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The Nelms Brothers Discuss Their Gritty New Christmas Film Fatman

Film writer Neil Middlemiss (Home Theater Forum) once described the talented filmmaker/screenwriter brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms as such: “Like all moviemakers worth watching, they combine their geographic influences … and the cinema that captured their imaginations growing up, to build stories around characters who have something interesting to say. A dry comedic streak runs through much of their work … but the narrative anchor is always, at its core, drama. … And through an impressive parade of actors with whom they have lured with the quality of their scripts, they put out a growing body of impressive or intriguing pictures.” Middlemiss wrote those words in a piece about the Nelms’ 2017 film, Small Town Crime, but the description remains apt.

This Friday will see the release of the brothers’ newest (and biggest) film, Fatman. By now most cineastes know about the film. Maybe a buddy sent the trailer to you by messenger, or maybe you just stumbled across it by chance… You remember. It was the one that made you say, “Holy shit, someone actually made this” or “based on the plot alone, I probably shouldn’t want to see this, but it looks fucking amazing!” (For the record, I said the latter.) Fatman is, of course, the Christmas-themed action/comedy in which Walton Goggins plays a hitman tasked with eliminating a grizzled, tough-as-nails Santa Claus played by Mel Gibson.

If your expectations are that the film will be crazy and fun and maybe even great, the film meets and exceeds those expectations. If your expectations are that the film looks batshit crazy and wilder than anything you ever believed you’d see actually get made, those expectations are correct also.

Fatman is superb. The Nelms have created something that is far different from anything that has preceded it. It’s one of those concepts that could have easily gone either way; the trailer plays up the gritty aspects of the film, but one could easily envision it being something corny and schmaltzy. But Fatman is every bit as gritty as you would hope for it to be. It toys with audience expectations; when you expect the film to zig, Fatman zags. The writing is clever, the direction is top notch, and the performances are beyond impressive (most notably Gibson and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who share a very tangible chemistry, and Jean-Baptiste nearly steals the show). I throughly enjoyed Small Time Crime, but I must say, I enjoyed Fatman even more.

I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk to the brothers, who were kind, gracious, and appreciative of the coverage. When speaking with them, the thing I was immediately struck by was their absolute unbridled passion for making and viewing cinema. These guys are the real deal. Fatman is terrific in every sense of the word, and the work the Nelms do here makes you wonder just where they might go next.

Considering the longtime debates about whether or not Die Hard can be considered a Christmas movie, we can see that clearly there is an audience for a Christmas-themed action film. And now you’ve brought us your new film, Fatman.

ESHOM NELMS: As far as action movies, look, Ian and I love action movies. I mean, we grew up with movies like Predator, Terminator 2, Aliens

IAN NELMS: That’s the stuff we grew up with, eating our Cheerios to in the morning. We have a real reverence for Clint Eastwood movies. Pretty much all of them.

ESHOM: Shane Black’s movies are amazing because they’re not overtly Christmas movies, but they have a Christmas backdrop, like The Long Kiss Goodnight. I think that has a little bit of a Christmas thing in it, doesn’t it?

Almost all of his scripts have Christmas scenes in them.

ESHOM: Yeah! There’s like a little Christmas-y vibe. It kind of hangs out in the background like Lethal Weapon and whatnot.

IAN: Yeah, you’re just sort of in the season. There’s just something cool and magical and crazy and fun about having some action taking place while there’s that sort of warm family Christmas vibe going on.

Tell me about the concept for Fatman. Where did this come from?

ESHOM: The craziest thing is, we weren’t even thinking, and maybe it shows in the movie, but we weren’t even thinking about Christmas movies when we were coming up with the idea. The two most seminal films that we thought of when we were making this, or laughing about when we were making it, were probably Unbreakable—that one had a huge influence on us because it was about a “normal” guy with powers.

IAN: Under the guise of a superhero movie.

ESHOM: And then it was like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which may seem strange. It’s a three-hander and you’ve got these three characters that are kind of swirling, and they come together at the end. Those were probably the most seminal two films that were bouncing around in our noggins.

