The man behind the web phenomenon discusses coming up with the idea, starving for your art and his new project The Seventh Shore

Brooke Burgess has pushed the envelope of what the internet marketplace will bear as far as watching media online. In an age where you can videotape yourself pushing grandma into a pool, post that footage on a site like You Tube and then get a development deal with a web content provider, Burgess took the high road in his creation of Broken Saints: Complete Series. Having told the story in "byte sized installments" over three years, Burgess proved that you could make something wholly original and take your time in telling your story.

The tale of Broken Saints begins in the quiet corners of the globe, four strangers - a cynical American programmer, an aging Japanese priest, a troubled Arabic mercenary and a mysterious Fijian girl - receive a series of chilling apocalyptic visions. Desperate to understand their frightening visions of the future, these four troubled souls are simultaneously drawn to a dark city in the West where their fates - and the fate of the world - are revealed to be linked together and somehow part of a global conspiracy. Amidst an epic struggle of man, machine and otherworldly fear, these reluctant heroes must be willing to sacrifice everything...in order to know the truth and save us all!

Recently, Fox Home Video released the complete 24 episode Broken Saints saga which began on the internet and has now taken on a life of it's own well outside of that realm. It is a testament to Burgess's belief not only in the story he was telling. but in himself that his "passion project" ignited his filmmaking career in many unexpected ways.

How did you come up with the idea for Broken Saints?

Brooke Burgess: I used to produce video games at Electronic Arts in Vancouver where I live in Canada. The idea came because I was going through a struggle after working on the same franchises year after year. I was trying to reconcile my use of modern technology and media technology with a burgeoning, growing spiritual side. I was trying to find a way where I could work with these tools and tell a story that actually has a lasting impact. There was no way that you could pitch that to a huge multinational conglomerate, they'd just want to make a franchise and make some money.

There were two news stories at the time that really inspired me to go on this path. One was Microsoft talking in 1999 about launching a low flying satellite network by 2010. It would blanket the world and allow people to have free, high speed broadband anywhere they were on the planet. Which is cool because it has that positive aspect of Marshall McLuhan's idea of a utopian, global village. At the same time there's also the darker side of it being monitored and not having any privacy... Big Brother watching from the sky. There was another story about a professor at a University that had been taking people for about fifteen years of all different ages, and races and creeds and cultures... and hooking them up to an apparatus and firing low frequency fields into their temporal lobes. In almost all of the subjects he was able to create a "God Response." What people thought was an experience of divine intervention. It changed many of their lives.

I thought, what if you could combine the one technology with the other? Essentially, you could have a man-made, global, simultaneous revelation. You could inspire the sense that God was coming to judge the entire planet. So I cashed in my stocks at EA, I went traveling all over the South Pacific for about six months and backpacked around small islands. I just tried to form the idea and flesh it out in my head more thoroughly from there.

When you began the project did you know that it was going to take three years to finish? Was it tough keeping the story cohesive?

Brooke Burgess: Well, I made sure to do a really strong outline. I knew what the overall narrative arc needed to be. I knew where it had to start, where it had to end and there's always the case of playing around a bit more in the middle and letting it evolve organically. For three years of essentially working in a basement with two young guys, and we're doing this for free and money's starting to run out very quickly. As we got more popular... the more people who downloaded your stuff the more you were paying in bandwidth costs to transfer the files. We ran out of money about one year in and I didn't want to give up on the story because it was effecting so many people. It was winning some awards and getting some media attention.

It was really tough to keep morale up especially since we didn't have banner ads on the site generating revenue. We wanted to keep it a really pure experience. Really it was the fans through kind words and donations, and our local support network who kept us strong to keep going.

During that process, what was the most difficult part for you of making the 24 episode saga?

Brooke Burgess: When we first started, the original Flash version, which is like a really simplified version of what you see on the DVD, we were just kind of cutting our teeth; almost self taught, all of us. I think with each chapter we saw that we could do more, we were gaining more confidence. So with that it was like, "Lets expand. Lets try more things. Lets get more complex with our presentation style." The challenge therein came from the fact that, "Okay, we can't do this forever." And if I did everything I wanted to do originally with the series, as just an on-line version, we'd still be working on it now!

