Brooke Burgess

As Brooke Burgess watched the art of the graphic novel dying, he wanted to pay tribute to the medium that gave him so much inspiration. During this time, he was working as a producer for software and games developer Electronic Arts. Everyone was sticking money into Internet projects, but no one had adequately created entertainment that fully used its strengths. Burgess used his savings and teamed up with two young friends who were prodigies in the fields of art and technology. With their combined talents, Burgess' story of four very different protagonists answering a "spiritual call-to-arms" became Broken Saints. Darren Rea chatted with Burgess as Broken Saints was released on DVD...

Darren Rea: Can you sum up the basic plot to Broken Saints for those people who have been living in a cave in outerspace for the last year and don't know what it's all about?

Brooke Burgess: The basic vibe is that four strangers from different cultural backgrounds and different parts of the world, get the same vision of a coming apocalypse and somehow it's tied into a global satellite network and a missing orphan girl and a plan to "broadcast God". It's very mature, very dark and intense, and it's told as an animated graphic novel. The characters shift and move on screen, they speak with word bubbles, but you also have the option to hear voices.

It's presented in this very hypnotic style with poetic dialogue and internal monologue - it's not your typical Hollywood story by any stretch of the imagination. It's a 12 hour experience that you need to kind of turn off the lights, lock the doors, crank up the sound and sink into it.

DR: Wasn't it inspired by a true story you'd heard about the future of a global Internet?

BB: Yes. It's actually based on two technological stories. One, fairly basic, was actually about Microsoft talking in the late '90 about launching, by 2010, a low flying satellite network that would blanket the world with free broadband access. You could be anywhere on the planet - the middle of the ocean, Arctic, or the desert - and you could have access, through simple technologies, to the Internet - which has a positive connotation: a kind of global village connecting us all. There's also the possibility of a negative connotation, with Big Brother watching over you and having access to your information/ And there's also space weaponry.

And all of those things were a little disconcerting but what links together, for me, the idea of taking Saints even further and making it contemporary, but at the same time dealing with spiritual issues that I was looking at, was the story of a professor in Canada who for the last 15 years had been taking people and hooking them up to an apparatus he had made in his lab that fires low frequency electronic fields into their temporal lobes and inspires, what he called, a "divine response". Now in almost everyone - be they Christian, atheist, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, what have you - they all felt a sense of something that they would describe as God. Be it a fearful response, like a sense of guilt or punishment, or be it something uplifting and transcending.

I though, well if you could somehow combine one technology with the other, you would be in a position to almost trigger a world-wide epiphany.

DR: How long was the time from original conception to completion?

BB: When those two news stories came out I think what inspired me more than anything else, and that was in late 1999 when I was working at EA as a video game producer, it just struck me so deeply that while modern technology could be used to change the world, that at that moment I was making video games, which is essentially drugs for kids. I should be maybe using these modern tools to tell a story to inspire people.

So I cashed in my stocks and went travelling around the South Pacific and different parts of the world trying to fashion some sort of narrative tale. First of all it was sort of autobiographical and then it became what it is today.

The process of that I guess is six months of travelling and then coming back and working on concepts. So, really it was about nine months to a year of preparation to really get the story outline in place and to bring the team together, do some technology tests and to see whether this is actually something that can be done.

DR: Did you originally plan to release it as an online PC tale or did you start off with different plans for the story?

BB: Originally the idea was just to do a novel - I wanted to tell a story in the easiest way. That said, like I implied earlier, it was more of an autobiographical idea before - like a 30-something struggles and tries to grasp ideas of spirituality in the space of all the sweeping changes of modern technology, and be kind of a tongue in cheek thing, but at the same time hopefully be transcended by the end. And yet I realised that I was probably out of my depth and that there were so many milestones already established by incredible writers - most specifically the Canadian writer Douglas Coupland, with Life After God and Generation X [:Tales for an Accelerated Culture]. Here's a guy who's already touched upon these themes probably much better than I ever could in a personal sense.

So then it became: "Well, perhaps I could use fiction to make it not only contemporary, but to touch upon these themes in an extremely emotional and intense way". So once it became fiction it was like: "Well, you know, I think a novel might get lost or might be hard to find a publisher, and a video game will be too expensive to make, on my own, and really difficult to pitch - especially with these themes. And a film, or a full animation, again you've got to go through studios to get it done properly and there was no way that this could be just a two hour series or a two or three hour film.

This really needed to be a lengthy narrative and after really researching all the different avenues it became apparent that while it may be difficult to get a publishing deal for a comic book, TV show or a game, we were talking about modern technology enabling people in a spiritual way and here was Flash only being used for website banner ads and the lowest common denominator of animations. You know: whether it be to blow somebody up or drop a pile of excrement on somebody, or see someone with their bra off. Instead we figured out a way to use it long form - to actually tell these stories that were 15-20 minutes long.

