"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Brothers Bill and Turner Ross make documentaries, but that word doesn't quite cover what they're up to. Probably the best way to put it is that their patient, lovingly observed depictions of everyday life feel like movies: The Ross Brothers have a distinctive visual and rhythmic style that charges and complicates the stories they tell. They are both impressionistic artists and deadpan reporters — as if they're documenting the quotidian filtered through a dream.
Their last film, the gorgeous "Tchoupitoulas," which also played at the Little Rock Film Festival, followed three young brothers on a dusk-til-dawn night out in New Orleans. Their latest film, "Western," which plays at 12:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Ron Robinson Theater, depicts a year in the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, during a period of increasing violence from the drug cartels. Mayor Chad Foster and cattleman Martin Wall cut the figures of classic Western archetypes but face modern challenges, as faraway political pressures to tighten the border threaten the way of life in two communities that have long been intertwined.
This being a Ross Brothers film, there's no simple political point or narrative thread. As storytellers, they are drifters, as interested in a snippet of conversation behind a window as high drama at a bullfight. They have an instinct for making quiet moments speak volumes — their heavy lifting is implied. I can't think of anyone in any form doing better observation of life and lives.
I spoke with the Rosses by phone last week. I was drinking coffee; they were drinking beer.
How did y'all end up making a film down on the border?
Turner Ross: We decided on the spur of the moment that we wanted to make a nonfiction Western, really not necessarily even knowing what that meant. I think it comes from this built-in mythology of our own, watching B Westerns with our dad as kids, and also being American boys in a world that has very much embraced that ethos, that look, that cultural backdrop that is the cowboy and the Wild West. It's a genre that speaks to so many things and it can be so many things, so we thought, well, if you go out and seek out the modern iteration of that — the modern frontier, those landscapes, those archetypes, the silhouettes that you expect — what do they look like multidimensional?
Probably the best way to seek out that story and let that story tell itself was to go to the frontier, to go to the borderlands, to go and see those communities and the ways in which they work together. In scouting the border, with so many different iterations of the border towns, we eventually landed in Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras. The communities face each other on the border and visually tell a story — two towns looking at each other across the Rio Grande. That coupled with the fact that their patriarch, Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster, he's celebrated on both sides of the border, he cuts this iconic Gary Cooper-esque figure and wanted to introduce us to that world.
How did you find Chad Foster?
TR: After we found the location and started doing basic research about the region and history, Chad Foster keeps popping up — he's been on [national television], he's testified in front of Congress, he sued the federal government. I said, well, that'd be a good point to start at. This mustachioed man in a cowboy hat who's out there fighting to keep his community from dividing. I cold-called him and he said, "Yeah, come on down."
You say he's out there fighting, but one of the interesting things about the film is that you focus on the mayor, not the sheriff. Bureaucracy (and politics) are both the enemy and the weapon to fight that enemy. For all the allusions to gunslinging and good vs. evil Western tropes, the white-hat hero is mostly fighting bureaucrats in Washington. Chad Foster has true grit, but his core skill is diplomatic rather than violent.
TR: That archetype of the sheriff in the past was someone who was there to be the pillar of his community, to defend his community from change and danger and uphold a way of life. You can't do that in a dusty street with a six-shooter anymore. It turns out it's a guy with a pen and a microphone.
Bill Ross: Generations ago he might have been on the edge of town when the construction crews are trying to come in and standing his ground. But those days are over.
I thought that was a fascinating modern twist on the Western. The obvious thing to do was make an updated Western with drug cartels as the new black-hat villains, but this look at modern cowboy life concludes that the bad guys are far more diffuse. The cowboys in the movie and their way of life are threatened by the drug dealers, but also by the fence and the bureaucrats who would enforce it. The actual cowboy, Martin Wall, who has true grit to spare, is powerless against faraway forces he can't fully reckon.
TR: You can seek out these archetypes and you can find them but they're more multidimensional than the straightforward portrayal might give off. You can have the big brash cowboy but he's vulnerable. Certainly within their own human lives, there is that. But they speak to a greater thing. It's not black hat/white hat, it's not Mexico vs. America, it's not an easy story, there is no right and wrong, there is no truth, there are no answers. It is muddled and gray and it is this liminal world. You're in this place that isn't easily discernible one way or the other.
You document the slice-of-life feeling of everyday life, but the visual language of the film is heavily influenced by classic Western films, B Westerns, maybe horror movies, too. Did that just come naturally out of what you were shooting? Or were you binge-watching Westerns?
