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Interview: Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross on Fueling Drama with Gasoline Rainbow

The brothers discuss the film’s roots, giving the actors secrets at the start of each day, and more.

Bill and Turner Ross on Gasoline Rainbow
Photo: MUBI

Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross pushed the limits of nonfiction cinema to its outermost reaches with their previous work, 2020’s Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. But it was the filmmaker brothers themselves who were pushed, mentally and physically, by their follow-up, Gasoline Rainbow. While it utilizes some scrappy filmmaking techniques to cultivate a spirit of naturalism, this coming-of-age story is a work of narrative fiction that feeds on the circumstances of its all-encompassing production to fuel authentic drama.

The Ross brothers’ road film chronicles five recent high school graduates’ winding journey across Oregon toward a place full of self-described weirdos like themselves. The freewheeling style with which the brother filmmakers capture scenes of banter and bonding on the way to a party on the Pacific coast befits the group of non-actors who anchor the film.

It’s that spontaneity and specificity in the filmmaking that lend Gasoline Rainbow a texture beyond that of contemporary times. The film captures the essence of being a teenager at any time. The pain, pleasure, and pride that peek out from situations and stimuli faced by the traveling troupe of Zoomers still feel entirely organic—even if they were scripted along the way.

I spoke with the Ross brothers ahead of Gasoline Rainbow’s release. Our conversation covered how their documentary roots informed the film’s production, why they gave each actor a secret at the start of each day on set, and what creating an audio-only edit of the film unlocked for the final cut. While the duo has yet to formally announce their new project, they offered hints about how Gasoline Rainbow helped point the way toward the next chapter of their career.

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I found it funny revisiting our conversation from 2020, in which you referenced Streetwise when speculating what Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets might have been if you’d made it when you first had the idea. So was Gasoline Rainbow the inevitable fusion of Streetwise with your long-gestating Episodes of Delinquency idea?

Bill Ross IV: We tried! I fear that we’re not capable of making the dark, seedy film that we aspire to. [laughs] The intention at the beginning was to speak to our childhood. We were pretty bad kids, and everything changed once we met the leads for Gasoline Rainbow. They were just so kind, thoughtful, and caring that we had to follow [them]. The film is no good, in our opinion, if it’s just regurgitating our own stuff. We want to be true to what’s actually happening. So we followed the kids’ lead, and it became this very open-hearted film, which I’m very, very happy about. The world doesn’t need more darkness at the moment!

Casting is everything for a movie like this. In building out this world, did similar lessons carry over from filling out the space in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?

Turner Ross: I think Bloody Nose was a bit more acute. There was a very specific set of archetypes in terms of fleshing out that bar space and making sure that each of these seats was filled. Who we cast in those dictated who the other ones were, and that’s how it always works. We play them off of each other, and we try never to have redundancy.

With this one, it was fluid. We started with the location and the journey first, and then we populated it. As we populated it, the writing informed the casting, but then the casting informed the writing—specifically with the leads. We went through many iterations of it as we received hundreds of submissions, casting tapes, and interviews that our team on the ground would send every day. Inevitably, we always arrive where our inspirations lie, and our inspirations were truly from our own youthful experience of having camaraderie with a diverse group of kids who were going through a shared experience…and were willing to fuck with each other too. It wasn’t always happy. When we found the three boys and the two girls toward the end of casting, we were thrilled. We hoped if we put them together there would be an alchemy, and there was.

Turner Ross
Writer-director Turner Ross. MUBI

You’ve talked about the importance of finding your “John Wayne character” in documentaries to help establish yourselves in the environment. To get into the world of teenagers, was there a similar dynamic?

BR: It’s something that we needed in Oregon, just location-wise! For this one, it was Joanne Feinberg, who used to run the Ashland Film Festival in Ashland, Oregon. She came on as a producer and was basically the front person going from location to location and lining those things up ahead of time so that when we would roll in with our cast and crew, everything was really set up for us.

TR: Yeah, it was a fixer off screen this time rather than on screen. Because [Gasoline Rainbow is so] fluid and moving through, we didn’t want an overarching authorial voice. But in each of those locations, there’s a minor John Wayne, if you will, somebody who’s of that place and speaks from it and to it so that we get a sense of where we are.

