Northern Michigan’s Actor/Writer Benjamin Busch

Benjamin Busch, a Northern Michigan actor/writer has had two tours in Iraq, a stint on The Wire, a book, a film, a farm, and continues to have a burning desire to live, to do, to be. Aaron Brooks spent time with Benjamin Busch at his farm near Reed City, where they talked about everything from accents to life perspectives to “’80s arena-rock hairband stuff.”


I’ll bet you’ve never met anyone quite like Benjamin Busch. This guy wants to do so many things, he wants to make so many things, wants to be so many things, he already is, in fact, so many things, that it’s nearly impossible to define him neatly.

There’s the wistful, contemplative, gentle Ben—the guy who wrote and directed the haunting, luminous film Bright, the guy who writes poetry, the guy who wrote an elegiac memoir in search of his parents after he lost both of them within the span of a year.

There’s the tough-guy Ben Busch, the one who comes through in Officer Anthony Colicchio, the character he played in HBO’s legendary series The Wire, the burly badass with the jarhead haircut and the supercharged machismo who flips out in one scene and yanks a guy out of his car through the driver-side window.

There’s the Ben who makes lousy investments, and there’s the Ben who makes fun of himself for making lousy investments. The day of the photo shoot for this story, we were standing between the barn and the house as Ben and Todd, the photographer, were talking about cameras. Ben said he bought his two months before the same camera came out with video capability. “Son of a *****!” he said, in mock self-flagellation. “That’s what happens with me. We bought this place at the top of the bubble. Now it’s worth about half of what we paid for it.”

“Didn’t you say you did the same thing in Maryland?” I asked.

“Yep. I should be the guy that everyone keys on: ‘Ben Busch is going to buy something. Don’t buy! Nobody buy! Everything is about to collapse!’ ”

There’s the obsessive Ben Busch, the one who’s been fixated on particular ideas for years, in some cases since he was a boy building forts and rock walls in rural New York. There’s the Ben who was always fascinated with weapons and war, and the Ben who wants to make the world a better place.

Benjamin Busch is so many things. He is a writer, a director, a photographer. He’s a stonemason, a poet, a forester, an actor. He’s a manualist, a critic, a purist, a permanentist, a masochist. He’s an intellectual, an environmentalist, a laborer, a soldier, a husband, a father. Benjamin Busch is large. He contains multitudes.


 

We’re standing in an open field on Ben’s farm where he recently finished yanking out piles of Russian olive and wild pear trees. Grasshoppers chirp. Jack the black lab wades into the swamp. Ben cleared the land, then planted 4,486 seedlings. “One for every service member we lost in Iraq,” he says. “This’ll be the secret memorial forest for all of them. I figured the best thing I could do to replace a life was to plant a tree.” Red oak, white oak, black cherry, sugar maple, red and white pine, tamarack. “All in a random order, so there’s no method to it. It comes out looking like a wild emergence.”

Ever since he and his wife, Tracy, bought the place, he’s been working to return the land to a more natural state. We stroll over to a small, forested ravine behind the barn, and he tells me, with no small amount of pride, how hard he worked to transform it.

“This whole area was old farming equipment, left over from all the way back in 1910. The entire ravine here was filled with garbage. It took me 32 20-yard dumpsters and seven years to clear it out. I finished last year. I’m a huge purist. I like to create environments where the only proof of man is that there’s no proof of man. All that seven years of work was to make it look like I didn’t do anything.”

Before he could plant the seedlings for the fallen soldiers, he had to clear all those Russian olive and wild pear trees—tedious, thorny, difficult work. I ask if he enjoys that kind of drudgery, if, at the end of a day of work like that, he comes home feeling good.

“Yeah, I think I thrive in misery,” he says. “I’m one of those people who, the harder I make it on myself, the more I feel like I’ve adequately thrown myself against the world.”

Is that what attracted him to military life, to two tours in Iraq, one before and one after his first season on The Wire?

“Oh, absolutely,” he says, “The Marine Corps especially. It was like, where will you get the most abuse and the least reward? Oh, the Marine Corps will be happy to torture you thanklessly for years. Where do I sign? Yeah, the Marine Corps is part of all that. There’s a great deal of masochism in my life, but mostly it’s bent toward an overall refusal to surrender.”


 

He was mourning the loss of his parents. He was looking for them, the way a lost, frightened boy would, the way we all do when our parents suddenly disappear from the face of the earth. He was seeking them, the two people who had, for most of his life, been the two most important people in the whole wide world. He was seeking them by way of eulogizing them and expressing his love and gratitude. And perhaps more than anything, he was trying to resurrect them, to reanimate them, to blow life back into their ashes by telling their stories as only he could. After all, the things we make and the stories we tell are the closest we can get to immortality, the only way we can even begin to overcome the passage of time and the disintegration of matter.

That’s what he was up to when he made his dazzling film Bright. That’s what he was up to when he wrote his memoir Dust to Dust, by far the largest, most substantial thing he had ever attempted to write. In fact, he had never really been a writer at all until after his parents died, or much of a reader either, despite having an acclaimed-novelist father and a librarian mother. All he had written up to that point were a few screenplays and a series of monthly letters home from Iraq. So how is it, then, that a man who never wrote much could suddenly become a writer and a poet?

