Turner Ross is one half of the Ross Brothers, an independent filmmaking team whose works have been featured at museums and festivals throughout the world. They are best known for a series of documentary portraits celebrating contemporary American culture: 45365 (2009), Tchoupitoulas (2012), Western (2015), and now Contemporary Color, which is currently on theatrical release through Oscilloscope. Learn more at rossbros.net.
The following is taken from a journal kept by Turner Ross throughout the making of Contemporary Color, the documentary directed by Ross and his brother Bill Ross. The film, now on theatrical release through Oscilloscope, is about color guard (“the sport of the arts”) and a series of shows organized by David Byrne in 2015, performed at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Air Canada Centre in Toronto, which paired color guard teams with musicians such as Dev Hynes, St. Vincent and the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock. – N.D.
28 September, 2015 – New York City
The woman next to me on the plane says I smell like liquor.
“You must have a fun job,” she says. “Are you a musician?”
“I’m not,” I reply. “I make documentaries.”
. . .
24 July, 2014 – New Mexico
Bill and I are returning to New York, as we’ve been summoned to meet with David Byrne regarding a film project documenting the eclectic concert he’s putting on to provide live backing music for a massive high school flag corps performance …
29 September, 2014 – En route to Kerrville, TX (leaving New Mexico)
The Byrne project is happening. After a couple months of relative quiet following our impromptu meeting in N.Y.C. over the summer, word came down that they’d like to go forward with the project. The film is ours, and the experiences ours, and the pride ours in working with one of the most creative people on the planet. So much possibility, potential. Collaboration and experimentation. And flags – lots of flags.
16 December, 2014 – Texas to New York City
There was no sleep, just a head full of busy thoughts – pages of notes scribbled in the dark. Wide-eyed and agitated, I gave up 15 minutes before my alarm – 3:30 a.m. I wrapped my arms around the warmth of my wife and said goodbye in kisses. Dressing in the dark. A pat and a scratch for the dog and in to check on my 18-month-old daughter … She lay softly breathing wrapped in the blanket just where I’d left her – with her head on the little pillow and her arm around Francois, the teddy bear from Paris … Today to New York and the beginnings of our collaboration with David Byrne. We pick up the cameras for the first time in a long time … Exciting to be embarking on the adventure again – beginning the conversations forward on so many fronts. So many new ideas. So much work to be done.
22 December, 2014 – New York City to Kerrville, TX
We came to town with much work to be resolved on the new project and nothing shot. We holed up at Jess Oreck’s place and Byrne’s office and a few places with barstools and brainstormed and pitched and revised and executed. And we filmed. We picked up the cameras again and we crushed it. It was an epic and necessary week and we now see a way forward. On more than one evening, we found ourselves in David’s kitchen finishing the day’s work with wine, getting to know each other. He’s warmly welcomed our ideas. And more than once we found ourselves shaking our heads out on the night streets of Chelsea on our way to Billymark’s bar …
22 January, 2015 – New Orleans to Sundance (Park City, UT)
Yesterday our collaboration with David Byrne was publicly announced and met with much enthusiasm. We have much to be thankful for, and much to look forward to. For now, my greatest challenge is staying present – being here in this moment – carrying the banner of our journey in the name of all that brought us here. Part IV. Holy shit. Here we go again …
5 March, 2015 – New Orleans to True/False (Columbia, MO)
Our collaboration with Byrne is exciting and daunting and not just a little unnerving, as we still haven’t been able to secure financing. It seems ridiculous and unfathomable at this point in our careers, let alone in collaboration with one of the greats. Somehow, though, we’re still counting down the days till we’re broke again, wondering if this thing is even going to happen. The constant flux of forward and present and upheaval and reappraisal is taxing, terrifying – and certainly invigorating. If it weren’t this life, what life would it be? Would I even be alive? Bill and I often remark: our kid selves wouldn’t believe how it turns out – we’re living the artist’s life … My family is happy and healthy and I’m making work that matters – at least to me. This morning I awoke before the sunrise to my daughter’s sleeping feet dancing upon my head. I am the luckiest man alive.
31 March, 2015 – New Orleans
We arrived from the warm comforts of New Orleans to a snowstorm in N.Y.C. The weekend was an intensive two-day shoot in Long Branch, New Jersey at a regional color guard tournament. A necessary immersion into an otherworld that is the backstory of our new project. A long commute there in a van with David, Ad-Rock, Money Mark, Dev Hynes, Nico Muhly, Ira Glass … Another surreal affair so apropos of this undertaking. During a site visit to the empty and cavernous Barclays Center, we stood center court and daydreamed. Logistics and follow-ups and over-the-phone pitches … and then the news. Those good folks from Public Domain are all in. $500,000 in. As in, it’s happening. The thinking immediately changes and all becomes real. We think forward. We celebrate. We are happy. We dream. We drink …
19 April, 2015 – Dayton, OH
Dayton. The Color Guard World Championships. The Super Bowl of emoting. A necessary fodder-gathering mission which was a resounding success – and a truly surreal spectacle. But let’s go back … We arrived to the city late for a night with little sleep. A brief, hurried tutorial on our brand new cameras and then a parting of ways – Bill to Shenendehowa, me to Somerville – to board buses full of high-school color guard kids bound for Dayton (fortunately, I was able to sleep until 5:00 a.m. at the local trucker motel – Bill drew the all-nighter) … Thursday we were all in at UD Arena. It was unbelievable. Worlds colliding that I never could have imagined. We’re making a very strange movie …
4 May, 2015 – The New York Move
I didn’t want to leave, but as I sit here doing the work, I realize the necessity of it. A daunting gauntlet of moving pieces. It is necessary, but not pleasant.
