Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Filmmaker Dana Nachman is no stranger to perfectly plucking the heartstrings of those who watch her documentary features. 2015’s BATKID BEGINS: THE WISH HEARD AROUND THE WORLD got adults to believe that a young child dressed as the superhero he saw himself as could save a city in need – and truly he did. 2018’s PICK OF THE LITTER showed how guide dogs could help folks in desperate need reclaim their empowering sense of independence. Her subsequent spin-off series of the same name for Disney+ was equally as moving.
The delightful documentarian returns to the feel-good milieu with DEAR SANTA, which shows us how the spirit of giving not only puts a smile on the faces for those in need, but simultaneously delivers the gift of kindness and compassion to the world. This documentary gives an inside look into how the United States Postal Service runs their popular Christmastime program, Operation Santa, which works to match Santa’s designated helper elves with charges who’ve asked for special presents. You’ll need a box of tissues near to help wipe away your happy tears.
I cry a lot during your films. Is there a trick to keeping your wits together when you film your interviewees? Do y’all save it and weep in post-production?
“I definitely thought about this before. It makes me sound like a cold-hearted person, of which I’m not. Maybe you have this experience too. But when you’re on camera and you’re traveling places, there’s a lot of stress, especially with this movie. A lot of times, you only have one shot so you are really very focused on getting what you need. Also, being really present with the people. So between all that responsibility, I just don’t have time to be emotional about anything. That’s good.
When I was younger, and newer at this, I was very stressed about knowing if I had everything that I needed. I think now I’m still stressed, but I know it once I have it and I can calm down and be there to listen. If the stories are chosen correctly, you don’t need to do a lot. What’s so great about this is the three women that I met in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who needed all the stuff for the baby and the mattress, they were almost like M.O.S. – “Man On the Street.” We just happened upon them, which just shows there’s a lot of need out there. A lot of need, a lot of want. I loved how Jen in the film said, ‘These letters are like a message in a bottle.’ I love that concept.”
Was it easy to find your subjects?
“Yes and no. It was easy in that the thousands and thousands of letters that come in are so compelling that there was no way we wouldn’t get what we wanted. But logistically, it was very difficult and we were under a big time crunch. Most of the letters come in from Thanksgiving through Christmas and we had to wait for them to come in. And then, because the United States Postal Service can not let you know any of the personally identifying information of the people who would write the letters. Once I was interested in them, they would have to send an express mail letter out to the writer of the letter and say, “Your kid’s letter has caught the attention of a filmmaker, Dana Nachman. Here’s her email, and number.” We were stressed out waiting by the phone, thinking that no one would call us.
Another cool aspect of this was that we didn’t know anything about the people other than their letters. It was a nice organic way to… usually you would “cast” a film, like we’d say ‘We want this type of person.’ This one, it all came down to the letters. That was really fun and exciting.”
Was it a challenge to focus all these different, important story tracks and edit down it into a swift 84 minutes? This could’ve been a series.
“Oh yeah. We do want to make a series of this. That would be so much fun. I could do this forever. You could do a whole show on kids who want pets. You can do a whole show on kids who want clothes. We didn’t focus on toys – anything that was more typical, we didn’t focus on. There could be a whole show on kids who want iPhones. I walked away from this thinking, ‘I need to get stock in Apple.’
The goal for this was to showcase the wide spectrum of letters – the range. Once we knew we had, say the pet story taken care of, we stopped looking at pet ones. We did do a scene about not having enough food, but it didn’t make it into the movie because there wasn’t enough time. We tried to be strategic in the time that we had.”
What was it about the Operation Santa program that made you think it would make for a good documentary and that you could do it justice?
