The Badass Interview: SXSW 2011 Audience Award Winner BECOMING SANTA’s Jeff Myers and Jack Sanderson

It's a Christmas miracle! April speaks with the filmmakers behind BECOMING SANTA, the documentary that led to her believing in Santa again. 

Back in March I had the good fortune to catch a screening of the Yuletide charmer Becoming Santa and continue to stand by my declaration that a viewing might actually lead to believing in Mr. Claus again. The doc received a digital release as of yesterday and will be available on all major platforms (Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Cable, Xbox, etc) just in time for the holiday season. I might befuddle my Grandma Johnny with an electronic gift this year as payback for all the Ovaltine masquerading as hot chocolate in her home.

Now for words with its kind creators as well as an exclusive clip of Santa Jack with a terrified wee one on the Polar Express.

Can you tell us a bit about how you two came to know one another and how the arduous task of deciding to very literally become Santa came to fruition?

Jeff: Jack and I met in Chicago about 18 years ago when he cast me in a play that he was producing. We remained friends over the years and recently came up with an idea to make a documentary about Santa Claus. Jack was going on auditions and made an observation. Anytime there was a casting call for a Santa, these guys would come in with the white hair, full beard, a santa suit and their wife would drive them to the audition (even though there was no part for a Mrs. Claus.) We both thought there was an interesting subculture out there in the guys who don the suit every year. We kept looking for an actor that we could get to go through the process so we could film, but we couldn’t find anyone that was willing to do it. After the passing of Jack’s dad, he made the decision to throw himself into the Christmas season by becoming Santa. We decided that he would become Santa and I would film it.

Jack, you underwent a full day of frosted, smarting beauty at the salon before it was settled that you’d be the central character of the documentary. Was it your face smothered in face melting bleach or a personal calling that determined the final call? 

Jack: I was fully committed before the bleaching. Jeff filmed the bleaching process and Co-Producer Tyrone Finch took photos of it. Tyrone said to me “You know this is the point of no return, right?” Jeff told me later that when he saw how painful the bleaching was and how I stuck to it, he knew we would have a movie. It was the first thing we shot.

Throughout production were there any aha moments in which you thought, “Holy sh-... I’m... Santa Claus.” I’d be interested to hear Jeff’s take on a defining time behind the lens as well. 

Jack: I had no idea when I went to Roxy for the bleaching how it would turn out. And when she took the towel off my head and I saw my white haired self in the mirror, I was stunned. Roxy was amazing. And then I went out to dinner that night and people stared at me. It was just day one for me. I would forget I looked like Santa until I would pass a mirror and the thought would go through my head “What the hell have you done?” Later when I cut off all the white hair and was my brown haired self again I actually felt relief when I passed a mirror and thought, “Oh, there you are!”

Jeff: It was really amazing to watch Jack go through this experience. We went through it together, but thankfully I didn’t have to do it in front of the camera. In the beginning I think we were both very cynical, but along the way I developed a new respect and a deeper understanding for what Christmas is all about. There is a scene towards the end of the movie when Jack and I were talking about who Santa is and what he means and Jack just proclaimed “You know what, he is real.” He’s real in the way that all of these people are keeping him alive. For myself I had a new understanding after talking to John Merrian in Brockton when he asked “What are we really believing? Are we believing that some guy in a suit is going around the world delivering presents to children? Or are we believing in the goodness and kindness of humanity? It’s a story that we get to tell to children and as adults we get to live it out.” That gave me a new perspective on the value of tradition.

Do the perks that come along with donning the red suit balance out the rougher times? For example, we’re showing our readers an exclusive clip of the infamous Polar Express scene with one of many spooked toddlers. Though the jury’s still out on which one of you was more terrified.

Jack: Perks. I’m 45 and if I’m not paying attention when I buy a ticket to the movies, sometimes they give me the senior discount.  When a child is afraid of Santa, it’s hard for me because I want to reassure that child, but the last thing anybody of any age wants is reassurance from the object of their fear.  Those situations are hard, but not that rough.  The situation I find rough is when people say to me, “Do you know you look like Santa?”  The rough part for me is just smiling and saying yes, maybe giving them a ‘Nice’ sticker, when really I want to say “Damn it, I thought I was Justin Bieber.”

Whether I interact with folks or not, ultimately the perk of leaving a sea of smiles in my wake far outweigh the rough spots.

In the beginning, we gathered it was intended as more of a short stint, but I’m elated to hear Jack’s headed to Hong Kong this Christmas to continue the ride. Have you prepared by brushing up on any Cantonese, or will you leave that up to a translator?

Jack: I looked into learning some Cantonese, and it is a tonal language with many opportunities for misunderstanding and possible offense, so I when appearing as Santa I will stick with the interpreter to avoid any trouble. When venturing out on my own, I may try a few phrases.

Jeff, this was your second directorial endeavor - the first being a narrative feature (The Ride) back in the late nineties starring the incomparable Michael Shannon. Do you think you’ll continue to bounce between both formats now that you’ve seen projects through to completion in both realms?  

Jeff: I will definitely do more of both. I find narrative and documentary filmmaking satisfying in different ways. When there’s a script the challenge is to execute what’s on the page. When it’s a documentary you have to be open to what the footage presents. I love both styles and doing them both has made me a better filmmaker.

Lastly, can we expect to see the two of you working together again in the future? If so, tell us a bit about what’s on the horizon.

Jeff: You haven’t heard the last from us!

Jack: We have both narrative and documentary projects we want to do, but we’re keenly aware as independent producers that every project is square one again. And if audiences view our new projects because they liked Becoming Santa, we hope they don’t hold it against us that our next projects are going to be very different.