If Christmas has been defined in recent years as a celebration for retailers to enjoy rather than families with a drunken, shoplifting Kris Kringle played by Billy Bob Thornton as its ambassador, “Becoming Santa” is an unlikely candidate to restore its magic. Taking audiences behind the scenes for the holiday transformation of Jack Sanderson, a 44-year-old Angeleno with a jolly disposition and a burly beard who wanted to honor the memory of his father who loved St. Nick by donning the red suit, the film reveals the industry that produces the Santas we see in parades and malls as well as the reinvention of Christmas throughout history that’s kept the tradition alive.
The reality of Santa schools and the marathon of one yuletide event after another where Jack does his best to entertain the not always charmed children on his knee may not be as fanciful as the stories long passed down from the North Pole, but it is arguably far more inspiring. Jack is joined on camera by a series of Santas from all different backgrounds, compelled to spread holiday cheer not to collect a paycheck at the end of December, but because of the joy it brings to others, and to hear their stories derived from hard work rather than helpful elves is what true miracles are made of.
Director Jeff Myers works hard himself to keep the film from the treacle we’ve come to expect from Christmas-themed films, capturing the quirks of the season from how the post office handles letters to Santa to the post-holiday depression that many Father Christmases go through annually. As a result, “Becoming Santa” deserves a place next to such wry modern-day perennials as “A Christmas Story” and a recent deal with the video-on-demand company FilmBuff aims to put it there, allowing for at least one Christmas present to be opened right now. Myers recently spoke about how the SXSW favorite came to be, how painful bleaching a beard actually is, and giving Christmas back to the adults.
Jack and I met probably almost about 20 years ago in Chicago. He actually cast me in a play he was producing and we did the play, had a great time and sort of lost contact for a few years and then reconnected recently. He was going on auditions in Los Angeles and any time he would go for any kind of a Christmas audition or especially anything that involved Santa Claus, he would notice that the guys who came into audition all had their own white beards and their own custom-made Santa suit and they all came with their wives, even though there was no part for a Mrs. Claus. And he made the observation that there’s an interesting subculture of these guys who really take this stuff seriously. That started the thought process for us.
The more we researched it, it’s just like the deeper the hole got. These guys are pretty awesome. Most of them have some kind of a red car or a red truck they drive around and they dress in what they call Santa casual most days out of the year, which would be some kind of khaki pants and red shirt or candy cane-striped suspenders or something like that. I think for these guys, if they have the real beard, they feel like it’s 24/7, 365 for them because at any moment, a child could come and recognize them on the street and they have to be Santa for that kid at any time.
You had previously directed a narrative film, “The Ride” in 1997, so was there a special pull for you to make this as a documentary?
Like I said, the more we researched it, the more interesting it got to me and it was really when Jack went into the first bleaching that I realized we had a great character here and probably a really good story because what I saw him go through in that bleaching process was crazy. It was about five hours of him in the chair, bleaching his hair, his beard, his eyebrows, everything. He could hardly breathe, the fumes were so bad and it didn’t even work the first time. The first time he came out yellow-haired, so we had to do the whole process again. I realized his commitment and the pain [I could see] he was going through in his eyes, I was just overwhelmed with the process – really involved and having Jack go through it as a throughline character really made it interesting to me.
Prior to this, my first movie was a narrative and I’m looking forward to doing another one because the challenge there is to really hone a script as best you can and then try to execute what your plan is. Whereas with a documentary, it’s a little bit different because you have a plan and you go into it, but you really have to constantly be open to what you’re getting along the way. I have a rule in the editing room that you have to always be open to what the footage is telling you to do. What prepared me for that was in between my first narrative and this documentary, I did a lot of music projects and got to follow around some great bands like Nine Inch Nails and Black Sabbath, went on tour with them, did some live concert DVDs and a lot of behind-the-scenes things. That process of being on the road with the band for weeks at a time and doing interviews every day and trying to dig a story out of that sharpened me to go shoot a documentary.
It turns out to be a pretty extensive history of the holiday and a touching personal story of Jack honoring his father’s memory. Was it difficult to figure out how to structure the film?
As a director, it was really weaving together three different storylines is how I saw it once we got to the editing room. There was obviously Jack, who’s our main character, our throughline that takes us through all the other events. But then it’s all the Santas along the way that we meet and we have to weave them in with a historical lesson because we really thought it was important to get a lot of the facts out there about Santa Claus — how he started with St. Nicholas and how it evolved and went through Europe, then came to the United States and how Christmas is really made the penultimate holiday it is today mostly through the Civil War. Then Coca-Cola got involved and reshaped Santa and gave him back out to the rest of the world in the form that we know him today. Those were the three storylines that I was trying to weave together and I’m pretty happy with the way it came out.
You’re probably a better man than I am, but it’s hard not to have a cynical view of Christmas these days. Was that something you were able to let go of fairly early in the production?
I was super-cynical of this when we first went into it and I think Jack was too. I didn’t know what we were going to find when we went out to interview these Santas along the way. But that all went away pretty quickly because everybody that we found were just some of the nicest guys out there. They all had great hearts and involved with charities before they even got into the Santa job. They all felt like it was a calling for them, something they were always meant to do and were sincere about that, really living their lives trying to be good people and embodying that Christmas spirit. That definitely turned me around and by the end of the movie, I don’t want to give anything away, but the last five, ten minutes of the movie is pretty heartwarming for anybody who may be cynical about Christmas.
I don’t want to give anything away either, but speaking of spoilers, was there some resistance on anybody involved to demystify the whole Santa aura by opening up on the machinations behind the illusion, such as the Santa schools?
In some ways. There are several schools out there, at least five or six. And we applied to most them and for one reason or another, some of them didn’t want us to come. Some of them didn’t mind if we came, but it just didn’t work out for scheduling and for whatever reason, we ended up going to Susan Mesco’s school [in Denver], [which] was great. And the Santas are a pretty tight knit community. They’re very protective of their image and how they’re portrayed, as well they should be. It definitely took a moment to convince a few of them that our intentions were good, especially after “Borat” came out. We really had to impress upon people that we’re not trying to play gotcha and once they figured that out, it was a lot easier for us.
This is probably a silly question, but while you’ve traveled the festival circuit with the film, have there been any awkward encounters with children who might not have figured out yet why Santa doesn’t eat the milk and cookies left out for him?
Luckily, we haven’t had that yet, but we’ve been pretty diligent about explaining to everyone that it’s a great movie and it’s probably not for anyone that’s still expecting a visit from Santa Claus. To me, this movie is more about giving Christmas back to the adults and reminding them what it’s all about and why we have this tradition and why it’s important to keep it alive.