Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directed by Bill and Turner Ross, premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the documentary category.
The film follows a Las Vegas dive bar celebrating its last day in operation. As the sun sets on the dusty outskirts of Sin City, barflies open up about their shortcomings, revealing a familiar yet overlooked side of after-hours America. Equal parts joyful and tragic, the hazy night is an earnest display of human connection and contrition.
Although Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets undoubtedly captures real characters, the piece is largely a work of fiction. The film was actually shot in New Orleans, and the bar’s patrons were actors recruited to float around a set. I spoke with Turner Ross about working with his brother on their quasi-documentary.
Dominic Erickson: You drew inspiration from George Orwell. When did you first read “The Moon Under Water”?
Turner Ross: I always do a lot of research before we head into something like this because the way we make things is an act of discovery. We want to be able to have this searching quality — to be able to go in there and be present. For me, being present means being prepared and really looking at all the sources of inspiration and trying to be available to have those conversations with people who have dealt with these themes before and following one reference to another.
George Orwell had written this one lovely essay about his favorite pub, and when I think about George Orwell, I think about these dystopian views or commentary on current events and extrapolating that into something we can understand in a more abstract way. So then seeing him write about something very specific in the present tense was interesting, and he was speaking about something that I understood very much, and I started framing this thing.
There’s no one perfect place, but there are these places that we can enter these homes that we seek, and I thought a lot about that as we were framing the film because there was no one perfect place, but we could create a dynamic space that did have as many of those things as we could so that people within it could respond to that kind of environment.
DE: You grew up in Sydney, Ohio. Is that the place where your uncle took you to a bar?
TR: Our uncle would take us to a bar outside of town called Scudzy’s, which was a very colorful spot. We’d go there to watch WrestleMania and stuff like that. Those kinds of bars definitely exist in the blue-collar world that is the place where we came from.
DE: When you were a kid, could you sense some of the class disparity there? Or were the blinds kind of shut on the reality of, say, alcoholism?
TR: I was very fascinated as a kid growing up in a small-town, conservative, Catholic working-class place because it seemed like a taboo. It was either viewed as an “Oh, we can’t go in there” sort of illicit space or it was the common ground where a whole lot of people went for reprieve.
Everybody, at some point, can access those places. It’s how you respond to those places and what they mean in your life that becomes the interesting connective tissue. They can certainly be places with alcoholism, but they can also be places of respite.
DE: Was there anything specific from your memory of that dive bar, whether a piece of the set or a story arc that made you think, “If nothing else, this has to be in the movie”?
TR: A couple of things. One would be, from those original childhood experiences, that our uncle was such a storyteller, and we knew we wanted some characters like that. You start to fill out these people who fill out the space, and they all have their roles. The other thing was wherever we were going, whether it was a bar or a hockey game or whatever, there was just this sense of being in the thick of it — these smoke-filled rooms and exuberant people. It was those basic elements that go in.
We’ve been collecting these things our entire lives as we move through time. It’s while I was making movies with my brother. I was traveling around as a young guy and stopping in places and reading people and trying to understand wherever we were. We’d stop in, have a beer and see what people were talking about. I always keep a notebook, and I’ve always been collecting notes and thoughts for a long time.
DE: You’ve talked about returning to your hometown after being gone for nearly a decade, and the downtown has changed from what you grew up with. Have you returned to Scudzy’s?
TR: I was probably there about 10 years ago. An old friend got married in that part of the world, but it’s been some time. My family eventually moved on from that area, but it stays with us.
DE: You’ve been very open about how the elements in the film are constructed in order to portray real emotion, and there’s always been talk of this binary black-and-white view of fiction versus nonfiction in documentary filmmaking. Are there any films that come to mind when I ask which ones you think blend the two well?
TR: Rather than citing a specific reference, I think it’s just a part of our common experience at this moment. For me, while I can go watch a theater piece or read a piece of literature, I can also get something really profound out of just going and interacting with the world. Sitting down at a bar. I think there are common themes that run through both, and great art is a reflection of not only our times and our humanity but something that we can relate to.
For Bill and me, it’s not about going out there and trying to get some A-list actor and put words into their mouth and to create this great viewpoint that’s ours. For us, it’s about this portrayal of this collective experience and allowing some authenticity into it and allowing these real, uncelebrated voices to be a part of that conversation.
