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Behind 'Batkid Begins'

Director Dana Nachman’s new film explores the creative work and memorable emotions that went into granting Miles Scott's wish to be Batkid for a day

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(L-R) EJ Johnston as Batman and Mile Scott as Batkid in New Line Cinema's documentary 'Batkid Begins,' A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma. ©2015 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

In 2013, 25,000 people showed up in San Francisco to support and witness five-year-old Miles Scott from Tulelake, Calif., fulfill a very special wish. Miles was diagnosed at 18 months with leukemia, and following his treatment, he told Make-A-Wish that he wished to be “the real Batman." On November 15, 2013, our beloved city by the bay was transformed into Gotham City, and Batkid came to save us from the shenanigans of The Riddler and The Penguin. Miles’ wish was an unexpected social media sensation, receiving interest from around the world, including actors who have played Batman and President Barack Obama. But there was one person who learned about the wish after it happened, being acclaimed director Dana Nachman, who was intrigued by the overwhelming turnout for Miles’ wish.

“The main thing that really attracted me was the concept,” Nachman shared. “[Make-A-Wish] wanted 200 people to show up and 25,000 people showed up and close to two billion online. And why? And what does it take to make an event that attracts people to that degree?”

Nachman’s new film, Batkid Begins, looks to answer the filmmaker’s questions, as it reveals how one of the biggest stories of 2013 came to be and how San Francisco came together to make one special wish a reality.

A focal point of the film was learning all about what went into putting together Miles’ wish. For Executive Director of Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area Patricia Wilson, the first task was figuring out who Batman was to Miles.

“What you do on a wish like this, you have to find out what it’s like from a five-year-old’s perspective of being Batman. Who is Batman to him? What does that look like?” explained Wilson. “And I have to say, for him to be so bold - he wanted to be the real Batman - so that’s a little bigger of a challenge to go, ‘Wow, what does that look like?’ I certainly don’t want to do this and disappoint him.”

As Miles’ wish was being planned, Wilson recruited Eric Johnston to be the Batman to Miles’ Batkid and his wife Sue Graham Johnston to be the damsel in distress that Miles’ Batkid would rescue. It was Johnston who asked Mike Jutan, who played The Penguin, to take part in the wish. But before Jutan was given any details, he was told just to say yes to his friend’s offer.

“[The Johnstons] are good friends, and I work at Lucasfilm, and EJ and I worked together for a long time,” Jutan said. “And I just know that when he has something up his sleeve, it’s going to be amazing and world changing. And low and behold, here we are.”

It is thought that Jutan is partially responsible for the number of people that showed up for Miles’ wish, thanks to his social media post about the wish day’s events and locations that went on to spread like wildfire across the Internet.

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Fans line the streets to see Miles Scott as Batkid in New Line Cinema's documentary 'Batkid Begins,' A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Paul Sakuma. ©2015 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

“It’s great,” said Jutan about his post's impact on so many people coming out to support Miles. “I think a portion of this movie really talks about social media for social good, as Patricia puts it, and I think it’s very interesting. And it’s great for it to happen in San Francisco, home of all these companies, that we can say, you know, actually this can be used for something else, something much more positive.”

Having 25,000 people show up to a child’s wish day was very new for Wilson. “It scared the hell out of me, because that’s never happened before. I’ve been with Make-A-Wish almost 17 years and we’ve done all sorts of crazy and elaborate and whimsical and fun wishes and nothing like this,” said Wilson. “I started before things went viral, before social media, so I suppose that’s the new world we’re in, that could happen. I’ve never experienced that, and my first concern was for Miles. … Fortunately, he was five and wasn’t on the Internet and he wasn’t on Twitter, so none of this that had been released was spoiling his day.

“This was just something that snowballed into this beautiful thing. I don’t know that I can still articulate the experience. It can make me cry. I’m humbled. I could have never imagined. I could have never orchestrated it. It was just a beautiful thing that San Francisco did, and short of giving birth to my two children, the most profound experience of my life.”

When it came to putting together the film, Nachman was fortunate to be able to use footage taken by a video crew Wilson hired to document the day for a fundraising video. Additionally, new footage was taken following the event with Miles and his family in Tulelake, as well as follow-up interviews with those who were involved in making the wish happen. The biggest challenge that Nachman faced was the turnaround. 

“The hardest part was getting it done within 10 months, because that’s what I promised Patricia I would do,” Nachman said. “So that was hard, because my other films had taken three to four years to make. It was day and night working on it, but it’s such a pleasure to work on that it really wasn’t that hard at all. There was stress in that there’s always stress. You worry [if] you’re going to do a good job. You’re worried that it won’t live up to the day, you know. It had to be that good.”

Based on screenings that Nachman has attended, she found that regardless of what city she was in “people are really along for the ride.” “I think maybe in the beginning, [San Francisco] people understand it more, because they were there, either they were in the crowd or really following online, but I think the 140-character version of the day is very different from what the real day was, so I think even these guys (Wilson & Jutan) learned something about the day by watching the movie.”

Additionally, Nachman shared that she was worried that people would assume that Batkid Begins is a sad movie, when she considers it to be a happy one. “I’m obsessed with people knowing that it’s happy tears,” said Nachman. “I’m more intrigued by all the laughter in the theater. There’s a ton of laughter and there’s a ton of cheering."

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Wilson said that there are certain moments in the film when she finds herself getting emotional at different times from the audience. “I remember that bus ride from the ballpark to Civic Center and how emotional I was, because I thought, ‘We did it. It was successful. Miles is happy.’ And then you start to realize that it’s not over yet,” said Wilson. “We still had the celebration at the Civic Center, and I had to pull myself together, because I was truly losing it.” A similar sentiment ran through the crowd of onlookers and Wilson remembers watching them from the bus window. “It will be ingrained on my brain forever, to see how emotional they were,” she said.

A moment in the film that takes Jutan back to the day of the wish was when The Penguin made his entrance in Union Square. “For me, it’s the sheer terror on my face, as I come out of the garage in Union Square. … I hadn’t seen the crowd building, building, building and you just see me, I noticed it myself, I just lose it for a second, I’m like, ‘Ahhh!’” Jutan shared. “But, if you look very closely, there’s a girl in a yellow hoodie, that’s my girlfriend ... I see her and I’m like, ‘[exhales], okay,’ and kind of get my head into what she told me the night before, which was: The only thing that matters is Miles. This is a day for Miles. Ignore the fact that the entire universe is coming to this and just focus on the point, which is making sure Miles has a good time.”

So why did 25,000 people come out to support Miles? It could have been Jutan’s social media post; it could be that we all love to have something to root for. For Nachman, she found that Miles’ story reminds us what it was like to be a kid with a wish. “One of my takeaways [from the film] is really that being able to identify as a child and that childlike openness and that childlike wonder in the world,” she said. “And I think that so many people came together that day just to act like a child, and I love that part of it.”

Batkid Begins is playing in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and Sundance Kabuki theater now. For more information, visit BatkidBegins.com.