If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me
An Interview with Bill and Turner Ross
By Nick Pinkerton

Bill and Turner Ross’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets distills the essence of one day and night in a bar on the brink: The Roaring ’20s, a watering hole somewhere far from the Strip in Las Vegas, on the eve of its permanent closure. Regulars past and present gather to pay their respects, or disrespects—that the place is a bit of a shithole is a running joke among those who assemble to see it off, though their resigned humor doesn’t entirely succeed in dispelling the sense of the imminent loss of what is for many a home away from home. First to arrive and last to go is Michael (Michael Martin) a white-maned ex-actor turned barfly who shaves in the bathroom sink and is as much a fixture as the jukebox. Over the course of The Roaring ’20s’ last stand, Michael is joined by a rotating cast of barflies: a local musician, a day-drunk day-laborer, randy retirees, a sad and sodden Vietnam veteran, an Australian out of his head on acid, an infinitely forgiving bartendress and her teenaged boy, and many other topers and troublemakers besides.

Comprised of ragged hunks of increasingly anarchic conversation, the film moves ahead with a loopy lurch-and-stagger cadence; like a drunk trying to spit out a story, it can sometime seem to have lost the script entirely. It conveys something of the savor of leaking toilets and a dozen cigarette butts drowning in the dregs of a plastic cup of gin-and-tonic. And yet after all the slurring and sloppiness and sloshed sentimentality when you emerge from the film, blinking, into the hard light of day, you may feel you have gleaned something essential about what it is to be living in the United States through the second decade of the 21st century, or about what it is to be alive, or about the particular half-life of going on a good, knee-walking drunk.

Such rare verities were achieved through quiet acts of cinematic imposture. The Roaring ’20s is not, in fact, closing. Some deceptive exteriors notwithstanding, it also isn’t located in the precincts of Las Vegas, but rather on the tatty outskirts of New Orleans, where the Ross brothers have for some time been based. Martin is a trained theater actor, and though his cohort at the bar are in most cases habitués of local dives playing unscripted versions of themselves, they are doing so in a planned and prepared environment with full cognizance of their participation in a film, even if the very real heavy pours from the bar might occasionally blunt that cognition.

I’ve admired Bill and Turner as filmmakers since the release of their 2009 feature debut 45365—about a day in the life of their hometown, Sidney, Ohio—and as fun guys to drink with since 2012, when I met Bill at the Eastside Tavern in Columbia, Missouri, after someone bodily handed him to me, like a baby to cradle. (He was being passed around the bar in this manner for some reason; I’m sure whatever the joke was behind this was very funny at the time.) When I have subsequently seen one or another of them, it has usually been in a similarly dismal tap house setting, so I trust that with this film they know whereof they speak; an evening in January of 2016 watching the Cincinnati Bengals’ shot-in-the-foot playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Harlem remains in my memory as one of the most wrenchingly, tragically inebriate of my adult life. Such catastrophic nights are now cause for aching nostalgia. This time around we spoke via the Internet, which is all anyone can do these days, and which is terrible.

Reverse Shot: So what was the seed of this thing? At least to my mind it seems to be more than anything else about this social dynamic that exists inside any given barroom at any given time.

Bill Ross: If we really dig into it, it goes back to us being little kids. Our uncle would take us, and we would sit at the end of the bar as, like, eight and ten year olds, and drink pop and watch wrestling. And everybody’s bigger than you, and they’re telling these incredible stories, and you’re meeting people you would never meet as a little kid. It was truly like a different universe, and we’d go home and tell our friends about this wild place that we’d been. This was in Fort Loramie, Ohio. Our uncle’s favorite bar. It was called Scudsy’s. And man, it had, as my uncle says, “All-stars, luminaries, and notables.” So we grew an appreciation and fondness for a lot of different kinds of folks because of that.

Turner Ross: It became a lifelong intrigue. Later we realized those spaces are the most incredible check-in points in any locale, as we’ve traveled and as we’ve continued to travel and work, we know that those places are going to be resources from which to spiral out, to get a sense of place. And every town or city we go to, as well, if you make a friend they probably have a place that they love to go to, or a place where they know, “Well, this is where you’re going to get the authentic experience.” And so, as we think about our work—and it often touches on regionalism and community and the spaces that people share, around the world and through time—because of our familiarity with those spaces, for better or worse, we felt like that would be something that we could get into. That was an environment that we could shape in an authentic way, we thought, and that that could be an incredible space in which to have people inhabit a certain moment in time, to have people discourse with each other, and that it might be right to create conversations of deeper resonance, and not just the good times.

