For a little more than 10 years, documentary filmmaker Dana Nachman has been making some of the most emotionally resonant works out there, films that very often illustrate just how kind human beings can be to each other when they set their minds to it. Of course, she’s also explored the lower depths of human behavior (Witch Hunt, The Human Experiment), but eventually her path as a director (or co-director) became clear with her massively heartfelt Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World and continued with guide dog training profile Pick of the Litter.
Nachman’s latest does what all of her films have accomplished—get to the heart and soul of her subjects without allowing the resulting film to wallow in sentimentality and artificial sweetness. Dear Santa tells the story of the 100-year-old “Operation Santa” program of the U.S. Postal Service, in which hundreds of thousands of letters to Santa arrive at post offices around the country. Using an intricate system of volunteer elves and donations, the USPS makes sure that many of these needy children and families get some kind of meaningful Christmas each year, and Nachman and her team do the impossible: show the scale and scope of the program across multiple cities, shooting in just a few short weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
The film was shot at this time last year, so I imagine that a great deal has changed for the program in 2020, with both a pandemic and a systematic attempt to gut the postal service in full swing. Nachman comments on that and other subjects—including what it’s like to edit a film during a lockdown and why keeping certain secrets about Santa was important—in our recent interview. Dear Santa is available now via VOD. Enjoy our talk…
I think the most obvious first question I could ask you is, would you consider yourself a failure as a filmmaker if you didn’t have the audience bawling its eyes out by the end of all of your movies?
Yes, I would [laughs]. The epiphany for this movie was that I always want the audience to laugh, cry and get chills—that’s my criteria now. I think the crying has always been there, because I remember from my first film, which was about wrongful convictions, there was a choice at the end whether to turn the nob a little to the dark side or not, and I chose to take it to the dark side. So I think I always do want to end with a tear, some catharsis
What finally broke me in this film was the scene, and I won’t spoil it, but it involved a rabbit. That’s what did it.
It’s funny, that part of it is so interesting, because when you’re in the room there, it’s hard to tell how that was going to come off because he was so…I don’t know how to describe it.
He’s in shock.
Right! And then you have the juxtaposition of his sister and how emotionally available she was. I’m a bit of a neurotic, so in the moment, I was like “Is this reading right?” But once we edited it, it was great. He was so happy, but it was hard to tell on his face. But I think he was downright shocked.
What I couldn’t help think about, since you shot this a year ago at Christmastime, is have you kept track of the processes this year to see if any of them have had to change, either due to the pandemic or all of this mucking around with the postal service? Has the program been damaged in any way?
I don’t think so, thankfully. It actually worked out really nicely, in that Santa wanted to go digital, to get with the modern age, so they started digitizing the letters, and it was perfect that they were primed to do that this year. So New York and Chicago won’t be able to do anything in person because of COVID, so all the letters are online, and it’s great that they were ready for that. In a way, it might be the biggest program ever this year. I think something like 8 million more people have dropped under the poverty line since last year, so there is so much more need and people have more time on their hands this year to write more letters. The hope is that with the publicity of the film coming out, that there will be more elves applying, so I’m hoping this is the best year ever. I think the program is organized in a way that it can just go no matter what’s happening behind the scenes.
For most documentaries, you have more of an open-ended shooting schedule, but for this, you really just have these three or four weeks leading up to Christmas. And you have teams all over the country. Talk about coordinating that and the pressure of getting only one shot at a lot of these moments.
You just hit the nail on the head. We knew it was going to be difficult, but we were naive to think how bad it would be, and last year was the shortest time possible between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so that didn’t help, and we had less than four weeks. Most of the kids don’t write letters until after Thanksgiving, so we thought that we would get things in advance, but nothing really came in. So we shot the whole thing from the Friday before Thanksgiving until Christmas Day. We also thought that down the road—like we knew we’d lose the Christmas decorations, we’d lose winter—so we were already thinking we had to shoot everything in a finite amount of time. But thank god we got everything we needed because we wouldn’t have been able to shoot once COVID came in.
My original idea was to have a narrative component to it, where we would have a Santa set, and we were going to shoot that in May. But then we decided, even before we knew we couldn’t shoot anything, that the kids would be a better way into the story than a fictitious Santa. So I just started with downtime and turned my living room into a studio for a day and took every neighborhood kid I could find and started asking them questions about Santa. Because of those answers, I was able to make that the narrator’s arc and the setting up of the world. Then when I went to schools, I asked those kids the same questions. And if we hadn’t gotten that early on, we wouldn’t have that part of the film because we couldn’t shoot the fiction stuff because of COVID. I think we got very lucky.
Did your decision to not spoil certain things about Santa make any part of this challenging in terms of working around it or the way you could edit it? Was everyone on board with the idea?
Yeah, everybody was on board. It’s really funny how not an issue it was. When I asked the questions to somebody else, like “How do you communicate with Santa?”, they literally just answered it. It wasn’t hard at all. I think if you’re going to delve into this world, you’re already in this world. It was always my intention to do this, but when I reached out the U.S. Postal Service, one of the deal-breakers for them was “We’re really interested in this, but you cannot ruin Christmas.” So it was not a problem.
