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“We Were Together 24 Hours a Day for Six Weeks”: Bill and Turner Ross on Gasoline Rainbow

Teenagers scream in a car at night.Gasoline Rainbow

Gasoline Rainbow, the seventh feature by Bill and Turner Ross, marks a return to a world of young people familiar from the brothers’s early efforts 45365 (2009) and Tchoupitoulas (2012), which centered, respectively, on residents of Sydney, Ohio and New Orleans, Louisiana. Like those formative works, the duo’s latest is uniquely attuned to adolescent emotions and the rhythms of small town America—except with a broadened perspective and formal command afforded by 15 years of working in a variety of modes and milieus. 

The film follows five high schoolers from the fictional town of Wiley, Oregon who take to the open road for one last adventure before deciding between college and getting a real job. But what begins as a carefree road trip to the Pacific Coast soundtracked by Guns N’ Roses, Dr. Dre and Metallica becomes dicey when the tires on their van are stolen and they’re left to walk, hitchhike and train hop across the state. Along the way, the kids, played by a quintet of nonprofessional actors, are helped and encouraged by a host of colorful individuals, including a team of female barkeeps, a pair of drifters, a queer skateboarder and a community of metalheads living in a floating home park—in other words, people perfectly representative of the kind of freedom that these wide-eyed teens seek.

By now, the Ross’s signature blend of fiction and reality is all but seamless, to the point that the documentary impulse that animates—and still largely defines—their work has become an albatross as much as an attribute. In an effort to get ahead of these conversations, the directors premiered Gasoline Rainbow at the Venice Film Festival, rather than Sundance, where they’ve regularly been programmed in the documentary section, while also skipping annual stopovers at nonfiction-focused festivals like CPH:DOX and True/False.

In the days leading up to the film’s premiere last September, I met up with the brothers in Venice to discuss this decision, as well as the project’s pandemic-era production, the generation gap between them and their protagonists and how remaining open to opportunities can result in moments of found beauty. 

Filmmaker: When conceiving of a project, do you typically begin with the people or the place you want to film, and was it any different for Gasoline Rainbow?

Bill: Place, I think. The manifestation of each project hangs on those two things, but it usually starts with an idea or impetus, and usually that involves some sort of backdrop, which would be location. For this film, even before the conception of what it would be about, there was a general interest in having the Northwest as a backdrop, or a sort of an end-of-the-trail frontier, and imagining the type of people who could be there. Then we go out and try to fill that. Of course, there are surprises every step of the way, particularly when we find something superior, interest-wise, to what we could ever come up with. But I think it’s always been place.  

Turner: It’s myriad, though, because we’re having conversations about the core of discovery, iconic landscapes, and about how we’re all lonely souls set adrift and how you need friends to get you through. It’s just a fucking mixed bag until we finally arrive at our fixed destination, wherever that might be. Then it’s a question of who populates that destination, and why? How do they people the mythic landscape, and how do they help carry that? That’s the thing: with our movies, the people are the vessels. It starts with an impetus and an idea, but inevitably they have to carry the flame. It’s all pretty fluid is I guess the answer to that question. 

Filmmaker: Why, then, with such a strong attraction to specific places, did you decide to center the film around a fictional town?

Turner: We needed to do some hard reframing with this film so we didn’t get caught up in another tailspin conversation about reality. I’ve traveled a lot through the Northwest, and Bill and I scouted pretty copiously up there, and for us—for the same reason we made a film on the US-Mexico border [Western, 2015], when you say certain things, people get certain images in their head. When you say the Northwest, people think of Portland, or the fog, or trees—it’s very specific. Especially at the time we made it, when we talked about Oregon, people first thought about Portland, and then directly about the riots that were going on in downtown Portland. But that’s not the whole of the experience—the human and physical landscape are so diverse. Being able to start in a barren wasteland of a desert and end up at the Pacific Coast, and traverse all that physical territory, felt like a space upon which we could map out emotional territory. 