RS: Talking of deeper resonances, one thing I’m sure that’s occurred to you guys is just how differently the movie hits coming out into the world right now, because what we’re seeing now is this looming threat to the very idea of shared social space, of check-in points—and not only bars. I’m sure you guys had every expectation of this being something that people were going to be watching together in movie theaters.

BR: Yeah. Unfortunately. We were lucky enough to get the theater experience several times before everything got shut down, so we did get a taste of that, and that was really incredible, becauseit resonated with so many different folks, from college kids to grandmas who were like, “You wouldn’t guess it, but I was that lady at one point.” It’s weird. The social ills of the country have forever been a part of the film, and those things are touched on, but the idea that we can’t come together… it’s oddly, I think, more meaningful to folks because they can’t have that at the moment.

TR: The film, if it’s about anything, is about the end of something and uncertain futures, the loss of spaces like this and the loss of those communities and the divisions between people. We had that in mind when we made it, but now it’s just so bizarrely resonant.

RS: And I don’t want to imply that you accidentally backed into something, because that closing time atmosphere is already so much there, and nothing that’s happening now comes out of thin air. The threat to these kinds of peripheral social spaces that don’t fit into contemporary planners’ ideas of what a city is or who a city should be for—you’re already clocking how endangered that is, and the threat to any brick-and-mortar social space is now increased tenfold, especially spaces that are catering to a working-class clientele.

BR: It’s fucking sad, man. I’ll see people on Twitter be like, ‘Holy shit, this movie means so much to me now that blank”—whatever, their favorite bar—“has closed.” A lot of that’s happening in New Orleans, and you just know what those spaces are gonna be filled with. And it just sucks. It sucks. It’s fucking dark and bad.

RS: Early on in the movie the day-shift bartender makes an offhand comment that’s something like, “They’re probably gonna turn it into a CVS.”

BR: Exactly.

RS: How did you find The Roaring ’20s? It’s such a particular type of bar. It’s a dive, but it’s a dive that doesn’t have any attractive historical patina. It’s too old to be sexy, but not old enough to be “charming.” I wonder if you had any model, a type you were looking for.

TR: Yeah. We didn’t manufacture the space, it’s a real bar that exists, but we thought about it much more like a narrative filmmaker would, or even like producing a theater piece. The stage needed to be right. And the first concern was that it would be a space that these people could feel safe and comfortable in, and that we could really own and encompass in the time that we needed to do it, so that we wouldn’t break the spell of what we were doing. We wanted these people to feel at home there. And part of home then, was, “All right, if our grand metaphor is hiding in the shadows of the bright lights, well, when you escape the bright lights it needs to be a place of warmth, a sort of womb-like space.” And it was also important that it would feel lived in. It’s not an airport bar; this is a place where people would come to spend segments of their lives. It would have some history to it. And also, we liked that it had this strip mall aspect reflecting the actuality of the types of bars we used to see, would see in Vegas that are just sort of out in this nasty sprawl. It’s not like they’re shining beacons, they’re tucked into a fucking strip mall.

BR: Nick, have you ever drank in Vegas like outside, off the strip?

RS: I’m humiliated to say that I’ve never been to Las Vegas.

BR: I don’t know that that is deserving of humiliation. I always hated it, but we grew an affection for the outskirts. Like Turner’s saying, there are these great places out there where locals drink, and these are most commonly in strip malls.

TR: So in our search we knew we needed that “just right” Goldilocks place. And I often talk about the George Orwell piece “The Moon Under Water,” where he tells you his list of ten favorite things about his favorite bar and then he says it doesn’t exist. And it didn’t exist in Vegas for what we needed to do. But then we found The Roaring ’20s on the outskirts of New Orleans. And finding it meant that we could really have control of that space, and that we could afford it—because truthfully we couldn’t get the kind of financing that we would need to make this film in Vegas. That all said, I think we found the perfect bar. We loved that space, and it did mimic a lot of things we witnessed in Vegas: it was a ragtag assemblage of people from all walks of life in this red-lit, womblike space with gambling machines and cigarette smoke and the bright light outside. And it was in a strip mall, with an alley. Then it was a matter of populating it with that human circus, in which every person had a place within the space.

