Jesse Burks’ 2014 short film “One Please,” is 330 seconds long, and every one of those seconds feels like a trap. There is no dialogue. In its place, we hear the pulse of a knife’s edge slicing through scallions on a kitchen counter, ticking away like a clock’s second hand. In the recliner, a dapper gentleman in a bowtie and cardigan puffs at his pipe and fiddles with his newspaper, his lovely, apron-clad wife lifting her eyes from the cutting board to gaze at him adoringly. For some reason, her ring finger is missing its fingertip; her wedding band encircles a well-healed stub. The camera pivots slowly to Pops’ hands. His ring finger is missing its distal joint as well. Same with the pinky. Outside, a girl in pigtails and Mary Janes skips rope through a suburban neighborhood, pausing to stare at an approaching ice cream truck with a grotesque clown bobblehead atop its roof. And all the while, the knife beats out a steady thud on the cutting board. You don’t know exactly what’s coming, or when. You only know that it will be terrible.
Since its release, “One Please” has been viewed more than 11 million times on YouTube. Because it has no dialogue, it’s especially found a foothold in non-native-English-speaking countries, with a sweet spot in the Philippines. It’s played at Tribeca and at Park City, Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival. It’s become a darling at horror film festivals across the country — thanks, in part, to the fact that the film’s Ice Cream Man is played by Michael Berryman, of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Hills Have Eyes” fame.
Before “One Please,” Burks claims, he had no idea how to write a script. What he did know, though, was how an appendage — a finger or a toe, let’s say — might behave under the stress of a knife blade. How long it might take to heal. Where to slice it for a clean amputation, at what angle, and what it sounds like when you do. That’s because, at his day job, the Benton native cuts people. His full professional title is Dr. Jesse Brian Burks, D.P.M., and he’s a doctor of podiatry and podiatric surgeon at Bowen Hefley Orthopedics, a musculoskeletal care team with branches in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Cabot and Jacksonville.
After graduating from Des Moines University College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery and completing a residency in reconstructive foot and ankle surgery at Winona Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, as well as a trauma and reconstructive surgery fellowship at Graz University in Graz, Austria, Burks returned to Central Arkansas in 1999 with his wife, Catherine, and their three sons to practice medicine in Pulaski County. His clinical biography cites special interests in “total ankle arthroplasty” and “reconstruction of the severely deformed foot and ankle” using “Ilizarov techniques,” a treatment that involves attaching a series of stainless steel rings to a limb fracture, stabilizing the bone as the soft tissue surrounding it regenerates and allowing the patient to bear weight a little earlier in the healing process. “He is a wonderful doctor,” a Google review of Burks reads. “He took good care of my husband’s foot problem.” One patient cites Burks’ “great bedside manner,” another describes him as “competent and compassionate,” and a third patient says simply, “Dr. Burks is the reason I am able to walk again.”
Crypt TV, a media company owned by horror mogul Eli Roth that seeks to “create culture changing monster stories that bring the world closer together,” has been airing “One Please” on its YouTube channel since April 2017. The film has spawned a little family of “reaction videos,” in which horror fans film themselves watching the whole nightmare unfold while a split screen window plays the original movie concurrently at the lower left corner of the frame. Together, the videos form a high-strung montage of wide-eyed viewers behind desk microphones. Some fret nervously, others sit utterly frozen. Most emit tiny gasps and spit out monosyllabic objections like “What? NO!” and “Why? Why?”
“I remember the first time we played it at one of the festivals,” Burks told us. “One of the first festivals where we were actually there was Tribeca, and you could kind of start to see people’s shoulders start to go up, their heads start to go sideways. That’s a good feeling.”
The writerly among us would be tempted to theorize about the film’s deeper meaning, teasing out all manner of metaphors and profundity: The things parents will do for their children! The sacrifices we make to be an American suburbanite, with a white picket fence, 2.3 children, a two-car garage! Capitalism’s ruthless consumption of the human body! (Ice cream man as Grim Reaper?) If you ask Burks about his genesis for the film inspiration, though, he’ll smile and say earnestly, “I just thought, ‘What if somebody got something cut off, and what if they did it really slow? And in front of someone else. Like a child!’ ”
Gore notwithstanding, Burks’ films — all of which have runtimes under a quarter-hour, and all of which have zero dialogue — feel less like splatterfests and more like suspense. He described them in a 2017 AMA (Ask Me Anything) thread on Reddit as “wonderfully odd, and frequently disturbing, little horror films,” which is about as accurate a descriptor as any. “I don’t know that I consider my stuff ‘horror,’ even. It’s been called ‘creepy-sweet.’ Where it’s like, yeah, it’s kind of scary and off-putting, a little bit, but at the same time there’s almost a kindness kinda mixed in there with it. I consider it more along the lines of ‘Twilight Zone’ stuff, and not so much like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ stuff.”