Filmmaker: How did you find the five main cast members? Are they all locals? 

Bill: This is the first time that we didn’t directly do the casting. Two of our buddies used to have a casting agency in New Orleans, and for a variety of reasons we hired them to go up there for three months and…

Turner: …basically do the leg work, the sort of broad net stuff before we started having conversations with anyone. This was in the middle of COVID as well.

Bill: Yeah. They’re two young women, and we thought they might get a better response than two older dudes showing up to skate parks and high schools. [laughs]

Turner: “Hey kids!” [laughs] 

Bill: They crushed it. They would send us videos everyday.

Turner: We had a running conversation with them, but we had to adapt, and that’s just genuine. We needed some assistance to tap into worlds that were very difficult to access in a very expedient way. Hundreds of auditions were done—basically street casting. It’s all first time actors. But then the way we work as well, as we cast people they change the story because of who they are, their personality, their backgrounds, what they bring. So, that starts to mold the way we’re writing and conceiving of things. Eventually it came down to these three boys and two girls who were all amazing and very compatible. But then a lot of the people we had considered for those or other roles ended up in the film as background actors.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the writing, how do your films look on the page before you begin casting? Do you have written scenarios, or anything beyond a concept?

Turner: It’s an outline. We usually have a visual script of the images we think will tell the story, so that we know the beats we need to hit. Then what we have is basically an outline—it doesn’t have dialogue.

Bill: But it’s very specific. You know, this is the intention of this, or the hope of this

Turner: It’s like what you would want as an actor—you know, “What’s my motivation in each scene?” So what Bill and I are writing together is, Why am I shooting this? What is our motivation here? What has to happen and how does this get us to the next thing? Here are the images we would like to see. Just knowing why we’re there—it’s so we can set the mantra. Then it becomes a space we can produce and let these people live within. That way we know what we need to get. 

Bill: We would talk to the kids at the beginning of each day and be like, “Today is about blank. That’s the hope, but absolutely be you and follow that.” Then we would go and there was never any “cut” or “action” or anything like that. There was just the intention for the day and let’s see what happens. 

Filmmaker: Did you take the entire trip we see in the film?

Turner: Oh yeah.  

Filmmaker: So it’s not a creatively staged journey?

Turner: Lord no. We shot everyday for six weeks and it’s linear. We stayed in roadside motels. Our production office and supply closet was an RV. Our aerial driving shots are just being strapped to the top of the RV. We had a little armada of vehicles. 

Bill: We took the trip, but what you don’t see is us sleeping in motels. [laughs]

Turner: Basically each day you see in the film is three days of shooting. So we’re creating little pockets. 

Filmmaker: I was imagining you guys and the crew crammed in the van with the kids just trying to find ways to capture the moment. 

Bill: Yeah, the shooting of those scenes was like that, but at the end of each day we’d have to, or try to…

Turner: …to reset the paradigm each day with the cast. Here’s where we came from, here’s where we’re going. Let’s remember how we got here. 

Bill: But it was always open to, like, if the kids went on some whim, we’d absolutely follow. We’d always allow for things to evolve.

Turner: It’s creating opportunities for freedom. We know that we have to structure this so that it happens, but those are little pockets of opportunity.

Filmmaker: Seeing as there’s no traditional script, how do you explain the concept of the film to the performers and what you’ll ask of them during the production?

Bill: Everything is all said upfront, so that when we do start rolling cameras we can just go. With the kids, we were very direct: this is our hope, this is the type of movie we’re making, and you are cast because you are you—you’re Makai Garza and you’re fucking great. We want to see you in this movie. You can share as much or as little as you want—whatever you’re comfortable with.

Turner: You can’t fuck up if you stay true to yourself—that’s why you’re here.

Bill: We’re never going to correct you, or ask you to say anything different. Just stay present to the experience. 