Then we realised that if we made a serial story using this technology in a way that capitalised on it - because Flash worked well with images, text and audio - that's perfect for a comic book along a timeline playing out like a film with music.

DR: Did you have a problem getting a company to get behind you for the DVD release?

BB: This is the part of the story - that is quite interesting. When we did the three years worth of work to finish it online - build our fan base and receive some awards cumulating in the award at the Sun Dance Film Festival back in 2003 just before we finished the series - that garnered a lot of attention. Which was nice. And we had a few studios sniffing around. Most importantly it got the attention of a Canadian grant agency, Telefilm Canada. This is the group that has been pushing the cultural envelope for several decades - now trying to promote filmmakers and people who want to watch TV shows and, most recently, new media projects. The new media branch of Telefilm approached us and said: "This is really incredible. Do you want a grant? Do you want some money?"

And we were like: "You're about three years too late. We've been in a basement with no advertising on the site, dirt broke living on a cup of tea and noodles and begging for fan donations. And, now that we're done, you're asking us if we want some money? Thanks, but really we can't help you."

And they said: "You talk in your newsletters about one day a dream would be to redo it all as a DVD and get it up to a standard that you'd originally envisaged it as." And I said: "That would be nice, but we'd have to expand the team from three to thirty plus to do this properly. We'd have to include new features like voice and surround sound - I really want to make this a special package."

And they said: "Apply. Fill out the application."

So, I put together a 200+ page application and it was submitted to Telefilm Canada at the end of 2003 and it was, according to internal reports, rated the best new media package in the country in 2003. We received a grant from Telefilm Canada for a quarter of a million dollars and we matched that and redid the series in nine months with a team of 30+ as well as 40 voice over actors. That allowed us to release our original indie version of the DVD and sell some to hard-core fans as well as use it as a promotional tool to try and secure a distribution deal.

It was summer of last year [2005] when I was at San Deigo ComicCon and we had spent six months promoting this and spreading the good word, and at the same time I was getting a little tired and was thinking that maybe it was finally time to move on from Saints. That's when we were approached by several distributors who thought that it could go out to a wider audience. That was always the intention. The best deal ended up coming from Fox Home Video.

DR: Did you ever worry that it was too highbrow to really achieve massive appeal?

BB: You know, I never made this for anyone else. I wanted to tell the tale and I knew that it would find its niche, it's audience. I just had a feeling that if we promoted it properly, got it showcased on the right sites and got it up for the best possible awards that gel with the project, that people would find it.

As far as mainstream video appeal - I was never really expecting that. I figured that because it was so different that it might alienate some people. I've seen from the reviews already that either people absolutely rave over it or they're like: "This is stupid! We don't get it." And that's fine because the projects that I have always loved have always earned the exact same reaction.

I'm a huge fan of David Lynch and even more avante garde directors and I find that their work inspires passion in viewers as well as extreme views of: "Oh! It's crap" or "It's too smart".

DR: It must annoy you that people who don't get it automatically slate it.

BB: But you can sort of understand why. If it's at all challenging, especially to their world view, and they don't get it but they sense there's something in there, immediately it's a threat. It's a defensive mechanism.

DR: What about any religious backlash?

BB: The response has been fairly positive. It always has been for the series. We've had a few things [laughs] that have happened that have made us raise an eyebrow, smile or warmed the heart in a roundabout sort of way. I think half way through the series there was a Christian organisation online that rallied its users to prey for us because we had fallen from the path: "Prey for these wayward children who preach the ways of Satan". But of course that was an extreme fringe group.

We also had a few Muslim fans write to us about certain things that were expressed in the series. And they were like: "You've got to be really careful with this," or "How dare you say this!" or "This is crossing the line now." And I would just respond back to them: "Well I warned you these are the issues that are going to come up and I'm not going to favour one or the other point of view.

In the end this is all about four very different characters with four very different belief systems realising that they so much more in common than they ever thought. I'm trying to make something that unifies the human experience. And the only way to do that is to shine the light on the positive and negative aspect of all structures.

DR: If Hollywood were to get hold of this and turn it into a live action movie do you think it would work and would it be something that you'd be glad to get involved with?

BB: I've actually pitched around Hollywood through the spring of this year. My agent/producer friend said: "You know, a film is better for your career." And I said: "You know, it's going to be really hard to whittle down an eleven hour story."

While you can take out a lot of the philosophical debate, and what have you, and focus on the main narrative arc, but that's still going to be between four and six hours long to really showcase these characters properly and to make you care about them.