BR: I'd say it's a combination. That landscape that you're in, I think, sort of tells you how to shoot it. It's a big, flat landscape. But, of course, it's like Turner was saying, you have those images in your head because you've seen them all your life. Also, we're doing our research and watching countless movies and papering our walls with stills from films. When Chad is standing out at a rodeo, the scene calls for it, but you just sort of know because of everything stored in your head.
TR: We love that aesthetic and those images are great. Certainly we're fond of them and that's part of the impetus. But also, it's called "Western" for a reason. The whole conceit of the film is matters of perspective. You create images, you even give off a title that calls certain things to mind and then you have to confront them and see how you deal with the reality or perceptions. We hope that we've portrayed something that confronts the easiness of these archetypes that we've built. You speak in that visual language, you speak in the language of the genre — because it makes you comfortable and it makes you uncomfortable.
Yeah — it looks like and feels like you're watching a Western, but then a good bulk of the film is presented almost like Frederick Wiseman [the documentary filmmaker famous for his observational style]. Watching real, everyday rhythms within the conceits of the Western genre complicate the ways you think about both.
TR: That's the basic premise. We're presenting something that is usually fictionalized. If you create a Frederick Wiseman world [depicting] the myth of the West, it's no longer myth — it's people's lives. When you start to project these things on actual human characters whose lives had existed prior to the film and exist long after, there are no nice bows you can put on that. It becomes abstract — it becomes something you have to take away and think about by yourself. It's not resolved by the film. It's more of an open-ended thing.
"Western" is programmed as "creative nonfiction" at the LRFF. This is what I love about your work: the way that dreamy impressionism shades your observational reporting. In "Tchoupitoulas" it was a narrative conceit; with "Western" it's the genre frame. It seems like initially you're just showing up and seeing what happens, but are you also thinking about these creative flourishes?
TR: Yeah, it's our mental framework, it's the kind of conversations that we have while we're shooting. It's the backstory, the research, the sort of aesthetic concerns that we use as backdrop for our shooting. It's not a free-for-all — it's always very intentional what we're after. You allow yourself to be present. You've figured out what you're after or how you're going to capture what you're after — and then you go and allow it to speak to you.
BR: But, you know, the approach is the same as the previous two films. It's just as manufactured. With "Tchoupitoulas" it was so heavily constructed that it called attention to itself. The approach is the same: trying to understand a place in the world and trying to understand the people that are in that place.
TR: And letting the story tell itself, being present enough that you allow the story to come to you. We couldn't create these things. As much of a construction as they are, all of these things happened, these people's lives happened, and they gave us the fodder for this stuff.
These are also always creative conversations. We're working within an art form. You can't lose the art of it. It's what makes it interesting and beautiful.
How do these issues play out in terms of your depiction of the violence that happened during that year in that community? The violence from the drug cartels happens in the background in the film.
BR: I think we were doing it in a way that was natural to our feelings and the feelings of the characters. It is this thing that is just outside of your view. You hear about it, you read about it, but maybe you're not experiencing it right up front. So it's this looming fear. We felt that. I remember leaving there after 13 months and I was driving back to New Orleans, and I just felt this weight come off. So I wanted to frame the film like that — this encroaching thing where it was constantly in the back of your head. Our intention was not to infiltrate the cartels but to tell it from the people's perspective. And it's always there but it's not often that it's on your doorstep.
But we did watch a lot of horror movies as well. There are great lessons to be learned. We were watching "The Fog," a film that was the first film that I remember absolutely terrifying me, staying up for a week after seeing it and that film is just about a fog rolling into town.
TR: And actually, I never wanted a payoff at the end of ["The Fog"], it kind of broke my heart when you actually see these red-eyed beings. I loved the tension. It was scarier not knowing, it was scarier not seeing. We were certainly influenced by that kind of thing.
On the opposite spectrum, I was impressed that "Western" managed to depict things that are inherently dull — bureaucracy, political machinations, office work — without becoming a dull film.
BR: Sure, that's certainly another thing while editing. Each scene needs to move. You need to pay your respects to how things actually work. But yeah, that stuff is inherently dull. You do need to see the process and we tried to select scenes that showed how the wheels turn, showed how things function, but also have something else to further the story and make it interesting.
You don't ground your audience in the narrative facts of the case in the way that documentaries typically do. There's not much context. Was that a process that came organically for y'all? Do you ever hear complaints about that?