Well, he is, after all, an educated man. True, he is the guy who loves wielding axes and hammers and heavy-gauge chains, the guy who was at least half serious when he said that he’s always wanted to be a Berserker—the Nordic warriors of yore who would work themselves into a frenzied delirium to be fearless in battle. He is the guy who would do just about anything to have a role in HBO’s Game of Thrones. But he’s also the guy who majored in studio art at Vassar, the guy who grew up in an intensely literary home with parents who must have had a copious vocabulary between them, the guy who has been paying close attention to many things for many years. Actually, he’s not just educated, he’s downright intellectual, at least when it comes to certain topics—the situation in Iraq, the nature of art, films and filmmaking, the role of the art critic. Not only can he go on and on about these subjects (and I’m sure there are others), he seems to know a great deal about them, and he has the lexicon to convey his ideas eloquently. This is also, no doubt, the result of the fact that Ben is fixated on (maybe even obsessed with) these ideas, so they have grown from ground that he has cultivated carefully over the years.

So he’s an educated man and an intellectual, but he’s more than that—he’s a contemplative, thinking man, a creative, obsessional man who returns again and again to timeless, elemental themes: blood and stone, fear and courage, ash and bone, creation and destruction, life and death.


 

Ben Busch is a visionary. That is, he is a man who is possessed of visions. And in a sense, he is plagued by those visions, because there are simply too many of them—too many things to make, too many things to do, too many ideas to realize, and nowhere near enough time.

We’re ambling amongst the memorial seedlings. “I’m gonna have that all taken care of when I institute phase 97 of my plan,” Ben says, referring to an area where he wants to plant more tamarack and white pine. “Yeah,” I say, “if you’re a visionary it’s easy to quickly find yourself with a vision that will take more than a lifetime to realize.”

“And believe me,” he says, “I have layers of lifetimes of stuff to do. Which is why it creates kind of an endless frustration. You know, there are so many things that … People say you shouldn’t live in regret, and I’m like, well, that’s all I’ve got. I’ve made so few of the visions I’ve had, that you can’t help but be frustrated and disappointed with how little you’ve gotten done. I think I’ll always have that, no matter what. I mean, I could get 12 Oscars from here on out, and I’d still be pissed about the one I should’ve gotten the 13th for.

“I’m trying to have a thousand-year view,” he tells me. “Which is what I always do. Which is why I became a stonemason.” He’s working on a stone wall in a nearby township now, and when we went to see it, this idea came up again. “If someone isn’t thinking a thousand years,” he said, “I’m just not interested in the conversation.”

The idea of the long view comes up again and again when you’re talking with Ben Busch, and it shapes his vision of environmental stewardship as well, which he cares deeply about. “I think that those who destroy without creating are the enemy,” he says. “Those are the people we need to be fighting. I think there’s intelligent stewardship for everything. I like to use wood. I build with it. That means I had to kill a tree somewhere along the line. But I’ll be damned if you kill a tree and don’t plant one in its place, and do it, you know, carefully.”

Ben is a serious, pensive man—even a plaintive man at times—at least when it comes to his ideas and his work. After all, being a self-described purist who cultivates a thousand-year view requires a certain level of gravitas. But Ben is so many things, so maybe it should come as no surprise that despite his inclination for seriousness in those realms, Ben’s default setting, when I’ve been around him anyway, is one of jocularity and merriment. More than anything, it seems, when he is in the company of others, he likes joking around, having fun, entertaining, which he usually does through his cleverness with mimicry.


 

The day of the photo shoot is an idyllic summer day on Ben’s farm, the picture of bucolic splendor. A fly buzzes by. A rooster crows. Cicadas hum and buzz. Jack the black lab snuffles in and out of the scene.

Ben says, “Kick ass!” in a gravelly, weirdly childish, oddly familiar voice, and before I can place it I ask if it’s Beavis and Butthead. No, it’s Cartman from South Park. Then he starts doing his Beavis (or is it Butthead?) impression, “I am the Great Cornholio. Huh. Huh huh.” Both are spot on. Ben is an excellent mimic. Not only can he impersonate particular characters—I’ve heard him do probably 10 different ones in the short time we’ve spent together (and yes, he has a Christopher Walken)—he can do many different accents too.

“So you’ve got the English and German accents,” I say. “What other accents can you do?”

“Anything I hear I can do in about five minutes.”

“Do you have a good Scottish accent?”

“If it’s a line from Braveheart.” Then he does a line. “Didn’t get dressed up for nothin,” he says.

Then he’s back to a proper, formal-sounding British: “Maintain your discipline, gentlemen. Maintain your discipline.” I suspect that this is another movie quote.

“Do you have different English accents?” I ask. “Like cockney?”

“Well, there’s royal,” he says. “Which is totally different …”

“Do they say, the ‘Queen’s English’ or the ‘King’s English’?”

