14 years after they first wrote the script, the The Nelms Brothers finally made Fatman, a fantastic dark comedy challenging the myth of the Santa we know from the Coca-Cola classic and other films.
“Ian and I had written several very ambitious scripts, Fatman being one of the first, but the response we’d always get was ‘These scripts are great! Someone should make these!’ As newcomers, it was impossible to find anyone who would give us the financing to direct the big action, thriller movies that we had really set out to do,” said Eshom. “So, we decided to write a script that we knew we could just make on our own and no one could stop us,” added Ian.
To save his declining business, Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), also known as Santa Claus, is forced into a partnership with the U.S. military in Fatman. Making matters worse, Chris gets locked into a deadly battle of wits against a highly skilled assassin (Walton Goggins), hired by a precocious 12-year-old after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking. ‘Tis the season for Fatman to get even, in the action- dark comedy that keeps on giving.
“Make no mistake, our Santa Claus is a superhero. He doesn’t leap buildings or run faster than a speeding bullet, but he does have gifts that make him extraordinary. This story will forego today’s cinematic trend of putting everything on steroids, which only serves to numb audiences into indifference. It will be grounded, character conscious, and exist in a world where action and set pieces are earned. The film will be entertaining, but also layered with themes of neglect, overindulgence and consumerism.”
“It will keep audiences engaged by subverting expectations and transcending genre. This is a superhero film, wrapped with thriller, dipped in western and sprinkled with satire.”
From Script to Screen: Heading to the North Pole
“The screenplay for Fatman was something we originally crafted 14 years ago and, every subsequent year, Ian and I, in a relentless pursuit of perfection, would always go back and take the material through another evolution to try and make it better,” said Eshom. “I also think it’s a testament to ‘never give up’,” Ian added.
While the script had been making its way around the industry for some time, and receiving positive feedback, there were two main challenges to getting the screenplay to the silver screen.
“It would always come down to two things: ‘You haven’t really worked with any big actors and this is going to take a big budget. No one’s going to trust you to do it. And, the second thing is, it’s very tonally specific,” said the Nelms brothers who, at the time, hadn’t released a film yet to show the world their ability to traverse smoothly between the various tones of drama, comedy, and action.
Over the course of more than a dozen years, the brothers would build upon their family of actors and audiences who loved their films. Among them were the award winning and critically acclaimed features Lost on Purpose, Waffle Street, and Small Town Crime, each film getting them a little closer to their dream of making Fatman.
Then, in 2016, Eshom and Ian were attending a special screening of Hacksaw Ridge, where the film’s director, Mel Gibson, was participating in a conversation.
“He had this amazing beard because he was shooting The Professor & The Madman, unbeknownst to us, so we just thought he was sporting a beard and we said to each other ‘There he is – Chris! THAT’s the guy!” remembered the Nelms brothers. They couldn’t get the image of Mel Gibson as Chris Cringle out of their minds so, through one of their executive producers, Brandon James, they were able to get the script to Gibson’s agent, Jack Whigham. What happened next took the brothers completely by surprise…
“I get this email that says ‘Hey, I really loved the script. Let’s go for a chin wag.’ And I thought, well, first off, what’s a chin wag?” laughed Ian.
“At the time, we were talking to producers, people were reading it, and we were getting feedback constantly. For me, it was just another email from a producer or a production company or an executive of some sort that had read it, enjoyed the script, and was excited to talk to us. I had no idea who it was.”
“So, I write back, ‘Amazing. Thank you. So glad you dug the script. Who is this?’” he laughed. “He wrote back the next day, ‘Oh, hey sorry, I forget to do sign offs. This is Mel!’”
Excited by his response, and hopeful that he would be what they had envisioned for Chris Cringle, the Nelms brothers met up with the Academy Award Winner to discuss their script and the role of Santa Claus in greater depth.
On what turned out to be a three-hour chin wag, Mel said, “They talked about the story in a way that they obviously love what they do. Pretty quickly after I met them, I confirmed that they were in it for the love of the game. I was charmed by the story, and the script, and by the character, and I thought, ‘Why not? Let’s do this. It looks like fun!’”
With Gibson attached to the film, it was time to fill out the rest of the cast. Through the help of their producer, Nadine de Barros from Fortitude International, the brothers were able to start putting the remaining puzzle pieces together and bring Fatman to life. They started to check off the list and, for the role of Skinny Man, they found their cold-blooded killer in actor Walton Goggins, someone who Eshom and Ian had long admired.