BR: I recall at Sundance a guy stood up, it wasn't even a question, he just stood up and said, "I could have used some more pie charts in this thing."
TR: Life doesn't usually come at you in pie charts. Which is the way that I describe what we do. We're after capturing this experiential truth the way that you might receive life in a normal way. You don't always know all of the answers, you often just encounter humans and experiences and environments and have something you have to process yourself. We're distilling that [in the film] so an audience can also experience that. I hope we're creating a sort of abbreviated version of an experiential truth.
BR: Those are the films that I like. That you as a viewer have to argue with the film a little bit and do the work and put the pieces together. That's not a knock on films that spoonfeed you along, I can appreciate those films as well, but the films that really stick with you are the ones that you have to paint the picture that you want to see.
TR: If you actually have to interact with it, it becomes a part of your life because you have had to do some thinking or feel something.
Tell me a good story from shooting that didn't make it into the film.
BR: One night, pretty early on — this was when the guys from the ranch were still looking at us like city slickers. To sort of test us they took us out hog hunting one night and they said that we had to kill a hog. They routinely do this — there are these huge boars that fuck up the property and they go out and kill these things. So this was the night that Turner and I had to prove ourselves.
TR: There comes a time ...
BR: I think with everybody that we shoot with, it's not always this dramatic, but there comes a time where they're feeling you out and you have to prove yourself in a way. In this case, it was the middle of the night, and we'd been drinking Coors Light all day with these guys and popping Mexican diet pills, which is basically speed. We're pretty high and the dogs start barking, and that means there's a hog to be killed. And one of the ranch hands gives me this huge knife, and he said, "All right, you gotta get it." So filled with adrenaline (and those other chemicals) I stabbed the thing and killed it.
TR: He ran up into a cactus patch in the middle of the night, with a pack of rabid dogs baying down a 315-pound wild boar.
BR: After that, they were like, all right. By the time the sun starts coming up, we had taken so many pills and had so much adrenaline, we were like, damn, there's no way we can sleep right now. So we went to the one gas station that was open to get more beer. And I walk in there, the woman just cowered behind the counter. I said, "Ma'am are you OK, what's going on?" She said, "please leave, please leave!" I looked at Turner and he's cracking up. Then I put it together: I'm covered in blood. My face is like "Apocalypse Now."
TR: 6:30 in the morning and this fucking dirty-looking bumpkin comes in covered in blood, walks up and asks for beer.
BR: So yeah. She sold us the beer and we kept going.
And Turner, what did you have to do to prove yourself to Martin?
TR: He just couldn't stand my wardrobe. I don't know why it was me, because at the moment I wasn't looking all that shabby, and Bill had the long hair and everything.
BR: Well, you had red leather boots.
TR: I had a pair of red, eelskin boots that were awesome in New Mexico — but that doesn't fly in South Texas, according to Martin Wall. So he said, "Well, Turner, we need to get you a new wardrobe." I said, fine, whatever you need. He had me try on some new shirts and a nice hat for the summer time (he didn't care for my hat, either) and a few pairs of jeans. It's a little different when you're trying on jeans and walking out of the dressing room to a 300-pound steer wrestler in dirty boots saying, "Those look real good on you, Turner, I want a pair of those for myself." He bought me a whole new wardrobe. Everything was kosher after that.
Whatever you were wearing, y'all were down there 13 months — it seems like you managed to get to know folks well enough that they were comfortable with you doing such close observations of their lives.
TR: It's being honest. You don't usually have to stab the hog. Those things are exciting, but really it's being honest right off the bat. What you're going to do and what you're not going to do and actually following by that. You start getting skivvy on some of that shit, you lose it. The truth is we're not fake. We show up and we tell people the truth of our situation and stick by it. We're there to be enamored by people, and we are always so humbled by the fact that people welcome us into their lives. We try to be good company when we're there.
You're shooting a new project with David Byrne, kind of a concert film, how's that going?
BR: We're in the thick of it; it's going very, very well. It will be our shortest shoot but our most active; we're flying all over the place, shooting every day.
TR: It's definitely our biggest production and our shortest production. It will be weird, but I think it's of a piece — it's definitely one of our movies.
That was the deal, right? Y'all would do your Ross Brothers thing?
TR: We weren't going to do it if it wasn't that way.
BR: And I think it's cool, the approach is similar, just in a smaller space. Cameras will be all over the place and it will be this huge cast of characters. So, it's like boiling down a city into an arena.
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