A lot of people say: "Well you know, it takes a while to get going. Why don't you just jump right into it?" You have to understand that narrative structure is an exponential curve rising upwards. It starts with exposition, then slow rising action and that ramps up towards a climax with a resolution. You have to take your time to get to know the characters. If you don't do that then you don't care as much when the cool stuff happens. To try and make Saints into a two hour movie would butcher it.

We were approached by people who seemed really enthusiastic and where then like: "Okay, so we have these four people and they've got powers and they're kinda different and they're gonna fight evil in a big church." And I'm like: "Oh my god! No! Thank you, but absolutely not!" That's B-movieville - like Power Rangers for adults.

In essence I was figuring that this would be much better suited as a live action mini series. And that's what I've been pursuing and speaking to CBS in Canada and a few Hollywood studios about. We also have a pitch that we will be taking to the BBC as well. So, that's the goal

DR: If you could be involved in casting do you have anyone in mind that you'd love to work with?

BB: Oh my goodness. It's funny because for the lead actors I'd honestly like to get relatively unknown's - except for maybe Raimi, the programmer from the West who could be someone like a younger version of Giovanni Ribisi or maybe a Ryan Phillippe or someone.

But, as far as the other characters go, the main characters... because Shandala is almost a messiah of the peace, I'd like for her to be unknown and not to bring the baggage. For Oran I would love to find an incredible Arabic actor who has not been exposed in Western media yet. For Kamimura I think the dream casting would be Ken Watanabe from Japan who played Katsumoto in The Last Samurai - he's just perfect for the role. And then you have all these great juicy characters for the antagonist for supporting roles. For Lear, one of the villains, Donald Sutherland would be perfect for me. For his son Gabriel, if you didn't want to go with the blood and stick with Keifer, you could bring in a Jude Law or Christian Bale type. And then for someone like Palmer, the head of Biocom, I could definitely see a Kevin Spacey character or John Malkovich. And then there's this great strip joint, and there's a really nasty character and I couldn't think of anyone better than Bob Hoskins for that role.

So yeah, we have thought about it [laughs].

DR: Who would you say are your major influences, stylistically?

BB: Stylistically, there are various influences. As I mentioned earlier, David Lynch. Twin Peaks was a huge impact on me when I was a younger. Also Stanley Kubrick and Terry Gilliam. Time Bandits was the first film, as a 12 year old kid, to knock me on my ass and make me go: "Wow!" It was possible to have a story that was fantastic but with a dark ending that made you question your place in the world.

As far as graphic novel's are concerned... I was a little late coming to the game. Yes, I was there for the renaissance in the '80s with Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns - the revamping of the Batman. That showcased that you could use this archetypal tights wearing character to be a lens for contemporary culture. That inspired further curiosity in the masterworks like Alan Moore's Watchmen and Grant Morrison's Invisibles series and Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. These were tales that not only were gripping stories and well crafted narratives, but they also shone a light on aspects of humanity that needed to be looked at - be it the spiritual side, political, cultural or sexual. They were really helping us to understand ourselves. And that's what a good story does.

DR: When you'd finished the online project. Where you relieved that it was finally all over, or was there a part of you that was sad that it was finally complete?

BB: For the original online version, yes. There was a little bit of melancholy - there was some sadness there. I was happy that it was done and I know that the two guys working with me - Ian Kirby the tech director and Andrew West the artist - were very happy, because I'd roped them in for three years. And they kept going: "Okay, we're going to be done soon, right?" And I'm like: "Yes, I promise. Soon." They basically sacrificed their young adult lives to see this through because they saw the response it was getting from fans and they realised they had a responsibility. And I can't commend them enough, or thank them enough for that level of commitment - especially when they were like 21, 22 year's old. Who want's to forgo their summers and forgo any money and work in a basement for that long?

At the same time, I felt a little bit aimless. I felt that there was something that I was missing, like I couldn't quite let go of the world yet. Of course, I'd made no money from Saints whatsoever and I was wondering whether I was going to have to go back to the video game industry; do I go back to make games and maybe take what I've built and try to prove that I deserve a more influential role and maybe shape gaming? Or do I go and travel again? I'm poor and can get a loan from my parents, or something, but maybe I need to go away and get a cultural perspective.

I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do with myself. At the same time I'd exited from a series of pretty intense and emotional relationships, lost some friends, made some major sacrifices because of the series and felt very solitary and isolated from everything.

Luckily, it was three months later when we were approached by Telefilm, I was like: "You know. I'm gonna use this as a barometer. I'm going to submit this package. I'll spend one or two more months putting this package together and if it doesn't work then I'll take it as the sign to let things go. And if it does work then I'll take that as the sign that there's still work to be done.

DR: As far as the DVD was concerned was it an easy process to work out what extras to include?