Turner: And we’ll always keep you safe, even if it sometimes seems… [laughs]

Bill: Yeah, we’ve thought this through, I promise! [laughs]

Turner: It’s hard to explain. How do you tell someone who hasn’t had any experience with movies, period, what it’s like to make a movie that isn’t at all like making movies? It’s like, “We’re going to go through this together. We’re going to be with you. We’re going to explore, and here’s the basic idea of what’s going to happen, and we hope that’ll happen, but within that we’re just going to be ourselves and have fun. We’re searching just like you are.” 

Filmmaker: Have you learned anything over the years to get your subjects more comfortable for the experience of working in the way that you do?

Turner: Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself. All the kids did impressions of me [both laugh]. And I love their impressions. It just is how we are. I will be deeply honest with each of them, and talk in abstracts—like, you know, it has to come from here, and a lot of hand movements. Just a lot of delving into things like, here’s how I felt in a certain scenario once, and I’m sure you’ve had scenarios like that.

Bill: And they’d be like, “Here comes another speech by Mr. Turner!” [Both laugh]

Turner: We learn a lot every time. That’s the whole thing. Like we were talking about before, just wanting to have a different trajectory with this film: the experience of making the film also has to be unique each time, otherwise why are we doing it?

Bill: That’s the hard part. It’s a different formula no matter what, every time. But that’s what keeps it interesting.

Filmmaker: Gasoline Rainbow reminds me most of your early films, maybe because those were also largely about young people. But an entire generation has passed since you made those films. Technology has changed; the perspectives of young people have changed. You guys are older. Did this affect the way you worked or communicated with the actors?

Bill: Big time. When we started making films, we were close to the age of the people we were shooting, and now we’re as old as their parents. That was a bit jarring to have that realization.

Turner: We were so impressed with them. We went into this with our generation’s approach to life—mentally, not as an intention. How would we have confronted this as kids? That’s all we can know. But the nature of the work is such that we’re not the protagonists, they are, and they have to imbue the thing with life. When we were younger, if you saw someone different, I feel like mostly the impetus was to have opposition. And with them, when they saw something different, they were curious. And yeah, they’re on TikTok and they’re part of their generation, but they’d also go on diatribes about how the cellphone is killing their generation. It was so weird: things would be relevant to them that were relevant for us, things like music and fashion. They’re unstuck in time, because of the internet and how they have access to everything. They can be anything that they want. 

Bill: When we first met Nathaly [Garcia] and Nichole [Dukes], we were driving around with them and they were playing Cypress Hill. So we started singing along, and they were like, “Oh, you guys know Cypress Hill?!” And we were like, “Yeah, why do you!?” [Both laugh]

Filmmaker: Yeah, I found the music they play in the van pretty funny: Guns N’ Roses, Bob Marley…

Turner: It’s their music! That’s the thing: they are curating the soundtrack in terms of the diegetic music. That’s not something that we choreographed.

Bill: We wouldn’t have ever even thought to do that. Going into it, I didn’t know much intimately about their generation, so we would have never scripted something like them rolling around listening to Guns N’ Roses. 

Turner: It would have seemed wildly inauthentic. 

Bill: Yeah, like, that’s not happening anywhere in the world. But it absolutely was.

Filmmaker: Are the people the kids meet in the various towns locals? And did you work with them any differently? For example, the pool hall sequence: are these people you met there and asked to participate?

Turner: It was a different story for each place.

Bill: The pool hall: those women are from San Francisco and have a podcast. We were on their show one time and we were like, “You guys are great.” And when we were thinking about the dynamics that we wanted out of that scene, I just texted them like,” Would y’all wanna be in the movie?”

Turner: Well, most of the backdrop of the bar is locals. But the energy we wanted to happen there was much more feminine and available, not so much a terse masculinity. We felt like that was an opportunity for Nathaly and Nichole to have a breath, and have a moment. 

Bill: And to see women that are in the world and not what they would normally experience.