We exist in a society right now where people are talking about truth all the time. What is truth? We have “alternate facts” in the leadership of the country, and if those are the conversations that we’re having in public, then our art should also reflect that. We’re not trying to pin anybody down to some sort of didactic journalistic truth. We’re trying to find some sort of greater human truth, and this is the process by which we’re trying to elicit that.
DE: When did the title “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets” come to you?
TR: Very early on. In 2009, we first scouted the outskirts of Vegas for a project that probably would’ve looked a bit different. That arena was what stayed with us, and as we were scouting it, we were listening to this album by this band The Drive-By Truckers. Their lyrics speak to really incredible social scenes — very relatable commentary.
They had a song called “Checkout Time in Vegas,” and one of the lines from the song is “bloody nose, empty pockets.” For us scouting at that time in the recession, we saw people sort of having a rough go of it and founding new communities. That really resonated with us, and it’s also just a line that is evocative of an image.
DE: Filming began the day after the 2016 election. You said a lot of the political discussion or discourse was cut back in the three years of editing. How did you decide how much of the outcome would make it? Was there ever a feeling that this would be perceived as a political movie?
TR: At the time, and it still is the case unfortunately, the conversations ad nauseam are overtly political. It was two things. One, we were sick and tired of all the conversations being pervaded by overt political conversation, but it also felt like a time where people were not hearing each other. The prevailing public opinion in the media and conversation was this sort of haughty idea that there’s no way that Donald Trump can be president, and if you’re on one side, you’re an idiot, and if you’re on the other side, you’re an idiot.
We felt like what was happening was that people were just not hearing each other. Or choosing not to listen to each other. What was important to us was not to make an overtly political film, but to hear what people were saying to each other in that time and place and maybe get a better sense of where we were and where we are as people. But it was also an act of catharsis.
When people are that riled up, no matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, that’s an interesting time to relate to each other. Everybody’s emotions are raw. So that seemed like the best thing that we could do. The best thing we could do was not go out and try to change the world in a political sense, but as filmmakers, we dive into the work and try to express it our way.
DE: At a Sundance Q&A, I remember you saying your sound guy was holed up in this closet while filming. Who else besides all the onscreen talent was there for the 18-hour shoot?
TR: Bill and I were the only ones inside the bar because we wanted to keep that sort of a sacred space for everybody involved. But outside the bar, we had support staff, a couple of our producers, people there to drive people to and from, some food and water and some people to take care of people involved. We wanted to keep it a closed set so that the participants that were involved were really creating a universe unto themselves that couldn’t be broken.
DE: You and I are both Midwest guys. From capturing an all-around American experience that takes place in Las Vegas, shot in New Orleans and draws inspiration from an Ohio town of 21,000, have you noticed any regional nuances of each location?
TR: Yeah, and we’re thinking about that all the time — and that’s a great way to put it — what some of the regional differences and universal similarities are. When we were scouting in Vegas, we realized –and it’s something you find all over, but more in transient places like Las Vegas and New Orleans — that the population that is peopling these places has stories from everywhere. So, for us, the framing device that is Las Vegas speaks to one thing, which is a metaphor for another thing. But the bar, while it has a specificity to it, hopefully, is also a universal experience.
It was fascinating going to Berlin this week and speaking to people from all over. We have people in Berlin watching the film saying, “Oh man, I can relate to that experience.” I had an almost 70-year-old African man come up and tell me, “Wow, that’s just like my experience.” So, while there is specificity to what we’ve done here, it’s also hopefully saying something about the human experience. And while there may be specificity in current events with what these people are talking about, hopefully it reaches across a boundary and incites a conversation.
DE: Have you come up with a way to let us see the Las Vegas footage of the characters after the events of the bar?
TR: This is the problem we have every time, Dom. We have to distill these things down into what is the quintessential piece that we can share that best evokes what we were after. And it always means we have to kill so many darlings.
With every film, there’s a bit of mourning that I have to do realizing that some of the best stuff in the making of it will never be seen. And it really doesn’t need to be because we have to move on. We have to tell new stories, and we can’t just continue to wallow in the one project. This is our statement from this time and place and experiment, but, boy, there are archives and they’re just going to have to sit there for now.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is available to rent from Altavod.
Dominic Erickson (@Erickson_Dom) is a junior at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He writes weekly film reviews for his college’s newspaper, The Concordian. Dom loves talking about movies with anyone, most often about Wes Anderson or Indiana Jones.