Douglas Burke, a father, a surfer and a filmmaker, has also been teaching physics at USC for several decades. Over the last several years, he had overseen the creation of SURFER: TEEN CONFRONTS FEAR, an unforgettable cinematic experience for both Burke and audiences alike. A visionary artist as well as both a scholar and a man of faith, Burke has gotten to see audiences react to his creation personally with the screenings of SURFER recently. Burke shares his time with THE MOVIE ELITE in discussing the film and its reaction in this interview.
I want to start by getting this one out of the way – what was the deal with the whale?
In the film SURFER the story of Jonah from the bible is interpreted in a unique way to teach the boy in SURFER to be courageous. The whale is actually an angel sent to save Jonah. Jonah is on a mission for God but runs away from that responsibility by stowing away on a ship that goes out to sea. God sends a great storm to get Jonah. Jonah realizes the storm was sent by God and if he doesn’t jump off the boat the other men will die because of him. When Jonah jumps off the boat he is exercising the awareness that God sent the storm to get him. The whale swallows him and sends him back to safety. When Jonah jumps in to the storm he is exercising faith in God and acknowledging his responsibility to God. When we do this the angel is always there for us. If a man does not jump in to his responsibility to God and embrace it the angel, which is the whale, can not find the man. So, the angel looks for the man all the way to the land. Thus, a beached whale is a symbol of the angel looking for men who failed to jump in and embrace their responsibility to God. When too many whales are beached it means too many men are losing their faith in God.
Anyways that is my interpretation of the meaning of the book of Jonah and that is how I taught it to my son in life and in the film SURFER. The whale is not a monster to be feared but is actually an angel of mercy sent to save us. I know it is a unique interpretation because a Rabbi said so when he wrote his review of the film. Of course, what he wrote got taken down from the website where he posted it along with some other great reviews. The Rabbi that wrote the review wrote it several months ago and he said of SURFER “A deep and profound dramatic proclamation of faith. The stories of Adam and Jonah are taught to a young teen boy to help him conquer fear. The interpretation of the Torah is unique and powerful. At last a movie that teaches how to bring the active spirit of God in to the body…Would recommend to non-believer and believer alike. This is GOLD!”…….Rabbi Chaim-Beverly Hills
I met this Rabbi at the second night that SURFER screened at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. If you reprint his review I can tell him that his freedom of speech is still recognized and not being censored by websites with special interests.
Still the telling of stories and understanding their meaning is a method of getting spiritual energy to flow into our earthly bodies. So my character is telling the boy the stories of Adam and Jonah and explaining their meaning in order to get the energy of spirit flowing into the boy so he can become courageous.
What made you decide to go the route you went with Surfer? As it was, you seemed to have plenty of footage of Sage, enough to perhaps do a standalone highlight film feature on any action sports channel. Why the all out, multifaceted approach?
In the film SURFER I wanted to do something special to showcase my son’s courage in big waves. I felt that he did something special when he rode the big waves. He was just a kid who was only 13 and 14 years old in the biggest waves and didn’t weigh more than 105 pounds. He gave so much of himself. I had to give back by making the film more than a series of surf clips. I thought that instead of a series of video clips I could make it a silent feature film with a beginning middle and end. Then I thought no that does not embrace the risks he took to ride those big waves. I thought I have to match that risk and make a full feature film with dialogue that represented the things I taught him about fear woven into an unusual story. That way it would be a time capsule for him to look back on when I am gone and remember how much I love him.
I understand you are a professor of Physics at USC. How long have you been teaching, and how would you say your area of expertise has impacted your faith?
I have been teaching physics at the University level for 30 years. Physics for me has made my Faith stronger. The more you study the universe the more you see its infinite mystery and the more you realize we didn’t build it. Once you see the universe through the understanding of the looking glass of physics you become humbled and awestruck. That is just from studying the big bang and atomic structure. Then if you look at life forms you realize how improbable and unusual it is that we are here and you begin to cherish life and all life forms…humans and whales too.
When exactly did you start filming your very first footage for this movie? You clearly have a much younger Sage making appearances here, so was this movie always in the back of your mind from then?
The earliest surf footage that is actually in the film is from 2006. The earliest dialogue with Sage is from 2007. The last frame of the film with Sage was shot in 2016. The editing and post production was finished at the end of 2017. The film is in theatres in 2018.
