Bill Ross on the Making of 'Tchoupitoulas'

From the archives, we interviewed one-half of the Ross brothers about their hit documentary.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

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This interview with Bill Ross on the making of Tchoupitoulas originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on December 6, 2012.

Thanks in part to rave reviews of their debut film, 45365, by Roger Ebert and the New York Times, the fraternal duo of Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross have become major figures within a new generation of artistically minded documentarians. Their new film is Tchoupitoulas, and while it’s an easier title to remember than their last (which was named for the zip code of the Ohio town they captured) it’s harder to pronounce. And while talking to Bill earlier this week, I did need to be corrected. It’s CHOP-it-tool-us, not CHOOP-it-tool-us.

Without his co-director joining us, the single Ross brother discussed with me the many months of shooting the new doc, which shows a portrait and tour of New Orleans by way of an all-night adventure of three kids, and the painstaking post-production process of raising money for music licensing and tracking down people to acquire the permission to film them long after the fact.

Documentary Channel Blog: Was your original intention for this film to be another portrait of a place, this time New Orleans? Did you approach it similarly to how you made 45365?

Bill Ross: After 45365, we got very weirded out by how much people liked it. We thought it was some sort of fluke and kind of scary. So, we immediately dove into another project and stopped going to film festivals. It was a similar approach to 45365. We wanted to spend a year down there and really immerse ourselves in what was going on. We wanted to speak to the feelings that were still lingering around from our childhood experiences there. We wanted to see the city through kids, which was a little presumptuous of us. Going into it thinking we would just stumble upon kids out exploring the city. After seven months of being out all night every night shooting, hoping we would run into these kids, we started looking at each other and realized we might have been foolish. Luckily, one day just by chance those kids walk past us. It worked out.

So it was already an idea to follow some kids around the city? You already wanted that to be the film?

Yeah. We wanted it to be like the experience we had when we were their age. But after months and months, I kept looking at Turner and saying, “Maybe we don’t really have a movie here. Maybe we should rethink this.” We got pretty lucky.

Well, couldn’t it still have been another sort of city symphony, portrait of a location sort of film where it’s more about the place than the characters?

These films are sort of an extension of what Turner and I have always done since we were little. I don’t know why, it was us being fascinated by whatever is going on around us and wanting to capture that in some way. Even as little kids, we’d go around Sidney, where we shot the Ohio film. And in New Orleans as well, we sort of already made this when we were little. We didn’t show them to anyone, but we were always running around shooting people we found interesting or locations and stuff like that. We just kept doing it, and I like to think we’re getting better at it.

Are you guys fans of the old city films?

Certainly. I’m sure in some ways we’re pulling inspiration from them. But I think we came to film quite naturally and then we started to see those films and see that if we could actually pull something like that off maybe people would watch it. I love those films.

You could also view this film as a sort of travelogue of these kids’ experience, or a virtual tour. I felt so immersed in the movie that I felt like I was a part of it; like I actually just took a trip to New Orleans. I can imagine that if you’ve never been, this is probably one of the best examples of being able to watch a film and feel like you went there.

That’s certainly the hope. We’re trying to evoke the feeling of a place. It sort of depends on who you ask. Some people think we get it right; some people think we get it wrong. We try to be true to our gut feeling of a place and try to make that come through.

I can also see some people thinking it makes them want to go there and some people thinking it looks like a scary place.

We were just in Italy showing the film and during a Q&A a woman said, “For a city that’s renowned for all the joy and happiness of life, this film brings me no joy and happiness.”

Do you think of the audience when making a film like this or is it mostly about your artistic expression?

I think these are certainly for ourselves. This is a conversation between Turner and me of getting those images and feelings of a certain time in our life out. And processing the feelings. They’re for us.

Will your next film be another portrait of a place? Or have you become more interested in following characters around?

The next one, we already shot it. It was a very similar approach to the first two. We were in a place for a year, and whatever is happening, we would follow and see what’s most interesting. Shoot a lot of pictures and see what shakes out in the edit. This one might be a mix of where you’re still looking around a place, but unlike the Ohio film, it might be a little bit more character-driven, but not as much as Tchoupitoulas.

I heard most of the footage of the boys in the film was in fact shot all in one night. That seems hard to believe, if only because so many docs meant to take place in one day are actually shot over a long period of time.

The majority of it is their one big night. Then they had such a good time and wonderful experience that they would call us up and ask when we were going to shoot Tchoupitoulas 2. They would have ideas and would call anytime we were going to go over and wanted to film again. There are pieces here and there from other nights, but the bulk of it is one big evening with them.

