Perspectives: Filmmaker Bill Ross’s reconstruction of reality

Editor’s Note: For our “Perspectives” series, which talks with New Orleans-based journalists, pod-casters, documentarians, and photojournalists about their place and role in the journalistic world, Renee Peck was interviewed by Talia Abed. Talia and  Renee discussed Renee’s work as a journalist and editor at the Times-Picayune and how that led her to co-creating the arts and culture publication, NolaVie.  

Bill Ross, filmmaker (Photo by: Jess Pinkham)

Who: Bill Ross

What: New Orleans Filmmaker

Quotable Quote:When I am doing something it is me representing myself, and I am going to be completely honest with this person who I am following because that is all I have to give them. I am in their life if they allow me because I am curious about their existence and their story.” – Bill Ross


Q: How do you begin to create your story or narrative for a film or documentary?

BR: Each time it is a new experience. Basically, it’s me and my brother, and together we usually come up with images that we want to see, or haven’t seen, or want to create, or get excited about, or certain people we could even be spending time with because filming has always been such an investment (like living somewhere for a long time). We get excited about place first and foremost. Then we exist in that place and try to understand it. The only time we have ever made a film that is inherently our own story — even though it is not about us, but it is about the place from which we come from —  was our first film –45365.

Overall, we  try to be as present as we possibly can, and then certain narratives and story lines start to emerge. You get introduced to certain people that take you on these wild tangents that you never could have even imagined. That’s why we do it. Everyday is completely different.

In college, I got very bored very quickly making fiction films, even though I did enjoy that process. It is just so slow. A lot of my friends make fiction films, and it is just excruciatingly boring to go and visit them on set. With the films we make, everyday is different, and you don’t know what day is going to lead where. All of a sudden you’re at a barbecue talking to somebody, and they say, ‘Well, let me show you my piece of the world,’ and you hop in their car, and you’re off for three days with somebody you never otherwise would have met.

Up until now, we have done that – find a place and go live there. We go in with this broad-net approach of our own ideas of using certain visuals, but ultimately you are writing a story that you know will not end up being the story you are going to tell. So if your script involves two middle-aged folks who are fishermen, you go hang out at a dock and look for those folks and start chatting people up. It is not without a very big consideration ahead of time, and then you just have to be free and open to what any day may bring because that’s the better story. You just follow all of the shiny things as they come.

Q: When you are filming and you have these certain stories or visuals that you want to transform and see on camera through non-fiction film-making, do you ever encounter difficulties translating your visual content (in person) to the big screen?

BR: Sure, but you are never actually that tied to a story because you can only take what is being presented to you. I mean, yes, we do make non-fiction films for the most part, that is also not without vast amounts of restructuring and editing. You take the world as it comes to you, but you are very much reconstructing the reality that you have captured. But if you try to force something too hard into a certain box, that is when films start to feel weird in the stomach. You get this sensation of, ‘How is this actually happening here.’ Those are the worst kinds of films to me — where somebody had an agenda and perhaps the world didn’t present itself to meet their politics or worldview, but they still force it that way anyways. That is bad film-making, or rather just being a terrible person.

Q: When you are making your own films are there particular themes or stories you look for?

BR: We try to always be different because I want to continue to learn and be a curious person in this world. New experiences are sought out. Now, I was thinking about this the other day, certain themes have popped up as you consider your work as a whole. We’ve been professionally doing this for over ten years — previous to that we had gone to film school and made just stuff for fun. Right now we are working on a movie about a bar that is closing, and I thought to myself that all of our films are sort of melancholic and all about some sort of ending. I don’t know what that means, but there is a certain sadness around all of our work. Which is okay. I like that feeling.

Q: When you are following your subjects and other people you work with, how do you take notes or organize information? Do you think there are ways journalists and filmmakers can be invasive in gathering information?

BR: Yes, certainly. When I am doing something, it is me representing myself, and I am going to be completely honest with this person who I am following because that is all I have to give them. I am in their life if they allow me because I am curious about their existence and their story. We try to have the lightest footprint as possible, and it is a very easy way of film-making — just going with the flow. I don’t like to piss people off, and people see that. Often, they think,  ‘Oh, these two brothers are cool to have around.’ I definitely have seen a different approach, but I think we get very good material because of the way we go about things.

