Bristol Bad Film Club sits down and talks to Douglas Burke, the director/writer/actor and composer of Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear, a film he has been working on for several years.
Born in 1963, Douglas Burke is a professor at USC in the Physics and EE departments where he lectures. He has studied physics his whole life and is a professor at USC in the Physics and EE departments where he lectures and has had an interest in the mechanism of how spiritual energy interacts with the physical matter in living things led him to the study of martial arts and acting.
Burke has studied Method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute with Hedi Sontag on and off from as early as 1989. He has been involved in experimental theater and film his whole life, as an actor, writer and director.
Surfer is Burke’s first work that he has made available to the public. He has written, produced, directed, and acted in other films, all of which remain unreleased. For now.
Burke spoke to Bristol Bad Film Club’s Ti Singh about how he came up with the ideas behind his unique film and the reaction it has been getting.
(Contains SPOILERS for Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear)
So you’re a professor of Physics? So how did you get into acting? Which came first?
Well, physics was my first love, but originally I was very shy while lecturing. When I was in college, there were some people who wanted me to be in a movie because of the way I looked. I’d always been interested in acting, so while I was in college I started researching the Strasberg Method at the Lee Strasbourg Institute in Los Angeles, but I was just interested as a scientists, because I like the way it felt when I acted!
When I became a professor, it helped me as I was afraid to give talks and got stage fright, so acting in experimental plays helped me with my lecturing. As that started happening, I discovered I had this craving to perform – I really enjoyed it – so the actor in me got awakened in graduate school.
Over the years, I’ve been approached to be in films, but they’ve always fallen apart due to lack of financing, so as time went on, I started to write my own stuff and do small plays.
At one point, I did try to do some research in my lab on brain waves whilst you’re acting and I was interested in the energy that’s created while you’re performing and how you feel. I was fascinated by it. Psychic energy and spiritual energy just became an interest and a hobby for me, so I just started writing and when my son was born, I thought my acting career was over and I focused on making money.
You said you experienced fear while acting and obviously that’s a large component of the film. Was that pulled from your own life or did Sage actually undergo a surfing accident that formed the basis of the film?
It was both. I drew on my fears throughout my life and how I conquered them through martial arts training and it was amazing to me that you could go through the fear of a confrontation with someone, but then feel a different kind of fear while talking to 150 people.
I had been a surfer when I was younger and gone through the fear of big waves, but Sage definitely had experiences of being pinned down as he was always trying to ride bigger waves. He talked to me about his experiences of when he thought he might die, so we’d talk about it and I started to film him when we’d talk after we’d been surfing. So, I have tons and tons of film where he’d tell me what he was going through. So it was perfect, as I had all the formulas about how to deal with all this stuff.
It is Sage that is in the flashback of the film where you see him when he’s 7 or 8 years old?
Yeah, that’s him!
So this film been in production for almost 7 years?
More like 11 years! He’s 5 in some of those early scenes and most of the film was done when he was 14. Then there was another year of filming scenes for the story and then a year of editing. Plus it took me 10 months to compose the music!
When I shot that footage of Sage when he was younger, I had no idea that would be for Surfer. I thought it would be for another movie that I was making, which I’ve never released.
What was that movie about?
Oh, that’s a story about a vagabond drifter that I played. I finished it around the time Sage was born. I wanted to put music in it and distribute it, but the producer who was spear-heading it passed away, so I left it as I didn’t have any money or the music rights.
The same happened with Surfer! I got to the end and I hadn’t sorted the music rights!
So is that why you’re also the composer? It’s cheaper for you to do the music that to licence it?
Yes, because the film is also a presentation of my son’s incredible courage as a surfer! It’s for his surfing career into order to present him! I thought “Oh my God, I need music!”, so as I’d composed music before, I thought I had to do it for the kid. It couldn’t be like the first movie Gull, that’s just sitting there.
Are you still acting these days doing local theatre productions or another film?
What I’m doing is I’m planning another movie that I’ve started and I want to try and finish it. It’s a movie that’s essentially about Americana in the mid-West. I have about 30 mins of footage for it, but I want to change the story as I have a 12-year old niece who’s an actress and who wants to be in it. So I’m going to change it to make her the main character. I’m going to take the early footage and blend in a time lapse, so it begins again with her and it’s 12 years later.
It’s my brother’s daughter, so I’d like to do that for him. I like to do things for other people more than myself. I don’t really care about myself so much. It’s the strangest thing. I can’t explain it. I really love acting, but as a professor I get to do it every day anyway, so I think all my needs are fulfilled by teaching. I think acting is teaching and the thing about physics is you’re teaching stuff that’s really complex. It’s like fun acting. I had opportunities to act in other films… but I just didn’t care.
I did notice that the film was dedicated to Robert Louis Burke of the U.S.S. Rushmore and I wanted to ask whether the story that is told about a man swimming through sharks to plan a bomb on a battleship, is that based on anyone in particular?
(Sigh) Slightly. Yes. Slightly, but with a lot of fiction added.
Can you elaborate at all on that?
I can’t really. My dad is a very private person. He’s elderly now and I just don’t want to do anything that would upset him.
Ok. So… as a psychics professor, can you tell me where the whole ‘physical embodiment made of squid and electricity’ came from? Is that something you’ve researched or has basis in science?