Setting the Tone: A Christmas of the Time
Fatman exists in a fantasy world where Santa and his elves are real and a 12-year-old boy can hire a hitman to collect St. Nick’s head. Simultaneously, the characters must remain as grounded as possible – approaching the man and his mythos in a manner that is entertaining, sophisticated and filled with social commentary.
“It is very tonally specific. It’s our sensibilities and we like dark comedy with action,” said Eshom, the elder of the two siblings. Maneuvering between the juxtaposing worlds of fantasy and reality is not an easy task, but it’s one that excites the brothers and something they’ve come to trademark in their filmmaking sensibilities.
“One of the most difficult things to do as a filmmaker is juggling tone within a single piece. Going from funny to dark to ultra-violent, without losing an audience over the course of 90 min, is damn near impossible, but the brothers do it with ease,” said Johnny Derango, the director of photography on Fatman who has worked withthe Nelms brothers for over 15 years.
“Fatman was initially written with the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war in mind so, over time, that had to be feathered out and tapered down. Ultimately, we took it in a different direction than it was originally written, but the spirit of it is still there,” Ian remembered. And, although the script doesn’t perfectly reflect its first round of ink, it still finds its themes and issues still very relevant, especially with what the world is currently experiencing right now in 2020.
“While it has evolved over the last 14 years, it’s surprising for me, how much of those issues are still really relevant and really timely,” said Eshom.” “They really have bubbled to the surfaces after the ‘08 financial crisis, the housing crisis, the jobs crisis,” added Ian. “And, now, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic – everybody’s economically challenged and going through their own troubles and trials and tribulations,” said Eshom. “And, cut to Chris Cringle.”
In Fatman, Chris and his wife, Ruth, have secluded themselves deep within a snow covered, Alaskan back country running their operation away from prying eyes. Unfortunately, their absence from society has unwittingly caused a rising number of naughty and resulted in a steady decline of their government subsidy, which is now below their annual budget. This leaves the Cringles and their factory in a serious financial crisis.
“I love the Nelms brothers’ scripts. For Fatman, in particular, it’s funny, it’s dark, it’s entertaining, but it also has some really beautiful themes about consumerism and how we treat Christmas, a holiday that should be about giving and receiving, and what it’s turned into for a lot of people,” said producer Michelle Lang, who had also previously worked with Eshom and Ian on several feature films.
“The theme of the film is actually kind of dark in many ways, so it is a creature of its time – that this Christmas story is couched in something a little dark and ominous – but, ultimately, hopeful.” said Mel.
“It was so great to find somebody who understood not only that role, but the tone and feel of those scenes that we were going after,” said Ian. And, so it began…
“The time has come to turn things around.” – Chris Cringle
“To me, it was a Santa Claus we haven’t seen before. It kind of explains him in a way of who he is and where he came from. Not overtly, but you kind of get a few clues as to who he might be, where he came from, how old he is, and a few other magical things about him,” said Gibson.
“We’ve all seen the Coca-Cola classic Santa Claus. We’ve seen Santa Claus as Tim Allen. We’ve seen Santa Claus as a sociopath who comes down your chimney and tries to murder you. For us, we wanted to make Santa Claus a badass. We wanted to make him a superhero,” said Eshom.
And, with all superheroes, there’s a duality to their persona that makes them even more intriguing.
“We were having fun with giving people little tidbits of magic about the character and about the myth of Santa, but also pulling back and trying to make you sit in the reality of where this guy’s at, what he’s doing and how he’s affecting people without getting too caught up in the goofiness of it,” added Ian.
“We wanted to ground the man, we wanted to ground the myth. We started with ‘What if this was a real person? What would he really be doing? What would his plight be?’ and we tried to borrow from the plight of today and craft a real human being that would connect with people and their problems” said Ian.
“We’re finding Chris at his most vulnerable. This is a man who’s disenchanted with his job, disenchanted with the world, he’s lost.” Eshom added.
“He’s just a guy, with a wife – and he’s got a job and he’s got a mortgage and he’s got problems. It focuses on him, at a time of change for him, when he’s really got to pull a rabbit out of his hat,” said Gibson.
“In Fatman, Chris is suffering from a lot of children making bad decisions, the world stopped believing in him and his work is being monetized. He’s becoming a marketing aspect and everyone wants a piece of him,” said producer Michelle Lang.
