Film by Bill and Turner Ross competed at Sundance as a documentary but it straddles line between fiction and nonfiction
One of the most remarkable "documentaries" of the year isn't really a documentary at all, at least by traditional standards.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, takes place in a Las Vegas dive bar called the Roaring 20s. It's closing down forever and on its final day in business, hard-drinking patrons must come to terms with what the place means to them--perhaps the only place where they feel understood or welcome.
Here's the thing, though--there is no Roaring 20s bar in Vegas. The film was shot in New Orleans at a bar of that name, and the characters in it were found through a selection process more typical of a Hollywood production.
"It's a collection of people that we met throughout our lives, as well as a lot of bar casting," Bill Turner explains in an interview included in press notes for the film. "We went around to I don't know how many bars here in New Orleans."
Adds Turner Ross, "We did a dozen casting sessions. We just sat and talked to people and we got about half the bar through that."
It can just be a portrait, it can be a hangout movie, it can be an essay on the zeitgeist of contemporary America, it can be a movie about alcoholism, about pipe dreams like The Iceman Cometh.
This filmmaking approach wouldn't qualify as out of the ordinary, except the Sundance Film Festival, where Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets premiered, placed the film in U.S. Documentary Competition.
The catalogue description written by Sundance programmers offered next to no hint about the nature of the film, short of what appears, in retrospect, as a cryptic reference to its "premise."
"In the shadows of the bright lights of Las Vegas, it's last call for a beloved dive bar known as the Roaring 20s," the Sundance program read. "Its regulars, a cross section of American life, form a community—tight-knit yet forged in happenstance, teetering between dignity and debauchery, reckoning with the past as they face an uncertain future. That’s the premise, at least; the reality is as unreal as the world they're escaping from."
According to a piece in the LA Times, it wasn't the Ross Brothers' idea to submit the film as a documentary. They were "petitioned" to do it by Sundance programmers.
"We said, 'OK, if this is what you want to do, let’s have a conversation about what we actually did here, because we’re not gonna lie about anything. That’s bull---- and gets in the way of what we’re trying to do,'" Turner told the LA Times.
Sundance programmer Harry Vaughn explained to the Times why the festival chose to categorize the film as a documentary.
“[I]t constructs situations in order to invite a level of chaos and candor that feels more fitting for the nonfiction space," Vaughn is quoted as saying. ”We were fascinated by the boundaries they pushed in ‘Bloody Nose,’ and how they playfully confront and subvert our assumptions of what truth and reality should look like in film... There’s real life, real scenarios happening in ‘Bloody Nose,’ much of it in real time. It simply exists within a constructed setting. It pushes us to consider what the nonfiction sphere can look like in the most unconventional of ways.”
Over two weeks ago I asked the Sundance press office for a statement on the decision to program the film as a documentary; I have yet to receive official comment.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was released this weekend in virtual theaters (meaning the public can see it), first through Film at Lincoln Center then "followed by BAM, Laemmle, and Nationwide via Alamo Drafthouse and others," according to the film's PR team [more information available at Altavod]. A series of one-day only screenings on July 8 benefitted the United States Bar Guild Foundation's "Bartender Emergency Assistance Program COVID-19 Relief Fund."
It would be a shame if the question of whether the film constitutes a work of fiction or nonfiction were to detract from what it certainly is, in my opinion: a stunning cinematic experience. Rarely in film have viewers been exposed to such an intimate and empathetic portrayal of people for whom drinking is a way of life. To me, it evoked Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, the definitive theatrical exposition of barfly self-delusion. I was therefore amazed at the coincidence, while watching Bloody Nose, to see one of the main characters, Michael, toting around a Library of America copy of O'Neill's collected works. This was before I realized the film was not exactly a documentary. Michael reading O'Neill was no coincidence.
