Filmmaker Ken Feinberg doesn’t exactly have the profile of a guy who just made a film about Santa Claus. In fact, the Atlanta-born, Jewish-raised Feinberg once made a nice living in Los Angeles, playing big, bad-looking meanies (bikers, demons, etc.) on shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Charmed,” and now, he’s helming a family holiday picture called SANTA’S BOOT CAMP starring a bunch of kids with a cameo by Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts? How did THAT happen?
It was in fact Feinberg running into a wall of “typecasting” the prompted him to move back to Atlanta a decade ago and start the Creative Studios of Atlanta Film Academy. Having learned the harsh realities of how to make a living as a working professional actor, he wanted to bring that knowledge back to the young actors in his home town. The focus on the academy is not only traditional acting instruction, but an opportunity for every student in the year-long program to work on a real film.
After producing dozens of short films featuring his students over the course of several years, Feinberg and his team produced their first feature, SANTA’S BOOT CAMP, a hilarious look behind the scenes at Santa’s Workshop where Santa’s Elves go on strike and a handful of regular kids must save the day. A story with valuable lessons that speak to contemporary issues and celebrate the universal holiday themes of generosity and kindness, the film was recently awarded the Director’s Gold Award at the International Family Film Festival, and will be distributed by SPA Releasing on November 16. Roberts stars as a beleaguered mall Santa, and nearly 50 young performers have speaking parts.
As a mentor and teacher, Feinberg celebrates the success of a number of the academy’s graduates, who have gone on to earn roles in major projects made in the Atlanta region, including “The Walking Dead,” “The Hunger Games,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “The Blind Side.” Recently, Feinberg, who is married with two young children of his own, expanded the CSA program to Corona, Italy, continuing to embrace new opportunities to combine creativity and teaching.
Writer/director Ken Feinberg is eager to spread the message of SANTA’S BOOT CAMP – that when young people put their best effort forward, they can do anything – which is delivered both on screen by the kids who come together to save Christmas, and off-screen by the talented young artists who bring their characters and the story to such vivid life.
SANTA’S BOOT CAMP
A new family classic offers valuable lessons on and off the screen
There’s a rift between Santa and his Elves: half of his toy production team are on strike just a few days before Christmas, and the holiday gifts are in jeopardy. Noticing the troubling behavior of a six adolescents in line to see a mall Santa in Atlanta, the real Saint Nick uses his magic to summon them to his toy factory in order to help save Christmas. After failing to engineer an escape, the kids ultimately realize the importance of doing good for each other, and launch a plan to bring Santa and his Elves back together just in time.
Like many memorable holiday films, SANTA’S BOOT CAMP plays with the familiar story of the holiday season’s most beloved icon, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at Santa’s “operation” from the perspective of six kids who learn a valuable lesson about themselves and put that lesson into action. That not only happens in the story – it happened on the set of the film, where dozens of young actors put their well-honed skills to use to help bring this memorable story to life.
SANTA’S BOOT CAMP, which features Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts as a beleaguered mall Santa, is the brainchild of filmmaker Ken Feinberg. An Atlanta native who worked for a decade as a professional actor in Los Angeles, where his many TV credits included guest roles on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Charmed,” and “Star Trek: Enterprise,” Feinberg returned to his home town a decade ago and began Creative Studios of Atlanta. “When I grew up in Atlanta, there was nobody there who could answer my questions about being an actor. When I moved to LA, I didn’t have any connections and had to learn everything from the ground up. I opened up the studio with the intention of training people on what they need to know in order to get work in the industry.”
Thus began CSA, which focuses on young actors and asks them to commit to a year-long intensive program specifically focused on acting for the screen. Emphasizing preparation, professionalism, and an understanding of one’s type, Feinberg has brought his wealth of real-world experience to hundreds of young performers over the years. The results? Dozens of his former students have gone to act in major projects, including AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” the blockbuster “Hunger Games” films, and the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” “Ring of Fire,” and “The Blind Side.”
But it wasn’t enough that CSA would offer the usual acting class experiences in audition technique, scene study, and so forth. Feinberg knew that the best way to learn how to act on film was to act on film – to have a real acting job, working with film professionals. “One of the reasons why actors from Atlanta have typically only gotten day player roles in the bigger projects is because they don’t have the experience of working at the level of actors from LA and New York. There’s a standard of professionalism in terms of auditioning and working on the set,” Feinberg explains.
Thus, the culminating experience for the students each year was to act in a film – and over the years, Feinberg and his creative team have produced dozens of shorts featuring CSA-trained actors. But three years ago, knowing that some of his more talented performers were returning for additional training an experience, they set their sights higher. “We looked at all of the production we were doing and figured with that much effort, we could make a feature – and something that would have appeal to people beyond just the students and their families and communities.”
That’s how SANTA’S BOOT CAMP came about. Co-written with Mimi Fontaine and Kelly Nettles, Feinberg’s modern-day take on Santa includes insight on how Elves use social media and modern technology to put together the “naughty” and “nice” lists; asks its characters to confront real-life issues of bullying and stereotyping; and even takes Santa to task for being a little too old-fashioned about what Christmas means in a modern, multicultural world (one of the demands of his Elves is that Santa expands production to include more gifts for Jewish kids and other faiths). Feinberg says that the more universal themes of the story remained clearly in focus despite the modern twists: “Santa Claus is a universal symbol for unconditional giving and creating good will, so we see him as that much more than a specifically Christian symbol. We wanted it to have a universal feeling and the message that no matter your religion, you need to think about your actions as a person.”
That message clearly resonates in the performances of almost 50 actors who have speaking parts in the film. “It’s seeing the fruits of our labor right in front of our eyes,” Feinberg says about making the film. “I’ve worked for a year with them, building new techniques and a new vocabulary week-by-week. When they come on to the set, I say ‘this is a chance for you to put all of that into practice.’” For Feinberg, that’s not just being believable, hilarious, poignant, or outrageous on camera as the scene calls for, but also being a consummate professional when the cameras stop rolling. “I remind them that if they come prepared, people are going to want to work with them again. It is their job to practice not just the lines, but the character analysis and creation.”
With limited resources and a complicated schedule – working with minors means restricted hours and needing to provide school time – SANTA’S BOOT CAMP shot about 20 minutes of the story in order to create a reel that could secure finishing funds. Despite nearly a year between that initial effort and the completion of the film, the final product is seamless, a tribute to film’s editor Craig Tollis (a four-time regional Emmy winner) who also helped produce the film and develop the script) and the solid acting skills of the cast. Kids who had grown too much from one year to the next found themselves playing multiple roles – unrecognizable from each other – that offered more opportunities to test out their acting skills. With a production schedule of about 15 total days, the film was completed with some nifty special effects to enhance the magic of Santa and his elves, and an entirely original score by Stephen Letnes.
As much as he is proud of SANTA’S BOOT CAMP, Feinberg can’t help but beam when remembering the work of his students. He recalls a scene between two Elves on opposite sides of the labor dispute, a complicated scene that needed to both move the story forward and begin to heal the relationship of the two characters. “We had eight scenes to shoot on that day, and we were way behind,” the director remembers. “Erika and Ansley knocked out that scene on the first take, saved us thirty minutes, and we were back on schedule.” SANTA’S BOOT CAMP reminds us that when we give young people the opportunity to learn a little bit from their elders and do hard work, then they might be able to achieve their dreams – including saving Christmas.