RS: I’d like to hear a little bit about how, after casting the bar, you found your people. Was it a matter of looking for certain representative types, certain personalities, certain demographics?

BR: We were definitely considering all of that. It was based on a lot of notes across the board, on sitting in Vegas bars and seeing who’s going in and out, what’s the makeup of those rooms, but it’s also based on certain archetypes, on all kinds of different stuff. And just like any film we’ve done it was cast in a certain way, looking for certain types to fill it out. But we came to different people in different ways. I’d seen Michael [Martin] in a play in 2012, and he had stuck with me.

RS: What play was this?

BR: Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

RS: Perfect.

BR: Yeah. O’Neill’s a big reference for this. And his character was based on a character in a musical called Grand Hotel that Michael Jeter famously played [Otto Kringelein]. When we were thinking about the film we wanted to have a character like this…

TR: The references are myriad and everyone comes from a different direction, but I think we thought about theater a lot. We talked a lot about The Iceman Cometh, and how each of the people in the room in that play serve a purpose—they each have their story, they each have their pipe dream. And as much as that character in Grand Hotel influenced the selection of Michael, it was also the stories that my wife tells me about her grandfather, and how at the end of his life—he was a lifelong Army guy—he would clean up the bar in the morning, finishing all the drinks that were left, and he would end the night by putting up all the stools on the bar. And he was just a fixture in that space. And that image of someone who opens and closes the space, we needed someone like that. And for us, Michael is that person.

RS: Was Michael the only performer who was a trained actor?

BR: Yeah, he’s the only trained actor in the group. Some of the others have been in things but they’re not actor-actors. They’re folks we know from New Orleans that we see out and about.

RS: I was fascinated by the guy with glasses and long hair who looks like Slim Pickens to anunusual degree.

BR: Yeah. Lowell Landes. Wait, I wanna look up a picture of Slim Pickens. Weird. Yeah. I never thought about that, but, yup. Holy shit, weird. We’ve known Lowell for eight, ten years. He’s retired from the phone company and he’s just—he barhops every day. He just knows that lifestyle. So we thought if we’re making a bar film, we’ve probably got to put him in it.

RS: Is it safe to say that the people you wanted to bring in were living the lifestyle?

BR: Definitely. They needed to know how to move and shake in that space, because we’re not calling ‘Cut’ or ‘Action.’ Once they come in, they’re just… doing what they know how to do.

RS: The whole shoot was a couple of long days… What was the breakdown on that?

BR: The majority of the shoot was one long day, and then we filled it in here and there. We flew some of the folks out to Vegas to get exteriors and stuff like that. But what you see in the bar is basically one 18-hour day.

RS: So then what was the preparatory process before going into shoot on this one crucial day?

TR: We were casting to make sure that each of these people was very specific, like I said, but we also knew it needed to be a kinetic space in which there was some familiarity. So we knew that if we cast Lowell, we needed to cast Pam, because that’s his best drinking buddy. And there are some small allegiances that then forge larger allegiances, creating their own narratives and carving out their own spaces. And once we got to the point of shooting, about a week ahead of time, when we’d rented out the bar to scout it for sound, for lighting, for some set decoration stuff, to get acquainted with it, individually through the course of the day we brought in each participant, each character in the film, and had them sit at the bar, order their favorite drink, and we’d sit and just talk. And they would become familiar with the space, we would become familiar with each other. And so by the time the day happened… it was actually more like two days. We did a primary day shoot where we allowed some of the old-timers to move into the space, to start to really inhabit it, to start to build comfort and familiarity, and for us to also understand the space. That first shoot was like a nonstop ten-hour day shoot, two-camera, closed set. And we learned so much about how we were doing it, and what their arcs were. So that when we embarked on the 18-hour shoot with the full cast, we had a good sense of where things were gonna go, and so did the old-timers, who were the regulars. And like Bill said, it was about being there and being present for the dynamics that those people created. While we certainly influenced the space with different stimuli and the comings and goings of different characters, we really did let the thing go, and I guess for all intents and purposes we were documenting it.

RS: Perhaps for some people there has been or will be the sense of having the rug pulled out from under you in seeing this “documentary” that has been in many ways prepared and shaped. What you’re doing, though, seems very much of a piece with what’s done in films like Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956) or Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), movies invested in getting down the real rhythms and cadence of barfly life, but movies that are cast and premeditated to no less of a degree.

