Saturday, July 04, 2015

INTERVIEW: Dana Nachman, Patricia Wilson, and Mike Jutan on Batkid Begins

L-R: Mike Jutan, Dana Nachman, Patricia Wilson

In 2013, the family of a little boy named Miles, suffering from cancer, made a request to the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He wanted to be Batman. From that simple hope of a sick child, an entire social movement was born: Batkid had begun. With the entire city of San Francisco heeding young Miles's call, an army of volunteers, well-wishers, and Batman fans mobilized to turn his wish into a reality, in the process making for a social media moment unlike any other.

This amazing experience has now been documented in director Dana Nachman's Batkid Begins, which presents a heartwarming portrait of one city's efforts to make one very special day for one very special little hero. I recently had the chance to talk to Nachman, as well as Make-a-Wish Foundation's Patricia Wilson, who orchestrated the entire event, and Mike Jutan, who portrayed Batman baddie the Penguin during the event. Here are some highlights from our conversation.

Patricia, I think a little bit of background would be helpful here. How do we end up at turning San Francisco into Gotham City from the wish request that you got?

Patricia: So, we work with children's medical hospitals in the area, and our referrals come that way, and Miles was referred through his hospital in the course of treatment. And then we work with 550 volunteers just here in Northern California, and two people went out to his home and interviewed him to see what his one true wish was. And in the case of the interview, they came out and said, "Wow, he wants to be the real Batman."

So, that kind of began the wish process, and then I had to figure out what the real Batman was to this five-year-old, and think about how we would go about doing a very whimsical wish. And we've done public wishes and group wishes before. I had a child who wanted to be a famous singer. I had a child who wanted to be a San Jose Shark this past year. So, there are a variety of wishes that we've done, but this one took off in a way that I still don't quite...I'm trying to -- it took the documentary, I think, for me to really get what happened that day.

Well, what do you attribute that to? Because Make-A-Wish, the work that you guys do is very well known, and yet, certainly, I've never seen this global reach we saw.

Patricia: The vast majority of wishes we do are very private and intimate and beautiful just for themselves, and it wouldn't be appropriate to have public involvement. This was one of the rare wishes we do that I call a public wish. And I just think because it was childlike and whimsical, because it was San Francisco, I think there was a certain amount of fatigue from bad news, and people were ready for a good news story. I think some of that is just the planets are aligned, and it was kind of the perfect storm, that this was just a sweet story. And we weren't -- it wasn't a fundraising campaign. We just asked people to come and hold up signs and make him feel like a superhero.

And Dana, at what point did the idea of turning this into a documentary kick in?

Dana: About the day after the event. I missed the whole thing. I was not one of the two billion people who followed it online. I was out of state in a cave somewhere where I was not on social media or watching on the news that week. I was editing something else, and I was really immersed in what I was doing. So, after it happened, I thought, god, that would've been a great documentary. I wish I could've done it.

And then kind of forgot about it, and then a week later, my friend, who I used to job share with at NBC, called. I said, what are you working on? She's like, "I'm trying to get an interview with the Batkid." And I said, that would've been great. She's like, "Well, when I hang up, I'm going to call the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Do you want me to ask if they'll meet with us about a documentary?" I said, yeah, why not?

So, next day, we're in the Make-A-Wish office and then Patricia walks in. We talked for about two and a half hours, I think it was, and basically, the thing that really struck me was when I asked: what did you intend to happen? And she said, "We wanted 200 people to show up." And then, obviously, I know that 25,000 people showed up and two billion people followed it online, and so, because of that -- what the intention was and what actually happened -- that's why I wanted to really get involved in telling the story.

Watching the documentary, so much of the footage is in the moment. I just assumed they were there.

Dana: Right. When people say that, I'm so happy because we didn't indicate my lack of total...the zeitgeist that I missed.

Patricia: And it's true. I couldn't have coped. Honestly, we...there was no way.

Mike: Our goal was for the wish to be successful, the day of. We weren't trying to process it. Everyone's like, "How did it feel?" It's like, well, we weren't thinking about what we were doing. We were just trying to stay alive, as Patricia says.

