We all remember the day Batkid saved Gotham City.
It was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement back in November 2013 when the Greater Bay Area Make-A-Wish Foundation—and so many volunteers—transformed San Francisco into Gotham City so that a little boy who had battled leukemia could play superhero.
While 25,000 people lined the streets of the city to cheer on five-year-old Miles Scott as he and Batman spent the day taking down the likes of the Penguin and the Riddler around San Francisco, it has been estimated that 2 billion people around the world saw the day’s events unfold through social media.
But what we haven’t known until now is the story of how that unforgettable day—the kind of day that restores your faith in humanity—came together and how the event became a viral sensation. The New Line Cinema documentary Batkid Begins, which opens in select theaters in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco on June 26, traces the evolution of the event, delves into the logistics and looks at the impact it had on the wider world beyond the kid who had an awesome adventure.
As we see in the film directed by Dana Nachman, Patricia Wilson, the CEO of the Greater Bay Area Make-A-Wish Foundation, and her staff had modest aspirations when they set out to make Miles a superhero. They simply envisioned having Miles—accompanied by actor/inventor Eric “EJ” Johnston in the role of Batman—complete a few missions as Batkid in San Francisco, with maybe a couple of hundred onlookers gathering to shout out encouragement.
After a call was put out for volunteers on social media, Make-A-Wish was overwhelmed with interest from the public. People from all over the world announced their intention to be in San Francisco to support Batkid, and all kinds of individuals and companies, as well as local government and law enforcement officials, pitched in to help.
Just to name a few of those who went above and beyond: Christopher Verdosci, the assistant costume director of the San Francisco Opera, and his staff provided alterations to the Batman suit worn by Johnston and created costumes for the Penguin and the Riddler, and Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who scored the Dark Knight triology, composed a theme song just for Batkid.
Katie Cotton, who was vice president of worldwide communications for Apple at the time, donated the use of her PR team to support the effort for a week, and Clever Girls Collective founder Stefania Pomponi had her staff organize social media strategy. Mike De Jesus, then an executive at Twitter, live-tweeted the event.
Here, Nachman, who, remarkably, only found out about the Batkid phenomenon the day after it happened—“This is so embarrassing, but I was editing that day, and I wasn’t on social media, and, apparently, I wasn’t watching the news,” she says, laughing—spoke to Co.Create about why she wanted to make Batkid Begins and how she told the story.
But before we get to that, you’ll be happy to hear that Miles, who is going to be seven-years-old in August, is in remission.
Co.Create: I expended a lot of energy watching this film. I was crying, I was laughing, and even cheering during some parts. Have you had a chance to watch the film with an audience to see how people react?
Nachman: Yes. I’ve watched it so many times with audiences now. I would say probably 25 times, which I have never done with my other films. It is so pleasurable to watch this one with people because of exactly what you’re saying. When I first showed the film at Slamdance this year, we had only finished it days before, and I had no idea people were going to laugh so much.
So you don’t usually watch your films with an audience?
I usually do a few times, but not this many times, and they’ve been more serious films. [Nachman’s directorial credits include The Human Experiment, a documentary about the use of dangerous chemicals in household products, and Love Hate Love, another documentary centering on people whose lives have been impacted by terrorism.] It gets really tense, and it’s hard for me. You don’t get feedback like this because they are listening and concentrating, and it’s really hard for me to sit there and watch with them because I’m worried, “Do they like it? Do they not like it?” The insecurities come out. But with this film, people emote so much you can tell how they’re feeling.
I didn’t realize how complex of an undertaking it was for Make-A-Wish to put this wish together for Miles. Why did you think it was important to share that process in detail?
I think the story is really—and I’ve felt this way from the beginning—is more about the volunteers and the people who made this amazing day happen more so than about Miles. I wanted to show that it wasn’t just one or two people—it was many people. The whole story is fascinating, and what really gets me is how all these people tried so hard to make one beautiful day for a child.
How did you get Make-A-Wish to work with you on this film?