BB: Pretty much. I knew what DVD's I had liked. I knew that people were either taking advantage of the medium or they weren't. There's nothing worse than getting your favourite film and the only extra is a trailer. That's insulting when you know how much space is on a disc.

When we were crafting the series originally, and making the website experience itself something intriguing, I was kinda taking my background in menu creation and video games and creating extras and Easter Eggs and that time of layout and format of navigation, and thinking: "Okay, how can we make the same experience when you come to the website and you have your tabs along the bottom and you have the ability to navigate through this space and you want to find extras - well let's make some extra content.

It was always understood that the way to get people gripped by the universe is to create these spokes on the wheel, so to speak, that kind of enrich the universe - show different facets of the gem stone. So we shot a few video features and made a few animated features for the original web series. It was always at the back of our minds that it would be cool to make a DVD.

So a lot of the stuff was already sitting there waiting for us, and then a lot of the other features we sat down and thought we could start recording behind the scenes footage for the nine months that we were making the DVD.

DR: If there was only message that the viewers of Broken Saints go away with what do you hope that is?

BB: From the entire series? Wow! I hate to spoon feed them, but I do find that people tend to walk away, if they've invested the time in the entire series, with some strong emotions.

I hope that they walk away with two things. One with an understanding that no matter what differences they experience, that we are all the same under the skin. We just want to be loved, understood and understand our place in the world and do the right thing.

On the flip side, from the creative stand point, I hope people watch this and go: "Holy crap! Three guys, essentially, made this themselves for free. They were able to get it out there and get it on store shelves and touch thousands of people around the world - as well as millions of others through the Web experience. They were self taught when they did it, and if they can do it, I can too."

DR: If a movie were to be made about your life, and this experience, who would play you?

BB: Oh, god! That's just too narcissistic, even for me.

It's funny, I've seen a few of the reviews that have been like: "Who the hell does this guy think he is? Get off your damn horse you egomaniac!" And I was absolutely shocked and was like: "Is that what people think? I had absolutely no idea!"

DR: The irony there though is that it takes an egomaniac to point this out - reviewers are in essence narcissists by the very nature that they think their opinion counts for anything - er... me included I suppose [laughs].

BB: I had this little war with an online reviewer who is actually fairly influential. He basically said: "Fans may like this, but anyone else will hate it." And I said: "How can you say that? I love Radiohead - I worship them - but at the same time Tom Yorke came out with his solo album - not my thing. But because I hate it, to say that everyone else will... that's the height of narcissism.

I don't know. People have said that I look a lot like Brendan Frasier, and so maybe... I don't know. Honestly, that's something that I've never ever considered. And it would just creep me out to be honest [laughs].

DR: If you weren't working in this industry what would be your ideal job?

BB: There's one thing that I enjoy more than any other aspect of this journey that I've been on, and that is speaking to people. I really love the presentation lecture environment where you have a room full of people. There's nothing like connecting and resonating with an audience, and really feel that exchange of energy - you're opening them up to new ideas and inspiring them. That excites me and I think that later in my life that's something I'll take on full time.

DR: Do you think that games are becoming the new movies for kids to get excited about?

BB: We're already starting to see the crossover starting to happen with the actual employees - with the creative talent - the video game industry has been mining the film industry and luring them away with great salaries and more freedom to express.

EA was the first to offer these incredible salaries to technical and art directors from films, as well as DOPs [director of photography] to bring their talents to games to help them be taken more seriously by mainstream audiences.

At the same time as film was pushing towards modern technology, as far as HD cameras and post effects etc., they're drawing upon more game industry types - bringing their expertise over to deal purely with digital media. With this cross pollination you're naturally going to see a fusion of the actual artistic presentation.

DR: What are you working on at the moment?

BB: I'm developing a feature film right now. Telefilm Canada was very happy how the DVD of Saints went. And they said: "Do you have another project?" And I said: "Yes. But I'll be asking for a lot more money." [laughs].

Right now it's in the development stage. It's a live action feature but it will be done in a unique way - again taking advantage of some modern tools. Also, it will be supported with a new media aspect - an online aspect and a mobile aspect as well as a graphic novel - an actual printed version. And hopefully there will be a live action play. It's not as highbrow or experimental as it sounds, but it will definitely be something with a heavy duty message that really tries to take film into a slightly different direction.

DR: And you won't have to spend years locked in a basement?

BB: No! Hopefully not. Hopefully this is something that can be shot by next fall, edited by Christmas and then doing the festival circuit by the following spring. I'm looking forward to letting this go after two years, as opposed to six. [Laughs].

DR: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Eva Bojtos at New Media Maze

Broken Saints is available to buy on DVD from 21 August 2006, and is released by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Click here to buy this DVD for £26.24 (RRP: £34.99)

This interview was conducted on 23 August 2006

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