What a burden to put on you. Let me back up a bit, how did you even discover this program and its process? Or had it been a longtime curiosity for you?
My mom had gotten me this book about it, and that’s how I heard about it. It was a book that the USPS put out on its 100th anniversary, and she found it at the post office. I read it to my kids, and I knew it would be an amazing film. Whenever you hear something that rocks your world that you’ve never heard of before, you’re like “I can’t be the only person on the planet who doesn’t know about this. This has to have a light shined on it.”
How did you find the families? I had just watched Ron Howard’s documentary Rebuilding Paradise, which was shot a couple of years ago, so it was really great to see a couple people from that community in your film and find out how they’re doing. But what were the criteria in selecting the cities and families that are in the movie?
Let me start with Chico, since that was a little different than the rest of it. I went to a kick-off meeting at the headquarters of the USPS in October of last year, and they made some presentations to me about things having to do with Christmas, but one of the things was, when there are natural disasters, they set up a FEMA-like operation for people who lose their homes, whether from hurricanes, fires or anything. They still need their prescriptions, insurance documents, and that’s why the USPS sets up these operations. So our standby for any natural disaster that happened last year while we were shooting, and part of that is, if it’s around November, they bring packages to children in the shelters about letter writing to Santa. So whenever that happened, we were going to go, but luckily there were no natural disasters last year. We were sandwiched between this year and 2017, when there were the horrible fires, but last year, nothing happened.
But we still loved that sentiment, so we started looking into Chico, and that’s how we found [postal worker] Jamie, who had been an elf for some time. And then she helped us find some people who had lost their homes, and that’s how we did Chico. The other deal-breaker for the USPS is that we couldn’t show any personally identifying information of any letter writers, so if we saw a return address, we would have to blur it. But also, when they digitized the letters, they would send them to us, and we were really interested in what they called Special Requests. We weren’t interested in the toy or iPhone requests; we wanted more interesting and unique letters, so they would put them in a section and send them to us, and if we were interested in them, we would say “We want this one, this one, and this one,” and they would then send an ExpressMail letter to the parents of the letter writer, saying “Your child wrote this letter; it caught the attention of a documentary filmmaker. Here’s her email address and phone number. If you want to hear about the project she’s working on, please call her.” So we were just waiting by the phone, stressed out. And some of these letters were coming in December 15th or 20th, so when we chose those letters, we didn’t even know where these people lived. So once we got the people on the hook, we would say “Where do you live?” and we would fly there. The poor people on our team booking our travel were like “Wait, where are we going?” It was crazy.
In addition to the kids’ letters, we also see the fulfillment of some letters from adults. And those asks aren’t as unique—they are basic-needs items like furniture and supplies. Same question: how did you select which adults to follow?
Practically speaking, the first shoot we did was in Cleveland and did some letter writing with kids, then we went to Grand Rapids, where there was a parade and letter-writing event. We were just trying to fill in as many shoots as we could before the real letters came in. So we were at that event when we met the three ladies who were asking for things that were more typical needs, and it was great. They were open to interviewing with us. Then we realized that, with the amount of letters that come in like that, it’s massive. So we didn’t feel like we needed a million of those to make a point, so once we had that, those are the ones we went with, and we knew we could get them on the other side, and that was the more practical way of dealing with the issue of needs. But we could have done 10 films on that.
It was weird seeing so much hugging in the movie and people together in such large groups. It’s incredible the amount of nostalgia the film summons from just a year ago. It’s a great reminder for what we’re aiming for. You put this together during a lockdown, so did that sentiment impact the way you edited the film, perhaps emphasizing those moments?
Take for instance the Rockefeller Center scenes. When we were there in the moment among the masses of people, that was just something that was a little hard to work around, and we were like “There are so many people. How are we going to shoot?” But then revisiting it in editing, it was profound, and we’re going “Remember when we could just be around people.” So as we were experiencing that in the edit room, we were channeling that to what you would feel and other people would feel. I don’t think it impacted the edit, other than we understood the punch it would pack. We were experiencing first hand because we were editing this film February through June, so it was a gift to us. During all the pain people were going through at that time, we were squirreled away in our homes editing it. We knew the kind of solace it was giving us, and we wanted to give that to the audience for when it came out.
Have you had a chance to show this to people? I’m really curious how kids are going to react to this film.
We haven’t had a lot of younger people see it yet. I’m very serious about rough-cut screenings, and this year we couldn’t do that, so we sent it around in three rounds, and we definitely included families in that—like filmmaker friends who have kids, and the kids love it. They has a similar reaction to the adults, and so I’m hopeful that kids will respond to it, but the truth is, not a lot of people have seen it.
Have you had any ideas about what heartstrings you will tug on next?
[laughs] I have not. I have a couple of ideas, but from doing all the press on this film, it helps me solidify what I like about these kind of films, so I’m all ears open on any ideas from people, because I think the bar is pretty high after working on Dear Santa.
Best of luck. Great to meet you. Thank you, Dana.
Thank you. Bye!
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