BR: Well, you just named two of our biggest references, so… Y’know, because of the way these films are programmed, it creates this conversation which isn’t terribly interesting to Turner and me. When one of us gets an idea, we don’t go to the other one like, “I have this great idea for a documentary, Turner.” It’s just whatever it takes to pull off whatever the idea is. When reviews for Bloody Nose… started to come out of Sundance, we did this thing where we looked up reviews for On the Bowery. And if you just took the words On the Bowery out of those reviews from the 1950s and put Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets in there, they were the exact same review. Americans have evolved very little in their interpretive approach to cinema, which is discouraging. I don’t know. I think we give enough clues throughout the film if you need them.

TR: I was thinking about this this morning, specifically, as if I don’t think about it every day already—we read reviews where people feel hoodwinked. First I would say we’ve always been very upfront about what we’re doing and the processes by which we make things. Especially with this one, we made a non-binary film that has to pick a side for programming purposes. There isn’t a space for a film right now that isn’t a sidebar, or some sort of offshoot. And we feel like the films that we’re making are valid, and should be considered right alongside whatever else is coming up. But we have to choose a side; that’s the way programming is. And we made a choice by playing it as documentary, and that has been a blessing and a burden.

BR: That’s what we were offered. We did not desire that classification, that’s the way they wanted to go about it…

RS: The very fine Nathan for You episode “Smoking Allowed” also threads the same needle.

BR: When was that brought to our attention, T? Was it after we’d shot it?

TR: Yeah. I think our producer Josh said, “Oh, you know what you guys are doing there, it’s a lot like this Nathan for You episode.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s… charming.”

BR: “Josh, you… truly don’t understand what we’re after. But that’s fine.” No, I love that’s dude’s show.

RS: So you’re a little closer to The Iceman Cometh, which runs over four hours onstage. I was interested to hear that at one point you had a significantly longer cut of the film, which one imagines would have been a very different film with a very different sense of the passage of time; rather than an evening slipping away, you might experience the accrued weight of time.

BR: We loved that version, but I think we were the only ones. In that version, yeah, you felt time in such a way that… I don’t know how enjoyable it was at that length.

TR: We were both enamored of that version, but the viewing of it was much more an act of endurance. When you sit in a space and you observe people, you’ve got to be ready to read in. We always do a lot of test screenings, and we showed that four-and-a-half hour cut to a group of friends, and what we had hoped would come across was not what was coming across. And we realized we had a long process ahead of us. Because what we needed was not the cold, observational stoicism of the Eugene O’Neill play, where you’re going through four-and-a-half hours and then it hits you what you’ve been doing. It needed to be an experience that people could have with us, where they felt entitled to a barstool, where they felt they could have a degree of omniscience, where there was playfulness and fun and they could just be wrapped up in this space. This was the longest edit; it took two years, spending time together and in copious test screenings, to finally get to the point where people were having the experience that we had intended.

RS: So, outside of Michael as your “inside man,” what kind of organizational framework, however loose, were you imposing? Were there certain thematic “marks” that you needed to hit, and how, if so, did you block that out?

BR: We do this with every film—we sort of wrote a script addressing what we would hope we’re doing. Of course once you get started all that gets thrown out the window, but you have certain beats that you hope to hit, certain things that you wish to happen. T sort of took care of those beats, and I was just sort of wandering around, capturing the color of the whole thing.

TR: We distilled our ideas down to a shot list, because this started out as a wall full of themes, of color references, of how to describe a space like this, of who these characters are and what story we hoped they’d tell, the state of things in America, color charts and all this wild shit. And eventually that just goes into our heads, we’ve thought about it so much, so that when we’re there to shoot we have a set list of intentions, but are also open to receiving within the parameters of what our hope is. By the time we get to the end of it, we’ve built some sort of idea of a narrative. And then Bill’s camera was available to be, to use a sports analogy, a color commentator, to say, “Okay, well, while this game is going on, here’s what else is going on.” And just finding that. And the beauty of it was when there was serendipity between those two ideas, when the armature that we were after had interplay with the randomness of what was going on. And that’s when we found the alchemy, and when the film is most beautiful, I think.

RS: I was watching the movie, and I know you guys a bit, so I’m pulling for it to be good, but when the bag of fireworks comes out, I’m immediately on edge. “Fireworks: the ultimate cliché of American independent cinema. This is gonna be bad, man.” But then you take it onto this black-and-white security camera footage, and the scene suddenly becomes something strange and ghostly and mournful.

