Back in 2009 during DN’s annual excursion to the London Film Festival, I happened across an observational feature documentary with the nondescript title of 45365. As obtuse as the name may have been – referring to the zip code of Sidney, Ohio, population 20,000 – this portrait of small-town America, complete with its triumphs and tribulations, stayed with me throughout the festival and demanded that I bag some interview time with the fraternal filmmakers responsible, Bill and Turner Ross. Since then the brothers have continued to create films in which the individual experiences they capture reveal a truth bigger than the sum of their parts – such as their portrait of three brothers discovering the scenes of late-night New Orleans in Tchoupitoulas.
Described by Roger Ebert as “An achingly beautiful film,” (it also scooped the $25,000 Roger and Chaz Ebert Truer than Fiction Award at the 2010 Independent Spirits), eight years on and this vérité depiction of their hometown still holds up, which you can now see for yourself as the Ross Brothers released their feature debut on Vimeo last week for free. Which, in turn provides the perfect excuse for us to revisit our original podcast interview in written form…
45365 explores the congruities of daily life in an American town. From the patrol car to the courtroom, the playground to the nursing home, the parade to the prayer service, it explores relationships and interactions – with people and their environment. The stories of a father and son, a young relationship, cops and criminals, officials and their electorate coalesce into a mosaic of faces, places, and events. 45365 is a portrait of a city and its people.
While Bill was almost born with a camera in hand, Turner you came to filmmaking a little later didn’t you?
Turner Ross: Yeah my involvement was I guess more in proximity to it than anything else. As kids we had a camera around the house and from a very early age, I can remember Bill shooting and documenting everything at home. Later it became more of a serious venture. Bill accompanied me to an art school and studied on the film program and took the matter more serious. Mostly I was painting at that time and my involvement ended up being more the art and production end of filmmaking. When we moved to Los Angeles Bill became an editor and from there, five/six years into industry work, we decided that the original pursuit was to do things of our own so we turned our cameras on and directed one of our own.
Why was it that first venture became 45365?
Bill Ross: I feel 45365 was an extension really of what we’ve always done which is document what has been around us. While we’ve done a lot of shorts previous to this first feature I feel like this is just another project in a long line of documenting what we’ve done. We’ve travelled around a lot since we left high school and always, whether it be painting or keeping journals or having the camera around, there’s always been this documentation of what is around us I guess.
TR: The real end result of this documentary comes from stories that we had been trying to hold together of our experience growing up in a small Midwestern town. What that looks like. What that feels like. What those sense memories are. For a long time, we were just penning stories of what our sincere individual experience was. When it came time almost 10 years down the road from those experiences, it seemed really inauthentic to go and stage those things and try to fictionalize those stories. So we went back to that unique place in the world that we are from and that we do know reasonably well and gave a face to that. Let those people tell their stories instead of telling our own.
You left Sidney around the age of 18. Had you through the years perhaps come to romanticise your hometown? When you returned to make the film were there gaps between your memories and the reality?
TR: I almost feel like we grew up with a sense of nostalgia. It’s a very nostalgic place. It’s a place that we grew up playing in the fields and in the woods and having these small town experiences. These real romantic experiences. Going back 9-10 years later, the center of that town is no longer the old downtown that we remember. The real center of that town is an interstate exit now where there’s a Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes and a McDonald’s. So yeah, it was a little bit different but we chose to avoid those more ubiquitous things in favor of things that would speak for the sincerity of our experience and what that town is as a unique place in the world.
How much had you sketched out what it was that you wanted the documentary to be before you made the move back there? Had you pre-determined the types of characters that you’d follow?
BR: When we do these things we tend to write a script. We know it’s not going to be in the end what we get down on paper beforehand but we essentially write a script as if it were going to be fictional and plot out our characters and our threads of storyline. Then we go back and try to fill in those characters and storylines. A lot of the time it just details visuals that we want, like landscapes and we just find people to sort of ‘exist’ in those landscapes. For example, we knew we wanted a parking lot out in front of the Wal-Mart and we just found kids hanging out at the Wal-Mart.
TR: We went back with an outline of characters, sort of type sets. So if you have a young person you need an old person or the judge and the criminal. We knew if we had these generic headings of these people and we went and captured each of those, in the end, there would be a well-rounded story. But it being a documentary, you really never know what kind of stories you’re going to get.
I think that’s something that we both get off on, the adventure and the not knowing exactly what you’re going to be doing each day.
BR: That’s the fun of it. You do go back and fill in everything that you wanted but then every day is a surprise. You run off and do something that was totally unplanned. I think that’s something that we both get off on, the adventure and the not knowing exactly what you’re going to be doing each day. Just going with the flow I guess.
TR: In the middle of one story a character leads you to another character that leads you to another story in another environment. It all shoots from there. If you’re letting your characters introduce you to your new characters then everything sort of bleeds together and you have these congruent narratives.
