Interview: Turner Ross

It’s a lazy, rainy day in Dallas, Texas and Turner Ross sounds like he couldn’t be happier. With a boisterous and joyful tone mixed with an accent that somehow combines his Ohio upbringing with his current surroundings, Turner is in Dallas for the city’s International Film Festival to showcase the latest documentary made with his brother Bill, Tchoupitoulas (pronounced CHOP-it-oo-lahs), before headed to Toronto with the film for its international premiere at HotDocs.

Following the 2009 SXSW Grand Jury winning 45365 (a verite style look at life in the brothers’ hometown of Dayton, Ohio), Turner and Bill turn their eye for capturing lifestyles to the French Quarter of New Orleans as they follow three kids and their dog on a whirlwind all night trip through the city. It’s a work of beautiful simplicity and a grand adventure that captures the spirit of being a kid in the city; having all of the energy to take on the world, but none of the resources to have the maximum amount of fun.

Turner – who has worked in the art department on several high profile Hollywood productions shot in Louisiana (Déjà Vu, The Skeleton Key) – talked to Dork Shelf about how their latest film found its form, what it was like following these kids around, and the film’s initial struggles to secure the rights to the music used in the film.

Dork Shelf:  How exactly did you find the kids you focused on in this movie?

Turner Ross: You know, it was just a stroke of luck or serendipity. We had already been filming in New Orleans for seven months and just capturing the town and spending all kinds of time with different folks, and we knew that we wanted that particular kind of perspective – that distance from that adult world – but we don’t really cast anything. We’re making these nonfiction films, and we were having that discussion about that topic one afternoon, and then these kids just walked past our porch. (laughs) That dynamic that we wanted was so very apparent that we just kinda chased them down and started filming that same night.

DS: So was the originally a different perspective you were going to take or were you guys originally planning just to create a pastiche of life in the city? Was there always the intent to shape this into something that actually had a through-line to it?

TR: Yeah, we did. It sounds like a very ambient experience, which it is, but there’s a focus to what they’re in. I think one of the driving forces to the film, and why we went down there, is to sort of create and expel from our minds those sense memories of being a kid in that city. You know, that very adult styled “pleasure island.” It’s just a magical city that’s full of ghosts, and colour, and sound. I just remember being a kid and just being there and just being surrounded by all of that. You know, we weren’t able to capture those experiences from when we were kids, but we were able to find surrogates for the experience, while also having this fully immersive period of time where we documented everybody and everything in the hopes of finally creating an environment in which to see that sort of child-like perspective.

DS: The film definitely captures the feeling that you have as a kid going to any city, really, where you see all the bright lights and everything going on and you just want to spend the night there, but when you finally get the chance, you realize it isn’t quite as awesome as you thought it would be.

TR: Yeah! And it’s a lot of things, really. You know, everyone has their own experience in New Orleans and those kids had theirs and they were sharing that, but it’s also sort of our experience, too. Finding those kids sort of close to the end of the shoot and having lived in the city as an adult and filming all these things that were kind of seedy, adult things, having those kids and seeing the city in a whole different way was amazing. We finally had that sense of youth, and wonder, and curiosity that helped us to see things in a different way. It really magnified what the film needed to be.

DS: Now you have worked on several high profile films shot in and around New Orleans in the art department. Was that something that made you want to go back there as part of your long term love affair with the city? It seems like the kind of place where you can look around and see how doing your own thing would be a lot more fulfilling.

TR: Well there’s a lot of topics in there, actually. One, we have a real affinity for that place. We’ve been going there since we were kids, and it was the first place where I was ever able to get a job in the film business, and Billy lives there now. You know, we actually did make a documentary down there when we were, like, twelve years old. (laughs) We found this in a box filled with all these old movies we had just last year. It was great to look back like that, when we weren’t taking ourselves seriously – and I’m not sure we still do.