“I came across this story about 8 years ago. My mom bought me a book… the USPS put out a book on the 100th Anniversary of Operation Santa. It was cute. It was a storybook. I would read it to my kids and thought it was such an amazing story. This was before I had done BATKID BEGINS. I had done three very difficult, hard-hitting films. I was looking for a lighter, fanciful film and BATKID fell in my lap and fell in love with that story. What resonated with me was that feeling of the magic of childhood. In the BATKID story, all these adults played along for the day with the kid to help him. To be living in that space for a year was the best experience for me. I always want to continue to live in that space. This really was the same. It’s like the sister film to BATKID, in that respect, where everybody is living in this creative world that reminds us all of being young and curious.”
Did this have to go through a series of checks and balances so as not break the magical secrets of the real Santa Claus’ process?
“Yeah. When I wrote my pitch to the USPS, they were interested. They said, ‘There’s this one thing that would be a deal-breaker for us. It’s that you don’t ruin Christmas for children.’ I was like, “No. I have zero intention of doing that. That’s not how I roll.” That’s just not fun. This is about all of Santa’s elves. It was just a matter of how I was going to do it.”
How did you wind up figuring out your angle?
“I had an original idea that I wound up not doing which was to do a fiction part of the movie – a narrative – that would be Santa telling the stories, rules of the world. We budgeted for three different sets, where Santa would have his workshop and a fireside chat and a NORAD room when it got closer to Christmas. I have a really good friend who said, “Be careful because depicting Santa gets really dicey and it often doesn’t work out.” After he said that I got worried and thought maybe Mrs. Claus, or a lead elf. When I pitched it, it was going to be Marvin the Lead Elf.
In early November, no letters had come in and we were twiddling our thumbs and I thought, ‘Let’s just invited a bunch of kids over to my living room and one by one interview them and see what I get.’ All the interviews in the film, in front of a fireplace, are in my living room. I asked the kids about Santa’s world and what it looks like and sounded and felt like. It dawned on me that they all tell a similar story, but they all have their little versions of it. But it all comes down to warmth, community and great feelings. I thought this is a better way to go about it – to have the kids narrate the world. They’re the authority of Christmas. I’m so happy about it. I love it.”
I’d imagine this year, more than ever, the program needs more Santa’s helpers. What a time for this to come out.
“I think it would’ve resonated in any year, because it’s people giving. I just think that the depth of despair we have all experienced this year, to give something that’s a little more joyful back means a lot. I just hope it could close out this year to make people feel like there’s hope. Hope for the future. Hope for the country. I’m pleased it could be helpful in such a bad year.”
I hate to ask, but what happens to all the unanswered letters? I’m sure there are some that just can’t get answered because of logistics.
“The biggest concern is with unfulfilled letters are when they come in late, after Christmas. That’s the worst part. USPS has been working hard to say, ‘Send in your letters now.’ The other thing is a bunch of them don’t have return addresses on them. So that also is a huge problem. I’m really hopeful that, of the ones that have return addresses, that get in…I think they accept them up to January 1, even… as long as people keep applying to be elves, then they’ll all get answered. I think with the film, more people can become elves. So I would just keep encouraging those letters.”
How do you know when your cut is finished and what was that moment like with this film?
“[laughs] Gosh. I don’t know if I ever know when it’s finished. Usually there’s some kind of deadline and you just have to say it’s finished. But I’m very serious about rough cut screenings. This year we couldn’t do proper screenings, but I did three rounds of ten people. Even when you do the first round, you think it’s so amazing and then people tear it apart. I always have to do at least three rounds. Then I gave it to my producers and they had some notes. Eventually, it just finishes. At some point you lose any type of perspective and you have to give it over to other people’s eyes.
Starting with PICK OF THE LITTER, I have rough cut screening questionnaires and I ask, “On a scale of 1-10, how much do you like it?” Until I have the average of 9 or 9.5 or above, I don’t stop. I remember with PICK OF THE LITTER, the first screening was like 8 and I was like, ‘That’s not good enough. I need to keep going.’”
DEAR SANTA releases December 4th in Select Theaters, Digital & VOD. To adopt a letter, go here.