So did you have to make William wear the same shirt, for continuity?

Actually, he’s always wearing the same shirt because he thought he looked good in it. The other two guys, their shirts change here and there through the film. We never asked them to wear anything in particular. William just thought he looked really sharp in that shirt.

During those seven months before you met the boys, were you shooting everything to be able to connect with the boys’ narrative? There are the shots where William is looking at the burlesque house and then you cut to burlesque shows that you obviously shot at another point. Or did that mostly come about in the editing?

No, that was the intention. We were trying to film a landscape so that if we did find kids to take us through that environment, we would have imagery that would fill in their experience. There’s an awful lot of stuff in there. Anybody you cut to besides the kids, they could certainly have their own film as well.

I heard that you had filmed so much of one of the homeless guys that you could have made the film about him.

You could say the same about any of them. Some Sunday when I’m old and don’t feel like shooting anymore, I’ll make short films out of all the stuff we’ve got.

Were you guys so caught up in the adventure and feeling like you’re a part of these boys’ night that you didn’t worry about either entering the abandoned boat or any other trouble that might have come about?

We were responsible for them. Their parents knew we were with them, so in a way, we’re babysitting and filming at the same time. We never got into a situation where I thought, “Okay, let’s put the brakes on that idea.” The boat, yes, I can see that there might be a concern with that but in the moment it felt fun and exciting. I had heard of people going on there before and having parties on there, so I knew it was a huge concern. There were definitely five kids on that journey, and two of them had cameras. We were all together and had a good time.

One thing I love about the film is how it mixes a magical, childlike wonder and young person’s perspective with a city that I think of as being so old and adult. The French Quarter at night just doesn’t seem like a kid-friendly place, so to see it all through their eyes is jarring yet very fascinating. Was that part of the idea you had for the film?

It’s sort of like Pinocchio going to Pleasure Island. These are things that, growing up in Ohio, you don’t see or experience. Your imagination starts going very wild. You walk past a strip club and wonder what’s going on in there. It’s like a tease of what’s to come in your adult life. “I have all these things to look forward to.” I think that comes through with the kids in a way that we knew as well.

William is such a fun character because he’s conscious of the dancers and all that adult stuff, but at the same time, he talks in a very childlike, fantastical way, like when he talks about how he wants to be able to fly.

He was just the right age, when you’re aware of what’s going on but also naive. Your wonderment about the world has not been beaten out of you yet.

After finishing and showing the film at festivals, you had to do some crowdfunding to pay for music rights. How did all that get figured out? Did you have to pay all the performers or just pay for the rights to the songs they play in the film?

We hired a music supervisor to identify what was playing in a bar, or if the song was being played by musicians on the street. He identified what every song was, who performed the song, and who wrote the song and determined whether we had fair use or if the song was the focus and we had to pay for it. After he did all that and gave us the bill, we realized that we had a lot of money to raise in order to have a legal film. But we got it all figured, so unlike the last film, it will be able to come out on DVD.

Did you have arrangements with anyone while you were filming? I imagine that a lot of people you filmed, it would be hard to find them at a later point. Because a shoot like this is probably all in the moment, could you handle release agreements?

In a lot of those situations, they were people we were filming for quite a while. So they signed releases. If they were musicians, they would sign off on that if it was their original music. If they were playing covers, then we’d have to go and pay whoever the composer is. Yeah, everyone had to sign releases and give approval.

But in that one main night of shooting the boys, does having to go through that process interrupt the moment?

With the kids, they just went and we followed and never broke to get permission. I went back through the footage and realized if we need to get any signatures, and we went back later and got that stuff. I didn’t want to interrupt whatever the kids were doing to take care of legal crap.

Was it hard to track down some people?

It was not a lot of fun. But it was necessary.

You mentioned the unavailability of your last film, which aired on TV in an abridged form. I wanted to ask about your thoughts on that whole idea. I was pretty disappointed that when I finally got to see it, I wasn’t watching the true finished feature-length version. Does that matter as much to you that the majority of your audience saw it in this shortened form?

Sure it matters. I don’t want to show anything that is not the fully intended version of it. But that does come with quite a bit of money, and that money went into the next film. It’s a difficult situation, but we’re not making a whole lot of money doing what we’re doing, so that paycheck was worth it. I don’t quite understand showing the abridged version when you’re attracted to the thing as it is, but I guess that’s the ballgame we’re playing. If it allows me to go make another one, I’m fine with that.

Re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.