BR: We knew that would be the expectation for a lot of people and… it was just kind of a “Fuck you” to independent film.

RS: Even in this loosey-goosey shoot, really distinct thematic lines come out, one of the most prominent being intergenerational animosity, or attempts to bridge that animosity. Was this something sought, or found, or somewhere in between?

BR: I’d say it was somewhere on the spectrum between hope and surprise. We couldn’t have known the extent to which this divide would become one of the movie’s great themes. But we cast it in such a way that… maybe those things would come up. You’ve got these old-timers, it’s their place, but then you’ve got these younger hipster people. We’re not necessarily talking about gentrification, but we’re seeing it, and this came up a lot, and as soon as that started happening we thought, “This is fantastic.” And it ended up being a really crucial theme.

RS: It gets tense at times. And then the title almost creates this vague expectation that things are going to go off the rails, which of course can happen in a bar. I was thinking of a wonderful anecdote you once told me, Bill, about getting stabbed outside of a football bar in L.A. by a guy in Raiders gear.

BR: Yes! You just never know!

TR: Believe me, we thought about those experiences a lot while crafting this film.

RS: How much room did you have to control the soundtrack? Or was it imposed on you by the patrons at the jukebox?

BR: We thought it would be terribly difficult to clear all of that music, a shit-ton of money, so our intention I think is that we would have the jukebox off for audio reasons, so that we could have clean audio and editing wouldn’t be a nightmare. But after 20 minutes of no music in the bar, all the old-timers just mutinied, were like, “Fuck that! We have to have music in a bar if we’re gonna drink here all day.”

TR: We had thought that we could set up a scenario in which we would occasionally allow for periods of music, and that we could also have periods of quiet. But in the end it worked in our favor, because while we didn’t necessarily choose the songs, we did choose the people. And so while those old-timers are coming in, what they want to hear in the middle of the afternoon in a bar is some Steely Dan. By the time you’ve evolved through the day, peoples’ different interests and experiences and the way that people feel begins to guide the auditory jumble of the place. And then you have things like Bruce, who just loves Kenny Rogers. And that becomes a recurring theme, “The Gambler.” And so, while that’s a request from him during the middle of the day, by the time the nighttime comes around, it’s gone from something that was very sweet to something that’s very sad.

RS: And a perfect leitmotif for a movie so concerned with winners and losers, or people’s perceptions of themselves as winners and losers. Michael has his “Success is not something you’re responsible for” monologue, which is cut off in the most disrespectful and humorous way.

BR: Yeah. Any point of enlightenment gets a bucket of water thrown on it pretty quickly. But that’s the way bars work.

RS: And then adding further to the density of this multimedia environment you have the televisions going, with some Las Vegas local news…

BR: The TVs were programmed probably half of the time—the Vegas news is there to plant you where you’re supposed to be. But the best stuff was happenstance. One of the TVs had Turner Classic Movies on, and at a certain point we stopped programming the other one and it would be local whatever. And it was the stuff that would be on that we hadn’t planned for that ended up being the most serendipitous, meaningful counterpoint to the action. Like I think about Kamari leaving at the end, and the TV says “The United States of America: It’s a Big Place,” or something like that.

RS: I recognized a little snippet of Battleship Potemkin

BR: I think that was planned.

RS: The particular experience of watching muted TCM in bars is such an interesting and common phenomenon. I remember being in a bar in Pittsburgh some years back on a Tuesday night and Touch of Evil was playing silent on a 12” set behind the bar, and the dozen people in there all just being riveted by it, which is how you know that Touch of Evil plays.

BR: That’s why we did it. So often I’ll look up and the movie will be mimicking what’s happening in some corner of the bar.

TR: It’s like Pink Floyd and The Wizard of Oz. We’ve done years of research in establishments like this, obviously, and you know at certain times of day you’re gonna watch the news. Some of the greatest places we’ve been we’ve wound up watching Jeopardy; once when we were taking a boat down the Mississippi River we stopped in Cairo, Illinois, and went into a bar that had exactly two people in it, and they were watching The Green Mile at the end of the night, and we all just somberly sat, drank beer, and watched The Green Mile. And it’s like: That is a note. Let’s make sure we find space for something like that.

RS: Hopefully this process can come full circle, and this film can find its afterlife playing at closing time on a shitty tube television at the end of a bar in Cairo, Illinois.

TR: God, I hope so.

BR: I think I could quit if that were the case.