"I saw The Iceman Cometh on Broadway when I was nine years old and it has stuck with me my entire life," Turner told me at Sundance. "That's the way we wanted this film to function, on many levels. It can just be a portrait, it can be a hangout movie, it can be an essay on the zeitgeist of contemporary America, it can be a movie about alcoholism, about pipe dreams like The Iceman Cometh. And that's what really fascinated me, seeing that as a child, well here's this adult world that is ostensibly about these people who drink in a bar but there's so much more going on here. Why are they all in here and why can't they get out? What are they representing? That has always stuck with me."
Fittingly, sometime actor Michael Martin, a key participant in the film, first came to the attention of the Ross Brothers in another O'Neill production. (In one of the film's most striking lines, Michael informs the bar denizens that he waited to become an alcoholic until after he failed at his career).
"I saw him in Long Day's Journey Into Night probably in like 2012 and he stuck with me," Bill recalled. "So when we started discussing this project I immediately thought of him for this. He's a working actor and was willing to go on this ride with us."
The "ride" apparently involved presenting cast members with a general scenario and then letting them take it from there. The Ross's described their approach in a conversation with Eric Hynes, curator of the Museum of the Moving Image, a transcript of which was included in the film's press notes.
"We actually dressed a bar to be what we wanted it to be. But we also choreographed the space," Turner explained to Hynes. "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Jeopardy comes on. I imagine everybody's gonna turn to watch Jeopardy, and yes, they do, and what will they say during it? Or the music, or who's coming [into the bar] when, and why. We were trying to elicit these dynamic reactions. The characters were unaware -- the choreography was hidden and the set was closed. So they're walking into a space just as if they were walking into a bar and they know nothing else, and what happens on the TV happens on the TV."
Turner continued, "We created this framework, these interjections of stimuli to try to provoke these interactions, to try to create scenarios that we knew could be dynamic. And then as it builds, we started introducing new characters, two people then tell their story to a third. Three people are then the regulars. It becomes four, it becomes five, six, and seven arrive together. And all of a sudden they have all of these stories and they have their positions and they have a history, even if it's brief. And so as we got further into it, these people take ownership of the space. And it becomes their role that they're creating."
The Ross Brothers say they shot the film over three days with a budget of $10,000 (most of which went toward renting the bar). When I spoke with them at Sundance I was unaware the film was anything other than a straightforward vérité documentary, and the brothers probably assumed I was completely up to speed on the nature of the production (I neglected to read the press notes before the interview, an occupational hazard of keeping pace amidst the craziness of Sundance). They told me the main action was filmed in a single, lengthy day, all of it shot by the two brothers.
"It was an 18-hour shoot, so, yeah, we were just dancing around the bar," Turner remembered. "[Bill] sat at one end and I sat at the other and if something really interesting was down here we both get down there for it. But really the tough part was not covering it--the tough part was constructing it in the edit, spatially making sense of where were people were at any time, their dramatic threads. The shoot itself it had an energy to it that we just had to follow."
Bill added, "We had mikes on just about everybody and then mikes up and down the bar, just tucked away throughout the entire space. I think there were 14 different channels of audio during the shoot and then our poor sound mixer was locked away in a closet in the back.. trying to make sense of all of it. It was a long day for him."
The project gestated over the course of a decade.
"We've been thinking about iterations of this since 2009 when we first scouted, shot some stuff in Vegas," Turner noted. "The idea stayed with us but evolved and became less about a street movie in Vegas and became much more about this idea of seeing a world within four walls [in] what is ostensibly an oasis, in the shadow of another oasis [Vegas], which is itself within America, which is this oasis."
At the time I spoke with the filmmakers, Bloody Nose didn't have a distribution plan. But the brothers hoped the film would reach a wider audience--a hope that now is being fulfilled.
"It is a different type of film but I think it is a film that many different people can respond to," Turner told me back in January. "It's not just for the intellectual, film-literate crowd. I think it is something that can connect to people in a broad sense. We had a man from Switzerland come up to us and say how much this reminded him of home. We had an older woman who said, 'I may not look like it, but I'm one of those people [in that bar] and I've been in that place.' We've had young people respond to it in a way that is surprising to me. Do you know these spaces? What does this represent to you? So I hope we're given the opportunity to allow many different people to see it because I think the response can be myriad and interesting."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.