Turner: Not shy, and afraid of the world. So that bar becomes this strange oasis where it’s all run by women. And there are these badass, pool-playing women who want to get down to the bottom of shit. 

Bill: So yeah, it varies. The bar was unique, but in some places it’s really just the people the kids ran up on during the day. 

Turner: Gary their chaperone in Portland is just—that’s Gary in Portland. And Micah [Bunch’s] Uncle Milla, who sits down with them and has a big old conversation—that’s his place, but we met him when we were scouting a gas station for a scene we didn’t use. He was the clerk, and he got really interested in what we were doing, so we re-wrote the script. And while we were over there, we took a wrong turn and ended up going over the Columbia River, and there was this floating house community. And we just immediately pulled over and were so enamored with the look—just as a place where something can happen.

Bill: When we arrived, the couple that’s in the movie jumped out of their house and was like, “What are y’all doing?!” And we were like, “Oh shit!” But they were just curious, you know? I thought they were busting us for trespassing or something, but they were just curious: “If you’re going to a make a movie, you need to put us in it!”

Turner: We were down there looking at one particular house, because of the visual thing that I thought was really beautiful. But two houses down, Clayton [McCallard] was out there watering the flowers, and he said, “Well, you’re gonna have to talk to my wife.” And she came out and was like, “You need to get the fuck in here. This is where you need to be shooting.” They basically kidnapped us, and I said, “Ok, you’re in the movie now!” [Laughs]

Filmmaker: These are the metalheads?

Bill: Yeah, the vegan metalheads, which, again, is something I’d never ever write because it just seems so silly, but…nope.

Turner: What’s the name of their vegan sandwich company?

Bill: Snackrilege.

Turner: Snackrilege. [Both laugh]

Filmmaker: So, again, in the pool hall scene, for example, when the girl talks about her deported father, that’s something that just came out of her while you were rolling?

Bill: Yeah, that’s something that was brought up by those two women while discussing their immigrant parents.

Turner: That is no scripting of ours, no provoking of ours. It’s like alchemy, and it’s terrifying, because nothing may come of it. 

Filmmaker: They may not say anything interesting?

Bill: Right. And we don’t wear headphones while we shoot, so we didn’t know that scene had happened until we were editing. 

Turner: We try to stay present in the situation and follow where your interest is. 

Bill: We could see what we were shooting—we could see that they were having a conversation, and she’s crying, so something’s happening. But it wasn’t until we got in the edit, and put the lobe mics to the image, that it was revealed that that’s what was going on. 

Turner: We knew it had been a very emotional moment, but we didn’t know the context. Nor were we going to try to poke that. They just had a very special experience together. 

Bill: If you poke it, you can’t use it. 

Turner: It deflates it. You just can’t do it. We rely on serendipity and it’s insane.

Filmmaker: Are you constantly rolling in moments like these?

Turner: Constantly.

Bill: Well, within each situation. But if it doesn’t have anything to do with anything, then no. Then again, when we weren’t “shooting,” we were also shooting, and some of that stuff ended up in opening of the film.

Turner: Right, the opening of the film. And the swimming sequence. In the context of being alive, those moments were necessitated by conditions, and we’re a part of the process. Those found moments are beautiful. If we’ve set up a dynamic, Bill and I are going to be rolling continuously the entire time that it’s happening, before it starts and afterwards. Like the Nathaly moment you’re talking about: if you’re not completely on your game, that’s it. It’s gone. The moment is gone.

Filmmaker: Do one or the other of you take charge of certain aspects, whether that’s the camera, or talking with the actors?

Turner: We dance. We have different personalities, you know?

Bill: As far as the actors, because the kids were cast by Lauren and Jesse, they were so grateful to them that they brought them into this experience. They were the first people that they met. They had a real bond.

Turner: We kept them all together.

Filmmaker: So Lauren and Jesse were on the shoot?

