Like a Polish version of “Love Actually,” “Letters to Santa” is a heartwarming, comedy, with a few tears in the middle, about multiple characters finding love on Christmas Eve in a snowy Warsaw that feels remarkably like New York.
Released in Poland in November and still running four months later, the pic has grossed more than $14 million, making it the biggest Polish hit of the post-Communist era that’s not based on a major event in the country’s history.
With its sweet festive spirit, “Letters to Santa” doesn’t seem like political dynamite. But in nearby Slovenia, where the movie was also a smash, its success planted a bomb in the country’s Ministry of Culture.
That’s because the pic was directed by Slovenia’s hottest young filmmaker, Mitja Okorn, who was forced to seek his fortune elsewhere after the Slovenia state film agency refused to back him.
The Slovenian release of “Letters to Santa” coincided with the election of a new government on a mandate to break from the past 20 years of post-Communist rule. One of its first acts was to merge the Ministry of Culture into the Ministry of Education. Faced with protests from local artists, it cited the example of Okorn to illustrate the failure of the previous regime to back the country’s brightest talents.
Okorn is clearly delighted to have contributed to the downfall of the cultural commissars who tried to block his path. “For eight years, I was saying out loud what no one else would dare to say, that they are doing bad things, laundering money and ruining our culture,” he says, in fluent MTV-accented English.
A charmingly energetic and ambitious 31-year-old, whose commercial talent is clearly evident in the glossy surfaces and deft emotional manipulation of “Letters to Santa,” Okorn has his eyes firmly set on an international career.
Mentored by “Love Actually” producer Duncan Kenworthy, who spotted his potential at a British Council competition for young filmmaking entrepreneurs, Okorn is in discussions with U.K. financiers about possible English-language projects.
But Okorn still hankers to return to his native country to shoot his passion project “The Member,” which was previously rejected by the Slovenian Film Fund. Co-written with American filmmaker Sam Akina, who met Okorn in a bar at Cannes and also contributed to “Letters to Santa,” it’s based on the true story of Slovenia’s most infamous gangster — who was also its biggest rock star.
Okorn is optimistic that the new regime will finally give him backing.
The filmmaker has good reason to be confident in his own abilities. His self-financed debut movie “Here and There,” a Guy Ritchie style teen caper, shot for $3,000 when he was only 19, became the top-grossing film in Slovenia, despite (or perhaps because of) being the first film made there without state support. “Letters to Santa” proved that was no fluke.
After spending his teenage years on a skateboard, Okorn started shooting videos of his friends in action. “I discovered I was better at filming than at skateboarding,” he says. “I was good at convincing people to do things they didn’t want to do, like jumping down 13 steps even though it would probably break their legs. That helped when it came to working with actors,” he jokes.
Post-production took him three years, during which time he found work shooting pop promos. The Slovenian Film Fund rejected his application for €30,000 to blow up “Here and There” for theatrical release, so he borrowed the cash from loan sharks. But he had already included “the Slovenian Film Fund presents” in the opening credits, so he simply scratched over the words, which drew a laugh from the audience.
“Here and There” made Okorn into a local hero, but it didn’t endear him to the cultural apparatchiks. He had become too famous for them to reject publicly, so they stalled him by promising funding for “The Member” that never came. He even secretly recorded his meetings with officials to prove they were lying to him.
Okorn argues that the Slovenian cultural establishment never shook off its mindset from the Communist era before the country’s independence from the old Yugoslavia in 1991.
“The Minister of Culture said to me once: ‘Mitja, you are competent; you will find a way to make your films. But we must give our money to the people who are not competent — the film school graduates who have never been able to get their scripts made.’ It’s a typical Communistic comment, to take from the people who know how to do things, and give to the people who don’t. So every time I gave an interview in Slovenia, I quoted this. After they lost the election, they finally asked me to please stop mentioning it.”
Meanwhile, a chance meeting at Cannes with a Polish producer led to a TV series in Poland. Titled “39 1/2,” it centered on a man about to turn 40 trying to relive his youth. Okorn learned Polish to direct it and delivered a ratings hit over two seasons.
“Letters to Santa” followed. It’s an unlikely film for a skate-punk hotshot whose greatest ambition is to make a gangster movie like “Goodfellas.” But Okorn says he was attracted to the artistic challenge of making a polished romantic comedy. With Akina, he revamped the script to make it as “real and emotional” as possible. But perhaps his greatest achievement was making Warsaw, one of the ugliest capitals in Europe, look as romantic as New York.
The pic was also hampered by an unseasonable warm spell, which nearly doubled the original $1 million budget by requiring three hours of artificial snow-making before each day’s shoot.
Okorn admits that his Polish crew never thought this hyperactive Slovenian kid knew what he was doing until they saw the completed film. Whether his next move takes him back to Poland or Slovenia, or on to the U.K. or America (where he believes “Letters to Santa” is ripe for a remake), Okorn is clearly a guy who doesn’t let the doubters stand in his way.