And we’ve all seen Santa as Tim Allen. We’ve seen him as the menacing dude that comes down and chops you up with an axe…

IAN: We wanted to make Santa like a fucking superhero!

ESHOM: And the whole idea was like, okay, what if this guy was real? How do we make him grounded? How do we ground that world? There are so many rules we had to think of that may not even necessarily be said in the film but we had to abide by because it was like, “Well, he can’t do that because of this, and he has to do this because of that, and he would be this… If he was going to have been around for a thousand years, he’d have to have done this.” We really had to cement ourselves in a certain world or universe of what we thought everything had to happen under the auspices of. “It has to sort of go like this.”

You mentioned The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. When Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins finally square off, the music seems to really heighten the scene. It felt kind of like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The music wasn’t mimicking Morricone, but the scene sort of had that feel, so I’m assuming that was something you were thinking about when you assembled that.

IAN: I think there’s an infusion of that throughout the film. Hopefully it’s not in the score, but for us, when we were temping that [using temporary music while assembling the film] in, we actually put Full Metal Jacket temped in there.

ESHOM: But I will say what I think you’re responding to is, what I hope you’re responding to is maybe the aesthetic there and we are using those sort of sounds that were in a portion of the Full Metal Jacket score. That sort of instrumentation, percussion and metal, and they’re using that as sort of a build up, as you would in a Leone film.

You guys walk a very interesting and thin tightrope with the film between fun and happy Christmas fare and pitch-black comedy. It seemed to really toy with viewer expectations. It drops hints that it mind wind up being something happy or light or maybe cop out at the end, but the last twenty minutes of the film are some of the most raucous, crazy, dark moments I’ve ever seen in a mainstream film.

ESHOM: When we set out to make these movies, honestly we’re like “okay, what do you expect?” And then “here’s the left turn we’re going to take from that.” Honestly, we always try to subvert expectations and give a little something extra.

IAN: Yeah, I think the movies that we love the most are those movies where, when you’re watching them are the ones that have seeded it very gently but then pay it off really hard. And you’re like, “Holy shit! I didn’t think it was gonna go this direction!” But you’re right. You actually set that up well enough to where I could go that direction, or you gave me that early but I didn’t think that was where we were going. I thought that was either a red herring or I thought that was just a character trait or something. We love little things like that in movies. I think Quentin [Tarantino] does that a lot. He does an amazing job at that. So does Shane Black. He has a lot of fun moments like that. And on a more dramatic scale, Paul Thomas Anderson does a good job of that. A lot of his movies will start to swing in directions that you didn’t necessarily see coming but was completely earned earlier.

You don’t get much more out of left field than the frogs falling from the sky.

ESHOM: Absolutely. Especially in that movie. Bigger characters that have to be grounded. Tom Cruise’s character in that and then where Julianne Moore is at, you’re like, “How are these people even in the same movie?” Then you see them together and you say, “Yep, makes perfect sense!”

You talked a little bit about Shane Black’s films taking place at Christmas. Would you say that that played any role in your casting Mel Gibson?

IAN: How about inadvertently?

ESHOM: Look, we were huge fans of Mel Gibson’s work, both as a director and an actor. Mad Max was seminal for us. But I think what we’ve landed on now is that we had gone to a screening of Hacksaw Ridge and watched the movie and enjoyed it. But then Mel came on and did a Q&A afterwards, and he had this beautiful feral beard. It was a man who had just come off the production. It’s a very stressful time, and he was under that burden. And Ian and I turned and looked at each other, watching him knead his beard and answer questions, like, Fuck man, this is the guy! This is Chris! He’s carrying a burden and he just personifies that character.

IAN: You just feel it. You could feel it. There was excitement, electricity in the air about him. Of course he was on an Oscar campaign at that point and really working hard with the press department. A lot of traveling, a lot of interviews. But there was also this artist there who had just made a piece that he cared about, but there he is on this commercial tour getting this thing going and worrying about his baby. It was all there. You could really feel it on him.

ESHOM: You come in making this personal piece, but then there’s also the commercialization of that in his having to promote it.

