We’ve reached that time of year where the annual parade of Christmas movies are released to generate warm and fuzzy festive feelings in the audience, but none of the titles are as unique as Ian and Eshom Nelms’ Fatman. The R-rated subversion of the holiday genre stars Mel Gibson as a disillusioned Chris Cringle suffering from a downturn in business, who despite the unwavering support of his wife Ruth also has to deal with Walton Goggins’ Skinny Man after a 12 year-old kid hires an assassin to take out Jolly Old Saint Nick after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking.
Destined to become a cult favorite, Fatman balances elements of the action, dark comedy, thriller, noir and even Western genres into a distinct cocktail of Yueltide madness. We Got This Covered recently had the chance to speak to directors Ian and Eshom Nelms about Fatman and much more in an exclusive deep dive interview covering the development of the movie, potential sequels, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the age old debate of whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie.
When you were coming up with the idea for Fatman, were you deliberately trying to fill a gap in the market? Because there’s not exactly an awful lot of action thrillers that fall into the category of Christmas movie.
Eshom Nelms: Yeah, I think that’s exactly it. We’ve seen Tim Allen do it, we’ve seen Will Ferrell, we’ve seen Santa coming down your chimney as a sociopath to chop you up. Ian and I were like, ‘Holy sh*t, let’s make this guy a f*cking stud action star and see what happens,’ and we wanted to make him like a f*cking superhero. We really love the movie Unbreakable, that was sort of percolating under the surface, like a really grounded portrayal of him.
Ian Nelms: Oddly, the two films that probably had the most influence on us for this are Unbreakable and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly because it’s a three-hander.
There’s a lot of different genres going on over the course of the movie, and the final showdown in particular is something that’s straight out of a classic Western.
Eshom Nelms: I mean honestly, our mother was a Clint Eastwood fanatic. She had the Clint Eastwood box set on VHS and you’d get a new Clint Eastwood classic every other week. And we would just wear those mothers out, and I would watch all the Westerns and everything else but also Dirty Harry, Firefox, the whole catalogue.
Ian Nelms: We would watch the crap out of like, sh*tty Clint Eastwood movies. Well, lesser known, let’s say lesser known and not sh*tty!
There’s action, comedy, thriller, military and Christmas elements. How did you manage to balance that many different genres without ever losing track? They all work together, but you never pigeonhole yourselves into one particular genre when the movie’s going on.
Eshom Nelms: I think for us, we really enjoy movies that you can’t get too far ahead of. The left and right turns come up on you and you’re like, ‘Holy smokes I can’t believe it just went that way!’, but when you think back you’re like, ‘Okay, that makes sense’, like of course it’s going that way.
Ian Nelms: We spent a lot of time when we were writing badgering each other about, ‘Okay, but are you going to be able to predict that you’re heading in this direction?’. Once we started deciding what direction we were going to twist into it was like, ‘Okay, but how do we try and earn that?’, in a way that people can’t see it coming. When that road diverges, how do we make them feel like they can’t quite see which way we’re going to go, and then we take it in a direction that we didn’t see at the turn, you know?
Ehsom Nelms: I think that it just comes down to our sensibilities about what we like in movies, and we like movies that have action, have drama, have comedy, are thriller-esque and you know what, let’s throw Santa in the mix and see what happens.
It definitely works. You guys first came up with the idea for the movie fourteen years ago?
Ian Nelms: It was probably even a little further back than that, I think we came up with the idea in 2003 and wrote the first version of the script, but it wasn’t worth passing around to people until probably two or three years later, because it took quite a few passes to kind of get the world in our heads. The structure has always been the same with these characters. The boy hires the hitman to go after Santa, and then it swirls until the hitman lands in Santa’s backyard and fight, but I feel as we got better hopefully it got better.
Eshom Nelms: And I think that’s sort of where we focused on Ruth and Chris’ relationship and really drilling down. How do we layer up Skinny Man’s character more? You know, like more backstory, as we became better craftsmen and screenwriters.
The characters of Ruth, Chris and Skinny Man are all realistic characters, but set in a heightened fantasy world. There’s not a lot of mythology and world-building, the movie says ‘this is the world, and these are the characters’, which is a really good thing.