Liza Meaks—she is one of the producers of the film—and I went to Make-A-Wish for what we thought would be a half-hour meeting, and it was a two-and-a-half-hour meeting. We totally hit it off with Patricia [Wilson] and Jen [Wilson, the Make-A-Wish marketing director], and after they told me what their intention was for the wish and what it became, I was just totally floored and wanting to do this film. They mentioned that several other people had reached out to them and that got my competitive hackles up. I went home and wrote to every main character I had ever filmed with and asked, “Can I use you as a reference?” They all wrote back yes, and I compiled this big list of references. About a week later, Make-A-Wish called and said we could do the film, even though they didn’t call one of my references or watch any of my films.
Obviously, they bonded with you during that meeting and felt comfortable with you telling the story.
Yeah. We really hit it off, and now that we know each other much, much, much better, we see we’re all cut from the same cloth it seems, and so it makes sense it worked out.
Since you weren’t there documenting the Batkid wish from the beginning, it had to be challenging to get the footage you needed.
I thought maybe we could crowdsource because there were so many people there shooting video, but at the end of the meeting with Patricia, the last question I asked was, “You didn’t happen to shoot this did you?” And she was like, “Oh, yeah. I hired a guy who brought five cameras to shoot a fundraising video.”
It was very lucky that the guy who they hired to shoot it was really good. I also got footage from a local station, and then the family had really great footage. Somebody had given them a video camera. Usually, with home video it’s usually pretty bad, so you brace yourself, but they did an excellent job, I thought.
You also used comic book-style animation in the film, employing it at the beginning, for example, to tell the audience how Miles’ family found out he was ill and what kind of treatment he went through. What made you decide to use animation?
It seemed like the right way to approach something with the whole Batman comic thing, but I also didn’t want this to be a sad movie, and I wanted to get over the sad part in the first few minutes. I felt like if I could [tell the backstory about Miles’ illness] in the animation that it would really kind of take the bite out of it, and it also served a purpose because we weren’t there when he was sick. And why would you want to have cameras on him while he was going through that?
Rob Simmons was the lead animator, and I made it clear this was a documentary budget, and he said, “Listen, I just spoke with my wife. We have two young boys around Miles’ age, and we feel like this is an important thing to do, so whatever it takes, I’ll get it done.”
That was in the spirit of what the day was like. I paid everybody on the crew, but it wasn’t enough for the hours that anyone put it. Everybody put their heart and soul into the film even though we couldn’t give them what they were worth.
I can’t remember who says it in the film, but someone talks about the idea of play and how we adults act like adults, and we don’t lose ourselves in play and our imaginations like we did when we were children. But so many adults—from those who helped make this happen to those who cheered Batkid on that day—let go and lost themselves in this experience and acted like kids. Everyone was so joyful. Did being a witness to that through making this film affect you?
Oh, yeah. Not that I’m childlike all the time, but I like to feel I approach the world in that way. It’s funny because my films had been very dark before, and I really have gravitated towards very dark issues. But, in general, I try not to have that kind of adult kind of cynicism about anything. And so I think this really brought that out more in me, and that’s why I love the project so much.
The people in the film are these amazing examples of people who refuse to get that kind of bitter, cynical, adult sense about them—if they had been that way, they wouldn’t have made an event like this happen. It would have just been much more humdrum.
Has Miles seen the film?
Yes, he did. I was a little concerned about him watching it, and I was talking to his mom about it. I sent it to them the weekend before Slamdance, and I said, “Do you guys really want to show it to him because it’s going to show all the mechanics behind that day?” And she said they did want to show it to him.
He loved it. He absolutely loved it. And he watched it again the next day and the next day. He was fine.
My kids have watched it, too, and it’s kind of like the whole Santa thing—it’s like they just believe what they want to believe, and they forget about what they know about the other part. It’s just amazing way that children can do that.
I was thinking how Miles might not not have registered just how epic this day was being so young but how much he is going to appreciate all of this when he watches the film down the road when he is older.
He probably feels it. He probably feels how good people were to him. Nick [his dad] says it really well in the film. He says, “Kids get a lot of compassion. They get a lot of great things from people, and they feel that and know that, and they want to give back, and that’s why Miles wants to be Batman—to save people and help good conquer evil.”
I really believe that deep down. Anybody who battles something like this when they were little, they have this big scare, they’re wise beyond their years in a lot of ways.