Wednesday, November 23, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE interview with BECOMING SANTA's Jack Sanderson!

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus
(And His Name Is Jack):



By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     If you are old enough to read this, then you probably stopped believing in Santa Claus long ago. But while you may have been told that Santa was merely a fictional being, the magic of the jolly man in the red suit has more than likely stayed deep within you. Remember what it was like to believe that good ol’ Kris Kringle would be sliding down your chimney to deliver your presents? The fact that you didn’t have a chimney didn’t bother you one bit: all that mattered were the gifts galore that you would find under the tree on Christmas morning!
     Truth be told, the magic of Santa is not so much about a mythological man, but about the spirit of giving. No matter how old you are or what you believe in, the joy of the holiday season is born in a simple giving gesture. Whether you hand a child a gift or offer a stranger a smile, the spirit of Santa lives within us all.
     Sometimes, if you lose sight of the magic of Christmas, you must take a journey in order to find it again. Hollywood has made plenty of movies dealing with this very subject, but the documentary Becoming Santa is quite possibly the most effective example of one person’s road to rediscovering that Christmas feeling.
     In Becoming Santa, writer/actor Jack Sanderson decides to don the red suit and jump head first into the holiday season. The film follows him as he attends Santa school before he tackles a handful of volunteer positions to the delight of small children everywhere he goes. The majority of the film focuses on Jack’s first holiday season as Santa, but it also features interviews with the people he encounters along the way including a handful of veteran Santas who offer plenty of insight into their lifestyles. On top of all of that, the filmmakers (Sanderson and director Jeff Myers) manage to add just the right amount of historical info tracing Santa’s evolution over the years.
     Becoming Santa is humorous, informative, poignant, eye-opening, head-scratching and thoroughly entertaining. Christmas may be more commercialized than ever now, but one view of this film will hopefully help to readdress the balance and inspire the viewer to look beyond the red suit and beard and reconnect with that holiday magic again.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to sit down for a chat with Jack Sanderson about Santa, the making of this documentary and much more…

SPAZ: Becoming Santa is just about ready to drop. How are you feeling about the reaction to the film and everything leading up to it’s release?
JACK SANDERSON: You know, I couldn’t have asked for it to be better. I suspected that when Jeff and I started the project that it might have a universal appeal and I think it does. I’ve had many people say to me “I didn’t think I was going to like it because I thought it would be too sweet and too cloying,” but no, it’s just honest without being cloying.

SPAZ: I thought it was interesting because it not only showed Jack Sanderson’s journey but also a historical look at Santa.
JACK: Our goal from the beginning was too also show the people that were using Santa to keep the spirit alive.

SPAZ: What inspired you to take this journey to Becoming Santa?
JACK: I used to do TV commercials and every July or August, they would start casting the Christmas commercials. I noticed that every Santa who showed up for an audition had a real beard, his own suit and his wife had driven him to the audition. (laughs) And I thought “OK, there’s some Santa Claus subculture going on here that the rest of the world doesn’t know about!” When I looked into it, I discovered The Amalgamated Order Of Real Bearded Santas and the Fraternal Order Of Real Bearded Santas, which was really the biggest and the best of those organizations. And you know, there is no character left in contemporary culture that people dress up as to celebrate a holiday. Centuries ago, people used to dress up as other characters… people used to dress up as Guy Fox or Saint Patrick. Santa Claus is the only mythology left that is almost universally embraced. And thank heavens it’s him! (laughs) Think of the other options…if everybody was dressing up as Genghis Khan once a year, we’d have a problem!

SPAZ: How were you able to take this idea and pull it all together? Was it a long process from conception to first day of filming?
JACK: There are many independent films in Hollywood. I was at a conference where the examples they presented of independent films were The King’s Speech, Black Swan and Blind Side: those were the three independent films that the studio execs kept referencing. I just sat there thinking “Just because you spent less than $40 million doesn’t make it an independent film.” So, I feel that Becoming Santa is truly an independent film. I got the idea for the film and it took me three years to find someone who agreed with me that it was a good idea (director Jeff Myers). Jeff and I spent two years trying to convince other people to contribute funds and also trying to find someone we could follow through Santa School and then getting jobs as Santa. Ultimately, we couldn’t find anybody that was willing to do it. I couldn’t deny that I was the right shape. I figured I can grow a pretty good beard, so I grew my beard out. It got to that day when I felt like we’re not finding anybody, I’ve got the beard, it’s June and I’m already dreading Christmas, so I’m going to go bleach my beard and dive into this.

SPAZ: How did Jeff Myers get involved?
JACK: I used to live in Chicago and I had known Jeff there. We lost touch when I moved out here (Los Angeles) and then I ran into him at the YMCA. We reconnected and started talking about maybe doing something together. It had been about 10 years since we had seen each other. I told him about the Santa idea and he thought it was great and from the point that I told him about it, it was three year before we finally started shooting. Initially, Jeff and I paid for it ourselves and then, towards the end, we were able to get other investors.