Ian Nelms: I mean, it’s been fourteen plus years, but while we were putting that script together it was literally like, ‘How much do we want to show? How much pulls you out of reality?’. We decided to just pull back the curtain for a second and close it, and really just give you peeks behind it. We didn’t want to have Santa flying across the moon, or elves sprinkling fairy dust.
Eshom Nelms: If you start thinking about that sh*t too much or too logically you’re going to blow it, like, ‘Santa’s got to deliver presents everywhere in the world?’, that’s like 100 million kids in the U.S. alone! The logic just starts to come apart and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s just keep it grounded’. We’ll give them a glimpse of the sleigh, we’ll give them a glimpse of the elves.
A lot of movies tell too much, and spend too much time trying to explain themselves and then the logic just gets tied in knots. You don’t leave people to dwell on it, they accept that you see a glimpse of the sleigh, you see a glimpse of this and a glimpse of that, but by and large the story doesn’t have a lot to do with the classic Christmas elements.
Eshom Nelms: I think we were kind of like, ‘this is the anti-Christmas Christmas movie!’.
Ian Nelms: It’s oddly got the two most influential people in Christmas, the man and the woman themselves, and they don’t do a lot besides her making cookies and sort of talking about Christmas and being the spine of the operation, but there’s not a lot of Christmas in it.
Eshom Nelms: We were talking about it and we wanted to look at all those moments between the moments that you would normally see in a Christmas movie.
But it’s still definitely a Christmas movie.
Eshom Nelms. Yeah, certainly. That’s a genre, a canon of films that we hold up, you know? I like Gremlins, I love Elf, you know what I’m saying? I like Elf, it’s a great f*cking movie, so I think there’s something exciting about taking that genre of films and twisting it a little bit.
Ian Nelms: And like you said, we definitely saw a lot of these other films that were taking that route, and they really lean hard into all the magical elements of Christmas. But now, like Christmas Chronicles they have all that, ‘Oh, we’re in Christmas town!’. We just really wanted to try and flip things up and turn it on its head, and show it in a different light.
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Speaking of The Christmas Chronicles, between that and Fatman you could be pioneers of the ‘ruggedly handsome Santa movie’.
Eshom Nelms: Kurt Russel, right? What a beast. Honestly, it would just warm our hearts this year to get the family and watch Christmas Chronicles with the kids and then put Fatman on after the kids go to bed.
That would be a movie in itself. Just get Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson’s Santas, sit them at a bar and make that a movie.
Ian Nelms: Like some kind of alternate universe where the two Santas collide.
The difference is that in every Christmas movie, Santa is loveable and he’s help up on a pedestal. But Mel’s Chris is a real character and he’s flawed, and he’s not happy with the way things are going. Was it difficult to make sure he felt like a real character without getting too cynical
Eshom Nelms: It was a tightrope for sure, and I think it helped that Mel’s a filmmaker. Mel knew what the character wanted to be. We were all cautious not to tip Chris one way, but that was a very difficult line to walk in the beginning, and we were very particular in our editing choices in the beginning of Chris. Literally, there’s a little glimpse of a smile right here, and we should probably put this in the beginning, so he’s not just one note.
Ian Nelms: Trying to find those moments of optimism like you were saying seemed to pop up at weird moments, and that’s the great thing about working with someone like Mel or Walton. They’re such great craftsmen as far as actors, they can do so much and we definitely had a wide swathe of nuance to work with in the scenes. It was all very much in the same world, but they would give us little hints of something behind the eyes in a lot of different takes, and we definitely played with that. You want Chris to be lovable, and what we were trying to do in the edit was keep him as lovable as possible, but as you said grounded. We wanted to see little moments just when he’s talking to his wife, you get to see their loving warm relationship, you get little lifts of him. We were really trying to walk a tightrope there.
Eshom Nelms: Trying to give an arc of emotion in multiple scenes, even him driving into town he’s eating cookies and he’s not in a great mood, but he’s not in a terrible mood. He turns on the Christmas songs, to give him waves in all of the scenes.
It helps when you’ve got an actor like Mel Gibson playing that role as well, because he can pretty much do it all.
Ian Nelms: He’s so versatile, he really is. It was amazing working with a guy who probably knows your job better than you do, as far as directing. He was a wonderful collaborator, and it was a hell of a collaboration. It galvanized the crew and the other cast members.
How did you get him to sign on in the first place? Because Santa Claus doesn’t seem like the kind of role he’s usually played in his career.