Burks is, himself, patently un-creepy. He’s boundlessly youthful, and quick to smile. He’s proud of his kids. He wakes up early in the morning, drinks two cups of strong coffee, and runs or lifts weights before he heads to the clinic. He likes pecan pie, good whiskey and classic Nike sneakers. Every now and then he’ll take on a challenging cooking project with his family on the weekends; his son Gunnar studied welding, and fashioned a “big monstrosity of a smoker” the Burks family uses for barbecue. Catherine’s family is from Poland, so Burks has tried his hand at borscht and pierogis. He runs marathons. And, while he makes no secrets about being both a foot surgeon and a maker of scary movies, he’s conscientious about his patients’ trust and comfort. His brand of cinematic gore may be macabre, but it does not venture below the knee.
He talked a little about his conceptual approach at a February 2019 “Arkansas Filmmaker Spotlight” session hosted by the Arkansas Cinema Society. His harrowing 2016 short, “Cured,” and his whimsical 2019 vignette, “Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent,” flanked “One Please” on the program. “I love mixing emotions,” Burks said on the CALS Ron Robinson Theater stage. “It’s like, think of being wrapped in a super comfy blanket, but then I’ll take that blanket and turn it into the hide of a giant tarantula. And those eight glassy eyes are staring back at you.”
Burks’ mom, Sherry Plain, was in the crowd that winter day, so when Burks called out from the stage to confirm the details of a particularly striking bit of family history, he had a reliable assist. Jesse must have been, it was determined, “12 or 13 when it happened” — “it” being the time Jesse’s stepdad, Merle, was applying a Skilsaw to a piece of plywood and hit a knot that caused the blade to ricochet and bounce upward, relieving Merle of the end of his thumb. They looked for the wayward fingertip, to no avail. Eventually, Merle, who worked in an auto body shop, wrapped what was left of his thumb in one of his kerosene-soaked rags and headed to the emergency room, where the wound was sewn up, sans the missing tip. “I hope the dog doesn’t find it,” the family all said.
The Burks Boys
Filmmaking for Burks is, he says, “a hobby that got out of hand.” In 2011, his oldest son, Harley, developed an interest in acting. Jesse and Catherine sprung for drama lessons, as parents are wont to do when a young person’s imagination is sparked. They also sprung for a camera, “just kinda like a point-and-shoot jobby,” Burks said, ordered from Amazon. “You know, you’re always looking for stuff to have in common to do with your kids. I didn’t know anything about cameras.”
Undeterred by mutual inexperience, the Burks boys — Jesse and sons Harley, Jaeger and Gunnar — set about the task of making movies together, one of which was a series called “Almost Deadly,” about “an assassin who started being an assassin at the age of 10.” (Burks insists the character is overdue for a resurrection.) “It was so corny,” Harley told us. Making movies, Harley said, was his dad’s way of looking out for him, a sort of tech-y alternative to playing catch. “He definitely did it to help me,” Harley said. “But then I think he just thought it was cool, and kept doing it.”
“Now that I look back on them,” Burks said, “they’re horrible. I wouldn’t want anybody to see them. But that was the thing that — it just snowballed from there. We started doing more and more of them.”
Kathryn Tucker, Arkansas Cinema Society’s executive director and co-founder and a filmmaker herself, produced “One Please.” Burks’ strengths, she said, are manyfold. “What I loved about working with him is that he was always willing to ask, ‘What do you guys think?’ To me, that’s the ultimate collaborator. His creative vision was always very strong, but listening to others is one of the keys to making a good film.”
What emerged for Harley were twin interests in theater and criminal psychology. What emerged from Jesse were more films — first, a couple of entries in Little Rock’s chapter of the 48-Hour Film Festival, and later, a 2012 short called “Fowl,” which landed at the now-defunct Little Rock Film Festival. “Do you know Mark Thiedeman?” Burks asked. “Love Mark to death.” Following the screening of “Fowl,” Burks told us, Little Rock filmmaker Thiedeman approached him, complimenting the film and encouraging Burks to make more of them.
And Burks did, emerging two years later with “One Please” and then again in 2016 with a grisly little noir called “Cured.” The latter is an exercise in chiaroscuro, with whimsical special effects by Les Galusha and high-contrast lighting courtesy of cinematographer Gabe Mayhan (who is married to Tucker). “Cured” takes place almost entirely in a shadowy operating room, and whatever Burks read during his med school days about trepanation — a sort of precursor to lobotomy that seeks to rid the patient of disease or evil by boring a hole into the skull — leaps off the textbook page and into bloody life. Berryman’s traded his Ice Cream Man uniform for scrubs, now in the role of a duty-bound surgeon tasked with ridding a patient of her internal demons — by way of an antique “egg beater” hand drill.