As far as the plot goes, was the idea based on real life as far as Sage’s attitude, or yours as a concerned father watching his son approach a very strong ocean? Or perhaps neither?
He definitely had some very heavy wipeouts where he was shaken to his core and I taught him how to deal with it by way of the techniques I talk to his character about in the film. So the idea of being traumatized by big waves and having to push through the fear to go in bigger waves was from his real life experiences in big waves. The other aspects of the plot are clearly fantasy as you know.
What has been Sage’s reaction and attitude toward this whole endeavor?
He was really excited that we were doing this and he loved travelling around the world and surfing all those big waves. In the last year of filming the surf footage in February of 2016 he rode the giant waves that you see at the end of the film. He was very proud of that wave and so was I. Up to that point all of the work was 100 percent fun for him. Then I told him that since he got those big waves did he want to make a feature film with a story and do some acting. He said yes.It was during that following year that he realized how much work is involved. He realized that along with all the fun there was some real hard work that had to be done. He gained a lot of respect for the time it takes to complete a feature film and how many people are involved. He realized that to do something like that takes a lot of people working together. When he saw it all put together for the first time in the Lido Theater in Newport Beach he was happy. I asked him what I should tell you and he said “Say it was a really cool experience and fun to make that movie.”
What was it about the faith based approach that appealed to you in putting all this together? Why this approach and not a more standard idea? Did you ever consider going that route, or did you always have this in mind when filming the big wave footage, a younger Sage, etc?
As his father I was always teaching him spiritual lessons and Faith in the infinite spirit in everyone was a theme from the real Father and Son dialogue between us. So it was stuff I had already been teaching him. Also I asked myself a question “What if he were going through life in a state of fear and I wasn’t here because I had already died. If God said I could go talk to him for two hours to try and help him what would I say.” Well that is the stuff in the movie that you see. If you are able to do what I teach in the film, you can get through anything. Nothing can frighten you. It is a meditation technique.
Since Sage was growing and changing so fast for continuity purposes I had to have my character be a ghost type of a being the first time Sage meets me in the story so we could flash back through the many years of surf footage since it told a story in and of itself. So if my character is a type of ghost from the spirit world it would make sense that I would be talking about spiritual energy and faith and all that stuff.
A more standard idea would have been where I was a coach or mentor and we filmed it in real time. If we did that we would have lost the means of using all the earlier surf footage which showed a gradual development of his character through many years. You see throughout all those years I was structuring a silent film which was really just boy fights big powerful ocean, boy grows up and tames ocean. Boy becomes man. Then when I shifted gears to a talkie feature with story the method I chose allowed me to employ some of the essence of the silent film I had been working on. In fact the last 20 minutes of the SURFER is like a silent.
How would you describe your relationship between faith and the ocean? Has this always been a combination for you, or did it suddenly dawn on you one day to put the two together as concepts on film?
In my early years between the ages of twelve and sixteen I lived in the South Pacific on an island. I would spend many hours alone on or in the ocean and would find a deep state of peace from it. It was always a doorway to the spirit world for me and it still is.
How would you describe the reaction from the audience? Were you expecting the positives or negatives going in, taking the risk in the approach?
The great thing about an audience is that I can let go and let them be. Whatever their reaction is will be. When you are in a fever to create you just paint and the paint lands where it lands. I had no expectations. I only had a need to paint a picture. You talk about risks. The risks in SURFER are many and some are very complex.
Aristotle explained in his “Poetics” a detailed prescription for comic catharsis by way of a character who is a comic poet. The character is in a ridiculous plot situation and his poetry is about universal truths and or the Divine. This describes the father character in SURFER. Aristotle talks about a type of comic error in the ridiculous that gives additional comic catharsis. This error is in SURFER and is encapsulated in the line, “I wasn’t supposed to feel”. Those who have seen the movie remember this line. Yet when the ghost of the father feels pain there is no pathos for him because after all how can you feel pity for a ghost. Ghosts don’t have to worry about the fear of death. They are already dead. Aren’t they? Still the father in SURFER is not 100 percent an Aristotle comic poet because you cannot really say that he imitates the actions of the inferior so there is not an exact correlation. He seems more like he is imitating the actions of the superior which is Aristotle’s prescription of a tragic poet but let’s ignore that for the moment and talk about Aristotle’s comic catharsis through the words of the comic poet.