Turner: Yeah, we built a little family. 

Bill: They were always there. They came on as producers, so they were always a part of the traveling family. We’re all extremely close. There were seven people behind the camera, and then the kids. So we were together 24 hours a day for six weeks. 

Turner: We never wanted to create that dynamic where we’re some sort of marquee. We needed a holistic thing, which meant building a little family, so that everyone could be heard in whatever space that they needed to be.  

Filmmaker: Can you talk about finding the shape and pace for the film within the built-in confines of a road trip narrative, and some of the devices you use—such as the voiceover passages and the montages of road signs, horizons and still photos—to break up what could otherwise be long, languorous scene of the kids just hanging out? 

Bill: I would love to watch that movie too [laughs]. Actually, that’s usually what the movies look like to begin with. But on this one, again, in an effort to have a different experience almost every step of the way, we had an assistant editor. For the first three months I did my normal thing, which is make an assembly. Then Turner cut a visual-only version—he stripped out all the sound. And then our assistant editor, Tom [McGovern], did an audio-only version, like a podcast or audio book of the movie. 

Turner: It was fucking amazing. We all tied bandanas around our eyes and sat there and listened to the movie.

Bill: Like a three hour audio movie.

Turner: And I got super weird and started tying in all this additional found and archival audio. It was so revelatory to have that.

Bill: It was incredible.

Turner: In the end, the movie is all of those things and none of them. The assembly that Bill made basically resembles the film. The thing that I made—a lot of the same shots are in there, but a lot of the other ideas are there too. But they’re buried under there now. Tom’s audio made us understand what was important and what wasn’t.

Bill: He was pulling audio from scenes and putting them in other scenes.

Turner: We said, “Dude, take anything from anywhere, and just build.”

Bill: Build an entertaining story.

Turner: Yeah, and let’s learn from it. The reality is, you know, wow, there could be way too much fucking talking in this movie.

Bill: Yeah, maybe it needs to be more quiet.

Turner: Or more stripped down. 

Bill: Because MUBI came on and paid for the movie we had the luxury of time. It was great.

Turner: We didn’t have to sweat the edit, which we usually do. So we were able to spend, god, a year-and-a-half, I think…

Bill: Well, there were breaks. New Orleans got hit by a hurricane…

Turner: As soon as we got home! Hit by a hurricane. It was tumultuous. 

Bill: Life was very tumultuous. 

Filmmaker: And this was still coming out of the lockdown, you said, right?

Bill Ross: We shot in that brief window in the summer when everyone thought COVID was over.

Turner: Remember that period?

Bill: “Alright, it’s over. Let’s go hang out!”

Filmmaker: How did the narration come together? Are those passages written by each of the kids?

Bill: We always do this, but I think we’ve only used it twice, where before, during and after the film we sit down with the folks that are in the film and just talk, and we’ll record it. It can be used a million different ways, as simple as just being a tool for our curiosity, to learn how they’re doing and what they’re thinking about. We’ve also used that audio to loop in dialogue, if we need, like, a “the” to make a sentence work. 

Turner: Even if it’s just as simple as a pre-interview and a post-interview, like an entrance and exit interview: “What do you think’s going to happen? What did happen?” For this film we went back a year later and visited all of the kids individually and talked about how they felt about it, and where they are in their lives now. Those conversations become little snippets of audio. Tony [Aburto] talking about going to the military is him and I walking around the football field in his hometown and him just telling me what he thinks he’s going do with his life, and he’s just like, “Fuck it, I’m gonna join the military.” It’s a conversation. 

Bill: It was that piece of audio that, for us, just said so much. It should be in there. 

Turner: Yeah, we need to use it. So, how do we figure out how to use it? It’s another one of those things that we hadn’t planned for. It doesn’t relate to the story, but it relates to who they are and why this is important and what’s going on in their mind. The movie is telling us what to do; it’s our job to listen and figure it out.

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