Film

How the Ross Brothers Filmed David Byrne’s — And a Bunch of High Schoolers’ — ‘Contemporary Color’

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Here comes the finale. Flags aloft and swinging in unison. Confetti falling from the rafters. Ten color guard teams lined up behind ten musical acts filling the floor of the Barclays Center, upwards of ten thousand people cheering them on. Ten camerapeople on the scene, some in the rafters, some crouched behind tripods on the floor, some trailing behind the teens and the stars. One is Bill Ross, who knows that this is his chance to get The Shot. Eye against the viewfinder, a whiskey-filled Poland Spring bottle poking out of the back pocket of his jeans, Ross makes an unauthorized dash clear across the heart of the formation, steering clear of flagpoles and leotarded leg kicks. Streamers accumulate around his neck. He angles the lens upward, trying to lasso everything at once.

Later that night Ross would be scolded by an event producer for invading the space of the Contemporary Color show, the first of two nights of performances in Brooklyn in June 2015. But watching the footage the next morning, the musician, artist, and blue-jumpsuit-outfitted color guard enthusiast responsible for the whole affair — David Byrne — seemed delighted. After more than a year of Byrne’s planning and dreaming, dance, music, and film were harmonizing in strange, spontaneous ways.

It was the summer before that Bill Ross and his brother Turner received a call from Byrne’s camp looking for cinematic collaborators on what would become Contemporary Color, opening this week in New York. The duo’s work to date — the features Western, Tchoupitoulas, and 45365 — was lyrical and lived in, products of dropping anchor in New Orleans or Eagle Pass, Texas, for a year or two and accumulating indelible moments. Their résumé doesn’t scream pop stars or high school pomp and circumstance. But they warmed to Byrne’s cross-formal collaboration and his championing of this flag-waving team sport as variegated performance art. The more time they spent watching kids engaging in color guard, the more “we realized just how holy this thing was for the people involved in it,” Turner said afterward. Says Bill, “When they go to Dayton, Ohio” — home of the WGI Color Guard World Championships, forty minutes down I-75 from the Rosses’ hometown of Sidney — “that is bigger than the Super Bowl for these kids.”

Byrne’s idea was to match color guard teams from across North America with musicians (St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Nelly Furtado, Devonté Hynes, tUnE-yArDs) who would create original songs that the teams would perform at arenas in New York and Toronto. Popular art would be used to draw attention to a less celebrated form, one dominated by high schoolers engaged in a hard-to-describe hybrid of dance, theater, cheerleading, and militaristic razzmatazz.

The Ross brothers’ contribution to the live shows would be short, cheeky-explanatory films, to be played between the acts. In rented minivans driven by Byrne and DJ’d by Bill, they visited gymnasiums, watched practices, went prom dress shopping with kids from upstate’s Shenendehowa High. The directors then pitched filming an additional takeaway feature, something less like Stop Making Sense than a feverish, let’s-put-on-a-Muppet-show, complete with faux backstage interviews, peanut gallery commentary from the kids’ families, and blanket vérité footage from dressing room to janitor’s closet. Byrne agreed and came on as a producer. (Thanks to the happenstance of being in the room when that initial call came through — while co-advising at a summer film program at Hampshire College — I remained in the loop throughout their preparations and shoot.)

To film the events (actually four events, counting two shows at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre the week prior — all cheated to make it seem like one show in the final cut), the Rosses invited a camera crew comprising fellow documentary directors and gave them assignments based on expertise and approach. The core group training lenses on the stage and floor included Michael Palmieri (October Country), Wyatt Garfield (Ping Pong Summer), Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Philip), and DP Jarred Alterman (Convento), who coordinated with the stage and lighting crew to best capture both the floor activities and the adjoining stage’s musical performances. The rest of the crew roamed the arena and included Robert Greene (Kate Plays Christine), Amanda Rose Wilder (Approaching the Elephant), Jessica Oreck (Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo), and the Rosses themselves. There was no micromanagement, no walkie-talkies strapped to the filmmakers’ hips during the shoot à la Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. Turner explained the choice to his crew: “If I tell you what to do, you’ll just be a shooter. We want you to direct in that space.”

“Hopefully we’ll all be lost in cinema,” Bill said, watching rehearsals before the first show, “and then we’ll all meet out there on the floor.” Indeed, that’s what happened on day one of the Barclays shoot. Cameras that had been tracking individual teams and storylines were all present for Bill’s mad dash. “That shot was the direction,” Greene said the next morning. “It gave us license to go out and do whatever we have to do to make the movie.” After reviewing that footage, the Rosses concurred that they’d already captured what they had to for the movie. The second night? “Tonight is dreamland,” Turner said.

As I witnessed throughout the shoot, an emboldened spirit prevailed. During rehearsals, with one singer sound-checking after another, Alterman says to no one in particular, “Did you ever think you’d see David Byrne in gym shorts?” Backstage, Wilder glides into a room where Emanon, a team from Hackettstown, New Jersey, shakes out the mutual jitters with collaborator Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs. Meanwhile Greene winds up to the concourse level to find Ira Glass gamely practicing a rifle twirl and interviewing teams in preparation for an onstage ad-lib and then Adam Horovitz talking basketball with Money Mark in front of framed photos of previous Barclays guests like Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond. Venturing out among the public, Oreck snoops on food service folk and arriving fans.

With action starting out on the floor, Turner shoots the duo Lucius from the back of the stage while Byrne, Hynes, and Glass sneak peeks and dance in a nearby tunnel (where sound designer Lawrence Everson has secretly stashed mini mics to record their commentary). On the other side of the floor, Palmieri negotiates a heavy camera and long lens to nail the shot he’d prepped beforehand — a “Tangled Up in Blue” three-quarter profile shot — while Alterman lands his own elaborate dolly shot, tracking in time with the dancers, on the fourth and final try. Up a level and far across from the stage, Garfield wrangles a simultaneous pan up/zoom in from the waving flags of West Chester, Pennsylvania’s Field of View to Clark’s theatrical stock-stillness. And off to the side at stage right, his tall frame visible to any audience members with wandering attentions, Williams captures an extended, rhythmic hair twirl by Zola Jesus, who seems strategically aware of the camera’s gaze.

As the crowd empties into the exits, kids return to the floor to take one last selfie amid piles of confetti and a mess of documentary filmmakers giddy from the rush. Who pulled off this shot, who got that shot, who wept filming a weeping dancer, who wandered into an off-limits dressing room. “It was a performance,” Bill Ross later said of their filming. “You’re trying to represent what it was like to be there, to be the people that we’re trying to capture.”

Backstage, Byrne beams and thanks everybody, and the normally cool Rosses grin like kids from Sidney who got to make something with David Byrne. “I kinda hate that this is the last night. We’ve got all these talented people, all our friends — I want to keep going,” Bill says. But a half-hour later the high school kids are back on their buses and the indie filmmakers are headed up Flatbush Avenue to a bar, leaving the Barclays to the Nets and Neil Diamonds of the world. “Well,” he says, “I guess there’ll be a documentary.”

Contemporary Color opens March 1 at the IFC Center.