19 May, 2015 – New York City
Our days often look like this… Wake up on the couch to communication of the future – Facetime call from wife and daughter in New Orleans to incite heartbreak and keep the tether strong. Casual team meeting at David Byrne’s office to strategize video input for show. Shoot musical brainstorming at John Lennon’s (now Sean’s) studio in Soho with Ad-Rock and Money Mark of the Beastie Boys. Drive to New Jersey with talented team members to produce dream sequence vignette on suburban street with color guard performer. Travel back to New York for brothers-only basketball and beer at working-class Irish bar to strategize next day’s celebrity shoot and social time with talented friends …
We spent last weekend in Canada with David and LeeAnn doing press for Contemporary Color – working and socializing and otherwise bonding as a creative coupling. The four of us spent Saturday bicycling Montreal, having fun with no mention of work. The surreal becomes ordinary. The ordinary becomes extraordinary … Each day moves us forward in a blur. A frenetic, kinetic shoot which is hard to recall even in the doing, as it involves so many component parts… We’re so lucky to have the team that we do. Talented and ambitious. Eager and inspired. We’ve hit a certain stride, and it feels good …
19 June, 2015 – New York City
“That was a really good idea,” says David, he and I drinking beer at his kitchen table, reviewing the Jumbotron fodder for the shows with a room full of associates, friends, family. Still so strange to swallow, but everything is normalized eventually. It’s happening fast … Realizing that, we took inspiration from Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook and asked John Wilson to follow the event through to its conclusion with his handy cam. A document of the document … It’s become a juggernaut. Something bigger than ourselves, functioning on its own. Our movie. We have call sheets and per-diem. I don’t know how this happened, but it’s very, very real, and it’s happening. Tomorrow we leave for Toronto, three vans full of film crew – our equipment on a semi truck already en route. Fresh blood arriving. The spectacle imminent. All that we’ve planned and rehearsed, the idea Bill and I hatched over a beer after our first meeting with Byrne, now a functioning reality.
25 June, 2015 – New York City
Back today from Toronto. Resting. The first shoot was an undeniably epic and positive success. Our team was incredible. We did what we needed to do, were there to do. And we celebrated. Late nights and early mornings the whole crew together like summer camp in a shitty motel room enclave that production had chosen for us, some flophouse with occasional random unwanted guests – it was fitting, and fodder for stories. The energy was contagious… On the sidewalk by myself outside the bar singing “Heaven,” I realized that inside the bar my financiers, fresh off of Richard Branson’s private island, are invested more than financially, crooning with the booze hounds around an upright piano. There’s so much collective energy moving toward this thing that it’s hard to sleep. We’re tuned in to this energy. Vibrating at a different rhythm. The pulse of a living thing. The songs keep running through my head. The images. I can see in four dimensions. Existing in the space …
26 June, 2015 – Barclays Center, Brooklyn
Looking around the production room in the bellows of the Barclays. A massive crew. 30? Our people, taken aback by the spectacle, the scale. We’re in this together. A kinetic momentum. Something is happening.
1 July, 2015 – En route to Ireland
It’s taken me four days even to put pen to paper. Didn’t even feel like talking the first, moving the second. I’m exhausted to the core. Emotionlessly emotional. It’s been a lot. The most. A crescendo of energy and optimism like I’ve never felt. And it wasn’t just my own. We. We did it. Top down. Bottom up. Incredible. It couldn’t have gone better. And now it is over … My daughter’s head rests sleeping on my lap. Her feet on her mother across the seat – both sleeping. Writing by the glow of tiny televisions. Relaxed by the wine. Nothing in mind but this and trying to recover. What in the world just happened?
27 August, 2015 – En route to Vermont
Contemporary Color is flying along (John Wilson’s Temporary Color premieres tomorrow night at Toby’s Weekly Review in New York), and I’ve already submitted a proposal for development funding for Bloody Nose. We’ll see what comes. Gotta keep movin’ …
23 September, 2015 – En route to L.A.
Last night, the first official test screening of Contemporary Color. Today, the premiere of Western at Cinefamily in L.A. Tomorrow, our family critique of CC at a theater in Santa Monica. There will be much to tell in the aftermath, I’m sure.