It was something I was aware of like how jellyfish have similar DNA to humans and how squid eyes, I think, are the closest eye to the human eye. Also, the whole thing that we came out of the ocean from an evolutionary standpoint – it’s all related to that. Squid are interesting because when life began, multiple cells would coagulate together like a gel, so the jellyfish and the squid are like a hard jelly.
So, the whole thing in the movie was that the father or the ghost father who is made out of squid temporarily is bringing truth to the kid, so that he can learn lessons from it. The squid has a bolt of lightning in it, which is like a single cell, so the squid is bringing with it the meaning of life, you see? So you can’t explain that to the viewer, but when I talk to people about it, there’s something about it that affects them.
I was curious why you went with squid, but clearly I was unaware of our genetic similarities to the squid.
Yeah, squid and jellyfish DNA is very similar to humans.
Ok. I also want to talk about your 12 minute long monologue which is very bold of you. Were you planning of it to be 12 minutes long and was it all scripted or were you ad-libbing?
It was scripted and it’s a very important part of the film, where Sage’s character comes out of his shell and pokes at me and asks, “What is this all about?”
You know when he takes over the scene and asks if I ever conquered my fear? I just felt that I needed something there to hand the movie over to him so he could surf the big waves. I didn’t plan for it to be that long. I had it written out on cue cards and I had a guy holding them up and we shot it in two takes.
The first take was a failure as he was not holding up the cards where I could see it. I told him I had to hold them where I could see it and keep them going. I kinda knew the lines because I wrote them… but I didn’t really know them. The first take I couldn’t see them because of the glare, and then I coached him on how to hold the cards.
The second time we did it in one take and my camera guy said I shouldn’t touch it. I thought that in the end it would be six minutes, but it ended up being 12. I’m still tired from that monologue because it took so much out of me!
I know you trip over a couple of words, but as it’s so emotionally draining it adds to the realism.
Yeah… but we ADR’ed the whole thing as we are down on the beach and the water is reflecting off the cliff wall, so the original sound was terrible. That shot really took the wind out of me. I thought if that scene wasn’t very good, people would laugh at my son. So I just wanted to hand the movie over to them so they could see him surf. If it wasn’t something interesting, they wouldn’t watch it.
So how long was Sage working on the film? Were you doing it over the summer holidays? Was it done at the weekends?
The filming of the opening scene was all done in the early mornings. I fortunately didn’t have morning classes that semester…
So it was a whole semester?!
Yeah, yeah, it was mornings. Even if I had a lighting truck with 10 guys doing lighting, I prefer a morning light just after sunrise, as you get this fog and it looks incredible and that’s when I prefer to film. I believe that’s why Hollywood is here! Because of that light we get in the mornings.
I also wanted to ask about the film’s second half when it turns into a bit of a military conspiracy theory. Was that related to your father’s experiences or perhaps your own?
Yeah, I’ve been around the military by whole life. When I was a kid, we lived in the South Pacific and my dad was a radar operator for military projects, so we lived on military bases. I never went into the military as they wouldn’t let me fly because with my PhD in Physics, they wanted me to do research. They wouldn’t let me fly because I’m a more valuable asset on the ground. If I couldn’t fly, then I didn’t want to do it.
So what’s been the general reaction to your film? You said it’s been getting a great response in schools and faith centres.
I think that the younger Boy Scout groups that have seen it identify with Sage and a lot of them have a lot of fears because they’re kids and know what it’s like to be scared. I think a lot of it bends their ear and they come away with something valuable.
Older people who have seen the movie… I mean people in their 70s, who look at it as more of a profound movie. They have had more thoughts about death then people who are 30. When you have this character come up out of the ocean, they’re touched by the conversation he has with his son.
Is the Boy Scout group the same one that’s credited with the flag folding in the credits?
Yes, Troop 90 is based in Newport Beach. Sage is going for his Eagle Scout at the moment.
Speaking of Sage, how has he found the reaction to the film?
He likes the movie and we screened it to 120 surfers in Newport Beach and the surfers liked it, so I think he’s happy. He tells me he loves the movie. For some reason, people say I forced him to be in the movie, but that’s not true. He really wanted to do it. I’m not sure how much of the reviews he reads. I know he read the Variety article and got upset, and that’s why I responded to it in an interview. It was so scathing, but I told him it was good publicity, but it’s hard for him to understand that.
Finally, where did the song “Go It Alone” come from?
There’s a big story behind that. The lyrics are by Carol Connors and she’s a legend. She co-wrote the lyrics to the theme from the first Rocky film – Gonna Fly Now. She wrote the lyrics way back when and she’s had a lot of hits since then. I wrote the music, but she did the lyrics and she also sang it! She has an amazing voice. When she was 16, she sang To Know Him Is To Love Him with the Teddy Bears and Phil Spector. It became a No. 1 hit and was what prompted Elvis to visit her. I think they were an item for a while. She’s the star of the movie!
So what’s next for the film?
I want it to go global theatrically. I think the Academy won’t be taking me seriously as an actor or director, but I think the theme song could do well. They’ll ignore me as soon as they see the Variety review, but Carol’s song is worthy of an award and that could bring attention to the movie.
I think everyone thinks I’m some sort of a nutjob, which is fine, but I really think the song could win a Golden Globe!
Douglas Burke, thanks very much.