As Masahiro Katano points out in her 2001 article (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1f8f/18187a8f993451b38165aab239acd498c1f8.pdf) Aristotle’s Theory on Comedy:Myth and Catharsis, “…the comic poets deal with the universal. In other words, the ridiculous in comedy which contains a universal plot arouses in the audience the purified emotion…” What she is talking about is when a comic poet speaks subject matter involving universal truths embedded in s ridiculous plot a type of comic catharsis is invoked. This is a more of a purified type of comedy that does not arise from the misfortunes of others. This is what would be called “Middle Comedy”. This describes the ten-minute monologue in SURFER. The father fits the definition of a comic poet delivering poetry which involves universal truths about time and the purpose of life on earth. The result is a comic catharsis in the audience.
You might ask why a father who wanted to help his son overcome fear would appear as a comic poet. To be a great warrior and conquer your fears you have to learn how to laugh when you are really sad. The forces that create sadness and fear and the feeling that you are stuck are wicked forces. You have to laugh at the wicked forces trying to drag you down into a state of fear. This method of laughter is taught to us in Psalms 37:12-13 Tanakh where the lord laughs at the wicked or in Job 39:22 where the spirit allows the horse to laugh at fear. This is the laughter the father is trying push his son into so the son can stop suffering from fear. The father in SURFER describes the laughter as the “…the warrior angels and they are laughing so loud and I want you to get there…”. The laughter of the warrior angels. That reminds me of the midnight movie cult film crowd. They are like a bunch of angels laughing at fear and having a good time.
According to Aristotle Tragedy should involve pity and fear and should imitate superior action. This describes the boy in SURFER played by my son Sage. He is in a pitiful state of fear from a near death experience surfing a large wave. He conquers his fears by way of lessons from his father. This invokes the pleasure of learning. So his dramatic arc is a tragedy. In conquering his fears he rides large waves and portrays superior action. The ending for him can considered to be sad as a tragedy requires. The audience would have the final verdict on whether the ending in SURFER is sad through the eyes of the boy. Aristotle would say that in a tragedy a happy ending doesn’t make us happy. The audience can also grapple with whether or not there is a tragic flaw in the character of the boy and what it is and whether or not Aristotle’s tragic error exists in the story.
The two primary characters, father and son, in the picture play SURFER are in totally different dramatic trajectories. One is comic and one is tragic. This would be considered a big risk for a dramatist. It is a fun concept. People can’t quite put a label on SURFER comedy, tragedy, satire, or whatever. That makes some people very uncomfortable. I was only painting from my spirit, so the catharsis was in the process of painting the picture not in the expectation of any result from what was painted. So whatever positive or negative reactions there are that come from the audience, I did not anticipate or expect any particular type of reaction.
Thus, in my fever of creating SURFER I took a lot of risks and broke a lot of rules. I certainly gave the comic poet the actions of the superior and in doing so broke one of Aristotle’s rules for comic catharsis. Also Aristotle probably would not like a ten minute poetic monologue since he did say ‘highly elaborate diction conceals both character and thought’ (1460b:5). I want to add that so my critics who didn’t like the monologue can feel like they are smart and intelligent like Aristotle. Still as explained some of the structure in SURFER is consistent with Aristotle’s theories on drama.
Yet even more than Aristotle SURFER breaks lots of the rules of “good or standard” film making and certainly brings dramatic theatrical acting to the movie screen. I have people tell me ‘… you can’t act in a movie like you are on some stage in England hundreds of years ago screaming poetry. If you are not making a Shakespeare movie you can’t scream poetry. You can’t do that in movie…’ I simply do not know why I cannot do that because I did it. So, the fact that I broke so many rules I think makes the audience feel that they too are allowed to break rules and let their creative spirit be unleashed. I think that makes them happy. I imagine they laugh when they think of stuffy film critics in their ivory tower having strokes over the fact that the movie is so unpredictable, and they can’t anticipate what will happen next. I think they laugh at the possibility that it is okay to break rules. Breaking rules doesn’t make you turn into a pumpkin. It didn’t make me turn into one.
Now that it’s all said and done, would you have approached Surfer the same way?
It has been such a long drawn out process I do not know what I would have done differently. That question requires more introspection than I can process right now so I cannot give you an honest response.
Are you planning any other projects in the near future?
I have another film done but it needs music. A third film is half done. I hope to finish shooting that in the summer of 2019.
Thank you for your time and we look forward to seeing what comes next!
Thank you for watching SURFER: Teen Confronts Fear.