Eshom Nelms: When we landed on the idea of using Mel as Santa Claus, Ian and I went and saw Hacksaw Ridge, and Mel was doing the tour for that. There was a screening and a Q&A, and he came out and I remember he had this beautiful feral beard, and he was doing the Q&A and it felt like had the burden of the world on his shoulders. We turned to ourselves, ‘That’s the f*cking guy! That’s Chris right there!’. From then on it was like, how do we figure out how to get Mel in this movie?
Ian Nelms: We had to make a movie before that.
Eshom Nelms: That’s true, we did have to make a movie in the interim.
Ian Nelms: As soon as people started saying, ‘What are you guys going to do next?’, we picked up that script and said, ‘This is what we’d like to do next’, because for that fourteen years we had people saying, ‘Someone’s going to make this, this is a cool script but it’s very director dependent or tone dependent’. Like it could go this way, or it could go that way. They would read it and literally ask us, ‘What’s the tone?’. It was our previous movie Small Town Crime that gave us the ability to say, ‘This is the tone, this is what we’re going to do’.
Eshom Nelms: And I think, much to your point, you read this on the page and there’s two huge spectrums. There’s the farce, and there’s where we wanted to take it.
It could have easily been played just for laughs or played just for action.
Ian Nelms: As you’re saying about Mel, the one thing that guy has in spades is heart. You can just see it in his eyes when he’s playing some of those bits. He’s all in.
Fatman has an open ending, was that deliberate to leave things open in case you want to come back for Fatman 2?
Ian Nelms: Oh, absolutely! We’re ready to go again. There’s two things we wanted to accomplish with that ending. There’s sort of good and evil in the world… but we also wanted to end on an up note. We wanted to again buck people’s expectations, we have such a dark ending leading up to there but it’s Santa. It really is a benevolent human being who’s all about giving and trying to raise people up. He’s delivered a little tough love, he’s got to get his business back in order, he’s got to rebuilt. But he’s that guy, he’s going to build back up into that benevolent, wonderful human being that’s a giver.
Have you guys been keeping busy during all of the COVID shutdowns?
Eshom Nelms: We’ve been really blessed with our timing on everything. Mel’s schedule pushed us up to shoot a little quicker than we wanted to, and we got into it and made it all work and got to the end. The very next day they shut down every production in Canada, so just barely by the skin of our teeth. So Ian and I, we flew back to the States a day before the country closes, we barely make it back. We were holed up in his basement, we’ve been editing the movie this whole time, so we’ve had something to do that way and now here we are releasing it, so it kind of worked out timing-wise.
Ian Nelms: We’ve been done with the film for a month or two. Reading stuff and cracking stuff, I think we have another movie going which hasn’t been announced yet, I think we’ll know actually this week if that’s solid or not.
Between Small Town Crime and Fatman, those are two great calling cards that show you guys can handle pretty much any genre that comes your way and put your own twist on it. Somewhere in the future, would you be interested in tackling something much bigger and franchise-orientated, or is it all about keeping creative freedom and making the movies you guys want to make?
Ian Nelms: It depends on what it is. If it’s something we get pumped up about that we could find our way into, that’s usually what it is, right? I feel confident that we could find our way into just about anything? The short answer is yes, we’d absolutely be open to some existing IP or franchise, it would just have to be if we came up with a crazy-ass idea for it, would they be cool to let us spin on it?
Eshom Nelms: We’ve gone out and pitched some bigger stuff, some wild ideas.
Ian Nelms: Maybe this movie will change that. It’s its own thing, it’s got its own kind of thing going on, but I don’t know. We’ll see.
Eshom Nelms: The number one responsibility is, ‘does it get our creative furnace going?’. That’s really it, because every movie is over a year commitment from writing to shooting to editing to post, so you really have to love this stuff and the subject. Are we engaged? Can we make a good movie out of it?
It’s all about finding the balance, because Fatman is definitely a singular vision, and you could imagine a lot of studios or producers looking at it saying, ‘Could you tone this down? Could you water that down a little bit?’. But it works, it’s completely unique and the movie you guys wanted to make without any compromises.
Ian Nelms: I mean, there’s always compromises! That is the one thing I’ll say about our producers and our financiers, it was pretty amazing. They were literally like, ‘Guys, we want what’s in your head’. They were incredibly supportive.
That’s a rare thing to find these days.
