In sibling directors Bill and Turner Ross’ new movie “Gasoline Rainbow,” a group of five teenagers embark on a hectic, sweltering roadtrip from rural Oregan to the Pacific Coast. Over the course of that evocative journey, they get lost, get stoned, make a lot of friends, and swap many stories. Eschewing plot for the unbridled energy of untethered youth, “Gasoline Rainbow” might strike newcomers to the Ross brothers as a pure documentary exercise, the kind of absorbing cinema vérité endeavor in which cameras follow every unscripted move.
However, this is a Ross brothers movie, and defies such labels by design. For over a decade, these innovative filmmakers haven’t troubled the barriers between fiction and non-fiction so much as they have tried to ignore them entirely — and with this one, they’re ready to move past scrutiny of that process for good.
“We are desperate not to have this fucking conversation ever again,” Turner said in a Zoom interview this month, a few weeks away from the premiere of “Gasoline Rainbow” at Venice. “There’s so much more to talk about.”
Yet much about what the Rosses do invites questions about the nature of their methods, given how little of it can be discerned on the surface. From 2012’s “Tchoupitoulas,” another teen-based odyssey set across a single night in New Orleans, all the way through 2020’s “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” which takes place in a Las Vegas bar but was actually shot in a set almost 2,000 miles away, the Rosses have integrated non-actors into quasi-scripted scenarios and unleashed them into a non-fiction framework.
That inventive approach has led more documentary filmmakers to embrace the work outright, even as the pair have resisted categorization. “It’s so binary, and the documentary community — the non-fiction community — has really been kind to us,” Turner said. “But the modes with which we operate are not part of the code around how journalistic documentary works. We look at this as a creative endeavor. We’re making movies. This is art for us. To get to the most honest place has meant dealing with honest people in honest situations, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be constructed.”
With “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” the Rosses were enmeshed in questions around their process from the beginning, as Sundance chose to program the movie in its U.S. Documentary competiton. “It was really frustrating the last time around to be mired in that conversation about whether it was real or not,” Turner said. “It really missed the whole point.”
With that project, the directors cast mostly non-actors in a range of roles — from bartender to barflies — and guided them through an wild night of heavy drinking as the fake bar accrued authenticity through improvised behavior. Turner said he felt their cast was blindsided by the reaction to the process. “They were really giving themselves to performance and instead were read didactically as people who lived in a documentary,” Turner said.
The brothers concluded that they might be able to evade a similar experience with “Gasoline Rainbow” by beginning its journey with a Venice premiere, as the rigid definitions surrounding documentary filmmaking have less potency across Europe. “We want to go further in these creative directors,” Turner said. “People will have an experience with this movie. We don’t want them to come out and wonder if it was real or not.”
Bill, joining Turner over Zoom, grinned. “But we know it’s gonna happen,” he said.
If Turner gets the benefit of the doubt — if they never have this fucking conversation again — it’s because the cultural standards for differentiating truth from fiction have become murky enough across society in recent years that newer generations have outgrown the distinction. That includes the subjects of “Gasoline Rainbow,” closeknit friends who use their real names: Micah Bunch, Nathaly Garcia, Nichole Dukes, Tony Aburto, and Makai Garcia, an arty bunch of wanderers who feel out of place with societal expectations. The movie plunges into their carefree journey from the opening moments and stays with them as they encounter a wide array of largely upbeat and welcoming characters along the way.
While the directors have cited “Easy Rider” as an influence, the kind of dusty soul-searching on display suggests Jack Kerouac for the TikTok era, and the movie unfolds in those terms: tiny slices of playful vignettes accumulate into a cosmic whole. The Ross brothers mapped out the trip and guided their subjects through it, but largely allowed them to navigate the landscape on their own terms.
“We wanted to see what it was to be an 18-year-old kid in this moment in time,” Turner said, “and define these new frontiers. What are the American dreams of kids these days? We knew how to choreograph a journey, but we needed genuine kids. The people who inhabited the film inhabited these spaces. While the paradigm is artifice, the experience is genuine for them.”
The brothers first began workshoping the concept in early 2020, shortly before COVID struck and slowed down their plans. The shoot finally took place over the course of six weeks in 2021, in between nationwide lockdowns, with a DIY crew of seven people. The Rosses had more financial support this time, thanks to production costs covered by MUBI (which will distribute the movie in several territories, including North America) and XTR. That demanded more permits and fewer guerilla setups, but no less grit.
