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“It was important to us to create a story about Kansas” – The Burghart Brothers talk Head Count

6 min read

This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movies being covered here wouldn't exist.

Ben and Jake Burghart have spent the last few years quietly making a reputation for themselves in the world of shorts. Their most recent, Suspense, has had its fair share of recognition in terms of award nominations at a number of festivals, but for their first feature film, they're going back to their 2014 proof of concept, .

Head Count follows Kat (Aaron Jakubenko) as he wakes up with his own revolver pointed at his head. In order to survive he has to work out how and why he's ended up in this situation, and most importantly, how many bullets are likely to be in the gun. With an almost anthology-like structure, we get a glimpse into Kat's mind as he recalls where he's been and who, or what, he's shot on the way. In anticipation of its on-demand release on September 29, FILMHOUNDS spoke to the debut directors about how it all came to be.

Head Count tells the story of a guy who has to recall how exactly he got himself into a certain situation in order to survive. How have you found yourselves as co-directors of this film?

We've been filmmakers since we were 10 and eight years old, growing up on a farm in Western, Kansas. We'd been trying to get a bigger horror film off the ground for a few years when we got in touch with Continuance Pictures. They encouraged us to write a smaller script, one we could pull off with our available resources/locations. They helped us get the script in front of some great actors and then we were off to the races.

It's almost an anthology film, with a different story to speak for each bullet in the gun's chamber. When you were making the short film version of Head Count, was there a belief that it had to become a feature-length film one day for its own good?

When we started thinking about how this short could be a feature, we realized the anthology-like structure could be a fun way of setting up some wild set pieces. Once we had the character of Kat and his journey figured out, it was pretty easy to weave his story into a lot of the ideas we had. What's great about having the short is that it works as a proof-of-concept, it's something we could show to potential actors or investors to show how the film's unique structure works.

With elements of neo-noir, pulp crime and, in some ways, low-budget horror, it comes as no surprise that the Coen Brothers and Sam Raimi are among the filmmakers who have inspired your work. Do you look at Head Count and see any specific films that have had a particular influence on it?

We spend a lot of time and effort in pre-visualizing and storyboarding, and that includes creating lookbooks, rip-o-matic trailers, and music playlists from a variety of films so that we can not only get the cast and crew excited about making the film but also understand the tone and style we are striving towards. We would pitch the film as Momento meets Blood Simple. There are just so many aspects we pulled from other films, like our influence on the protagonist Kat from films like Hud and Cool Hand Luke to action camera moves of Raimi's The Evil Dead or Spider-Man, to eccentric side characters like in Fargo and No Country for Old Men, to editing styles of Edgar Wright or Danny Boyle – we end up pulling from so many references for scenes and specific shots (like the opening scene from Jurassic Park, drug deal scene in Boogie Nights, there's even a reference to a shot from an episode of the original Twilight Zone) that eventually it no longer becomes a cover of another film, it becomes its own thing entirely. 

When I think of Kansas in cinema, the first films I think of are The Wizard of Oz, Superman and Mars Attacks! – how important was it to show a different side to the state, perhaps a more realistic version?

Don't they go to Kansas in National Lampoon's Vacation? That seemed pretty realistic to us, ha. We wanted to create more of a surreal, idealized cinematic version of Kansas, which is why there is a Western theme throughout. This includes utilizing costumes that have a 1970s vibe, and shooting in older real locations with architecture going back to the 60s, which gives the spaces more character and history. All these aspects were decisions we made to give the film a timeless aesthetic. There are plenty of films that take place in Kansas, but it was important to us to create a story about Kansas – where the state is a character itself. 

Do you think the Kansas Tourism Board would be happy with the state's representation in Head Count?

The audience is definitely viewing the state through the eyes of the characters. Because the film is Kat trying to remember the number of bullets, we are constantly with him, and most of the film is shot close up and a bit claustrophobic. So there are not a lot of wide landscape shots showing off the beauty of Kansas in a traditional sense. If the film paints a picture in the mind of cowboys, blackjack, classic cars, love, and wheat harvest – I think that certainly makes Kansas sound cool. It probably doesn't help that we take jabs at surrounding states like Missouri and Oklahoma in the film. I don't think the Tourism Board would get behind some of those – ha. 

Being siblings and making films together must be a challenge in its own right. Were there any elements of Head Count that were borne out of the two of you disagreeing or having creative differences?

(Jake) You know I'd be lying if there isn't a part where our main character gets chewed out where I wasn't thinking about Ben being (probably fairly) upset with me. I think brothers tend to talk in shorthand and finish each other's sentences, we really tried to get that rapport on the screen. Everything we do is pretty collaborative, but if we need a tiebreaker, our co-writer Josh Doke can come in and cast his vote.

Is the idea to carry on as a duo, or do you both have solo aspirations too?

A huge reason we have been able to get to where we are today is because there are two of us. As we mentioned before, having another totally honest person to tell you that your idea is awful or amazing is hard because you'd never want to hurt someone else's feelings. Fortunately, when it comes to siblings, I think a lot of people would agree that you can pretty much say whatever you want, but at the end of the day, you're not getting rid of them. That kind of blunt feedback enables the best idea to win every time, which eventually adds up to enough good ideas to make a film. 

We like diving into other mediums like cartoon animation, and comic book writing, we think it would be fun to write a science fiction anthology book with our co-writer on the film Josh Doke – and those could incorporate more individualized storytelling, but for now, we think we'll stick together when it comes to filmmaking. 

Finally, what's next for you both?

 Before making Head Count, we would often refer to ourselves in “First Time Director Jail” – which means that no one believes that you can make a feature film until you make one. So you can't get funding or actors or the things you need to make a film, cause you've never made one and they don't have the confidence to take a chance with you – a real chicken and the egg situation. So we are hoping that Head Count becomes a calling card for us as directors, and also helps the local Kansas film community, by showcasing what they can do in the creative film space.

We have several other high-concept films that we'd love to make, and we'd be excited to get into the horror film space. It's just a matter of the right people seeing and liking Head Count, so they would be excited to work with us in the future.

Head Count was released on VOD on September 29.