Western will be the third film in a row that Bill Ross (B.F.A., video/film, 2003) and Turner Ross (B.F.A., painting, 2003) have shown at SXSW, part of an acclaimed series of documentaries about the American experience that also includes the films 45365 and Tchoupitoulas. This trip to Austin is particularly meaningful to the team given that they spent more than a year in Texas shooting Western, which explores the relationships of residents in the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. We caught up with them soon after they returned from Sundance, where Western won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking.
SCAD: Congratulations on the success of Western. How did this film get made?
Bill Ross (BR): We scouted the border through New Mexico and Texas, looking for a place of visual resonance and cultural significance. Once we ran into the mayor of Eagle Pass we knew we had to stay. We got a dumpy apartment and didn't leave for 13 months. We got by. Logistically, we had to release Tchoupitoulas before we could dig into Western, so a bit of time did pass in the interim. That, and we had to create what we envisioned as a non-fiction western. It took its time, and we do things our own way.
SCAD: When did you know that you had a story?
We went in looking to explore what the modern frontier looks like, hoping just to observe without any sort of agenda. Once the cartels shook things up, though, it was unavoidable. That steered so many of the lives that we had been following. -Bill Ross
SCAD: Do you ever disagree on how to tell a story?
BR: How to tell it? Not really. The story comes together in the edit and we go back and forth until we’re happy. It's more of a long-running conversation than any sort of shortsighted argument.
SCAD: How did this film stretch you as filmmakers? What progression can we see from 45365, Tchoupitoulas, River and Western?
BR: Each one has developed its own character and set of rules. While we hope they are all recognizable as a body of work, they all have their own personality. Western asked for much more attention to the progression of the characters’ feelings and movements as things unfolded. We had to focus more on story elements and the trappings of genre. That said: we have a base approach that we bring to every shoot, though the aesthetic choices and motivations always differ.
SCAD: What’s your favorite scene that didn’t make the cut?
BR: With hundreds of hours of footage your heart gets broken a lot. There are full characters and storylines that get dropped and those are people and life experiences that you adored. I’ll just throw one out. Our rancher Martin and his cowhand J.W. were out hunting when they were attacked by bees. A very long chase ensued and Turner really covered it well. It would have been a great laugh for the film but it didn’t end up making sense.
SCAD: What did working with fellow SCAD alumni lend to your film?
BR: On the ground shooting our films it’s mostly Turner and me, but we often have fellow SCAD Bees show up and we hand them a camera. It’s in post that the team really pulls together. The core crew we had at SCAD all moved out to LA together, for the most part. Everyone started out with entry-level jobs and now find themselves in some pretty nice spots. They take breaks from their big-time stuff to help finish our films. This is one of my favorite parts because it feels a lot like college. Staying up all night and hustling to reach deadlines with your buddies.
SCAD: What are you looking forward to about returning to SXSW? How do you get business done there?
SX threw us into the world, so it’s great to get to go back. Being close to Eagle Pass gives us an opportunity to share the film with a lot of people we shot with. That’s what we're most excited about. -Bill Ross
BR: Business happens everywhere and in many different forms, you just gotta find balance.
SCAD: Do you have advice on the festival circuit for aspiring filmmakers?
BR: Treat it as a party. Celebrate what you’ve done. The business will come down the line and the people you meet will be the people you make your next film with, but there is also life. Being present is key on all fronts.
SCAD: What’s your take on the status of documentary filmmaking? What trends should we pay attention to?
BR: Laura Poitras. Laura Poitras. Laura Poitras.
SCAD: How did you come across your next project working with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne on Contemporary Color?
BR: He had seen our films and asked for a meeting. It’s working out pretty well. We always use to close down Pinkie Master’s Lounge with ‘This Must Be The Place.’ So it's kind of funny.
SCAD: What filmmakers have you learned the most from?
BR: Robert Altman.
SCAD: What’s your best advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
BR: Learned this one while working at a kitchen on Broughton Street in Savannah: ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’
SCAD: How did SCAD prepare you to become award-winning filmmakers? Turner, how does your degree in painting inform your films?
BR: The access to equipment was big for us and for our buddies.
We were always shooting, regardless of whether there was an assignment or not. The opportunity to get out there and make every mistake possible taught us so much. -Bill Ross
Turner Ross: Our family in college was all film kids, so from early on I got the opportunity to assist in the more creative aspects of their projects. I translated that into art department work on studio features before going for broke with Bill. Theory in painting and theory in film are analogous; it doesn't really matter the medium, it's what's behind it.
SCAD: You’ve said before that your point of view or angle is Americana trilogies. Do you think a filmmaker has to define their point of view to be successful?
BR: We have our mantras, but don’t feel the need to talk about it too loudly outside of that. The work should speak for itself.