New Interview with Douglas Burke on Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear
Hi, Doug. Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your number one, trusted method of directing?
I was born 25 July 1963. I studied physics my whole life and am a professor at USC in the Physics and EE departments where he lectures. I have an interest in the mechanism of how spiritual energy interacts with the physical matter in living things led him to the study of physics, martial arts and acting. I’ve studied Method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute with Hedi Sontag on and off from as early as the mid 1980’s. I am a member of the Group at Strasberg in Los Angeles. I’ve also appeared on stage in a plurality of plays from the works of Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, Chekov, and Shakespeare. I’ve been involved in experimental theater and film my whole life as an actor writer and director. I have two other films more than 80% completed. I live in Newport Beach California with my son Sage. I’m also a Composer. I direct from the perspective of the actor’s needs. I direct as an actor.
Surfer is your first film to get released, but from a creative standpoint, are you involved in other work?
I write plays and I choose from those plays. Right now, I’m working on adapting a novel I wrote called The Dark Prophet.
What propelled you to get into making movies?
I love film. That is the best answer I have for that question.
I would imagine that getting a film distributed isn’t easy. What’s been your best approach to getting Surfer out there? I’ve noticed that the movie was made a few years ago but you still haven’t released it to home video formats.
Any way you can get it seen. Then hopefully theaters start asking for it. For Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear, I’ve decided to never release it digitally or to home video, but to continue to self-distribute it and get it seen in theaters. This is the third or fourth year now, and so far I’d say the film is doing pretty well for having never been released to video. Count COVID in that mix, and I’d say the film is doing quite well.
What’s the toughest aspect of independent filmmaking?
Funding, always funding.
Do you enjoy collaborating? Or are you better going it alone?
Collaboration needs to be joyous. There’s no better motivation than to be surrounded with creative, supportive people.
Since you also write, do you find filmmaking itself fulfilling?
I find it fulfilling and wonderfully lonely.I write the characters down and find the cast. It’s all on me.I look for passion. Then talent.
Back to distribution: With this film, did you always have this unique process of keeping it in theaters in mind, or what went through your mind when you started to consider distributing the film yourself?
I look for that after the first screening and final edit. I’ve done all the distribution myself. It’s a challenge, but I also have a great publicist to help me a little bit.
What’s your advice to filmmakers who struggle with financing their projects?
I think it is best to have a skill that pays so you can play at film. Luckily, I have a day job. So, get a job. Save some money.
How did Surfer get started for you? Walk me through it.
I had just nearly finished an experimental film when my son Sage (Julian Sage Burke) was born November 21, 2001. The nearly finished film was not quite done because there was no musical score and no funds to get one made.
The experimental film was cast aside as my son Sage was the new and primary focus in my life. I taught my boy all the things he knew of from when I was a boy. Surfing was one of the activities father shared with son. The first wave Sage rode was at two and a half years of age. Soon I was taking my son Sage surfing on an almost daily basis and was filming him a large percentage of the time to map his progress and to coach him on surfing technique. Chris Waring and Dave Post, local surfers from Seal Beach and San Clemente were also constantly filming Sage and coaching him.
The surf footage in “Surfer” was all filmed when Sage was between the ages of five and fourteen. The final wave was filmed in February 2016.
When Sage was only eight in December 2009 New Year’s Eve I filmed a scene at night in the fog with him wherein Sage plays a young boy in a dreamlike vision of a vagabond Father who is wishing he had had a son. The idea for the scene was for the desperate and hallucinating man to imagine the son he never had who spoke to him in poetic verse and taught him lessons about life and matters of the spirit. I thought I would use it in the vagabond film or if that didn’t fit in he would at least have footage of his young son acting and it could be saved in the family video archives to be looked at years later during the holidays. The footage was saved to a hard drive.
As the footage of my son surfing accumulated over the years I began to see a story being told in the footage. My first visions were of a silent film that showed the struggles of a young boy growing up surfing and developing a relationship with an ocean that overpowers him until the boy grows big and strong and talented enough to tame the beast that once dominated him. The silent film went into planning and began to be put together.
As time went on I began to refer to the project as “The movie”. “The movie” was planned to be a silent film that would play on you-tube and could serve to promote Sage as a professional surfer. Certainly Sage was competing in surf contests throughout California and Hawaii and edits on the internet of surfers were used as a means to promote the surfer and possibly secure a sponsor from an equipment or apparel company in the surf industry. I kept the footage for the movie locked out of view from the public until the movie was done.
In the summer of 2013 Sage at age 11 started riding the “Wedge” the proving ground and starting point for big surfers in Newport Beach and southern California. I started teaching Sage the techniques of breath control and breath holding he learned from martial arts training.
In early fall of 2014 at age 12 Sage rode some waves with a face just beyond 20 feet at Todos Santos Island with Dave Post. Another session followed a month later with Steve Clark.
In the summer of 2015 I took Sage at 13 to Bali for a month where he filmed Sage through a plurality of southern hemisphere swells. A strong El Nino event took place between 2014 and 2016. El Niño was a warming of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean that resulted in unusually warm waters developing between the coast of South America and the International Date Line. These unusually warm waters influenced the world’s weather in a number of ways. In particular large swells were generated in various parts of the world providing some of the best surfing waves in decades.
During the summer trip in July of 2015 Sage rode a wave at a spot called “Desert Point” on Lombok, an island just east of the southern tip of Bali. The wave Sage got at Desert Point was not a big wave but it was a wave where Sage was inside the barrel for a good long time.
