CS Interview: Director Dana Nachman on the Moving Story Behind Batkid Begins

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CS Interview: Director Dana Nachman on the Moving Story Behind Batkid Begins

You may think you know everything there is to know about Miles Scott, the 5-year-old leukemia patient whose Make-A-Wish request to “be the Batman” turned into the internet sensation known as “Batkid.”

In director Dana Nachman’s moving new documentary Batkid Begins, you’re likely to see and learn a lot of new things about how Make-A-Wish went about trying to make Miles’ wish come true, and how with the help of the entire city of San Franscisco, they turned Miles’ day as “Batkid” into something that people will remember for years to come.

As you watch the film, you might be surprised by the amount of access Nachman had to everyone involved, and then you learn the film’s most surprising revelation, “I wasn’t there,” she told us over the phone last week. “I was not one of the 2 billion people who knew about it. I missed the entire thing. It’s so embarrassing and shows how sheltered I am.”

In fact, Nachman learned about the Batkid in a rather random fashion and then got involved with documenting Miles’ wish in an even more roundabout way, as she explains, “I was on a call with a bunch of middle-aged men about my other project and they were all talking about it. I thought it was so funny that a bunch of men were sitting around talking about a little boy. It was just strange and then I thought, ‘What a great documentary that would have been.’ And then I forgot about it.”

Nachman continues: “A week later, my girlfriend who I share my job with at NBC called and I asked ‘What are you working on?’ She said she was trying to get an interview with the Batkid. I mentioned what a great documentary that would be and she said, ‘Do you want me to ask them if they would be interested in talking to us?’ She calls back five minutes later and says ‘We have a meeting tomorrow at 9 a.m..’ This was a couple weeks after the wish.”

That meeting was with Patricia Wilson, the CEO of Make-A-Wish in the Greater Bay Area, who spearheaded the plan to turn Miles into a superhero. “We went in and my main question was, ‘What did you intend to happen?’ They intended for 200 people to show up, so what makes something go from 200 people to 2,500 people and then to close to 2 billion people online? I was very taken with the story, and I was mostly interested in why this struck a nerve like it did.”

Having not been there on the day of Miles’ wish, Nachman then had to figure out how to make a movie documenting something that had already taken place. “There were all these people there with smartphones so maybe we could crowdsource the thing,” she thought at first. “That would have been a technical disaster but we would have had a lot of video opportunities. Then at the end of the meeting, I asked if they happened to shoot it, and they said, ‘Oh, yeah. We hired a guy. He shot it with five cameras to make a fundraising video for us.’ We had that and then it happened that a local television station had volunteered to shoot all the capers so that at the end of the day, they could edit together a package for each caper so people at City Hall could see what really happened. They gave me their footage and the guy who shot it gave me his footage, and then the family as they were leaving town, someone gave them as a present a video camera and they shot the Circuit Center, they shot at the hotel room. Usually, when people do home video, you think it’s going to be terrible but they did a great job. I just got really lucky.”

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That’s very different from how many documentaries happen as filmmakers will often find a subject, then start following them around with cameras until they’re able to piece together a story. The fact that Nachman discovered and got involved with the Batkid story so late in the game makes her movie even more impressive an achievement.

Another revelation one might get from watching Nachman’s doc is the scale of what was happening once the world started learning about Miles’ wish and wanted to take part in it. So many people followed the story on social media that they may already think they know everything there is to see in Batkid Begins, but Nachman’s not to worried that all of Miles’ story has already been told. “My best friend followed that whole thing that day and I would show her cuts and she was like ‘I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that.’ On Twitter or even Facebook it’s just very short and you see a picture. I think unearthing all the people like the Uber driver and the people who made the costumes. It was just such a rich experience from a volunteering standpoint. There was no way anybody could have known that.”

Anyone who has been touched by cancer may think Batkid Begins would be a downer of a movie, but that’s not the case at all, especially once you realize that Miles survived leukemia and has been in remission ever since. “I didn’t realize that 80% of the kids survive and for me that was a real gamechanger,” Nachman admitted about her initial reluctance to take on the project. “One of the things is that if I can shed light on that. People on Twitter were saying ‘I can’t get through this movie’ and I was like, ‘It’s happy tears!’”

There’s no question that fighting cancer is tough, especially for someone as young as Miles. “There’s a couple things that really get me in the film and one is Nick (Miles’ father) is describing having to be tied to the gurney and have Miles strapped to him. I have three little kids and as a parent, it’s amazingly sad, horrific thing,” Nachman said about Miles’ fight against leukemia. “Once you’ve been through that, you can handle anything I think. It must make you strong for years to come.” 

Despite its subject matter, the film is quite a joyous experience as it documents how Miles’ plight brought out the best in all sorts of people, both directly and indirectly, something Nachman confirmed with her favorite part of the movie, which involves E.J. Thompson, who helped Patricia put together the whole thing and accompanied Miles on his adventures as the adult Batman.

“The part that really gets me and is my favorite line in the movie is when E.J. breaks his projector and he says, ‘Nobody will know the difference. Miles won’t know the difference, his parents won’t, but my whole life I will have known I could have made it better.’ That really touches me that someone can go to these lengths. So many people are just fine half-assing everything. This is a guy who has been through so much but was tortured by the fact he couldn’t make it the best he could. I just think that says so much about him and the spirit in which this was done.”

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“He’s so shy and he’s just not a big talker,” Bachman said about the lack of interviews with Miles himself in the film. “I was trying to interview him but then I realized what is he going to say that’s going to be really profound? He’s five so we spent time with them but really just being around them more and letting him play and be who he is because it was his creativity and imagination that really sparked this.”

“It’s kind of like the Santa thing,” Bachman told us when asked about how much Miles believed about what was happening on the day of the wish (and SPOILER if you still believe in Santa Claus!). “You kind of know it’s not true but you still go along with it. He goes along with it. Even my kids, who have been watching the entire time I’ve been making this movie, they still think he saved Gotham. Everybody does. Even Miles does.” 

It’s been over a year since Batkid made his mark on San Francisco and the world and now we’re just biding our time to see if Miles might some day put the cape and cowl back on to fight crime. (Nachman is an executive producer on Warner Bros.’ planned dramatization of Miles’ story with Julia Roberts attached to star and produce, but she has no insights on when we might see that.)

“I think he’ll remember it and he’ll have the movie as a memento,” the director told us. “You have to think about this when you make movies and documentaries, but there’s people who these things would change and there’s people who wouldn’t. This family, they’re just salt of the earth. They don’t want celebrity. They just want healthy kids. I can’t imagine it changing him. He’s just not that kind of kid.”

Before we let Dana go, we wondered whether the Batkid wish fulfillment had set too high a bar for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for future wishes. Since she had heard Patricia talk about this very thing, she had some insight to answer our question. “Most wishes are not public, most wishes are pretty private, just by the nature of what they are—going to Disney World or going on a family trip. They have different categories of wishes and this one is called the ‘wish to be’ like another one of the wishes was to be a famous singer. Most of the wishes are more material-based. I don’t think it’s changed the caliber of the wishes but it’s brought a lot of attention to them and had more people referred for wishes, which is what they want. 

If nothing else, hopefully the inspirational story in Batkid Begins will help push more people to volunteer for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, because there are a lot of kids like Miles who get struck by cancer, and there’s nothing better than seeing a child going through something so rough who is able to smile and escape the ordeal even for a day.

Batkid Begins opens in select cities on Friday, June 26.