27 September, 2015 – New York City premiere of Western
Standing under the marquee on a Friday night in N.Y.C. with a sold-out theater inside and David’s bike chained there to the lamp post, anonymous. He thought the film was “lovely and devastating.” So much praise and celebration …
28 September, 2015 – New York City
Late nights, no sleep, deeply intellectual sincerity followed by obliterated revelry. Attractions and back slaps and energy – so much collective energy always moving with us. But I feel empty now. Faded, homesick … It’s been a wild year. A head-spinning time of input and output. This film kicked my ass. I hope we can better weather the next one. Keep the work fresh and vital, and ourselves, too …
1 October, 2015 – New Orleans
Unbelievable how quickly this has all come together. Also not. We were intentional, purposeful, passionate, practiced. We’ve gotten better at this. We executed … It seems to be the most immersive example of “being there” that we’ve yet created. Taking the broad region and the expanse of time and limiting it to a single location in a finite moment. Our first screenings have been promising. There’s work ahead, but so much of it is already in place, even without color and sound and our various graphic eccentricities – all of which will be pivotal to the experience … I’m a believer. We have to find the best iteration of the thing we set out to create. We are here, now, and we are confident …
10 November, 2015 – Going home from New York City
Touring the Barclays in the afternoon as they load in Disney on Ice. In the long corridor of rock star portraits there is now a picture of the finale from Contemporary Color. We get our final shots of the film. The arena all to ourselves. Young Mimi Ward joining us, full of wonder. … A great end. A promising beginning.
13 November, 2015 – New Orleans
In recovery from Wednesday’s final test screening. Copious notes, and a rethinking of the entire structure. I spent yesterday poring over the feedback, reconsidering possibilities that have been lost since the film’s inception… “Hack the film into pieces! Let’s broaden our minds!” We tried that, and we saw some magic. Mostly, we saw that what we were doing is reactionary, that we need to listen to ourselves, not the masses, and commit to the film we want to make. It’s always this way.
31 December, 2015 – Kerrville, TX
We’ll premiere CC with great spectacle as part of Tribeca in April – hosted by Ira Glass with a concert organized by David. It seems fitting. It is becoming very much our own…
12 February, 2016 – New Orleans
Contemporary Color pushes on. Final notes digested and picture lock just two weeks hence. Still can’t lock a date with Tribeca, as our grand dreams of a massive concert at the Beacon have been dashed by budget shortfalls. I guess we’ll take what comes …
4 March, 2016 – New Orleans
Contemporary Color is locked. Bill has left for L.A. Rolling Stone and the New York Times were excited about us a couple days ago. Wish I was.
8 April, 2016 – Columbus, Ohio
Dear diary, how do I even explain last night? Bill and I, Josh, David and LeeAnn – staying together at a quaint grandmotherly bed and breakfast in Miamisburg, Ohio, listening to the sound of the trains, having our afternoon meal and beer at a place called Bullwinkles before the trivia crowd took over. The marquee at the theater read “WELCOME 2016 WGI FILM CREW.” The kids bused in from Dayton, so excited, and I think left the same way. Probably our toughest crowd, as they’re very precious about their craft, and we of ours, and the fusion left a bit of theirs on the floor. But they laughed and cheered and were generally invested throughout… And then the five of us went to decompress at the bar. The only place left open in Miamisburg. A windowless shithole playing pop country and rock & roll on Karaoke Thursday, advertising Fireball and domestics. Bill and I were in our safe place, and David was overwhelmed by the lack of irony, sincerely enjoying the experience right alongside us. We closed the place down, but not before one of the younger drunks took to the mic, saying, “I’m gonna sing a Talking Heads song. This is my favorite.” He then proceeded to belt a rendition of “Psycho Killer,” not 10 feet from its author. No one in the bar knew who David was, and still wouldn’t if we hadn’t decided to blow the kid’s mind at about 2:00 a.m., after David had put himself to bed. “I’m gonna tell this story to my kids someday! I don’t even have kids yet!”
13 April, 2016 – En route to the Tribeca Film Festival, New York City
“Uncle Bill, I really like the movies you make with my daddy. I really like Westerd. I’m gonna make movies. About a bumble bee. A butterfly. Pinkie Red. Yeah. I’m gonna do that.”
18 April, 2016 – New York City
The girls have gone home. Sitting by myself at a Mexican restaurant in the Meatpacking District, contemplating Laura’s show at the Whitney. Thursday was World Premiere Day. A thousand people showed up to see the film. And for the first time ever, Bill and I were two of them, excitedly dancing in the back of the theater. The crowd clapped and cheered as if it were a sporting event. David was so wound up at the end of the show that he took the stage before the credits had finished, and Bill and I narrated the final shots from our interview chairs. David showed his true goofy colors, but the stars of the evening were the kids, hearts out and dazzlingly confident, showing the audience their magic… At our Saturday screening I conducted the Q&A with my daughter on my shoulders. Halfway through she leaned down into the microphone and said, “I really like the movies you make, Daddy. I really like Contemporary Color.” Who knows, maybe we’ll win our first audience award.
21 April, 2016 – New York City
At the awards show, Bill wins for Editing (finally) and Jarred for Cinematography. They were both overwhelmed. Bill shouted from the stage: “For once in my fucking life I don’t have to share the fucking stage with my fucking brother!” We ended with an all-night sweaty smiling lovefest dance party in the basement of the Roxy in memoriam of Prince. I didn’t have the energy to give, but I gave it, and we ended on a high note – the joy in all our faces. I think we landed…