“Cured” is not for the squeamish, but then, Burks comes by it honestly, having acquainted himself with the grosser corners of “gross anatomy” in his higher education path. “My work study job the first two years I was in medical school was doing the embalming,” he said. “You have an embalmer, because the bodies are donated to you. So what happens is that the bodies have to be embalmed within 24 hours. And you don’t embalm them like you do, like, for funerals and stuff. Basically, you get the body, you bring it in, and then what you do is you make an incision on the neck and you drain the blood out of it. You insert a catheter into the jugular and pump them full of formaldehyde and sew that back up. You put them in a plastic bag, you tie it, and then you pick it up and you stack them on the shelf with everybody else. … And you’d have to go up there in the middle of the night to do it because it has to be done within so many hours. And that kinda got to me after a while. I wasn’t sleeping good. So I was like, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna do this work study job.’ ”
“You could see early on,” Thiedeman said of Burks, “in the way he cut and assembled his work, that he has a kind of gleeful enthusiasm about the medium. … It was clear to me that he was uncommonly excited about the process of moviemaking.” That excitement must have been an infectious sort; for all of the polished production the viewer sees in “One Please,” that domestic goddess with the missing digit is Burks’ wife. Two of his nieces and a gaggle of kids from the Hurricane Lake Estates subdivision in Benton, where Burks lives, fill out the youth quotient of the cast. The set? Burks’ next-door neighbors happened to be moving around the time “One Please” was filmed, but hadn’t yet sold their house, and offered it up to the project.
Harley’s still acting, too. He appears in Josh and Miles Miller’s thriller “All the Birds Have Flown South” and in Thiedeman’s 2014 short drama “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls.” Harley’s name came up at the Arkansas Shorts block of Arkansas Cinema Society’s annual “Filmland” event in August. Burks’ “Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent” was on the program, along with Thiedeman’s 35-minute, pathos-laced film set in the ’90s, “Dragonslayer,” which starred Harley Burks as Tim, a ruggedly handsome trucker who arranges a clandestine hookup using the screen name “DesertStorm1971.”
“Dragonslayer,” along with “Odd Happenings” and the other six shorts screened that day, steered ACS’ post-screening panel conversation toward the idea of Arkansas-as-fertile-filmmaking-ground — and toward something that Burks, Thiedeman and panel moderator/acclaimed director Jeff Nichols have understood for a while now: A film need not have been made on one U.S. coast or the other to have earned its right to be taken seriously. That there are clear advantages — monetary, logistical, aesthetic, geological, emotional — to making film in this specific state, especially if you are a director who knows its terrain intimately.
For someone creating art in such a fiercely competitive industry, Burks is not given to self-promotion. Maybe it’s the extracurricular role moviemaking plays in Burks’ life, or maybe it’s just not in his nature. He’s swift to deflate any attempts at mythologizing his gifts and inspirations, and he rarely speaks of his film work (or the attention it’s gotten on the film festival circuit) without shifting the attention immediately to his cohorts — producers Kathryn Tucker and Josh and Miles Miller, editors Les and Russ Galusha, cinematographer Gabe Mayhan, production designer Mitchell Crisp. And, of course, Michael Berryman.
Berryman is for Burks what actor Michael Shannon has been for Nichols — an ever-present name in the cast, but also a collaborator and talisman worth returning to time and time again. “When I write something now,” Burks told us, “I always picture Michael in it.”
Berryman, now 71, was born with hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia. His condition means that he does not have sweat glands, hair or fingernails, and he’s deployed his distinctive look on camera for decades as a prolific actor, creating memorable roles in “Weird Science,” “The Hills Have Eyes,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and dozens of other films and television shows. He appeared in Little Rock at CALS Ron Robinson Theater for ACS’ Filmmaker Spotlight on Burks’ work, all 6 feet and 2 inches of his body dressed in black. During the Q&A session that followed the screening, Berryman came across as calm and tender, as if a lifetime of being stared at had taught him to counteract others’ uneasiness with visibly manifest kindness. He loves animals, but left his veterinarian/zoology studies at UCLA prematurely because his stunted fingers weren’t suited to that line of work. “I wouldn’t do you right cutting up your cat or your daughter,” he’d quipped that day.
