Your new movie Garthwaite: A
Film by Ben Kurns - in a few words, what is it about?
Film by Ben Kurns follows the story of late 19th century, early 20th century fictional business
tycoon Rufus Garthwaite from birth through his short lived presidency
What were your sources of inspiration when writing Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns, and what part did the pandemic play in
choosing your subject and approach?
am a huge fan of Ken Burns documentaries, particularly Baseball, The
Vietnam War and The
Roosevelts. In fact, The
Roosevelts served as our main inspiration for this
film. Nolan Pugh [Nolan Pugh
interview - click here] and I had made the short film Coaster:
A Film By Ben Kurns in 2019, which had a similar
concept of spoofing Ken Burns, but had less structure than Garthwaite: A
Film by Ben Kurns does. When the pandemic hit, we obviously couldn't do much. But we wanted to
make something and build off of the success that Coasters had
in the festival circuit. That's when we decided another mockumentary in
the Ken Burns style might be a smart way to go, but this time we decided
to swing for the fences and do a feature instead of another short film.
Do talk about your
co-writer and co-director Nolan Pugh, and what was your collaboration
Nolan and I met in college at AMDA College for the Performing Arts. We were
both cast in a staged reading of a play called Dead
End. For any old movie fans out there, that play was made into a
film starring Humphrey Bogart. About a year after we both graduated, we
had started talking about making our own movies - I had since stopped
acting and he had thrust himself into writing. That's when we started
writing together and since then, it's been a pretty easy collaboration.
The general idea was we'd write the script together, I'd direct and he'd
act. We decided to share directorial duties when we made our sketch
comedy webseries Look Ma, No Helmet, and have shared directorial duties ever since. It's
pretty seamless, I'd say. We're both really good at different aspects of
the process and that balances us out. For example, he's great at
crafting a narrative and my skills lean more towards composition and
A few words about Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns's look and feel?
best way to describe the look and feel of Garthwaite: A
Film by Ben Kurns would be this: If it was 2:00 AM, and you came across this on TV - and maybe
you were under the influence of some sort of drug - you'd think this is
a real documentary.
You actually appear in the film in photographs as the titular character
confidant/boyfriend Tacitus Clements - so
do talk a little about the production of these "vintage"
photographs are, to borrow a phrase from hall of fame baseball player
Reggie Jackson, "the straw that stirs the drink." They tie the
whole movie together. Without those photos, the joke doesn't work. Our
credibility would be shot. So it was really important that we got that
element right. Luckily, we had a solid team at our disposal. K.C. Peña,
Ben Froedge, and the leader of the team, Lindsey Weed, did an absolutely
incredible job on the photoshopping end. I spent God knows how many
hours combing through the internet searching for public domain photos of
the time period. After that, Nolan, Meghan Coates (who plays Beatrice
Garthwaite), and I got together for a photoshoot. We'd look at each
photo I picked out and tried to match the posture as close as possible.
I handed all of the assets over to the photoshop team and they did their
magic, putting our faces onto these bodies. I would come in at the end
of the process and touch some things up, age Garthwaite and Tacitus for
the middle-aged and older photos, but it was all the work of Weed, Peña,
and Froedge. I honestly cannot thank them enough for their herculean
What can you tell us about Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns's cast, and why exactly these people?
couldn't have asked for a better cast. Nolan and I have spent the last
few years meeting a host of amazing people. What really allowed us to
even attempt this project was knowing that we had some incredible improv
actors with whom we had worked with before. A lot of the people you see
were in Look
Ma, No Helmet or Coasters.
This movie is essentially the improv game "world's greatest
expert" on a much larger scale. So this was like a game to the
actors. What's really great about this format is that everyone has a
chance to shine. Everyone has their signature moment in the movie. And
they all play it seriously. None of them play it with a proverbial wink
to the camera. To them, to their characters, Rufus Garthwaite is the
single most important man in their lives... somehow. That's where the
humor comes from. Adam Whittington, Tim Portnoy, and Maxwell Myers
really carry the movie with how honest and serious they are. And then
you get great moments from people like Michael Owens (playing Troy
Phillips) talking about reading a book on the psychology of Garthwaite
and claiming "it felt like I was reading a biography that I
wrote... but I didn't." The great Blake Everett rolls off some truly
bizarre one liners in a Southern drawl. Sionne Elise came up with the
great line of "hap-... but the birthday never came." I've
never laughed so hard on a set, and I've directed mostly comedies.
what I know, Garthwaite: A
Film by Ben Kurns was shot during the height of the pandemic with
lockdowns in place and all - so how did you actually direct your actors
remotely, and since many of their lines were improvised, how much guidance
did they have and how much freedom did you grant them?
primarily took place after the strictest lockdown rules had been lifted.
That being said, we wanted to minimize the risk. Since I had all of my
own gear for filming, I'd pack up my car and travel to each of the
actors' homes and set up the interview. Nolan would join through Zoom
and generally take on the interview duties while I'd focus on the look
and concentrating on making sure we got all of the information we
needed. So in the room, it's just me (wearing a mask) and the actor.