So it was really a case of going, "What can we sacrifice? How vicious can we be?" At the same time, I can't take advantage of the kindness and the diligence of these young guys, who are essentially sacrificing three years of their lives on a total risk that I had evangelized.

Were you so inspired that you just decided to role the dice? Or, was there a degree of uncertainty that you had about Broken Saints?

Brooke Burgess: I think anyone who says they are 100% positive on anything is lying. Unless you are a totally enlightened human being, there's always going to be a pocket of doubt in you. That pocket kind of expands and shrinks based upon your moral at the time and what's going on in the rest of your life. When there was great camaraderie with the guys, when I was feeling physically healthy, when the response to the project was really, really strong... you felt unstoppable. You knew that you were doing the right thing. That was always the guiding force because inside the story itself, I knew the themes were resonating. I knew this was an important project to share with the world especially after 9/11. I really felt galvanized by that experience to express the ideas in the story.

How did you end up getting this show picked up by Fox?

Brooke Burgess: It was so many strokes of good fortune. It was a case of finishing the online series, right near the end we were invited down to the Sundance Film Festival. Which was a surprise in and of itself... it turned out the programmers for the online portion of the festival were fans of the series. Of course me being a film buff, I freaked out and I couldn't believe we were actually going down to the independent mecca in North America. We went down and it was a greater stroke of luck that we won the Audience Award. That started to get us a little bit of mainstream attention and also a lot more reviews from the mainstream media. So when we finished the project... I thought, "Okay, that's it. It's time to either go back to the game industry or maybe go be a person at Starbucks?" (Laughs) I had no idea what I was going to do.

I was approached by Telefilm Canada which is the governing grant body here for film and new media works. They were like, "Hey, this is incredible what you've done with new media tools. Do you want some funding?" And I'm like, "Well, you're a couple of years too late there, Telefilm. We were starving for two years and that's when we needed the money." They were like, "Well, we've heard in your newsletters that you wanted to make a DVD version." I'm like, "Yeah, but it would be a complete revamping. I'd want to do new art. I'd want to bring in tons of new features, effects, voice overs... ." It was the entire bells and whistles approach. They said, "Well, put in an application." I was lucky because the woman who kind of spearheaded the application project she was a real angel... in that she oversaw the entire application process.

We ended up submitting what was considered the strongest new media application for 2003. We received a quarter of a million dollar grant to revamp the entire series on DVD so that made us take this a lot more seriously. We completed the revamping in about nine months, it won a few more awards and we released it online to our hardcore fans. So it won a few more awards and got some more attention, and we started taking it around to the convention circuit. It was at last years San Diego Comic-Con convention when we were approached by several distributors. It was thanks to a producer pal down in L.A. who said, "You know what, I have an output deal at Fox, let me take this to the acquisitions guy there and see if he's interested."

It turned out that that guy, John Scott, who no longer works at Fox, had picked up stuff like Richard Linklater's Waking Life and the director's cut of Donnie Darko. And he watched the entire series and he's like, "I think it's great. It may not be mainstream. It may not be crazy, over the top anime, but it's really really cool and I love what you're saying in the story... lets do this." I think he really enjoyed not only the narrative but the story behind the story.

What are you working on now?

Brooke Burgess: Well, because of my video game background there's quite a bit of interest in adapting Broken Saints for an interactive experience for next generation consoles. That's absolutely in the works, I'm hoping to actually announce the official publisher and platform by the end of the year. We are currently polishing up the demo for three very interested and very well known publishers, I just can't announce the names yet but I will by years end.

More importantly because of the success of the project and because of the grant that Telefilm gave me for the original DVD and because advance payments from Fox have allowed me to essentially pay that back; that grant. In Canada, even though they say it's a grant, it's not really a grant. They want you to pay it back and if you can pay it back they're more eager to do future projects with you. They've been extremely surprised that that has actually come to be and with that they're like, "What's your next project?" And I have always yearned to work in film. So I've received some development funding and my goal is to start shooting my first feature next year here in Vancouver.

It will be a combination feature with an interactive web element as well as a graphic novel element. You're actually getting the exclusive here you're going to be the first in North America to officially have the name. The name of the project is The Seventh Shore.

Broken Saints: Complete Series is currently available on DVD through Fox Home Entertainment.

Evan Jacobs