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How did you think about structuring the film? Was it about gradually making their world less hermetically sealed, bringing them into contact with others and elders before bringing them back together again?

TR: Certainly, we wanted it to be cumulative, and we shot it linearly. We wanted the landscape to also mirror the emotional evolution of the kids. For their interactions, they begin with these very sparse interactions out in the wilderness and slowly draw forward towards this bigger, louder, more socialized world that then they’re a little more prepared for and can find themselves in. We [wanted] a series of minor calamities and opportunities to express themselves, characters along the way who could draw them out of themselves when the moment was right, and leading to that final catharsis. There’s a superstructure involved, a basic narrative with beats, but only insomuch as it’s the armature of a loose experience.

There’s a good amount of dialogue that is just the characters reciting song lyrics…

BR and TR: [laugh]

That’s not a knock! I always think back to a great Richard Linklater quote about Dazed and Confused: “Teenagers can’t express themselves very well, so music is their voice.” Do you have to give them permission to talk openly like this and not necessarily speak prosaically as if posturing for the camera?

BR: When we started filming, we were just filming throughout the day. Very quickly, they got used to the fact that they were leading the show. Most of the day is pretty boring for them. And so, if at the start they were putting on any airs, that dissolved pretty quickly. Most days were up to 18 hours, and Turner and I were just following them. They were speaking very openly. Of course, the camera is there, and they’re aware of that. But they were just being themselves in the situations that we were finding ourselves in. And yes, you’re right, they would often express their inner life through the songs that they were playing.

Did they need much coaching in the nature of performance? To me, managing what we share of our true selves is just the table stakes of being a teenager.

TR: Yeah, basically an extension of what Bill said. We were trying to create environments in which they had sources of stimuli: other characters, music, situations that would force them to interact with the world. They understood in a broader way from the beginning that each day was going to be a surprise. We’re going to know where we came from, we’re going to have a basic idea of where we’re going, and then we’re just going to interact with the world and respond to what’s there. They were keenly aware of that, so anything that was in front of them became very intriguing. Who’s this person? What’s this situation? What are we getting into? They became very interactive. With the duration of the shoot, a two-minute scene we might have shot for 10 hours. We’re really looking for that moment where all the artifice drops away and we’re just in that moment, in the narrative, and in life—and trying to find the beauty there.

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You gave the teens a secret each day. How did you come to develop that strategy?

TR: Through experience, and especially with Bloody Nose, it was so helpful. It’s more of an acting technique, and this is both acting and reaction to experience. It has been useful to the people that we’ve worked with to have a piece that they hold for themselves. It also means that everybody’s holding cards. So as you’re moving around the space, it adds a little bit of intrigue to the situation. It gives authorship to each individual, so that nobody is hiding in the background. Everybody has an intention, a reason, and a part of the story. They have to carry that. It’s a way to get through a scene and a space, and it gives give some license to the characters.

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Is this technique as much for how they try to decipher or interact with other people as it is for themselves? If you can even untangle those intentions.

BR: Working with younger folks, it made it exciting for them to hold that kind of currency. They’re not aspiring to be actors. This was just a summer job for them, a fun way to spend the summer and make money before they had to do something else. Anytime they had a piece of information that no one else had, they thought they thought it was cool.

You’ve observed about the cast that there’s no present for them in the same way as prior generations because they have access to all of culture at their fingertips. How else did you find their adolescence was similar and different from your own?

TR: I think it’s cool. It’ll be interesting to see how that progresses into the future. When we were growing up, there was a distinction between your dad’s music and your music. [There was] the cool factor of knowing the new music. Something different was happening here. It’s not that time has become flat, but everything is relevant. Past generations don’t have ownership of all these things because it’s accessible. You could find Jimi Hendrix right now, and it would be new, revelatory, shareable, and has the potential to be cool. Just this wild relevancy of all things. I don’t know what that shakes out into. I don’t know if that means there are less lines of demarcation in generations or how that defines us moving forward. I think we’ve lost a sense of time. There’s not a collective look, and there’s not a collective music.