Were there any of those planned character types that you just couldn’t find?
TR: We had trouble with middle aged women.
BR: For whatever reason we just couldn’t get through. I don’t know what that means.
Was the trouble in convincing them to take part?
TR: Maybe? In 45365 we spend time in a local men’s barbershop and we also filmed the opposite of that which was a women’s beauty parlor and I guess maybe they did seem a little bit more guarded. But their story lines just never appeared. I don’t know what that was.
How hard was it to convince people to take part? Also, given the influx of reality TV were there issues of people playing up for the camera?
TR: Yeah that is a concern. With reality TV and with news cameras you walk into a situation, especially like a bar or a place of congress like that, where people want to look at the camera and have a group mentality of showing off for the camera. But we were able to get around that most of the time. Sometimes you can’t avoid it. Sometimes people are wanting to speak directly to the camera but more often than not, I think we found people who we could explain what we were after. Tell them, “We’re here in this town not to interview you, not to direct your story, not to exploit you. We really just want to sincerely spend time with you. Just follow you through your day and through whatever experiences you’re willing to show us.” The people who are receptive to that were overwhelmingly receptive and willing to bare quite a bit of their intimate life.
BR: After that explanation we would just shut up and sort of exist in their space. I think after a while they just forget about us.
At any point during the filming did you ask them questions or prompt them for responses at all?
TR: Very very seldom would that happen. But yeah, in a few instances maybe you have someone who has pertinent information to divulge. You know that if you’re not saying it someone in the room is going to say it so you might carry on a conversation or interact with them but I would say it was very seldom the case.
You knew some of the people in the documentary from when you used to live there. Were those relationships harder or easier than the people who considered you local strangers?
BR: Very few actually are folks that we knew growing up.
TR: There are some elder statesmen who would have tenure in that town like the judge was obviously there when we were kids and we appeared in front of the judge and knew the police reasonably well. But I think probably our warmest, most intimate characters are people who knew what we were doing in that town and just came to us and said, “Well if you’re doing a documentary you know you really ought to film my life and my experience”. I don’t think we really had a hard time appealing to people who had been a part of our lives in the past but it was certainly warmer from people who just had an interest in it.
I was thinking specifically of Justin who knew when you were younger. Especially because his story is one that doesn’t necessarily paint him in the best light.
TR: Yeah. Justin and his mother Stacy. When I was 10 to 14 years old Justin was my best friend but he got kicked out of school and our paths diverged from that point. He spent most of the rest of his life in correctional institutions so I had lost touch with him the better part of 15 years ago. When we went back to town I was filming late night in a bar downtown and he just happened to show up there. It was a very warm welcome after not seeing each other for such a long time and maybe even departing on bad terms. I said, “Well here’s what I’m doing and it would be amazing to have you be a part of it”, and he said, “Oh yeah, you know Turner you just follow me and we’ll do whatever it is you want to do”. And so basically that night I’m in the car with him and his mother and they’re out doing whatever it is that they do. There was never any question about, “What is this for?” or “How are you going to portray us?”. They just really offered up their experience. They knew very well that I was there and were just willing to be a part of it.
BR: I think folks that we did know that we shot with, their comfort level was more than that of the folks who we just showed up and started shooting with. So they would talk to the camera more. After a situation, they would turn to the camera and be like, “Well right Bill?” or “Don’t you agree Turner?” That was a bit hard.
Thinking of examples such as Guy Maddens’ My Winnipeg or Terence Davies’ Of Time And The City, it feels that when filmmakers make documentaries about their hometowns, they’re more likely to play with the cinematic form. In 45365 there’s no voiceover guiding us through, rather you present a very fluid series of these snippets of people’s lives. Did that style develop during the edit or did you set out with that in mind from the beginning?
BR: I’d say it’s half and half. I feel we’ve always shot being conscious of these long fluid takes, really trying to get moments and not be concerned with issues or narrative. So in our short work, it’s just been these collections and moments and so the challenge for this was to see if we could pull it off in a longer format.
TR: We knew from the beginning that we weren’t going to do voiceover or have talking head interviews, that we wanted more of a fluid experience. If you have a long take and you’re not trying to force your subjects to talk then it becomes a format in which they can speak for themselves. It’s open for interpretation if you’re not cutting away from them. If you’re not chopping up scenes to create some sort of dramatic element then the images and the characters speak and act for themselves.
45365 is a completely self-financed project. Was that a decision based on remaining fully in control of the project or more to do with the difficulties of getting funders to buy into the potential of the nostalgic view that you guys have carried around for years?