Dana: But to your point, they had hired a videographer to shoot it for a fundraising video for after the fact. So, that's how we got lucky with that. We also got -- Comcast SportsNet, a local station, gave us their footage, and then a few other sources. And then a big source, which I think was some of the best footage, was from the Scotts, who shot home video, and then we went back. So, the first half of the film, we went back and kind of recreated, even though it doesn't seem like it's recreated, but we did.

Mike, you alluded to this idea that you were just kind of in it. At what point did it cross your mind that, hey, this is way bigger than I had planned?

Mike: Actually, the infamous tweet day, apparently, when I sent out this tweet of E.J., Eric Johnston, who played Batman, with his cape flapping – one of the things that started the ball rolling in terms of our Internet explosion over there. That was the day we were touring AT&T Park for the first time, and Patricia's like, "And here's where the news helicopter's going to be." News helicopter? "Here's where the fireboats are going to be." We have fireboats?

So, when I was asked to...when E.J. and Sue -- Sue played the damsel -- came to my apartment, it was in August or September, and they'd said, "What are you doing November 15th? Just say yes." And I hadn't even looked at my phone. I was about to look through it, and I was like, yes! Because it's them; whatever they're doing is going to be epic. They said, "We want you to get dressed up as a bad guy, and get chased around by a five-year-old for charity." I was like, sounds like a perfect use of my time, quite literally.

I didn't even know it was a work day. It's all good. Everyone at work is very supportive, which is great. So, I agreed to it when I didn't even know what it was, let alone what I was agreeing to, and he said, "Don't worry. It's just a small thing." And so, getting about two or three weeks out, it was very clear it was going to be huge, and I started having this sense of: one, I don't want to screw it up, and two, how do we now represent a much larger thing now that it's become so big.

People are coming with expectations, and it was the night before, when I was having a mild meltdown, and my girlfriend said, "The only thing that matters is Miles. All these people are coming, every news agency ever is coming. There's five helicopters. The only thing that matters is fulfilling Miles's wish. That's the goal. That's always been the goal.

If there were 50 people there, you would do exactly the same thing." And so, that was a really great grounding moment of why we were doing it, who it was really for. Then, sort of delaying those feelings, then two or three weeks later, starting to think, what did we do? What did we, as a city, just say to the entire world, literally? And so, it was just really amazing when Dana came on and helped spread the larger message that we sort of unintentionally sent.

Do you think this could have happened the same way in any other city?

Patricia: Absolutely not.

Why not?

Patricia: I just don't think there's a city that has as much compassion and come together. We had a mayor who is amazing. We had a police chief who's supported Make-A-Wish since the beginning of time. These are just great, caring, compassionate people, and not to say that other mayors aren't, but I think that they are so loved by the rank and file. It was so interesting. Greg Suhr has been with the force 33 years, right?

The rank and file actually told him, "We'll come in for free. We're volunteering." Where else does that happen? I think the level of volunteerism and spirit that happens in this city, it can happen nowhere else. And we've had a fair amount of folks from New York saying, "It would never happen here." So, I think it speaks very highly of San Francisco, whether you've left your heart here or whether you think of yourself as a San Franciscan because it was a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Also, one thing that...when Mike and I first met -- I first met with Make-A-Wish, and then the second person I met with was Mike, and one thing that we talked a lot about, and Mike kind of alerted me to, was the concept that he learned at -- it was Pixar, right?

Mike: At Pixar, yeah, Ed Catmull. As an intern there, we amazingly got to participate in these speaker series, and we got to have lunch with Ed Catmull, the president and co-founder of Pixar and current president of Disney Animation. It's amazing to be in a room with him because this guy founded computer graphics, founded Pixar. It's like, oh, my god. He was at Pixar when Pixar was still a pet project of Lucasfilm.

And that is very striking to me, that in the first -- maybe it was the first week of our job, I think -- he said, "I want to tell you about the spirit of this company." He said, "This is a 'yes and' company; this is not a 'no, but' company, and everyone is here, everyone is top of their game, and it's your job here to construct things on top of what everybody else is doing, construct things together. And if someone has an idea, take what they're doing and run with it, and build it into something. If you have a totally different idea, add it into the mix as opposed to diverting it in a different direction." And I feel like the whole city did that here.

It's a "yes and" city.