“The aerial driving shots are from me being strapped to the top of an RV,” Turner said. “Nothing is union and nothing is code.” Bill, who tends to complement his brother’s extensive insights with asterisk-like details, chimed in: “There were no second takes.”
The young actors were often thrown into complicated circumstances that tested the boundaries of their roles. In one compelling sequence, they meet a young man on the side of a desert road and follow him to a covert hangout in the woods, where they end up spending the night. When they return to their vehicle in the morning, it has been stripped of its wheels, forcing the group to walk miles to the next rest stop. “It was 120 degrees outside and the asphalt was metling,” Turner said. “It was amazing for dramatic effect.”
Bill again: “Morale was very low that day.”
No matter the physical challenges of the shoot, though, the Rosses managed to keep their cast engaged. In several instances, the group encounters new friends, who bring them along to house parties, local bars, a skate park, a punk show, and ultimately onto a boat. The generosity from like-minded outcasts enhances the positivity at hand. “There was this barter system of care,” Turner said. “It was really cool when our cast interacted people and they would see someone else like them that they’ve never been able to see in their own environments. And it was amazing to watch these little epihanies happening all the time.”
That process culminates with a staggering “End of the World” party, the ultimate “fuck you” to the pandemic. Its disruptive impact on modern teenage life can be felt throughout each scene, even as nobody states it outright. “We didn’t want COVID to be in the movie, but that feeling was in the air — partying like there’s no tomorrow,” Turner said.
With time, their subjects reveal small details about their backstories that lend to the broader sense of their alienation from the world. One character’s family was pulled apart by deportation, and another by addiction, but their newfound community allows them to escape the bad vibes of their past.
“The kids are sharing their own upbringing,” Bill said. “We set up scenarions in which they would walk into a situation that was already happening, and they revealed what they wanted to reveal, but those situations were very genuine.”
The Rosses, both in their forties, were older than some of their characters’ parents. With that degree of distance, they said they were caught off-guard by the underlying idealism the kids brought to the project. “If we made a film about our generation, I think it would be bleaker,” Bill said. “We found with the five of them a lot of optimism, even knowing what they were growing up in. They were curious, adventurous, and that surprised us. They wanted real experiences, not the experiences of their phones. That gave me a lot of hope.”
Turner added the media convergence of today’s youth made them more amenable to the unpredictable encounters that the Rosses created for the shoot. “Their generation is unstuck in time because of the internet,” he said. “They’re listening to Cypress Hill and whatever’s happening on TikTok. Our generation would’ve had more animus toward a stranger, someone who looked different. They didn’t. It was really rather beautiful.”
Having made it to the other side of this prolonged undertaking, the Rosses have settled back into the odd jobs that sustain their unwieldy filmmaking approach. Turner acts on the side and has a recurring role as a bartender in Taylor Sheridan’s upcoming “Lawmen: Bass Reeves” for Paramount+. Bill shoots and edits other projects (among his credits: 2016’s Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro”). This balancing act suits their desire to make movies on the margins of American film culture rather than pursuing commercial opportunities. “We’re staying a little under the radar,” Turner said, “so we can keep causing trouble.”
The endpoint for “Gasoline Rainbow” has struck them as bittersweet. “It’s sad because the film is done and the conversation with this thing is over,” Bill said. “I can’t even tell you why we made the film now. It’s just weird to be here.” They remain drawn to uncertainty and risk as they sort through piles of ideas for new projects. “The work that we do resembles the lives that we live,” Turner said. “If each of these films is processing something and trying to discover something, to go up to the edge and hope there’s an updrift when we walk off the cliff — well, that’s what we enjoy doing.”
Whatever they do next — they declined to offer details — the Rosses insisted that their approach would remain the same. “Working the way that we do makes us feel so alive,” Turner said. “The process is the point of doing it. To sit in a manufactured setting in which everyone knows all the beats … we’ve worked in those spaces, and it can be … interesting.”
Bill chimed in once more: “Or boring,” he said.
“Gasoline Rainbow” premieres at the 2023 Venice Film Festival. MUBI releases it in North America this fall.