Burks came by Berryman nearly by accident. In front of the television late one night with his wife, the conversation turned to a prospective star for “One Please.” Burks scrolled past Berryman’s IMDB profile, turned to Catherine and said, “Oh my gosh, what if we could get this guy?” They decided it was worth a shot, Burks tracked down Berryman’s agent’s contact information, fired off an email and — to his surprise — heard back. Berryman loved the script, and within 10 days, Burks said, “Michael was on board and it was a go for ‘One Please.’ … Actors want to work, and they want to create things,” Burks said, “and it doesn’t always have to be a full-length film.
“Even though Michael, of course, looks very different, he’s very comfortable with that. I remember in the first film — you know, he doesn’t have any fingernails, and he has very unusual looking hands. Well, how do you say to somebody, ‘Hey, you have really odd-looking hands. Let’s make sure we get them in the scene.’ But he’s the one who offers that. He’s like, ‘You know, my hands — you really wanna get my hands in there. And my face — if you get the light like that, it’ll really show all these wrinkles on my face.’ He’s so in tune. He offers that stuff before you even ask him.”
A tree, a tent and a guillotine
There’s a spooky-looking tree on State Highway 5 near Benton that sits all by itself in the middle of a field. For about three years, Burks said, he’d drive by it and think to himself, “I have to make a story about that tree. It has to be that tree.” What emerged was “Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent.”
“Odd Happenings” is also, in Burks’ signature style, vivid and visually arresting, despite having been made with a DIY brand of verve. Burks sewed the titular canvas tent himself on a Kenmore sewing machine; Catherine had taken home economics in school and taught him how to use it. “And then I stained it in the bathtub upstairs with rum,” he said. “And old coffee and tea bags.” The other major prop? A startlingly realistic, completely functional guillotine, fashioned by a guy in California who goes by Dread William.
Burks’ no-dialogue precedent holds. This time around, it’s made explicit by positioning two mimes at the center of the story. (One of them is Harley Burks.) It’s a whimsical little confection, wonderfully compact, and like its predecessors, there’s a clear, singular decision to be made by its protagonists, one that will bear lasting consequences. “I like the idea in my movies that things can be very costly,” Burks told us. “You can have big horror and big grossness, but there’s something even more disturbing to me about smaller grossness.”
“His ideas are so wildly out there,” Tucker said, “but also have mass appeal. And I think that’s a kind of genius.”
“Jesse’s got a lot of Rod Serling in him,” Berryman said at that February ACS event. “He sees things from a different perspective, and he builds everything he does from humanity, from the human condition.”
“Odd Happenings in a Tiny Tent” made its premiere in May at the Crypticon convention in Seattle, and continues to make new fans of Jesse Burks as it makes the festival rounds, some of whom perhaps saw it for the first time in August at ACS’ Filmland. Burks certainly can’t imagine ever leaving his day job in the clinic, but, he said, “I will honestly say this. If somebody told me, ‘Two times a year you can make a full-length movie, and the rest of the time you can do what you do,’ I would like to do that.”
And two more Burks projects are on the horizon, both in nascent phases. He and his sons are forming a nano-brewery in Saline County — Burks Brothers Brewing. They’ve got plans to secure a steady supply of ingredients by setting up their own hops farm in nearby Avilla, and hope to produce enough to be able to serve as a backup hops supply for other local breweries when the often-volatile hops market shifts unexpectedly. They’ve also got ideas about tying the brew to Burks’ spooky film themes, with none other than Michael Berryman as Burks Brothers Brewery’s celebrity spokesperson. Also in the making: Burks’ first feature-length film (again, with no dialogue) called “Umbilicus Ozarkus.” Burks describes the basic premise as follows: “What if you had a weird moonshiner who inadvertently distilled life, and created something he couldn’t contain?”
As for the guillotine, it’s still at Burks’ house in Benton, but only temporarily. “They did such a great job building it,” Burks said. “What I really kind of want to do is get Berryman to sign it, and auction it off and give [the proceeds] away to a charity he wants to give it to.”
And that thumb, from the Skilsaw accident? Burks’ family found it the next day, quelling concerns that ranged from the practical to the imaginative, the most outlandish theory being that the dog might discover it and develop a taste for human flesh. By the time it was recovered, it was too late for it to be sewn back on, so the Burks family put it in a clear glass Flintstones Vitamins jar they had lying around, filled the jar with vodka and put it up on the shelf for a couple of years as a sort of artifact — one that served as a frequent source of grim wonder and amusement for Burks’ friends. Then, somehow, it drifted away. “My mom and dad, during one of their moves,” Burks recalls, “they had a storage unit with a bunch of stuff. … I know the thumb was in that storage unit.” The storage unit changed hands, and their possessions got lost in the shuffle. “So what I’m thinking,” Burks said, “is that somewhere out there, somebody has that thumb.”