Patricia: Exactly.

Mike: All the companies, all the people, all the city staff, all the volunteers, all the just...all the people of San Francisco said: yes, I don't want to go to work, and I'm coming dressed up.

Dana: Yeah, and when Mike just told me about this "yes and," for the rest of the time until we came up with "Batkid Begins," that was like, the working title. It was never going to be the real title, but that was the spirit in which the film was made because that was the spirit in which San Francisco worked. So, to me, the whole time, it was called "Yes...And."

And I had a scene at some points that was called "Yes...And," and I just think that kind of dovetailed into your question about San Francisco, I think because all those people were trained in the way that Mike was describing, to make Twitter, to make Facebook, to make these companies that changed the way we live. And so, that's the spirit in which San Francisco lives, and so I think...of course, it could happen in other cities, but they'd have to start...

Mike: This place is angry about the status quo. It's like if something is going a certain -- Hans Zimmer talks about that in the movie. He says, "It's like you're tired with how the world runs, and you want it to run better," and I feel like the entire spirit of this area is built that way. It's what literally yanked me here from Canada. My sights were always set on San Francisco as an area to live in, and there's a magnet here. It's because there's those kind of people.

Dana: And that was the words that people used when we interviewed them, who flew in. They said, "There was a magnet pulling me." I think three people said that in interviews, "There was a magnet pulling me."

Patricia: Plus, there's no "no" in Make-A-Wish. I mean, come on. There's a child who was diagnosed at 18 months, and if you think about that, to think that from 18 -- he's a baby and has cancer. Oh, my god! What is that like?

Mike: And young parents, too. It's just so hard.

Patricia: And a six-hour drive to the hospital each time, so the hardship on the family is incredible, and you think, I want to help them. And what will give him back a little bit of his childhood, and what will fuel him in some of his darker days? And who can say no to that? It's a beautiful thing. My favorite statistic with Make-A-Wish is we grant 100% of the wishes of the children who qualify, who have a life-threatening medical condition, and we do each one with the level of creativity and love and compassion that we did Miles's with.

Well, when we talk about the "yes and" sensibility, I feel like the exemplar of that is E.J. I'd love for you to talk to me about him.

Mike: A shining monument to humanity.

Dana: Not to put him on a pedestal.

Mike: Not to put him on a pedestal, but this is what humanity should aspire to.

Patricia: Oh, no kidding!

He is Batman.

Mike: Hands down.

Dana: He is Batman!

Mike: He is also Bruce Wayne, which is hilarious.

Patricia: When I was working with the family, and putting this together, they were very concerned because Miles -- well, Miles was five, but he was also shy, and so I presented the idea of having a full-sized Batman, and he would be a mini-me. I didn't want to take the focus away from him but the parents said, "Oh, my god. That's perfect," and I said okay, and the first person that came to mind was E.J.

I worked with him literally ten years before on Ben's Game, which took our website down that time, too. So, I just knew the level of creativity that he adds to it, and he's a former stunt double, he's an inventor, and he is so amazing with children. So, he was my guy, and it was too funny. His wife saw the email first, and he goes, "I don't have a choice in the matter, do I?" and she said, "Nope." And then, essentially, reached out to her and asked her if she'd be the damsel, and she said, "I'd be honored," which is kind of funny because Sue's the most accomplished badass.

Dana: My favorite line in the movie is from E.J. Well, now I'll botch the line, but basically, the part when he says that his computer breaks, he broke the projector, and he says something like, "My whole life I will have known -- Miles will know no different, but my whole life, I will know I could have made it better." Who thinks like that? Do you know how hard it is making a projector that goes in broad daylight, that you can actually see? What he was doing was kind of magnificent in itself.

I think what this event illustrates...partially, it shows how people are willing to come together to help out a sick child, but I think a key factor, also, is Batman. Batman is beloved. What did you learn about Batman, having gone through this?

Dana: Everything, because I was not a Batman person, so I learned everything about it, and I understand now. I see it through my children's eyes because we were more of a Star Wars family, less of a Batman family or superheroes in general, and now we just everything, and it's just the goodness in that character, and the goodness in everyman's man -- with a little money but everyman's man, it's an amazing character. And he doesn't have any superpowers, so Miles was the one that you that, and said, "That's why I like him because he's just a regular guy."