Second, Bill was working as an editor and I was working, as you said in the art department and production type jobs, and there came a time when we just looked at each other and wondered why we should be wasting our youth and our enthusiasm working for other people’s projects when we could at least be out there and giving it a shot to do our own thing. That’s what resulted with the film that we shot in Ohio in our hometown, and that’s something that’s not really different than what we’ve been doing our entire lives. We took the initiative to go out there and create something full and articulate to share just to see how it went, and its great to have people embrace that and to become a part of the dialog.

DS: The kids in the film are extremely animated. Was it really a situation where you could just turn on the camera and just run with them, and how did you decide what was kept in the film from their interactions.

TR: Oh my God, it’s just heartbreaking to think about all the stuff that didn’t make it into the film, but nobody wants to watch between fifty to three hundred hours – which is what we actually shot. But those boys, they just needed someone to listen to them, and if you do listen, that’s what happens. It was magical. I think it was a great thing to capture them in this particular moment of their lives. Now, they’ve grown up and definitely become different people at this point in time, but then we were there to be able to listen and just capture whatever that “thing” was.

And William, whenever he speaks in the film… that’s just who William is. That’s just him articulating his thoughts. We recorded it a couple of different ways where it was just William walking around and just talking. He just offers his thoughts out loud. Sometimes we would just hang out with him and just let him have a conversation with us, and he just comes up with these almost magical thoughts. It became so damn obvious that he needed to be our voice.

DS: Were you guys ever stopped or asked why you were filming these kids all throughout the night?

TR: Oh, I’m sure we were. I mean, you have all sorts of interactions when you put yourself out there like that. We spent eight months staying out on the town all night like that, and there were only actually several nights that we spent with those boys. The movie is structured around a primary night that we spent with them, but any time they wanted to hang out with us they would just call us up and say “Let’s go make a movie!” We would capture other subtle things that we missed on that first go around, but the majority of the experience was us doing other things. For about every ten seconds of someone else in the film, there’s probably weeks and weeks of filming. You know, every musician and every short conversation could branch off into its own film in some ways. There’s plenty of people that we talked to that never made it into the film, but this was the film that needed to be made.

DS: I really wanted to ask you about a point in the film where the kids all visit this abandoned shipyard and they go aboard this dilapidated riverboat. Was that something you were scared about filming at all?

TR: Oh man! That was amazing! It was like Scooby-Doo aboard the old Mississippi Queen abandoned down by the river! I’m not going to interject in that. (laughs) After those kids had their own time on there, Billy and myself would go back there all the time. It’s this big, grand abandoned boat with all the chandeliers still on it. I was just as fascinated as they were. Probably a little scared, too. (laughs) It was HIGHLY illegal and I’m glad that we didn’t get those boys in trouble.

DS: You guys actually started a fundraising campaign to pay to secure the music rights for the film in order for it to be released the way you wanted it to be seen. How has that been going for you?

TR: We we’re doing that. It’s ongoing and you can still donate to us through the San Francisco Film Society, but our Kickstarter campaign was hugely successful; jaw-droppingly so. It was something that I approached with a great amount of trepidation. I really didn’t want to be out there asking for handouts, but it was a very necessary thing to get this film out there the way it needs to be. We appealed to the believers out there, and we just knocked it out of the park. I was extremely humbled by that. But, you know, man, I don’t want to ever have to rely on it. It’s something that we only really want to hit up once. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it at the time, but after having done it, that was a great opportunity. There’s a forum there for you to put yourself out there and realize that the masses speak. And most of the donations for these types of things are small donations. Tons and tons of really small donations, which is a really positive experience. We have the money to pay for the film now. We don’t make money doing what we’re doing, but to know that we will be in the clear and that this is going to be okay is great. It’s also helped us to firm up relationships with potential financiers and institutions who can kind of help us avoid these types of situations in the future.

Tchopitoulas screens at the HotDocs International Documentary Festival:

Saturday, April 28th, 9:45pm, Lightbox 2

Monday, April 30th, 4:00pm, Isabel Bader

Saturday, May 5th, 10:00pm, Lightbox 3

For tickets and more information, please visit hotdocs.ca.

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