Dana Nachman on DEAR SANTA – Nell Minow interviews

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Dana Nachman’s documentaries make me cry because they are all about kindness. Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World was the story of the entire city of San Francisco coming together to give a child with cancer a chance to be Batman. Pick of the Litter follows puppies through their training to be guide dogs for people who are visually impaired. Her latest film, Dear Santa, is the story of the USPS workers and volunteers who read the letters children write to Santa and help make their Christmas wishes come true. In an interview, Nachman talked about why this film was “the most tricky” of her films and the three elements she wants to have in all of her movies.

Nell Minow: Are you ever going to make a movie that does not make people cry?

Dana Nachman: I don’t intentionally. But when I think I’ve done a good job is when people laugh in the film, cry in the film, and get chills in the film. If I can get all three of those things like that’s what I’m going for every time.

Minow: Seeing the look on the children’s faces when they get what they wished for is so heartwarming. But didn’t your being there with a camera kind of give the surprise away a bit?

Nachman: Yes, it was very tricky. Probably this was the most tricky film I’ve done. And you have to be a little insane to make a film in the first place. But then to make one that you had no idea who the characters were going to be until they wrote letters, and then to have to get on a plane and go to wherever they were — it was very hard logistically. I don’t think we ruined any surprises at all because most of the time, we came in behind the person carrying the present. So, we had met the people before, but then they didn’t see us at the time. And then sometimes we just happened to be there, interviewing them about their letters, they didn’t know something else was going to happen. So, we used a lot of trickery, for sure.

Minow: I didn’t realize as I was watching children writing letters at the beginning how many of them we were going to circle back to afterward. So, tell me exactly how you made that work?

Nachman: It varied per person. Let’s just take the bunny family for instance. We actually did all of that the same exact day. We knew the bunny was going to be delivered at some point. Let’s say at three o’clock. So, we showed up there at 12 o’clock and we said, “We heard you asked for a bunny. Santa asked us to talk to you a little bit about that.” So, then we’ve just started interviewing them, we hung out, and then they were busy in games when the doorbell rang. I don’t think they would have any idea that that was what was going to happen. So, that was how we did that one. The limo kid we interviewed the day before, the same thing. We said, “I heard that you did this.” And I would ask some questions that would like throw them off. Like, “If Santa can’t deliver what else would you want?”

Minow: I love the girls wearing hijabs and Santa hats who are helping with the gifts. Tell me the universality of the story.

Nachman: Sometimes you might cast films so that they’re diverse, but this film, even though exceedingly diverse, we were not looking for that. We were looking for the best letters. And we really said, “Okay, the letters are what are going to drive this; let the chips fall where they may.” When somebody would write a letter, we wouldn’t know anything about them other than their letters. So, that was really an interesting part. The girls that you’re referring to are special mini elves. Their school has been doing this for a long time. The only thing we knew about the makeup of that school was the reason why they did it. They were heavily impacted with Hurricane Sandy and they received a lot of aid from neighboring communities. This was their way of giving back. And so, we just focused on that school, because of that reason, the giving back part. We had no idea what the makeup of that school was. And so, it was really touching how inherently, organically diverse this program is. It’s the United States Postal Service and people coming in to help them. So, I think it speaks to a lot of the people in our country of all different walks of life who are helping one another.

Minow: That’s what makes this movie so timely, coming out after this terrible year.

Minow: People have commented about what a year this is for this movie to come out. And of course, we had no idea. But this movie would have been poignant if COVID never happened. It was always poignant. Because people helping people matters. But we’ve just seen real division, obviously, and real darkness in our society now. And this, I think can showcase what has always been there, So, it’s not like we’re bringing it to the front because of what happened this year; it’s just to show us that this exists in America. We can all help one another in America, and it’s been happening for more than 100 years. So, people can say, okay, let’s put all this darkness and badness behind us and go back to our roots of helping one another.

Minow: And yet, there’s a part that feels like another world because people are not wearing masks and they’re in big crowds. And what’s happening to the program this year? It must still be going but not in the same way.

Nachman: When we were editing the parts in Rockefeller Center and all that, it’s like you had this visceral reaction because you think about how germy it is. And we were just in the thick of it last year obviously. For this year luckily, the program had morphed into online over the last several years. And so, it’s perfect timing that the letters are all going to be digitized this year. Santa had requested this in years past. So, anybody can look at the letters and adopt them starting on December 4 from the comfort of their own home. It’s awesome. I am going to do a little prediction that I think this might be the biggest Operation Santa ever. And I know I’m going to do my share cause I’m not going to be shooting a movie this year. So, I’m going to find my favorite letters and adopt as many as I can.

Minow: Did you ever write letters to Santa when you were growing up?

Nachman: I did not. I’m Jewish. But you can probably tell by the film, I love Christmas. I’ve always loved Christmas. I’ve never written a letter to Santa. I’ve never had a Christmas tree. This is my way of being able to experience Christmas. I love being invited to people’s houses for Christmas. There was a Santa that came to our local grocery store every year. And he had a little house and I did want the candy cane and I did sit on his lap and I get one present under the fireplace always.

Minow: I appreciate how careful the movie was to respect children’s belief in Santa.

Nachman: It was really fun. And it was funny, because when I was negotiating with the United States Postal Service to be able to tell the story, they said, “Okay, they have a few concerns.” And one of the main concerns was they didn’t want me to ruin Christmas. Well, I’m not going to do that. Are you nuts? Whenever I would interview the people who work with the letters, I would say, “How do you communicate with Santa?” And just by the way I would ask the question, they would just answer it very, very straight like it was never an issue.

Minow: What do you want families to talk about after they see the movie?

Nachman: I think with younger kids, or kids of all ages, just the thought that you always feel better after you’ve given, after you’ve been on that end of this Christmas exchange. And that you can give anything. You could write a letter to a kid and give a candy cane. Like one of the people in the film said, “It’s not what you have that matters, it’s what you do with what you have.” And so, I think that any little bit makes a huge difference in somebody’s life, that’s number one. And I think number two, just not for families per se but for any audience members. I think we’ve gone through such a hard time this year and, and really focused on all the division in our world. And I think this is a great time to remember who we are as a country and a people and that we can be together and help one another. That’s what I hope.

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Nell Minow

Nell Minow is assistant editor at rogerebert.com. She reviews each week’s releases on radio stations across the country and her reviews and interviews are also found at moviemom.com, thecredits.org, and medium.com. She is the author of several books, including The Movie Mom’s Guide to Family Movies and 101 Must-See Movie Moments.