Bill and Turner Ross on ‘Western’ and Documenting the Modern Frontier

Ross Brothers for Western

With Les Blank gone, I now consider Bill Ross and Turner Ross to be our finest documentarians of Americana, albeit in a style all their own. First they gave us 45365, a small-town symphony depicting a kind of portrait of the everyday in an anyplace. Tchoupitoulas followed with a more character-driven tour of the sights and sounds of New Orleans at night through the eyes of three young boys. Next was the Twain-evoking houseboat-on-the-Mississippi journey of River.

And now their latest, Western, takes on the classic titular movie genre but as a verite look at a U.S./Mexico border town with modern versions of archetypal characters. Ahead of the film’s premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking, I interviewed the Ross brothers via email. Here is the correspondence in full:

Nonfics: What brought you to make a film of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras? Was it the appeal of the Rio Grande (seriously, you guys love rivers)?

The Ross Brothers: We set out to make a non-fiction Western — a portrait of the modern frontier. The Rio Grande, as a physical and visual boundary, gave context to those themes. We scouted the region — up and down the river — seeking out the idea of a place and eventually landed in a town that held the elements, people and things we thought we were looking for. The border region is a world unto itself — not America, not Mexico, but a liminal place with it’s own unique culture and history.

It’s been five years since you shot the film. Did you ever worry that the material would become dated by the time you finished (it’s not), especially with dateable events like the death of Mayor Maldonado?

No. What we’re after, and what we hope we convey, is a story of universal truths and characters told through a lens of specificity. So while it documents a time and place and the effects of contemporary issues, it’s equally invested in perceptions, archetypes, mythology, genre and much of the lore that gives context to the modern frontier.

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Do you expect this to be viewed as a more political work for you guys? And did any criticisms about the lack of address of issues in Tchoupitoulas bring any concern while finishing this?

Our hope is that an immersive experience allows people to draw their own conclusions about the people and places we document.

Because there are two of you, did you ever split and film events simultaneously, one with each of your main characters?

We approach the creative process as one unit. It is a collaboration in its entirety. We both shoot, so we’re able to react to the needs of the situation.

Kyle Rouse has been with you guys on all your films, but with a credit of “the muscle” it makes it sound like you needed a bodyguard on this one. Can you clarify what he does and whether you ever did feel the need for protection (I’m not clear if you guys did much shooting in Mexico so that’s another part of the question, I guess)?

We like to surround ourselves with the people we love, trust and respect. When we work we often bring on collaborators to share in the experience. The Muscle is a man of many talents, but most of all he’s there for support — whatever that may mean.

Did you record all the news reports and radio material as it was broadcast or did you go back to procure it as archival material for context purposes?

We recorded the radio material as it came in. Just picking up the pieces as they happened.

You have another young character in the film. Do you prefer to work with children? And having been on movie sets involving child actors, do you think the rule about the difficulty of working with children in film is the opposite for docs than fiction films?

It doesn’t hurt to have a cute kid running around saying cute things.

This interview was originally published as part of our Sundance Film Festival on February 1, 2015.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.