“Well. There’s a queen now, you see? So I rather think they say ‘Queen’s English,’ the king being dead and all that. But it used to be, yes, the ‘King’s English,’ because there was a king.”

“Can you do the cockney?” I ask. And he does the cockney.


 

A warm breeze rustles the leaves in the trees. Jack the black lab noses around. Grasshoppers chirp. There are so many things Ben Busch wants to do, so many things he wants to be. He starts singing as we move Todd’s photography equipment toward the side of the barn. I ask what the song is, and when he tells me, I say I’m surprised to hear him singing a song from the band Skid Row.

“Skid Row is my birthplace,” he says. “All that ’80s arena-rock hairband stuff—that’s my nature. Everything else is just …” he drifts off, and we drift onto another topic briefly, but Ben makes an air-guitar, whammy-bar distortion noise, as if he wants to bring the conversation back to ’80s rock. “Those are my guys, man. I still have a plan to put out an album, but I need about 10 grand for the studio and musician time. I always wanted to put out the one album they never put out—the one they missed in 1987, before it was all over. And I still will. I just have to hurry up before my voice goes.”

“Do you have a name for the band?” I ask.

“Yeah, Bad Catalyst.”

Todd laughs and asks Ben if the name has any significance.

“The band I was always gonna have was Catalyst, and since then it’s been 25 years or so, so there are a few other products and companies called Catalyst, so it’d be a pain just from a copyright perspective. So I added ‘Bad.’ Which makes sense because you can shorten it to ‘Bad Cat.’ Which totally makes sense with the genre. But yeah, I’m a full-falsetto, hair back, fan in my hair, screaming arena-rock guy.”

And there is a photograph of Ben with precisely this sort of look—long, flowing hair blown back by a wind machine, black leather jacket zipped down to reveal a hirsute chest, a satisfied glint in his eye.

“I just want to write some good lyrics,” he says. “Because those lyrics are really embarrassing to sing. The songs were so terribly written, but musically they’re as good as anything I’ve ever heard. They were incredible musicians, wonderful composers. They just couldn’t write English.”

“They played a lot of relative minor key stuff, didn’t they?” Todd asks. “Crankin’ heavy fifths, and …”

“Yeah, power cords, man! But they did the right ones …. Skid Row, Def Leppard, some Motley Crue (a little bit), Ratt for sure.”

“Yeah, Ratt was fun,” Todd agrees.

“Winger.”

“Yeah,” Todd says, hesitant, skeptical this time. “Kip Winger was a bit hard to swallow with all that hair, but …”

“He was very beautiful,” Ben says. “That was his problem. Same with Bon Jovi—they were too pretty, you couldn’t take them seriously. I hated them in the ’80s. Now I realize they actually were great. But I was, uh … My time with them was spoiled, because they spent so much time on hair and makeup that I couldn’t take them seriously.”

Spinal Tap comes up (as it had to), and for the second time during our interview sessions Ben razzes me for my pop culture ignorance when I say I haven’t seen it. The first time, on a different day, we were sitting at his dining-room table, and he was saying, “… my favorite film of all time, which is Blade Runner.”

And I said, “You know, I don’t think I’ve seen Blade Runner.”

“What?!” he said, appalled.

“I always get it confused with Mad Max,” I said.

“No! What’s wrong with you? Alright. Alright, alright. I’m gonna help you. I’m gonna deliver you. Not only is it beautiful in every way, every shot of it … The whole thing about it, which is fascinating, is identity. The question is: Who are you? What is man?”

Today, his ridicule is simpler. “You’re a bad person,” he says.

A fly buzzes by. A rooster crows. Cicadas ratchet up their electric charge and fall silent in unison.

Ben says his biggest regret is turning away from rock music. “That should’ve been my life,” he says.


 

Ben wants to do so many things with his land and his farmstead. “I’m gonna grow beef here at some point soon,” he told Todd and me, as we were wrapping up the photo shoot. “I’ve just gotta be able to afford the fencing, which I can’t yet. If it just requires labor and pain, I can do that. If it requires materials that cost cash, at this point … That’s why the house looks like this.” He means half finished. He also told me once about his plans to plant an apple orchard, and about his vision of turning the place into an art colony, and about creating 20 or so different areas with different characteristics, each one a landscape-inspired work of art, where various groups of people could camp, and about the road he wants to build through the property, and … Well, you can bet there are plenty more visions knocking around in his head.

Benjamin Busch. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. If a U.S. Marine or a thuggish Baltimore cop held a gun to my head or yanked me out of a car and forced me to choose a single label to describe this man, I’d have to choose creator. I mean, the guy has a tremendous, insatiable drive to create, a drive that spans a huge spectrum of activity, from stonemasonry to acting, from filmmaking to poetry, from carpentry to farming to ’80s-hairband-style rock to who-the-hell-knows-what-else.

Benjamin Busch is large. He is multifarious. He contains multitudes. But what does he want? He wants so many things. He wants things to last. He wants to find a way to conquer transience. He wants more time to bring off his visions. He wants to live a thousand years.

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