IAN: I could really empathize with that, you know? When you’re making a film, you’re making something that hopefully people will enjoy, but mainly you’re making something of your sensibilities and you just pray to God that people are going to respond to it in some sort of favorable way and that they’re gonna get what you were going after.

Screenwriter/directors Eshom and Ian Nelms.

I was frankly shocked by how good Mel Gibson is in this considering that going in, this movie looks like it might be a bit more light. This might be the performance of his career. It’s certainly right up there.

ESHOM: That’s amazing for you to say, Andrew. Thank you. That’s incredible. As much as we love his canon of work. But honestly, I think it just comes down to the fact that Mel just utterly and completely got this character.

IAN: We wrote him a letter. That’s sort of how we got in with him. We wrote him a letter about what we were trying to do with the movie, and he responded. And he said, “Let’s sit down and talk about this. I really like the script. I really like what you’re saying.” And what should have been a forty-five minute meeting turned into three hours of us just combing over this and talking about film. Talking about what we were hoping to achieve with it. And he really got it. I really think he got us. I feel like he got the movie. It was one moment where…I keep thinking back to it, what we reference is, we sat down with him and he said, “Hey, this moment with the elves, where Santa’s talking with them, I really feel like I should be pushing it so hard or welling up that I should be almost crying. That’s how much it means to me. That’s how bad I feel.” And we’re like, “Yes, yes, exactly!” And then he said something amazing. He said, “That’s what’s so funny about it.” And we said, “Exactly! That’s exactly what we’re after!” Like, taking something so out of control and grounding the shit out of it, giving such a real, real emotional response to it. But it really is something fantastical and ridiculous. That’s what’s funny about it. You’re watching this fantasy character have a really real moment.

ESHOM: That’s what Ian and I were talking about. “We want to ground the surreal. We want to bring reality to the surreal.”

Marianne Jean-Baptiste in Fatman.

IAN: And then beyond that, it’s such a surreal scenario for Santa to be in; where he’s gotta address his elves and tell them the military is coming in to do this contract. It feels like such a sellout moment for him. He’s like fuck, I fucked up!

ESHOM: We’d be on the lot and we’d be like “can the elves and the military please come to the set?” “Does anybody know where Santa is?” Ian and I would look at each other like, I can’t believe we’re getting the opportunity to make this fucking thing!

IAN: We’ve had this script for like fourteen years. And we had it for a couple of years before that, but it hadn’t matured yet.

ESHOM: It took us a couple of years to get the script under control because it was such a big idea for us to wrap our heads around. It probably took us two or three years to really get the script into something that at least looks like it does now. About fourteen years ago, our first rep started going out with it and saying, “Hey look, I think this is going to be a lot of fun. I’m selling this to people hard.” We’re like okay, great. So it took about fourteen years of meetings, of us explaining it—what we wanted to do, what we wanted to see, how it was gonna play out, what the cast was gonna look like. They would just be like, “Someone is gonna make this some day, but I don’t know if it’s gonna be you guys.” We’d be like, “What do you mean?” They’d say, “It’s so director dependent—”

IAN: Tone dependent! You read this script, it could go a few different ways. It could be really goofy. It could be really serious. They were like, “The filmmaker you get to do this is going to tell you everything about the project.” We were like, “That’s us!”

ESHOM: “That’s us!”

Everyone laughs.

ESHOM: We know the tone. We know what it is. We know how to sweet spot it. They were just like, “Well, you’re gonna have to do something else to show us that you can handle this tone.” I mean, it took us fourteen years to get there, but it was like, we did a lot of building up to this. And then finally, Small Time Crime was enough of a tonal show—

IAN: Comparison.

ESHOM: —comparison that we were able to say… They’d say, “What’s the tone of this?” We’d say, “Have you seen Small Time Crime?” They’d say, “Oh yeah” or “I’ll watch it,” and we’d say “That’s the tone.” It’s a bit of everything mixed into one and we’re gonna thread that needle.