I felt personally vindicated when they played songs I would classify as “millennial” from my teen years.

BR: [laughs] Yeah, it’s all in there, man.

The film feels so free of armchair sociology about Gen Z and America. Is that something that you have to consciously stop yourselves from doing, or does it just not even factor into the filmmaking?

TR: It’s written into the way that we work.

BR: I don’t want to be prescriptive. I’m not really interested in people finding my opinion interesting. I want this to be as genuine as possible to what’s actually going on. I want those kids to speak for themselves [about] what they’re going through. That’s interesting. Anything that gets in the way of that is phony, and I think we’re pretty good at sorting that out.

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But you’re not shying away from it either. One of the characters talks about his dad being deported.

BR: If you really want to push that kind of stuff, it rings phony every time.

TR: It’s either inherent or it’s not. It has to emanate from the experience and what we’ve all chosen to share with each other. Our truth is the conveyance, the articulation of what it felt like and was to be there in this situation rather than imposing something on it. [We’re] trying to draw it out and share it in a way that seems honest.

Speaking of what we choose to share with each other, did you all really manage to keep the fact that the end of the world party was going to be a bust for the cast?

BR: [laughs] They were pissed! They were so mad.

TR: But, again, that needed that needed to be true. We didn’t want to ask them to perform that. They were fucking pumped to go to that party. They’d been hearing about it for weeks. And as much as it hurt in the moment, they did forgive us, understanding that, “Oh, man, we really responded to that well, didn’t we?” And then there was pay off further down the line, but in the moment, they were fucking pissed.

Not to make that sound parabalistic, but was that conclusion built into the film from the beginning as a life lesson for the teens?

TR: This is Bill’s theme to speak to because he brings it up all the time.

BR: [laughs] I don’t want to tell anybody how to read the movie. But yeah, I do think there might be something to what you’re mentioning.

Bill Ross
Writer-director Bill Ross. MUBI

What was the editing and post-production process like for Gasoline Rainbow given the long shooting days? Was there a four-hour cut of this like you had for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets?

BR: Oh yeah, there was a five-hour one that we were really excited about, but that happens with every film. We know that, as much as we like it, you can’t really get away with that. We actually did something different on this one, which was really internally interesting. Up until this point, I would do the editing, and Turner would be in the room with me. It would just be this conversation over the course of a year, a year and a half. But on this one, I did the assembly that I normally do. After three months, we look at it and see what we have. But, in those three months, Turner also did an edit of the film, but just visually. Our assistant editor [Thomas McGovern] did a cut that was just audio, like the audiobook version of the film. After three months, we all shared where we were. I didn’t have to live in the terror of being the only one that knows all the material that we have. In the previous films, I didn’t sleep at night, because I was like, “What if I’m cutting the scene wrong?”

TR: It’s a lot to hold, and I’d seen Bill in terror for too many years. I finally needed to [help].

BR: It’s nice to have a conversation with two other people to be like, “Well, what if we took that shot…” This experiment showed us that we could tell scenes just visually or with audio. It showed us how little we actually needed in order to get to where we needed to go.

TR: I think more than anything, [we were] just making sure that in densifying that experience, there weren’t redundancies. If one thing is already doing it, then the other thing could be doing something else. It really broadened it and built it out [the film].

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Did the audiobook version inform the use of voiceover in the film?

BR: For sure. This is gonna sound crazy, but when we listened to that, we all blindfolded ourselves and just sat in the same room. In what he was doing in his [audiobook version], it really got into the inner lives of the kids in a way that we weren’t with the other cuts. We would interview them along the way, just to check in with them. But we weren’t using those in the other cuts, so using that in the audiobook cut really added a whole other level of connection. That’s what you want: to connect. That was one thing the audiobook version taught us.

As New Orleans-based filmmakers, I think of your work as deeply Southern, but you’re drifting westward with time. Are you finding a different regional spirit entirely or another flavor of something similar?

TR: Yeah, we do consider that a lot. America is so vast, and there are such distinct regionalisms still, culturally and environmentally. We try to go to places that already hold something dear or someplace that we really want to explore. Just as we have stories or emotions that we need to process during each film, there’s also that landscape, the tone of a place, the vernacular of language, and socialization. As we’re heading into something new now, that becomes a very big part of the conversation. And the Northwest, for so many reasons, was very intriguing to us. Now it feels very at home with us.

