Exclusive Interview: Becoming Santa‘s Santa Jack Sanderson And Director Jeff Myers

The SXSW documentary audience award winner Becoming Santa was released on iTunes and Amazon.com this week, and Inside Pulse Movies’ Jenny Rebekah had the opportunity to conduct an interview with the star, Jack Sanderson, and the director, Jeff Myers. The entertaining and informative documentary, which explores the origins of Santa legends all around the world, and shows the secret underground world of men who have chosen to be year-round Santas, comes highly recommended. Check out her review if you don’t believe us.

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A big thanks to Jack and Jeff for taking the time to answer my questions! Becoming Santa distributor Film Buff also was gracious enough to provide us two exclusive clips from the movie. Check them out after the interview. Enjoy!

Inside Pulse Movies (IP) – How did you two meet? I read in another interview that you met 18 years ago – was it just some crazy twist of fate that Jeff happened to want to do a Santa movie and that Jack wanted to be Santa? How did that happen?

Jack – I wanted to be Santa? What?

Jeff – Haha! It seems like such an obvious choice now because Jack was so great in the role, but actually getting Jack into the Santa suit was not the original plan. This all started when Jack was going on auditions and noticed that anytime there was a Santa audition the guys would all come with real white beards, their own custom Santa suit and they all came with their wives even though there was no part for a Mrs. Claus. Jack observed that there was an interesting sub culture happening, an unsee Santa world. The more we researched it, the deeper, more interesting it got. Our plan was to get an actor and follow him through the process of Becoming Santa. But we couldn’t find anyone that was willing to do it. Eventually we came to the conclusion that it would have to be Jack. I guess you could say it was fate.

Jack – Jeff and I met in Chicago 18 years ago when I was producing a play and I cast him as one the leads. He gave up acting, (even though he was pretty good) and became a director. We lost touch for ten years and then ran into each other at the YMCA in Hollywood. He was playing basketball and I was playing at exercising. We starting talking about what we were doing what we wanted to do and the rest is on the screen, with more to come.

IP – There’s a big difference between editing a scripted music video and making a documentary. Jeff, what made you want to make the jump?

Jeff – Music videos are short form and a lot of fun. You get to be very creative and abstract. I wanted more time to explore a topic and tell a story. I got the opportunity to go on tour with some really great bands including Black Sabbath and Nine Inch Nails. Live concerts, interviews and traveling across the country with the bands sort of prepared me for documentary filmmaking. You sort of have an idea of a beginning, middle and end- but you have to always be open to going where the footage and interviews take you. It was a lot of fun going on this ride.

IP – What challenges did you face in the film-making process with Becoming Santa?

Jack – One of our challenges was convincing people we wanted to interview that we weren’t going to mock them. We started filming shortly after Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno was just out and news stories of Borat lawsuits were still around. Jack Nigro in Quincy was concerned we might ruin their parade if they let me be Santa in it, and the Fraternal Order of Santa’s were concerned that we would mock them if they allowed us to film at their luncheon. There were a lot of long conversations and assurances to be made.

IP – What particular documentaries have inspired you along the way?

Jack – While I am not sure what the connection to Santa would be, I have always loved docs and some of my favorites were Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, The Art of the Steal, Crazy Love and Hermitage-Niks and more recently Marwencol and One Lucky Elephant.

Jeff – Some of my favorite docs are American Movie, Hearts of Darkness, Crumb and The Kid Stays in the Picture. I’m not sure that Becoming Santa is like any of those, but those movies made me want to make documentaries.

IP – What was your funding process like? How did you pitch this idea to potential investors in the early stages?

Jack – We had a funder who flaked on us after right after we shot at the American Events Santa School in Denver. I covered those costs, emptied my savings and filled up my credit cards. Then I started recruiting other investors and pitching the film as a “Santa Super Size Me”. When people saw Jeff’s footage, they got excited about the project. We were very lucky to have Dean Devlin cover our color correction and we cut deals everywhere along the way. This is a truly independent film, unlike, and I’m going out on a limb here, studio films that have been calling themselves independents since the term ‘independent’ developed a positive connotation, like Black Swan or King’s Speech. They are great films, but not true independents.

IP – Do you plan on writing your own screenplay and directing a narrative feature? What kind of ideas have you been kicking around?

Jeff – Actually, the first movie I directed was a narrative called The Ride starring Michael Shannon. I love narrative filmmaking. We have several new ideas. It might be fun to do a scary movie or a thriller. Not sure yet, but we will be starting another one next year.

IP – Jack, what in the world made you decide to commit to this? Did you realize it would be such a commitment?
 What was the hardest part of transforming yourself and what was the hardest thing to maintain?

Jack – My father died a few days before Christmas and the following June, I was already dreading the next Christmas. Jeff and I had been talking about making the movie for two years. We struggled to find people who also thought it was a good idea, and in June, dreading the holiday and wanting become a Producer, I called Jeff, told I was going to get my hair bleached and he should bring his camera. When I made it through the bleaching, I was committed. There is no one thing that is the hardest to maintain, but honing my awareness has been key. There is still a sold line between me and Santa, and I need to be aware of the times when I am in public and when people are just dealing with Jack or when they want to deal with Santa. I have a responsibility to maintain Santa’s good reputation. For example, I try not to curse out other drivers anymore.

IP – I have a personal friend who is a Santa and he wants to know why you chose to go to Santa school. You attended two, which was the most informative and why?

Jack – I would recommend Santa School to any aspiring Santa. I wasn’t sure I needed the school either, but the lessons I learned turned out to valuable, I attended the Victor Nevada School in Calgary and the American Events School in Denver. We also visited the Charles Howard School, but they would not allow us to film there. Over 90% of guys working as Santa do so at a financial loss. I would suggest attending a School geographically close to where you live, because that school, if it’s good, will also guide you to work. Santa Tim Connahagn also teaches his school at various locations around the country and is probably singlehandedly responsible for the rise in quality of working Santas around the country. The difference between the two schools I attended was primarily cultural. I’m not gonna lie, the Canadians were more laid back, the Americans were more intense. But all of them are focused on giving children a magical experience. With the exception of the Charles Howard School, each of the schools are watching their students to see who they place in jobs or book.

IP – Jack, I heard in an interview from the Calgary Film Festival that you were going to be Santa in Hong Kong this Christmas season and you hadn’t learned any Cantonese yet. Have you learned any of the language yet? If not, do you plan on having a crash course?

Jack – I looked into a crash course, but it’s a tonal language and I would be afraid of saying the wrong thing and causing a problem, so I will be sticking close to my translator. When I am out on my own in Hong Kong, I may try a few phrases.

IP – Jeff, you’ve been living in Santa world for the past year with touring this film at festivals, what do you have planned next?

Jeff – Rest! It’s been a long road to get to here. I’m enjoying the moment, spending the holidays with family, friends and will start new projects next year.

IP – Jeff, congratulations on the VOD release! How do you feel about the rise in popularity of VOD releases as opposed to direct to DVD or a limited theatrical release?

Jeff – I will always love a live audience, and Becoming Santa is certainly more fun when you watch it with other people, but the rise in VOD is great. For a truly independent, self financed film like ours, a theatrical release is totally cost prohibitive. The one thing that needs to change is the entertainment media’s instituted stigma on films that don’t go to theaters. There is some great stuff going right to VOD.

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