Filmmaker Bill Ross Talks His Extraordinary New Documentary ‘Tchoupitoulas’

There’s a poetic sense of wonder that comes with being a kid and looking at the world as a guarded place you can touch but not quite enter. What’s behind closed doors and lurking in the shadows evokes a sense of mystery and adds a deliciousness to life that gets lost in the wake of the inevitable cynicism brought on by adulthood. But with their sophomore effort, Tchoupitoulas, filmmaker siblings, Bill and Turner Ross, set out to capture those "ghosts of youth."

The lyrical documentary follows three young brothers as they experience one vibrant night in New Orleans—taking in the sights, sounds, and textures of a world that almost feels lost in time. Watching the film feels as though you’re travelling right beside them, silently observing their world and getting lost in the ephemeral magic of the night. The Ross brothers’ style of filmmaking allows you to truly immerse yourself in the colors of the night through the eyes of these boys as an intoxicating sense of intrigue pervades streets. We caught up with Bill Ross to discuss the adventures of documentary filmmaking, seeing the world through a kid’s perspective, and what they set out to capture.

So are films something you’ve always been interested making?
Well, my brothers and I grew up splitting time between Ohio and New Orleans and we sort of always had my mom’s VHS camera around. We were making, like, war epics in the backyard and photographing people around town, certain things that jumped out to us. And in a way, we’re not doing things too much differently than when we were eight years old. We kept with it and eventually it was like, well, why don’t we take this seriously? And that’s about the time we stared really talking about the last film, 45365.

Your films really feel like they’re about capturing moments; how did you approach filmmaking at first?
We were sort of all over the place. Like I said, we were making war epics but also filming our friends and you know, the weird guy in the downtown square. We were always making things, whether they were fictional or docs or shorts, and we continued to do that. Then I went to film school at SCAD and we went down there and we were always making stuff. We knew since we were young that at some point we wanted to speak to the feelings of growing up in both Ohio and New Orleans and the conversation was always how to best articulate that. So it went from writing stories, to dramatizing it, and after a while that all seemed phony in a wa—like that place is there, let’s go back and discover what it really is. And so that led to that and the process was so fun and interesting; it was a real adventure. It allows us to go on these adventures and really like absorb the environment we’re in and connect with the people in those locations.

One of the great things about being someone who makes films like this, in this medium, you’re able to have those adventures and play and it’s not so much about the planning and exactly what the definition of it is, it’s more about exploring. It felt very open to that. How much direction did you have with the boys?
We were planning on spending a year down there for the most part. We knew we were going to stay up every night and shoot whatever was going on but we wanted to tell a kid’s story from the start. So we were always on the lookout for a group of kids that we could see the city through. And so for seven months we would talk to kids but they weren’t right, and after a few months it became very frustrating and we were sort of looking at each other like, were we stupid to think that we would just stumble upon something like this? But then William literally walked right past us and it took a couple seconds after hearing them back and forth to one another that we wanted them in the film.

What was it about them? Was it just the dynamic between them?
Yeah, you know, three brothers much like it is in the film them shoving William to the back and William just having this conversation with himself.

I loved William because he was the perfect example of that sense of freedom in being a kid and just asking a million questions and saying whatever you want and being open to wonder.
We caught him at just the right age. He hadn’t gotten that great spirit that gets kicked out of us when we turn into teenagers. It was still there. But as far as direction, after they said yes, I believe it was the same day they headed across and we simply just followed. Probably the only direction we would give them was if they would sit and fight on a street corner for too long we’d be like, okay guys let’s go do something, let’s move on. But for the most part, it was just wandering with them, just the five of us strolling around. Most of what you see in the film is just the one big night but they had so much fun that they would call us back and ask when we were going to make Tchoupitoulas 2, just wanting to shoot more.

Did you spend a lot of time down there without them just capturing the essence of the place—sights and sounds.
Yeah, I mean that was going to happen whether we found them or not, building that landscape. So that hopefully if we did find the right group of kids we could build that environment so that anywhere they want, anything they looked at, we would have this bank of imagery to work with. And everyone you see in the film, we spent months and months with those folks, just getting the right moments. Each one of them could easily have their own short film. It was every night for about nine months.

It felt very sort of dream-like, about feelings over some sort of statement or message.
Yeah, I think going into it we wanted to address leftover feelings of us being kids down there and the ghosts that stick with you. It’s place when you’re a kid that everything is off limits so you’re forced to use your imagination when you walk down the street and what’s behind those curtains. It’s like Pinnochio goes to Pleasure Island. But like you don’t get to do any of the stuff. You have to use your imagination but in this film we wanted to be able to see behind the curtain. Sort of creating this dram fantasy thing, the feeling we all still had of when we were there when we were younger.

Did they have any reservations about being in the film at first?
When we first walked up to them they were all very, very excited but the two oldest had the stipulation that William couldn’t be in it because he was too annoying. So they said they would gladly be in it but only if William wasn’t. So we said okay and started filming them and William’s ten yards behind running his mouth and after 10, 20 minutes of that I was like, this man can no longer be ignored. So I talked them into letting him be it. Immediately we could have easily not been there and they would have carried on as they did and they stopped paying attention to us pretty quickly.

In terms of aesthetically how the film looked, did you want it to be a certain style?
There’s something about New Orleans where it almost seems because of the part of the world it’s in and how old it is, it almost seems like it’s purgatorial, in a way. There are these ghosts and there are lights that hit a certain way. It’s kind of hard to define but I wanted the camera to swirl a bit and get caught up in these things and hopefully capture the shadows in the way that I found shadows full of mystery when I was a kid. I don’t know how you shoot that but that was what was going through my head. The swirling lights, the darkness, so yeah, we were certainly talking about that a lot as we were shooting.

What did the boys think when they saw the film?
I always get nervous when I show these films to the people that agreed to be in them. I want them to love them as much as I do and I thought the boys might get into it. I would show them scenes every once in a while when I was editing and they were pretty fascinated by it but the reaction when we had our New Orleans premiere was pretty wild. The middle brother, Brian, brought his girlfriend and then essentially just conducted the entire Q&A. So Turner and I didn’t say anything; he was just so excited and wanted to show off for his girlfriend, and William was being mobbed by women, which was hilarious to watch. It was a very satisfying thing. I see those guys pretty recently living down there.

We there any sort of people or places you’d come across while shooting that you found interesting or places that wanted to revisit?
Yeah, there’s some friends in there from when we were little that were in our first version of the movie that we made when we were like ten and have remained close to since then. One of them is Thomas Stuart, he’s the oyster shucker; he’s been a lifelong friend. A lot of great people got cut out unfortunately, but that’s just the way it goes.

And did you have any filmmakers work that you looked to?
We weren’t familiar with these films going into it, but when we were telling people about this particular film, people recommended some films to us and one was Morris Engel’s The Little Fugitive, which we watched during the middle of the shoot. It was not only one of the best films ever made, it showed us that this in a way had been done and it was doable. We pull from everything really and threw it in the pot and mixed it up. For this one I think we pulled from a lot of music and the structure of the New Orleans music we were familiar with. Just the idea of trying to recapture the ghosts of youth.

Tchoupitoulas opens at IFC Center on Friday, December 7th.