfortable, so we got them out of there,” said Bill, noting that there was a support crew outside to offer people rides, food and water.
“But at the same time, that’s part of the sincerity of this,” added Turner. “There was a lot that we could have put in the movie that we didn’t. We don’t want to exploit or embarrass anybody. Like, when Pam falls, it’s not a joke. Pam falls down because Pam has had too much to drink. But we’re not there to watch Pam fall down, we’re there to watch Pam get picked up. The bar comes to her rescue and picks her up and makes sure she’s get home. It’s this family they’ve built, and the idea of that.”
If they’d gone to a real bar over the course of a few months, creating a document of a space over time, the filmmakers believe that kind of raw emotion wouldn’t have surfaced. But when they’re asked where their movie fits into the documentary genre, the brothers tense up.
“What is documentary?” Bill said, pausing for a while. “Hoo boy. I don’t know. We never really talk about it.”
“It’s just not really the conversation that I want to have,” Turner said, growing somewhat defensive. “There’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had. Do I want that to be our lead conversation? Absolutely not. I mean, again, that’s just not what I want to get bogged down in — but it is a documentary. There is great truth in this. In a composed scenario like this, perhaps some of it is prescribed, but these are still authentic portrayals of these people by these people, and that’s what’s really interesting to us.”
Sundance obviously shares that perspective. As Vaughn put it: “In a superficial sense, there is obviously fiction in its structure, but to call it a fiction film over a nonfiction film would be to miss out on the main point of their experiment.”