Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an alcohol-fuelled faux documentary that shows life in a Vegas dive bar as it closes down
Arriving in the UK when your nearby pub is probably shut, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is an alcohol-fuelled documentary that slurs the line between fact and fiction. The premise is simple: The Roaring 20s, a dive bar in Las Vegas, is closing down, and cameras are capturing the final night as tensions flare, drunks despair, and larger-than-life characters mourn the loss of their beloved tavern. Except, in reality, The Roaring 20s is in Louisiana, not Las Vegas, and the bar still remains open for business. Moreover, each individual on screen was handpicked ahead of time, like on a reality TV show, in order to play a specific role – meaning that, yes, these really are characters in both senses of the word.
The mischievous directors responsible for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets are Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross. The two siblings, who are surely the most acclaimed filmmakers to not have a Wikipedia page, first made a splash in 2009 when 45365, a slice-of-life documentary on Ohio citizens, won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW. Their following features, Tchoupitoulas and Western, continued their exploration into the everyday drama of real people. Then in 2016, David Byrne hired the Ross brothers to shoot Contemporary Color, a concert film showcasing artists such as St Vincent and Devonté Hynes. Weirdly, it was directing a splashy, Talking Heads-adjacent music movie that willed the hushed intimacy of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets into existence.
“We had a big crew and budget for Contemporary Color,” Turner tells me over Zoom, from New Orleans, a week before Christmas. “We said: what we need to do right now is go back to the core of it, and make a handmade film with just the two of us.”
However, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets isn’t a podcast on film. From the opening moments, it’s a cinematic experience: a white-haired man ambles across the street in a long, beautiful, grainy tracking shot towards the cocktail lounge. Inside, the duo employ immersive cinéma verité techniques that are reminiscent of Agnès Varda and pull you into their unscripted, boozy chaos; meanwhile, the camera gracefully glides around the room like the party scene from Claire Denis’s US Go Home. Given the musical elements – a spontaneous rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”, a jukebox blaring The Weeknd – and a minimal narrative, it can be enjoyed as if it’s a concert film, just with barflies spilling their guts instead of St Vincent singing her hits. Or even in a double bill with Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock.
“Turner and I watched Lovers Rock this week, and that’s the best thing I’ve seen all year,” Bill enthuses. “It’s all-time filmmaking. It was two nights ago, and I’m still floating. Certainly now, there’s a vicarious thrill of watching people dancing together at a house party, with the soundtrack turned up really loud. And I’ve heard people say that about our film as well, because they’re enjoying an experience they can’t have right now.”
Not only was Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets shot pre-pandemic, but the bulk of the filming took place on one long, drunken day in 2016. The Ross brothers rented out The Roaring 20s for an 18-hour period and by chance – well, they say it was by chance – this was the day after Trump’s election win. As the duo didn’t want to date the film, the Trump-related debates were largely removed from the final edit. Instead, the focus shifted to the more timeless, everlasting pathos of these relatable oddballs whose deeply sincere interactions are spurred by alcohol, the 360-degree sociability of spinning barstools, and a shared personality trait: these are extroverts who would rather regret saying something, than regret not saying it at all. Plus, with the bar closing tonight, everything has the heightened, “now or never” drama of a final day at school.
“There’s a vicarious thrill of watching people dancing together at a house party, with the soundtrack turned up really loud. And I’ve heard people say that about our film as well, because they’re enjoying an experience they can’t have right now” – Bill Ross IV
Thus, in terms of subject matter, conversations range from strangers sharing their deepest, darkest trauma and basking in the mutual catharsis, to chancers shamelessly flirting with whoever’s within spitting distance in the hopes of hooking up before last call. If it all flows with the ease of an operation planned months in advance, well, it sort of was.
Michael, for instance, is played by Michael Martin, an actor Bill once saw performing Long Day’s Journey Into Night on stage. For the rest of the ensemble, the Ross brothers asked a number of eccentric personalities to turn up on the day and improvise. But how do you audition non-actors to play themselves? “A third of these people were sourced from our lives,” Turner says. “The other two-thirds of the cast we filled out by spending time in dozens of bars over a couple of months. I think life is the audition.”
