Guff Interview: Dana Nachman, Patricia Wilson and Mike Jutan of 'Batkid Begins'

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On November 15, 2013, the city of San Francisco made one five-year-old's larger than life wish come true. Miles Scott's Make-A-Wish request was that he become the real Batman. Little did he or anyone know, Miles' story would touch the entire country. Over 25,000 people would show up that day, along with news helicopters and airplanes, to help make his dream a reality.

Batkid Begins is the documentary chronicling the events of that day, exploring not only the amazing people behind the event, but also the power of a positive story in the world today.

Guff spoke with Dana Nachman, the film's director, Patricia Wilson, the CEO of Make-A-Wish for the Bay Area, and Mike Jutan, a research and development engineer at Industrial Light and Magic who played the Penguin on that day.


Guff: This film is about this awesome little kid, but it's just as much about the way that people came together that day. What about this story do you think made people so invested and so ready to participate?

Patricia Wilson: It still stuns me. I've been at Make-A-Wish almost seventeen years, and we just fulfilled 370 wishes in a year. It's something we do every day, but it is little more unusual when we have a "wish to be," which is going to be more creative. Most of our wishes are "I wish to go" or "I wish to have," so those don't need a lot of people, and it's a very intimate, special experience. It's equally fulfilling, but nobody else is aware of it. This wish resonated because it had a couple elements that were a little bit extraordinary. It was this sweet, whimsical wish; he wanted to be the real Batman, not just pretend Batman.

And then, I like when Dana says that one of the main characters in the film is San Francisco. We chose some of the iconic spots in San Francisco to conduct the wish, so anybody who left their heart here or lives here or wants to became really emotionally connected to it. I also think I was unprepared for this huge community of people who love Batman. So it drew on that audience as well.

Then of course there's this other piece, probably the biggest piece, which is this compassion and empathy for a five-year-old battling cancer. This was not a fundraising event. This was all about letting a little boy who's battling cancer feel like he's the real Batman. And I think the simplicity of that and the pureness of it is what was so contagious.

Guff: Do you also think there's something specific about the time that we live in with social media as popular as it is, that helped this story blow up the way it did?

PW: For sure. I think there was a perfect storm, and I think people are exasperated by negativity. The time was probably ripe for a really good news story, and I think it's the first time we've seen social media used for social good.

Mike Jutan: So often, when you hear about social media in the news, it's like, "Parental Settings Have Changed on Facebook and Here's Why as a Parent You Should Be Freaking Out About That" or "Look How Much Google Is Tracking Your Data" or "The New Apple Phone Takes Your Fingerprint and What Happens to That Fingerprint and Is It Safe and Are You Safe and Is Everybody Safe?" A lot of the time, the focus is on security or the perceived lack thereof, whereas in reality, a lot of these things are safe. It's nice that we started a totally different conversation about this.

Social media is a tool, just like a megaphone or a town crier's bell. We were saying, "This is an important thing to pay attention to," and it's amazing that so many people responded. I think it says a lot about people's inherent goodness that so many people came out, but I also think it says something about people's need for this sort of thing.

This really fantastic psychologist who's interviewed in the movie pointed us to a New York Times article that says, "our culture today is awe-deprived." That's kind of upsetting and terrible when you think about it. We've all become jaded, cynical, boring adults "” well, not many of the people involved in this wish, let me tell you. But some people don't get a chance to put on a costume and be silly. I think it's a wonderful thing that we were able to generate this movement, or at least touch a nerve in San Francisco. People got to really revel in the sense of community, and this was an opportunity for people to enjoy that feeling and to express it and share it with others, Miles and everybody else.

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Guff: Can you talk a little bit about the city of San Francisco and how huge a role it played in getting this day off the ground?

PW: Oh my gosh, it was everything. I would argue that it couldn't have happened in any other city. We have a mayor who is extraordinary and happened to be a Batman fan. I didn't even know that at the time. And we have a long history of working with the mayor's office, so they have a lot of trust in Make-A-Wish. The same with the police chief, so we had a great rapport, and thankfully, right, because otherwise they would have thought I was crazy.

Guff: Is there anything that went into the process of planning this event or the people involved that you want people to know that wasn't touched on in the film?

PW: Well I'll tell you a funny story. I was at a dinner party, and there was a gentleman there who didn't know where I worked. He said, "I have a friend who said this was a little ridiculous because Make-A-Wish shouldn't have been buying Lamborghinis to parade around." I said, "Oh my gosh, that is not true. All of that was donated.This wish didn't require any additional resources. It didn't take resources away from another child. We are fulfilling 100% of the wishes of the children who qualify." And the gentleman said, "Are you sure? Do you have a credible source for this?"

MJ: And you were like, "Let me just look at my notebook. Yes. The answer is yes."

Guff: Dana, I read that you actually weren't there for that day. So I have a two part question for you. First, where were you?

Dana Nachman: No, I was actually clueless to the whole thing. It's so embarrassing.

Guff: Obviously you heard about it afterwards and knew that it was probably going to be a challenge to make the film not having been there, so what about it touched you enough to really want to pursue it?

DN: I heard about it when a bunch of my colleagues "” middle aged men  "” were talking about it, and I thought it was a strange demographic to be talking about a little kid. So I did some googling about it and I was like, "Wow, I missed the biggest social media phenomenon basically of all time! What a great documentary it would be. It touched so many people and so many different walks of life around the world."