In terms of freedom, the actors had near total freedom. Nolan and I talked
about ideas we wanted for the film. We talked about life events,
mirroring those of William Randolph Hearst, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy
Roosevelt. Nolan wrote up an 11 page biography of Rufus' life. After we
edited the biography together, we sent it off to the actors. We told
them to study the biography and create their own characters - are they a
Garthwaite expert or do they hyperfixate on one aspect of his life?
That's a lot of trust to put in a group of actors. But they all got it.
Without talking to each other, they each came up with characters that
balanced each other out. You have Adam Whittington, who plays Dr.
Richard Fleeb. Fleeb has essentially dedicated his entire life to
studying Rufus Garthwaite and idolizing him. Then you have Tim Portnoy
who plays the old money Edwin Fairweather III. He absolutely hates
Garthwaite for what he did to the Fairweather family, and his only goal
is to make people hate Garthwaite just as much. Whittington and Portnoy
had no idea what the other was doing, yet their characters are a perfect
yin and yang. You'd have Kyle LaCross II playing Bryan Hamperdell,
where he kept pitching us screenplay ideas in character. TJ Wong [TJ
Wong interview - click here] plays
Lewis Lovelace who hyperfixates on secret societies like the Bowl of
Scones. It helped make the movie feel bigger when you had a couple
characters who were present throughout and the rest of the characters
weaving in and out of the plot, coming in when they had the
"expertise". It was truly amazing to us how well everyone
bounced off each other and complemented each other.
I think, if we were to make another mock, we'd definitely create a list of
characters we need and cast that way. But we could not be happier with
the results we got in this case where we gave them virtually complete freedom.
Kyle LaCross II
The $64-question of course, where can Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns be seen?
the film is in the festival circuit. After that, and after the WGA and
SAG-AFTRA strikes end, who knows what the future holds? The goal is to get as
many eyes on this as possible.
Anything you can
tell us about audience and critical reception of Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns?
far, all of the feedback we've got from the film has been overwhelmingly
positive. People get it. They notice the tongue-in-cheek references to
the modern political climate. If they're history nerds (like I am), they
catch the references. They especially love Tim Portnoy, and I don't
blame them. I keep hearing that people love how realistic it looks and
feels. We've even had some people comment on the trailer on YouTube
thinking it is a real documentary.
future projects you'd like to share?
I'm working on a solo avant-garde short film called Variations. It
deals with the different sides of human beings and how they all make up
one person. Other than that, Nolan and I have some ideas coming down the
pike... perhaps another mockumentary in the style of Behind
What made you want
to go into filmmaking in the first place, and did you receive any formal training on the subject?
never got formal training as a filmmaker, but I have a BFA in Acting. As
a kid, I was always fascinated by filmmaking, and being a director
specifically. But I got so involved in acting that it sort of fell to
the background. It wasn't until I finished college that I rediscovered
my love for filmmaking. So, I taught myself. I read books, took online
classes, and just started making my own work - which continues to prove
to be the best way to learn.
can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Garthwaite:
A Film by Ben Kurns?
had the privilege of working as a director, writer, editor, DP or
producer for a wide range of projects. With Nolan and our production
Pictures, we've made two short films (Whatever
We Want and Coasters:
A Film By Ben Kurns), the web series Look
Ma, No Helmet, and a few other smaller projects. I frequently work
with the comedian Paige Gallagher on her YouTube sketches like Chelsea's Choice and
Dating On The Rocks.
would you describe yourself as a director?
like the image of a captain and crew building a ship together. That's
how I like to work as a director. Any idea from anyone in the crew has
potential to be a good idea. I think especially when you're working in
low budget independent cinema, you need that sort of synergy and
creative community or else you can lose respect from the cast and crew
real quick. I like giving my actors space to place and I don't like
doing many takes. As a former actor, I know how stale a performance gets
after doing it too many times. I want to keep people on their toes and
move on to the next thing. Constantly keeping the set in motion so that
no one feels like we're stuck. On the other hand, I've developed a sense
of detail. I want to make sure that everything in the frame has a
purpose. I used to direct like free form jazz, keep it loose and fast. I
still like working fast, but I want to make sure the image tells the
who inspire you?
a loaded question... let me list 50... okay, no. Spielberg, Scorcese, and
the Coen Brothers are obvious staples. I love the work of Greta Gerwig.
Robert Eggers creates some of the most chilling movies without the
use of jump scares. I love the works of Robert Altman and Hal Ashby, who
are both criminally underrated. Going back even further, I love George
Roy Hill, Billy Wilder, and Michael Curtiz. Ingmar Bergman fascinates
me. But I'd say my bread and butter lies in German Expressionism. Fritz
Lang, Robert Wiene, F.W. Murnau have made some of my favorite silent
films. Oh, and special shout out to Abel Gance. See, just 15.
Your favourite movies?
I'll spare you a long -winded answer with a simple top 5:
1) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
2) Napoleon (1927)
3) Goodfellas (1990)
4) Sunset Boulevard (1950)
5) M (1931)
and of course, films you really deplore?
Eternity's Gate (2018)... don't get me started.
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?
Instagram: @thetmkpictures, @garthwaite.movie and @thejgmurphy
else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?
just personally like to say thank you so much for taking the time to
watch our movie and for the kind words you gave us. It's been a
pleasure to talk with you.
for the interview!