Eshom Nelms: And that’s what’s exciting to us. What happens if Paul Thomas Anderson directs a Predator movie? That’s what you want to see. And those are the kinds of alchemy and mix-ups that Ian and me get really excited about but to your point, rarely are those filmmakers released without a tether. Go and make the movie you want to make. No, you’ve got to fit into this box, and you’ve got to be this, and that’s one of the things that surprises us, because when you get these big filmmakers on these big properties and they all just feel like the rest of them.
Ian Nelms: Probably the best one I’ve seen so far is Thor: Ragnarok. They let Taika Waititi do things in that movie that they’ve never let anyone do before, which is incredible. For me, those are the kinds of movies I would love to see. I’m excited to see Chloe Zao’s Eternals. She’s a very specific type of filmmaker. She makes these intimate, beautiful character pieces that are gut-wrenching and heart-warming. I hope they gave her a very long tether on that movie.
On that type of movie, you don’t want a director for hire. You want someone that’s got their own vision for tackling the property, instead of the property tackling them.
Eshom Nelms: It just feels like they’re being assimilated some of these folks, like The Borg.
If you guys had knocked on the front door at Disney with Fatman and said, ‘We want to make an R-rated Santa Claus movie with Mel Gibson that’s got thriller, noir and drama elements’, then they probably wouldn’t have answered.
Eshom Nelms: There were a couple of doors that we knocked on, and they scratched their heads a little bit!
How would you describe Fatman in your own words?
Ian Nelms: When we went out with it, we had this description and it was like, ‘A dark comedy thriller noir with undertones of comedy sprinkled with Western’. Eight genres literally linked together, trying to link them gracefully.
Eshom Nelms: It’s hard because you don’t get a macro view of the material anymore once you’re in it, it’s really hard to compartmentalize. This is dark action comedy. Is that what it is? For Ian and I, it gets real hard to distill it down because we see too much nuance in it.
Fatman doesn’t have a huge cast, but even the minor characters get a backstory. You know why they’re there. It isn’t just someone who turns up to deliver exposition and move the plot along.
Eshom Nelms: Even Sandy the bartender. That’s what we were striving for. Even Herman in the post office, hopefully you’re like, ‘I f*cking know that guy!’.
Out of all the characters, Skinny Man is the one we know the least about, which is obviously by design.
Eshom Nelms: For us, someone like Walton, the more enigmatic or mysterious the better. This guy shouldn’t be predictable, you should not know which way he’s at. He’s such a beast, when we sat down with him at some place in L.A. and he comes in, he stands up and starts acting out the scene.
Ian Nelms: He was such a personality. When we sat down with him he already had his head wrapped around how he was going to play it, and he asked us a lot of questions about it. Unpredictability was one of our biggest notes to him. He does such a great job of playing such an eccentric wild man, he was a lot of fun. He was super fun.
The final showdown is big, but it’s also self-contained.
Ian Nelms: Like you said, even when they’re not in the film together, we can’t wait for those two personalities to come together in some way. When they do, it delivers. And we went out of our way to deliver an epic mano-e-mano moment.
Eshom Nelms: Walton and Mel did as much as they could on the day. At one point, we had an opportunity to use a stunt person and Walton was like, ‘Are you fricking kidding me? This is why I’m here! Rolling around on the snow with Mel? Yes please!’.
A lot of movies have the hero and villain face of two or three times but Fatman keeps them apart right until the very end.
Eshom Nelms: We didn’t want to wear out that welcome, you know? Let’s just keep this on simmer until it really boils over, and when you’re inter-cutting you’re learning what’s fueling and motivating them.
Ian Nelms: And hopefully getting more excited for that showdown, because you’re learning so much about them, and it’s fueling this fire that’s going to explode like a giant bonfire at the end. Hopefully people are going to be like, ‘Are they going to be able to deliver on the epicness of this ending?’. And hopefully it does. That’s totally what we were after. It’s a potboiler or a bit of a slow build, and we get to that ending and you’ve got so much baggage with each character you’re like, ‘Holy sh*t! How is this going to go down?’.
Final question, on an age-old debate. Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?
Ian Nelms: Absolutely! How many Christmas films end with the trope of a family coming together? That’s exactly what happens after all that bloodletting. He and his wife get back together, arm in arm.
That concludes our interview, but you can check out our review of Fatman here. The movie is now in select theaters and is available on VOD from Tuesday.