In a way, I think it was better that I missed it because I came to it very fresh. You could really see why this had touched a nerve, and with a documentary, you can delve into the nitty gritty of why something could have this effect. I was really intrigued to take the story from Twitter and the social stream and take a more in depth look at it.

Guff: And like you said, documentaries are great, but we don't often get ones that are wholly uplifting, wholly inspiring, and not at all cynical or critical of anything.

DN: Right!

MJ: This is what happens when you get some Canadians involved.

DN: All three of my films before this were very difficult and there were times when I needed a break from that. This film has a little bit of that with Miles and his plight, but overall, it's an exploration of Patricia, Mike and the entire team. They could have not put all their effort into it and it still would have been cool, but they did everything they could to make it that much cooler, more fun, more creative and more inspiring. It was very obvious to me that this was a very special thing done by a very special group of people who didn't just do the minimum. They did it to the best of their abilities and their abilities are massive.

Guff: Did it change your personal feeling about coming to work everyday while you were working on the film at all?

DN: Oh my god, yeah. It was really an amazing experience. It was very short. My other films had taken 3-4 years each to make, whereas this one took about nine months, so it was a very busy time, but it was brilliant. It was a joy.

Guff: I do want to talk a little bit about the day itself. Mike, you work in visual effects. How did you get involved? Are you a fan of Batman? Was it always your dream to play the Penguin?

MJ: For me, being very much a non-actor, this was a really interesting and creative and exciting opportunity. I really believe in and love doing local volunteerism, and I'd done a bunch of other kinds of things. There's a children's creative writing workshop called 826 Valencia that was started in San Francisco. That's a great place and they do some really fascinating things. I've been in San Francisco for about ten years, so this is home. Giving back to the community that brought me up is very important to me.

So sort of with that theme, EJ (Eric Johnston) who plays Batman, knowing that I'd done that sort of creative volunteerism before, came over to my house for a summer barbecue about 3-4 months before Batkid and said, "What are you doing November 15th? Just say yes." And so I'm like looking at my calendar and I'm like, "Uh, yes? What am I agreeing to?" He said, "I want you to get dressed up and get chased around by a five-year-old kid for charity." I said, "That sounds like an excellent use of my time. Definitely. That's literally the best thing that I could be doing on any day." So, I was very keen to be a part of it. I also know that if EJ's doing something, it's going to be life-changing and amazing and world-repairing.

At the time, it was pitched as a 50-200 person, run-around-a-climbing-gym thing, and of course it ballooned into something else entirely and turned into this massive statement that we were unintentionally making about local volunteerism, about coming out and supporting somebody, about the community, about care, about kindness. Once it started really rolling, I just kind of dug my heels in and got more and more involved.

The kind of people I'm surrounded with here in the bay area have the mentality of, "I have to do this thing, and when I do it, I'm going to do it with all of my might." I hope when people see the movie, they think, "You know, I'm really good at insert skill here. I bet one of the many local charities that are in my own community would benefit from that."

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Guff: You spoke to the idea that it started out as a couple hundred people and ballooned into this crazy thing. Did you have a feeling while it was happening during the day at any point that it was going to be way bigger than you thought?

PW: I knew two weeks in advance. In fact, it went viral and...

MJ: That's when we knew, yeah.

Guff: Two weeks before?

PW: Well, I was at our fundraiser in Monterey and I featured ten wishes at our auction that were in process. One of them was this one. After my talk, people came up and started to ask, "When is this wish?" They were making flights and plans to come to San Francisco, so I knew that it was a thing.

And then the story was picked up from what we think was Mike Jutan's post. Over the weekend it picked up steam and by Tuesday, we started getting calls from traditional media because it was blowing up on social media.

Toward the end of the week, I had the wherewithal to put up an RSVP form to get a sense of how many people were coming, because I'm watching Twitter and I'm reading about people from Ohio and Philadelphia and Las Vegas and LA who are planning to come and I'm thinking, "Oh my god!" So I put up this RSVP form and at the end of the day we had 17,066 RSVPs, and over 25,000 showed up. So I knew 17,000 people were coming but I didn't know 25,000 were coming.

Guff: That's incredible.

PW: Another crazy thing is that, and I never even gave a thought that this was a possibility, but there were three news helicopters and two airplanes, so because they followed the wish the entire day, everyone knew where we were and that only added to the crowd. More and more people came to see what was going on.

Guff: Well good for you for seeing that beforehand! So, Miles being a little kid, probably didn't realize the scope of this event. What do you imagine his reaction will be when he's old enough to see the movie and to understand?

PW: Well he's seen the film, so that's pretty cool. Dana, do you want to talk about what the family said about him watching the documentary?

DN: Oh sure yeah. They watched it and he loved it. He wanted to watch it again the next day and the next day. I think with kids, they don't have perspective of what 25,000 people are, and they don't know what Twitter is, so Miles still believes it happened. I was a little nervous about him watching the film because I thought it would kind of give it all away, but it worked out.

PW: One of my favorite things about this is that he was oblivious. Thank goodness he's five. So that part is kind of lovely.

On the Sunday after the event, The Chronicle reprinted the handout that was given out the day of the wish that said, "Batkid Saves City." They put it on the front page of The Chronicle on a Sunday. So Miles was walking around with his family in Union Square, saw that on the newsstand, and he turned to his mom and said, "You know, I'm available if they need me to save lives today too."


Batkid Begins is out on Blu-ray and DVD October 6, 2015 and is available for streaming on various platforms.

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