Part of the film’s free-flowing nature is that bars are inherently performative spaces. If you speak loudly, someone a few metres away can overhear you and then whisper to their friend that you’re an idiot; often, chairs are arranged so that you’re on display to the whole room, as if you’re paying for the privilege to be in a panopticon. On more positive occasions, you can strike temporary friendships, or perhaps something more, with strangers just because they happen to be sitting across you. “It’s a place to tell stories,” Bill says. “Outside of a sporting event, what other place gives you this cross-section of different lives?”
As for the alcohol, all the booze was real, and the mood certainly shifts as the pints are poured and the drinks are downed. In one corner, a fist-fight nearly breaks out between two men feuding over which generation ruined America; elsewhere, Pam, a jovial 60-year-old woman, proudly flashes her breasts and remarks to her new buddy, “So you’re into titties now?” Both incidents, you suspect, wouldn’t occur if they were sober.
“This was a pre-ordained situation that all of us had to be complicit in, and all of us had to show up for,” Turner says with regards to consent. “That’s why it’s a created space. We didn’t want to go into anybody’s space and look down on them. We wanted everybody to have authorship of the situation. They were welcome to bring whatever they wanted to the scenario, with the understanding that, in the end, we are going to take great care, and we are going to compose something that speaks to that. That’s a lot of trust. But it’s an informed trust.”
Bill adds, “In certain cases, like when Pam lifts up her shirt, we had a conversation with her if she was OK with it.”
Although filming took place years ago – additional outdoors scenes were shot in Las Vegas – it only premiered in early 2020 at Sundance. (In competed in the documentary section, if you were wondering.) “It was the toughest edit we’ve ever had,” Bill explains. “It took so long to get all 22 people to come through the bar in the right place, whether that be physically navigating the landscape, or figuring out story arcs and striking the right emotion at the right time.”
““I know people love to have this conversation of non-fiction versus fiction, but I think our present reality is beyond that. I think we can arrive at truths, even in manufactured settings” – Turner Ross
Their solution was, let’s say, unconventional.
“A year into the edit, we rented a hotel room and took acid with one of our producers,” Bill admits, laughing. “Like with all our films, we’ll get into a place where the footage is no longer alive for us, and so we’ll have a night like that.”
“We have our processes,” Turner adds. “We try to see it with different eyes.”
With or without acid, your experience of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets will vary depending on mood and circumstance. On my first two watches, I consumed it with complete concentration, in the dark, as if I was in a private cinema that also resembled a laptop in my bed. The first time, I assumed it was a straight documentary; on second viewing, having done some research, I was analysing each frame and pondering how much was a Nathan For You-esque construction.
For my third watch, I streamed the film – and its relaxing soundscape of steady chatter and overlapping dialogue – in the background to emulate my pre-pandemic work habit of buying one coffee in Caffé Nero and hogging the only plug socket for eight hours. Even when I wasn’t really paying attention to it, the movie made me feel calmer and less alone. I mention this last viewing method to the Ross brothers, expecting them to be mortified.
“No, I love it!” Bill says. “I think that’s wonderful!”
“If that’s your mood music, then I’d like to know you,” Turner says, laughing.
“I always have stuff on in the office when I’m working as well,” Bill says. “I love the idea of it being like those 10-hour sleep videos on YouTube. Rainforests, the ocean… and The Roaring 20s!”
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets was intended for cinemas, of course, but the film will also be available for home viewing. For obvious reasons, the flirty, fight-y social environment will resonate especially hard during this painful COVID period. However, the Ross brothers’ alchemy – whether it’s the two years of editing or finagling such an effective ensemble – also demonstrates how many human beings are a shot of vodka away from revealing all the vulnerability that’s bottled up inside. Although the duo use similar methods to reality TV, the results couldn’t be further from the fakery of Love Island. Or is this my inner snob speaking?
“On reality TV, they’re being asked to perform,” Bill says. “‘The lights are here. The cameras are here. OK, we need you to create content.’ That was not the ask, in our case.”
“When Bruce says this is a place where you can go when nobody else wants you, that’s Bruce talking from experience,” Turner explains. “I know people love to have this conversation of non-fiction versus fiction, but I think our present reality is beyond that. I think we can arrive at truths, even in manufactured settings. Just because it’s a manufactured experience doesn’t mean it has to feel manufactured.”
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets can be streamed at Curzon Home Cinema from December 24, and will be in UK cinemas from January 1