TR: It’d be nice to say we know we would like to privately finance this thing because we didn’t want overseers in it and we like creative freedom. However, at that point in time when we were making this, it was absolutely not that. We really wanted and needed money. I wrote a dozen grants which were turned down because while we knew what we were going to do, on paper all we had were resumes and a whole lot of ambiguous talk and enthusiasm.
If you have a long take and you’re not trying to force your subjects to talk then it becomes a format in which they can speak for themselves.
BR: Once you start talking about ‘existing’ and having five minute long shots and just shots of landscape for two minutes. Nobody that has any money wants to hear that so I don’t think there’s any way that anybody was going to finance this! And now we’re going into another project where we’re about to the same thing or be even more obscure.
TR: I don’t know, maybe we’ll get our act together at some point?
So the financing door was already definitely closed when you decided to leave L.A. to shoot this for nine months?
BR: Yeah. Any sort of formal contributions were just rejected with form letters. We had to rely on private contributions and our own reserves. Then on the tail end in post-production, we have a great community of friends who are also doing really wonderful things and we had a lot of pro bono work done for us from people wanting to just reach out and be a part of this project. We absolutely couldn’t have done it without our inner circle, it just wouldn’t of happened because it costs money to do these things.
How did the filming work because you both shot the film? Were you constantly running two cameras or would you divide and conquer?
BR: Turner would be in one part of town I’d be in another. If there was a really big event we would both shoot. But since we don’t like to do dual camera because we really don’t like to cut within a scene, a lot of times, if we were only covering one thing, one of us, would be shooting and the other one would just be tagging along.
TR: We had certain characters that were our own. Bill followed the young boys a lot and spent time at the barbershop and then I might be out with Lee the fisherman or Justin and Stacy. We’d try to divide it up that way so that the people we were shooting with were comfortable with us as individuals. And also, when you only show up with one person with one camera it’s a whole lot less intrusive.
What camera did you use?
BR: We used the workhorse of documentary filmmaking, the Panasonic DVX100A with shotgun mic and we also tried to mic everyone that we could with a lavalier mic.
After nine months of shooting how much material did you end up with?
TR: It was it was roughly 500 hours of footage. It’s not all necessarily character narrative based stuff because we shot a lot of seasonal, ambient, existing around town type of footage. But that’s still 500 hours of footage! Bill spent a year holed up in his bedroom in L.A. moving ten feet from his bed to his editing bay there to try to piece this thing together.
BR: It was a horrible existence!
TR: Every week or two I’d get a new edit from Bill and we’d talk about it. Towards the end there I finally had to just say, “We’ve come to the end. This is over!” because I think he’d probably still be sitting there editing if I hadn’t pulled him away when he started to lose it a little bit.
Bill, you’ve mentioned before that when it came to editing the material you had in mind that you wanted to avoid any kind of condescension to small town life.
BR: Turner and I would look at this footage and they were just folks that we knew and cared about. But if you put that in a film, maybe up against different shots, people would probably look at it and say, “Oh they’re poking fun” or whatnot. So we had very long discussions about that and some of our favorite stuff got cut out because we were very conscious of that.
TR: It was the majority of our discussion because while 500 hours of footage may be filmed with heart and sincerity if you chop out a 30-second block of some of that footage and look at it, some people may misconstrue that as coming from a different place. So it was tough! A very fine line I suppose.
It looks like the 45365 has been doing very well, including premiering at South by South West and picking up the Grand Jury Documentary Prize there. You’ve both said that you basically did what you wanted to do with this film and the fact that other people are responding to that seems almost like a surprise to you?
BR: Well yeah, it’s a beautiful thing. This felt like it was just another project for us. Just a personal project that we wanted to get out so we could move on to another one. So when we did take it to Austin we had just finished the cut.
TR: We really hadn’t planned any further than that. We didn’t make this to make money or to receive accolades. We made this because it was something that we felt we needed to do for ourselves. Basically as far as we had thought ahead was that we should submit this to film festivals, shop it around like we’d done with our shorts in the past and really hadn’t foreseen a future for it. So when we were accepted into South by South West we thought, wow, that was the ultimate goal, we’re going to screen in Austin at a big festival. Up until the last night of that festival, we were just sort of hiding out, being flies on the wall observing and enjoying ourselves with no idea in mind that people would be wanting to look at it as an award winning type of thing. It was really shocking there for a while.
We made this because it was something that we felt we needed to do for ourselves.
BR: Because we had just finished cleaning up the picture and sound and we’d gotten our tape there late. And so I knew that the film was done for better or worse but I didn’t know how I felt about it. Now in the months since I think we’ve done a good job.
TR: About a month ago we both finally got to sit in a theater and look at it. We’ve seen it now you know a hundred times, but sitting in a theater we got to finally, really sincerely see the film for what it was and enjoy it. I think we really did accomplish what we set out to do.
Bill and Turner are currently raising funds for new film Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, so if you’d like to see more from them be sure to head over and lend your support.