Is there a tension between the Corps of Discovery’s inspiration here and one of your most-cited influences on the film, Easy Rider, which is about a generation turning its back on manifest destiny and going in the opposite direction?

TR: We think about all these things. As we’re making them, rarely do they end up on the surface of the film, but they’re an undercurrent.

BR: It’s all underneath and discussed.

TR: There’s a preponderance of research and inspiration that goes into everything so that we are so well steeped in all of those things that become shorthand when we’re in the moment. Those themes of America aren’t limited to something like Easy Rider, which generationally is interesting to look at now. Those folks are now the elder generation, and what have those themes and ideas that they were espousing, and those liberties that they were celebrating, manifested into the future tense? It’s a very curious thing. I think it made us look more keenly at this generation—and also give them some grace.

What was it like creating your short film about the making of Gasoline Rainbow, Rose City Hurricane, for a retrospective of your work at the Pompidou? Does looking back at your craft affect the filmmaking?

TR: That piece in particular became what you were just asking about. It’s a 30-minute piece that is linear in telling a story of the making of a movie but also incorporates all of those disparate references and things that were swimming around in our heads at every step of the journey. That was interesting for us to articulate because it’s what you don’t see. We send these documents of experience out into the world as shareable objects with definition forever and ever, but the stuff that goes on behind it is so fluid, personal, and draws from so many sources. This movie, I feel, is hopeful and beautiful. We made it during one of the most difficult times in our lives: personally, as a group, and in this country. That’s pretty magical to me that the most difficult chapter of my life created something hopeful and beautiful.

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Is that something that will be made available to see on a wider scale?

TR: It’s wildly illegal commercially.

BR: There’s a lot of music and YouTube clips. Everything’s unlicensed.

TR: I think it’s relegated to museums.

BR: We are trying to figure out a way to make it available. We’ll see where that goes.

Maybe it will become a cult object that pops up with screenings here and there.

TR: I think it works better as an accompaniment to the movie. You should probably see the movie. Otherwise, it’s really bewildering.

I know there’s uncertainty about what comes next for you. Almost 15 years ago, Turner described your first feature, 45365, like this: “For a long time it was Bill and I sitting down, figuring out how you might illustrate that nostalgic thing that we carry with us, that’s maybe better than the experience itself. We came to the conclusion that the best way to do it was not to reproduce our experience but find that experience with other people.” Is Gasoline Rainbow, then, a full-circle film?

TR: I think we’re still doing exactly what we said we were doing.

BR: I think that’s right! That’s not bad. That’s awesome you sounded smart way back then, T.

TR: Or maybe I haven’t gotten any smarter.

BR: That could be. That could be.

TR: No, it’s an evolution of articulation. It’s an evolution of process and craft. Over time, we have honed that and harnessed it so that we can do different things, explore emotions a little more deeply, and invest in people and places more acutely. Where we go from here is forward, but it might take us in some interesting directions

BR: We’re slowly figuring it out at the moment, and…we shall see. But I feel good about where we’re at, and I’m excited for the terror of not knowing and what that will lead to.

TR: It’s part of what we do. We do these things, and we can celebrate them. But even as we’re celebrating them, the fear and the terror sink in. The realization not that we’re going to have to do something, but that it is inevitable that we are moving towards something new. That thing is unknown to us. We likely don’t know how to do it. It’s going to be extremely difficult. We’re going to be asked to grow and change. And that’s the beauty of it. It keeps us alive, and it’s exciting that people have stayed tuned, that our group of collaborators has grown, and that when these things do well, we can share them with those people. It’s a really beautiful thing.

I hope however it turns out, I’m around to see it so we can act like it was all just inevitable and you knew it here. Maybe something you said here points the way.

TR: In the future, we are already there.

Marshall Shaffer

Marshall Shaffer is a New York-based film journalist. His interviews, reviews, and other commentary on film also appear regularly in Slashfilm, Decider, and Little White Lies.

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