The film is so interesting. At times you come so close that we’re just certain it’s going to go over the edge into schmaltz. I have to admit that early on I was questioning the tone, but…it was perfect. You really set everything up perfectly. You guys did a tremendous job with this.

ESHOM: Thank you, man. It warms our heart to hear you enjoyed it.

IAN: It really does. I’m sure you know how it goes, you get out in the middle of the snow in Canada… Honestly, it’s a Herculean effort every time and we’re so grateful to all our collaborators. Gibson, Walton, Marianne, they just brought it.

ESHOM: That A-talent that just came on and said, “Okay, we’re gonna jump into this with you because we’re just as crazy as you are!” [Laughs.] And dude, honestly, so much of the movie working comes from them. Marianne and Mel’s scenes fucking crackle!

IAN: There was no moment where Eshom and I were like, “Wait a minute, guys! You’re playing this for real!” We had a conversation with them about what we were after, and man, they were in it. There was no pattycake going on in those scenes. They were a real couple immediately, and they had real chemistry immediately. And we were just like, “Man, this is crackin’!” They were like, “Is that alright for you guys?” And we were just like, “Fucking amazing! Stay in the pocket.”

The chemistry between all of them was amazing, frankly. All three of them. Even though a lot of Goggins’ and Gibson’s scenes are at a distance—not up close and personal—they play off one another so well. And obviously Gibson’s scenes with Marianne are superb. The chemistry was really, really great.

IAN: Yeah, they’re so good. They really understood it. I mean, it was funny for them to describe at times what they were playing because at one point Marianne said, “I think it’s a real interesting balance because I’m sort of trying to play a person like Mrs. Claus as Mel is playing Santa, but then we’re playing them as real people, then we’re playing them in a grounded universe where everything is fantastical.” I’m like, “You’re right, you’ve got it!” [Laughs.] That was it. They were both so layered on that shit. Luckily we just had really intelligent actors who were just so on it.

ESHOM: It’s a cliché saying, but getting the right people for the cast is ninety percent of the battle.

IAN: I’d say it’s ninety-nine percent. It really is.

While I think there’s going to be a lot of talk about Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins because they’re the two actors up front in the piece, I think Marianne Jean-Baptiste gives a really tremendous performance in this.

IAN: Yeah. We couldn’t agree with you more. I mean, I remember when we broached the idea with Mel and we said, “Hey, what do you think about Marianne?” And he was like, “I freakin’ love it!”

ESHOM: “I love that idea!” Then we started talking with her and she dug the script, was really excited about it and just talking about ideas with her, I remember one of the first things she asked us was, “What do you want me to do with my voice? Do you want me to be standard American? Or I could pick a state, or we can be regional? What do you want me to do?” We said, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re all just kind of excited about you having your British accent.” She took a beat and said, “God, I really like that.” We said, “Okay, great!”

IAN: It made the whole story more international instantly, right? It transcended oceans. And I think you as a viewer start to think, in a good way, “Holy shit! How did these people meet? What is this background? What was that courting process like? How long ago was it? Where did he come from? Where does she come from? How did they come across each other and find this bond?”

ESHOM: As far as Marianne being a black woman, it was like…we didn’t want to sit there and make a big deal about it. It just is, man. That’s the world we wanna live in!

IAN: That was one of the things Marianne mentioned to us right off the bat. She was like, “You know what I’m really excited about with this character?” I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but I’m sure she’ll say it in other interviews, but she was just like, “I’m really excited that you don’t ever talk about it or mention it. That it just is.” And we were like, “Oh, awesome. We’re excited about that, too.” She was so excited about that—that there wasn’t some weird commentary going on about how…whatever.

ESHOM: It was just so understated that it just was, so suck it up! [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about the baggage Mel Gibson brings to this. I know this isn’t a fun topic, but you know you’re going to be asked this. My question is two-fold. One, are you anticipating any backlash regarding his casting? Two, obviously there are going to be people who will go into this with the notion that Marianne and Mel were cast as romantic opposites to sort of overcome the public perception of Gibson being a racist. What are your thoughts on that?

IAN: I think as far as the interracial part of the picture, that’s something we had also done in Small Time Crime.