I’m the editor, so I’m  constantly editing in my head what we’re shooting. For instance, these two guys right here [points to men passing along the sidewalk], let’s say we’re shooting with them, and they keep coming back to this building because we’re curious about shooting it. Say the first day we just follow them walking here. Now, my brother and I both shoot, so we have the added bonus of having coverage of stuff, which is helpful, and we digitize footage at the end of every night if we can. So I’ll look at all the footage, so then we can figure out what we need to shoot in order to make a scene work.

The best thing you can have for filming non-fiction is repetition, so if these guys take this tour of this walk a couple times, you can  pick up the cutaways or establishing shots, or you can see how you missed certain parts of certain conversations, so you just sort of gently say things like ‘I heard you talking about this the other day, could you speak about it a bit?’ and then you just cut that part out and put it in elsewhere. So you are sort of manipulating/nudging reality. That is what you’re doing.

Q: How would you describe your cinematographic style opposed to your editorial and directorial style? What styles do you try to emulate in your work?

BR: Like who do I look too… Like who I cheat off of? [Laughs]. Well that is a big gumbo there; there are just all of these different things mixed in a pot and thrown around. I take inspiration from a few artists, and then for each project there is a bank of references that we really want to emulate in a way.

Robert Altman is a big influence on me; Les Blank is a big influence on me; Claire Denis is a French filmmaker who is also a big reference; Frederick Wiseman, but that is just mostly for visual vocabulary. The inspiration to get up and do it everyday is the same as when I was a little kid — it is really fun to just play with footage, and it is still fun for me today. It is hard, and it got harder for me, because now you know that people are actually going to watch what you create instead of you just  fucking around in your bedroom. But it’s still inspiring to me and fun. It is is still a hobby, even though it is my job.

Q: Out of your own projects what are your favorite ones you have done or been a part of?

BR: The answer is always the current one because you have to believe so psychotically in what you are doing because if you slow down and think about what you are doing and how much work and sacrifice it takes, you would just collapse in terror. So I am deeply in love with what I am doing currently. Out of our own projects, we have different relationships. They were all good and hard and filled with love, but they’re just different. There are highlights throughout, working with other people (even not on our own stuff) — like helping out buddies making their work. I don’t have a favorite, but it’s a continued experience. I’m never trying to be bored over here.

Q: Is there one in particular project that has shaped your creative processes most?

BR: The first one. We had to develop how to do it because, you know, we didn’t know. There are very few people to look to.

Q: When you finish a project, what is your ultimate goal? Is it just the completion of the process or is there a journalistic, social goal?

BR: The ultimate goal is to see the crazy idea you had come to completion. And to bring something together that is unique and that you are proud of. It’s also that you got to have this great experience with your brother (in my case) and go on adventures in order to make it. That is the joy in the whole thing. Obviously you want the films to come out and be wildly successful, but in the world of art-house documentary, there is sort of a ceiling to that. But, if it does well, the possibility of you getting to do it again or finding financing again drastically improves. That means not only critical praise but hopefully the movies make some sort of money so you can point to potential investors and say, ‘See, it is possible I could get you your money back. Unlikely, but possible.’

Q: How do you define the world “alternative” and how do you see your work fitting or not fitting the definition/categorization of your work as alternative media?

BR: I guess this is why people always ask us, ‘When are you going to make a real movie?’ [Laughs]. I always say ‘What do you mean by that?’ and they respond, ‘one with actors and stuff.’ So I think with the perception that people have when you say you make movies, people think you make Steven Spielberg type work. I see our approach as completely normal to me, but I guess if my mom didn’t know me and my mom saw what I did, I think she would say, ‘Well that was different. That was sort of an alternative movie.’ [Laughs]. But I don’t think of it as that. It’s simply what I do and what I love. 

This interview was completed for the class Alternative Journalism, a course taught by Kelley Crawford at Tulane University. The interview has been edited and configured for publication.


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