Then one month later in August 2015 for three weeks I took my son Sage to Southern Mexico to the big wave spot Puerto Escondido. At “Puerto” when looking at some of the footage with Chris Waring at night after a big wave session, the light went on in my head. I realized that if Sage was fearless and could ride fairly big Puerto Escondido (wave faces 20 ft+) at 13 he was eventually going to ride something big.
That meant “The Movie” could not just be a silent film. It had to be a dramatic full length feature motion picture with a story. If Sage was going to be so courageous and truly apply the methods of training that were being taught to him by dad, dad was going to have to delve back in to writing and acting and filmmaking in order to tell the story of the incredible courage that his son was showing in real life.
In October of 2015 Sage rode his first waves at Mavericks Half Moon Bay. This was followed by several more sessions that Fall.
In January and February 2016 Sage rode waves of consequence again at Mavericks.
In February 2016 on the same day that the Hawaiians were surfing the “Eddie” at Waimea Bay North Shore Oahu, Sage rode a big wave in Mexico. Three thousand miles away from the “Eddie” at Todos Santos Island Mexico, nine miles off the coast from Ensenada harbor the closing wave of the movie was filmed. Sage was fourteen and not more than 105 pounds.
After the wave at Todos was filmed the planning and writing for the feature film “Surfer” began. The surf footage was in the can. It would be woven into a story wherein a Father teaches his son how to conquer his fears using the methods of the spirit and all of its wonder.
In the spring and summer of 2016 principle photography of some of the scenes with dialogue. Tom Badoud, cinematographer and editor, would say later as he was laughing about it. “Doug Burke of Burke International Pictures called me up and said I need you to come down to the beach and film my son and I talking to each other against a rock cliff. I got all the lines in my head and in written notes. Come down and film it. My son can act. I taught him. Then we need to go to LA and film a scene at David Strasberg’s acting school. That place is a military hospital in the movie. It’s a surf movie. Well not exactly. It’s a movie with a story that has a lot of surfing in it. Just come down we will use natural morning ‘magic hour’ light. Well maybe bring one or two lights with battery packs. You gotta have battery packs. There is no power down on the beach. We will be practically in the ocean itself we will be so close to the water. Bring good mics or we will have to dub all the lines in post. The water is loud.”
Months later in late September 2016 just two months before Sage would turn 15 filming for “Surfer” was completed. The entire process of filming from the earliest surf footage to the fall of 2016 took nine years.
Post-production began in early 2017. First, Chris Waring assembled all of the surf footage in chronological order. Then under direction of Burke his task was to reassemble the footage into eight sections independent of chronology wherein each section defined a segment of the plot in the story that was going to be told through the scenes filmed with Badoud. The surf footage was somehow going to be woven into the story. It could not be just another surf movie. It had to be unique. It had to be something that the filmmaker would be proud of. It had to reflect the love and pride that the father has for his son.
In summer of 2017 the first rough edit of the movie was complete and ended up being nearly a four-hour version. Tom Badoud took that and whittled it down to 102 minutes.
In spring and summer of 2017 I composed an original score that was synthesized electronically by Red Bennett.
In November 2017 Carol Connors was the first outsider to watch the entire film. She watched it on Burke’s laptop at her house in Beverly Hills. She is the woman who co-wrote (with Ayn Robins) the lyrics for “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme song for the movie “Rocky”. That theme song was nominated for an Academy award.
Presented with music from myself and Alex Hughes Carol sat down to write the lyrics for a theme song for ”Surfer”. In early December 2017 Carol Connors completed the lyrics for the theme song, “Go it Alone” (ride the Wave) for ‘Surfer”. The lyrics were woven into the guitar and instrumental created by Alex Hughes and that is the song that plays in the movie. Carol Connors sings her own lyrics in the recording.
In late December of 2018 post-production for the film was completed and screening debut dates for Los Angeles were planned.
Impressive! Do you storyboard? How about the marketing for the film? What was that like?
The story and screenplay I write as notes and storyboard. The production is to shoot whenever possible. The premiere and marketing is hard work.
Your cast is unfamiliar to me. Where did they come from?
I cast folks that I had done plays with. I wrote some of the characters with them in mind.
Do you rehearse?
Yes, but not much; we rehearse right before shooting to make it fresh. Tight shooting schedule made it easier. There was no time to get nervous.
How long did it take you to write the script?
One year of going it solo, just like Carol’s song.
Did you go over budget at all?
Yes. I went over by about 50 per cent. That just prolonged completion.
You have your own production company. When did you form that?
30 years ago. I wanted to be all about independent film.
You’d mentioned that you were working on some other projects? Another movie?
I’ve got other films in production, mainly Hotrod, which I’ve been shooting for awhile now.
I’ve seen Surfer with a crowd, and it plays great, but what is it you want most when people watch your film?
They will think and experience time slowing down.
What’s your New Year’s resolution?
Complete more films!
You also wrote a book that your published recently. What is it?
I wrote a book called “The Dark Prophet” which can be purchased on Amazon now.
Surfing since as young as he can remember, at the age of 13, Sage (played by Sage Burke) is crippled by fear after suffering a wipeout on a huge wave. The wave slammed him to the bottom and held him pinned there without air until he nearly died. With his whole life still ahead of him yet now paralyzed by fear, Sage no longer surfs the waves. But unable to ignore the mystical and powerful pull of the ocean, he fishes in the surf, and finds more than he bargained for. This is the story of a teenager who confronts fear . . .