ESHOM: We also did it in Waffle Street. It’s something that we’re passionate about. It’s something we’re excited about. It’s something that we had in mind for the picture before Mel come on board.

IAN: It’s something we like to do. It’s sort of a theme we have in our work that we love and we’re gonna continue. And as far as Mel, look, Mel’s obviously had these issues, and we did our homework and we asked people who had worked with him.

ESHOM: That was the very first thing we did was, we asked people that knew him and had worked with him. We did a lot of homework on how he is to work with and what kind of person he is. Everyone was like, “Work with him. Work with him. You need to work with this guy.” So we went and worked with him and we had a wonderful collaborative experience with him. He couldn’t have been more professional or more open or more lovely on set to everybody.

What I would like to think is that people can change. And people deserve a second chance. And that’s how we like to function. And that’s how I’d like to be treated, personally.

Having now seen the movie, I have to say, I can’t imagine anyone else in that role. He owns that fucking role.

IAN: Honestly, we have the same feeling. When we sat down and met with him, there was the first perception of him as we’re looking at him in an interview process and saying, “Man, that would be great. We should see if we can get this script to him. He looks the part. He feels the part.” But sitting down with the human being… I hope everybody gets the chance to do that. I hope everybody gets the chance to sit down with the human being, because we had a wonderful experience with him. And I think most people that have worked with him have had a similar experience.

ESHOM: All we can attest to, I guess, is our own personal experience.

Let’s talk a little about the film coming out during Covid-19. That has to be a little bit of a disappointment.

IAN: It is and it isn’t.

ESHOM: Look, man, we would have loved the theatrical experience. We wanna see it in every theater. Of course that would be amazing. But I think the most important thing for us is that people are seeing it. And people are excited about it. And there’s a way to see it. It’s not like…

IAN: I would love for everybody to see it in a theater, but obviously we know that’s not going to happen, regardless if there was Covid or not. So how people are going to experience it on their big screens or on their iPads or whatever… I think the most important thing for us is that people are going to experience it and hopefully have fun with it.

But the streaming… There’s a whole blessing and a curse about streaming. Everyone’s saying, “Everybody is watching everything on a screen instead of on a big screen as part of a communal experience.” I think there’s a lot of value in that, but then there’s also, if we didn’t have those streamers in these times right now, there wouldn’t be anything coming out right now, really. It would be really rough to get something new.

ESHOM: You also have to look at this year. I mean, it’s like, Ian and I crafted this story many, many years ago. We’ve subsequently revised it every year, but strangely there was no Covid revision because we actually finished shooting it one day before all the productions shut down in Canada.

IAN: We spent pretty much the whole quarantine editing.

ESHOM: Oddly, aspects of the film started to feel more relevant as time went on. It was nuts. Here we are landing in 2020 and it’s like, “Holy smokes! How does this film feel more relevant now than ever?”

Is the world of Fatman a world you would like to revisit in the future?

ESHOM: Absolutely.

IAN: It’s funny because the first thing we did when we first came up with this story is that Eshom and I both wrote two short stories. And this was the one we chose to move forward with. So we definitely have other ideas and thoughts about expanding it and possible sequels.

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About Andrew J. Rausch

Andrew J. Rausch is a a freelance film journalist, author, and celebrity interviewer. He has published more than thirty books including The Films of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Making Movies with Orson Welles (with Gary Graver), and The Cinematic Misadventures of Ed Wood (with Charles E. Pratt, Jr.). He is a web editor at Diabolique and writes a regular column in Screem magazine. His work has also appeared in Shock Cinema, Scream, Senses of Cinema, Cemetery Dance, Cinema Retro, Creative Screenwriting, Film Threat, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Images: A Journal of Film and Popular Culture. He has written several works of fiction including Layla's Score, Riding Shotgun and Other American Cruelties, and Bloody Sheets. He has also worked as a screenwriter, producer, and actor on numerous straight-to-video horror films. His newest book, My Best Friend's Birthday: The Making of a Quentin Tarantino Film, is out now.

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