SPAZ: Was it difficult to convince all the participants that you were not there to mock them… that your intentions were good?
JACK: There are five major Santa schools across the United States. The school that’s featured in the film is the American Events Santa School run by Susen Mesco. She’s entering her 30th year of training Santas. Susan is the only one who was not afraid of us. At the time that we were filming, Borat and Bruno had already been out and people were afraid we were going to make fun of them. I wanted to do some filming at the annual luncheon that the Fraternal Order Of Real Bearded Santas has every year and they were afraid that I was going to make fun of them. After many phone calls and much negotiating, I finally had them all to my office where I was working. I was talking to the president of the Fraternal Order on a Tuesday and the luncheon was coming up on Sunday and he was calling me and telling me I couldn’t shoot because there were people who thought I was up to no good. Without thinking, I said “Bring whoever you want to my office on Thursday, I’ll show you some of the footage we’ve shot so far and answer any questions that anybody has.” He called me back 20 minutes later and said “Ten of us will be there on Thursday at your office.” I was working for a TV producer and I had to walk into my boss’ office and say, “I have a meeting on Thursday here in the office with ten Santas.” He just looked at me blankly and said “I’m not going to be here on Thursday if that’s happening!” (laughs) They came in, I answered all of their questions and once they saw the footage, they said that I could shoot at the luncheon. At the luncheon, they do an annual fashion show. I really wanted footage of that fashion show. That year’s theme was Santa Sleepwear. Jeff was sorry we missed it the year before and I was glad we missed it because the year before, the theme was Santa Swimwear! (laughs). I was in the fashion show showcasing one of Adele Saidy’s Santa costumes and Adele is the premier Santa Claus suit maker in the United States.

SPAZ: Were you a bit surprised at just how serious some of the Santas were about their ‘craft’?
JACK: Yes. When we started the project, I thought that being Santa was a job and the people that we met along the way showed us that being Santa is a lifestyle. A lot of the gentlemen that we met are Santa 24/7. They wear what we call Santa Casual, so even when they aren’t wearing their regular suit, they are wearing red pants and a green shirt or candy-striped socks or whatever. And they all have those Santa Hawaiian shirts!

SPAZ: Once you bleached your hair and beard, did you immediately see a change in the way people treated you even before donning the Santa suit?
JACK: Yes. I’ll give you some examples.. I was running a marathon for a charity event. When I went to the hotel to register, the woman behind the counter asked me “Do you play Santa?” and I said “I do.” She said, “Well, we can’t put Santa in just any room,” and she upgraded me to a suite! I went to the DMV to get a new license and the woman behind the counter said “Do you play Santa?” and I said “I do,” and I gave her a ‘Nice’ sticker. She said, “Ah, I knew it! You go right to the front of the line,” and I was in and out of the DMV in 12 minutes!

SPAZ: Being Santa for a prolonged period is hard work. Did this give you a whole new appreciation for those who become Santa every year?
JACK: Yes. In the Fraternal Order Of Real Bearded Santas, there are over 300 members. I would say that 95% of them love children and want to make sure that children have an experience of magic in their lives and Santa is the way that they do it. And then there’s 5% or less who just love the attention they get from being Santa and they’re not that interested in working with children. They’ll do private parties and commercials or whatever. But that’s fine. When you look at the whole scope of Santas across the United States, there are probably less than 2-3% of them that are making a living at it. The great majority of them do it because they love children and they love giving back and creating magic for children.

SPAZ: What do you want the viewer to walk away with after watching Becoming Santa?
JACK: What Jeff and I wanted was people to walk away from the documentary wondering how they could be more Santa-like. One of the things that I developed an appreciation for along that way, and what Santa embodies, is secret giving. In America, many people are very vocal about organizations that they give to or about the fact that they give or donate at all. For something to be truly charitable, it should be anonymous. A recipient of charity should not feel indebted to the person who gave it to them. They should just be able to feel appreciative that empathy in humanity still exists. I feel that that is something that is being lost, particularly in the United States. But the ways in which a majority of these Santas give are not necessarily monetarily. They give by creating a sense of magic in children’s lives and by making children feel important, which doesn’t happen very often. One of the things that surprised me along the way was how many times I would encounter a child who I could tell was not used to being listened to. So, when I would actually listen to them, they would have more to say because somebody was listening!

SPAZ: Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?
JACK: I believe that everybody defines the magic of Christmas differently for themselves.

SPAZ: What’s next for Jack Sanderson?
JACK: Jeff Myers and I are talking about doing some other projects. We haven’t settled on anything. We’re still debating. It’s Christmas and I am employed for the entire month of December as Santa Claus in Hong Kong. I am doing it again. It’s going to be on a year by year basis. I am not the guy who will commit to the Santa lifestyle. I’m not going to go out and buy a red car…. Hey, look, I’m 46 and when you bleach your hair white, it’s a huge obstacle in dating! (laughs)

SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning in your CD and DVD players?
JACK: I just finished watching all of Downton Abbey (British TV series), which I loved. I thought it was terrific. And I tend to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat on a fairly regular basis. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies. It’s awesome. Music-wise, the three discs in my player are an album from P.J. Olsson, the Corsairs’ self-titled release and Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.

Thanks to Jack Sanderson

Special thanks to Rick Rieger, Lauren Watt and Mary Flynn.


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