“He says, ‘All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten,’ you know, what the meaning of Christmas is, so he’s pining for the way things used to be and the change in the world and that he has to do things that are uncomfortable in order to survive and compromise a little bit – and he’s not digging that. As the world changes, and the people in it, he has to adapt, and I think he’s finding that a painful experience,” Mel said.
Playing this rough, troubled character who still believes in and longs for a world he once knew was something that Mel initially told the brothers reminded him of a cowboy, which was right in sync and in step with the western feel and type of personality that the brothers had envisioned.
The North Pole, Reindeer and Elves
“In Fatman, we wanted to shy away from everything that related to the conventions of the genre of the Christmas movie. We wanted to give a hint to, or maybe flip, your idea of what that is at the same time. You’re not going to see a sleigh flying, you’re not going to see reindeer flying, you’re not going to see Santa delivering presents. Let’s see everything between those scenes – that’s what interested us,” said the brothers.
“We’re going to give them a hint of the sleigh, we’re going to tease them a little sleigh, throw it under a tarp, we’ll give them a hint of reindeer, but you’re not going to see Rudolph,” added Eshom.
“And, when we get to the elves, they’re not these tra-la-la, song-singing, skipping around in green tutus as they’re holly-jolly making toys – these people are disciplined. These elves, and Santa, and Ruth have been around hundreds of years and they’ve kept the best throughout the amount of time that they’ve been around, so it’s layered with the best technology for what they’re doing at the time,” Ian added.
Setting the stage itself was also a crucial factor to making the tone and the world of the North Pole believable.
“It was so fun to walk into that factory the first day and see these creations that these elves were building – the toys. It was really quite magical to walk into that and then feel that this could actually be happening. This is probably where the legend started. This is the seed of where they started,” added Lang.
“They’re coming out of the industrial revolution. We wanted to have, as some of our visual reference, these amazing World War II factories where they’re pumping out fighter jets, and World War I factories where they’re making canons. That iconic imagery is what leapt out at us and that’s what we took to co-create the environment and Santa’s factory,” said Eshom.
“Fifteen years into a working relationship, you would think that there aren’t a lot of surprises, but Ian and Esh always find a way to wow me. Visionary writer director combos are rare, but I’ve somehow been blessed enough to land right in the middle of one,” said Derango.
It’s a Family Affair: The Nelms Brothers
“Our parents preferred rural living to busy city streets. This left us a choice: we could either get along as siblings or be the two loneliest kids in Woodlake, California. Choosing the first, we soon discovered a shared affection for movies.”
Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms grew up in central California waging two hundred man G.I. Joe wars and dreaming in John Ford landscapes.
Though their evolving passions temporarily took them in different directions – Ian first went to college on a wrestling scholarship, along the way discovering an interest for English Literature, and Eshom pursued an education in fine art, but then found the illustration of comic books betters suited to his tastes – the two would always find themselves returning to their love of film.
While Ian has produced various projects independently and Eshom has worked as a professional storyboard artist for over a decade, the two always write and direct as a duo.
Together, they have written and directed numerous award-winning and critically-acclaimed feature films.
With each of their endeavors completely different from the last, the Nelms brothers are known for their unique ability to traverse from one genre to another, seamlessly and successfully, from drama to comedy to thrillers.
Their 2013 film, Lost On Purpose, was a heartfelt coming-of-age drama that received numerous festival awards including An Award for Best Directors and 3 Awards for Best Film. Their 2015 feature, Waffle Street, was a comedic turn based on an autobiographical memoir, which went on to win Best Narrative Feature and Screenwriter Awards acrossthe U.S.
Their most recent film, 2017’s Small Town Crime, a crime thriller, was showcased at SXSW and BFI London Film Festival before its January 2018 theatrical release, upon which it received positive reviews from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times Variety, Newsweek, The Hollywood Reporter and Rolling Stone among others. Now the film can be seen on DVD, blu-ray, and VOD worldwide.
After Small Town Crime, the Nelms brothers executive produced their first television project, a comedy series called “Everyone is Doing Great,” created by their longtime collaborator, James Lafferty, as well as actor Stephen Colletti. The pilot screened at renowned festivals around the world and the filmmaking team independently financed and shot Season 1 (a total of 8 episodes). The series is currently in post-production.
Eshom and Ian are also developing a thriller/sci-fi TV series with another longtime collaborator, Academy Award® Winner Octavia Spencer.
In addition to their new TV ventures, the Nelms brothers wrote the screenplay for CARRIE AND ME, a feature film based on the life of Carol Burnett for Focus Features, which will be produced by Carol Burnett, Tina Fey and Steven Rogers.