Mike: Yeah, he just rises the the occasion, right? He's the hero we need, as Chris Nolan says in the trilogy. I saw a really great documentary called "Tales of the Knight." It's a small, crowd-funded documentary, but it's really cool because it shows how that character touches people. It's really interesting, just the history of comic books, in general, invented generally by Jewish immigrants here coming to a safer world.

And talking about people using their own strength and power and skills to become the best part of humanity, and an ideal that -- if you look at Superman, an ideal that humanity is supposed to aspire to, and it's supposed to represent all the goodness in the world. And so, it's very, very interesting. i think there's some very big themes that, obviously, why we see superhero movies doing so well. People love that kind of stuff, sort of an example of the best of humanity, and I think San Francisco offered that.

In the film, at the end, you talk a little bit about how Miles may not necessarily have the full awareness of the extent of this event...

Patricia: When he's 30, he might understand.

What do you hope his memory of this experience is?

Patricia: Well, right now, his memory is he saved San Francisco. He was really Batman. I love...his family texted me on Sunday because Sunday, the Chronicle reprinted the front page, and it said "Batkid Saves City," and he saw that in the newsstand and said, "I'm available. You need to save lives today, too." When he's...I don't know that...it's taken me a long time to process. I was really oblivious to how moved people were, or that it's the kind of event where people would approach me and remember what they were doing that day. You know, like, "I still remember the coverage..."

What are some of the most memorable reactions you've had from people who've seen the documentary?

Patricia: I think there's two themes that people take away with it that we've heard the most, and most consistently. One is it renews their faith in humankind. How incredible is that? And the second is: it's the best thing to happen to San Francisco. So, it's inspiring, it's fun, you'll laugh. You might cry but it'll be happy tears if you do, and it's just a truly entertaining, great thing to see. The story is about all those volunteers and all the people who came together to make the world a better place, and if you can't be moved by that, right? It's just pretty incredible.

Dana: There's a lot of laughter that I didn't expect, like the first time we watched it with an audience, and I said to my partner, I think we made a comedy! Because people were just laughing, and there was also a lot of cheering, and then I had one time I was sitting next to a rabbi who just was tearing -- he had Kleenex out and was just totally tearing up the whole time, but mostly it's laughter and cheering.

Patricia: And allow me to tell you the other amazing thing. Everything was a wow moment, right? Wow, wow, wow, wow! Well, Dana has dedicated the last 18 months of her life as a volunteer, and she's donating her proceeds to the Batkid Fund. Who does that, right? So, we hope that people go see it, and we hope that that influences how many more theaters that it comes in, and more people can enjoy the love and share in it.

Mike: And we're really excited that -- I'm really excited, anyway, that this is sort of an opportunity for the folks involved to be able to direct the conversation about what the Batkid Day means. I think on the day of, the people were the filmmakers, so you know, you had news, you had traditional media as well, and helicopters, and fireboats, and so on, but the people were the newsmakers. Everyone had an iPhone; everyone was tweeting, Instagramming, Facebooking, yada, yada.

So, I think people...there were two sort of major things on that day. I think there was the emotion of the event, of people coming together, and people saying, "I've never seen anything like this. I've never felt anything like this." But there were also people documenting the sort of spectacle of it. It's big, it's crazy. There's 10,000 people in Union Square. There's Lamborghinis driving out. It's exciting.

That's great, too, but I think one of the things that I was really excited about when hearing that Dana was involved and there was a movie, a documentary happening, was that it was an opportunity for the people involved to speak about what it meant to us, what we think is important about local volunteerism, why we think it's important to support your community, and talk about some of those issues that we really care about and we think other people should also care about.

I think San Francisco planted a huge flag in the ground, and said: this is what's possible when people come together, and it's insane. It's truly insane! So, I feel like we made the statement, and now we get to, with the movie, we get to talk about why it matters.

******

Many thanks to Dana Nachman, Patricia Wilson, and Mike Jutan for being so generous with their time. Batkid Begins is currently playing in select theaters. To hear some more of my thoughts on the film, catch the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast via the embed below, or at this link:

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