A few weeks ago, I attended a screening of Surfer: Teen Confronts Fear at the Laemmle in Beverly Hills, the same chain of independent movie theaters where The Room first screened 15 years ago. It wouldn’t shock me to see Surfer find a similarly enthusiastic audience.
As with Tommy Wiseau’s midnight movie favorite, Surfer is a self-funded indie filled with non-sequiturs, passionate performances, unexplained diversions, and bizarre dream logic. And like The Room, describing Surfer doesn’t do the movie justice; it’s a film that needs to be seen to be understood.
Douglas Burke, Surfer’s auteur, has crafted a fascinatingly absurd drama about a boy who must rediscover the courage to surf again with the help of the ghost of his father. His real-life son Sage plays the titular “Surfer.” Burke plays his father, “Father of Surfer.” The movies has overt Christian themes, including multiple oral tellings of Bible stories. It also has a dead whale, some truly incredible green screen, and one of the most uncomfortable portrayals of a mentally incapacitated person ever committed to film.
Burke served as the movies star, writer, director, producer, financer, and composer. In his 50s with a square jaw and long dark hair, Burke looks a little like Wiseau and a lot like comedian Richard Lewis on Curb Your Enthusiasm. When he’s performing at his most heightened, he reminded me of Robin Williams doing a Billy Graham evangelical voice.
Around the midpoint of the movie, Burke delivers a full-throated monologue, moaning and shouting, “God put me together with squid and electricity! We don’t have a lot of time... I’m gonna melt back into the ocean. I wasn’t supposed to FEEL!!” He pauses, then vomits black liquid as his son watches in silent horror.
The monologue lasts a full ten minutes before his scene partner, his son, speaks. This is within a 12 minute single take, with no cuts or camera movement. Later, Burke told me it’s the longest single-take movie monologue ever. It feels like it.
Surfer only played for a week in Los Angeles (to satisfy the requirements for Academy Award considerations), but the movie attracted attention in a similar way to The Room in the pre-YouTube era of 2003—comedians discovered it, then told their friends.
“I saw the trailer before Nic Cage's new movie and I could barely concentrate on it because I couldn’t stop thinking about Surfer,” comedian Brandie Posey told me.
“So bad it’s good” is the label for these types of films, but that description seems inaccurate. Hollywood studios release bad movies every month like clockwork, but nobody’s doing midnight screenings of, say, Monster Trucks. On the other hand, movies like Surfer and other “so bad it’s good” indies like The Room, Birdemic, and Ben and Arthur are bizarre, opaque, and surreal. A “bad” studio film is a chore, but a “bad” indie movie can be an unintentionally revealing look into another person’s soul.
A few days after the screening, I met with Surfer's star/director/writer/etc for an interview. We met at his office at USC, where Dr. Burke is a professor of physics. As an obviously smart guy, I wondered if he was maybe attempting to emulate Wiseau’s success, but besides being vaguely aware of The Disaster Artist, Burke said he wasn’t familiar.
I explained that The Room is a movie that but most audiences find to be funny, but was originally envisioned as a drama. I pointed out that, at the Surfer screening I attended (which Burke spent sitting directly behind me), the audience was laughing throughout the movie.
Burke suggested that the audience might have been laughing because they were in awe of his performance. “I think people at some point have to laugh if the actor is doing a good job,” Burke reasoned. “It’s going to make the viewer feel a little bit insane, and start to laugh a little bit. But there’s also a lot of deep, deep tragedy.” Burke explained that his inspirations were more classical than modern, citing Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. “I love to write poetry and perform it as though I’m on the middle of some Shakespearean stage,” he said. “No other producer would ever let me do that.”
Surfer is Burke’s first film, so seeing his work on the big screen was important. “For me, movies go to theaters, then they go to TV, then they go to home video. This movie could run on ESPN films. It could run on NBC. It could run on Trinity Broadcast Network. Each of those is a separate deal.”
It’s true that the faith-based circuit has become increasingly profitable for independent films. In the past five years, the amount of Christian-themed movies released theatrically have more than doubled. “I don’t know that you can make The Bible cool to people, but maybe [ Surfer] makes it cool, in a way,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s been a movie that can appeal to the faith audience, to the teen audience, and also has a cool factor [like Surfer].”
One scene features Burke shouting another monologue to his son in front of a dead whale. “That’s a real whale,” he told me.
Burke read online that a whale carcass would be washing to shore near them, so he quickly pulled together a shoot for the same day. “It stunk. It smelled. Imagine the worst sour milk you’ve ever smelled. That’s what it smelled like.”
“To me, it was a gift from God,” he added.
Burke said the discomfort seen on Sage’s face in the scene is real. “If you watch his face, you can see it in his face, this foreboding feeling,” he said. “I don’t think he’d been around a big dead whale before.”
Now 16, Sage appears to be a talented surfer, but I wondered how interested he was in acting. “He hasn’t done any other acting,” Burke said. “It shows his innocence. He’s not older than 14 through the whole movie. He’s only six in the first scene where he’s speaking.” I was curious if Sage knew what he was signing up for, being in his dad’s movie.
“He enjoyed it,” Burke insisted. He explained why he felt defensive about questions regarding Sage, who was unavailable for interview. Burke recounted reading a review that described Sage as “mortally embarrassed.” Burke recounts all of this to tell me that Sage’s reaction to the review was, “How does this guy know I’m embarrassed?”
I reminded him the review was a positive appraisal that ends with a recommendation to see the film. This led to a broader discussion about the film’s perception.
“What some adults don’t understand, as a film critic, they might not like it, but the film’s not for them,” he explained. “It’s for teenagers, and teenagers love it. It’s a father teaching his son. If the boys in the audience don’t like it, then you’ve failed, because the message is for them.”
“I’m sure there are people who don’t want to teach their son the Bible. That’s okay. They would not like the movie, I guess,” he added.
It felt like Burke thought criticism of Surfer meant the audience was either attacking his son, failing to understand the Christian themes, or have a bigoted view of Christians.
"Is there a fear that audiences might get it and not like it?" I asked.
“I don’t know. That’s tough,” Burke said after a long pause. “You know, if the critics stick all their knives in it, okay. Then they’re sacrificing a lamb, and you know what happens after that.”
After we parted ways, I tried to sort through his lamb metaphor on the drive home. Was he suggesting that criticizing Surfer is necessary for the common good? Did he mean it in reference to the “Lamb of God,” as if to say, criticizing Surfer is similar to killing Jesus Christ? Would that mean the movie starts over again for the critic after three days but with a 20-minute single-take monologue? Like everything else about Surfer, I’m not entirely sure it added up to anything more than well-intentioned eccentricity. In cinema, that’s a virtue.
Surfer is screening April 6th—12th at Regency Lido Theatre in Newport Beach. Future screenings will be announced on the film’s website . No date yet for digital release, though Burke told me it would happen “eventually.” I recommend a viewing when you have the opportunity.
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