For years, the paradox of “Fatman” was that Ian and Eshom Nelms wrote a screenplay so good that no one would let them make it.
“We had that script and we would show people and they’d be like, ‘Holy (bleep), this is crazy,” Ian Nelms says.
“That script is what got us representation,” Eshom Nelms adds of the screenplay they wrote around 2006 when they were just starting out as a filmmaking team who wrote and directed (and under a pseudonym edited, too.)
At the time, Eshom Nelms, 42, and Ian Nelms, 41, had a pair of micro-budget indie features that played festivals and won awards on their résumé. That got them in the room with decision-makers.
“They’d watch ‘Night of the Dog’ and ‘Squirrel Trap’ and they were like, ‘OK, these are cool little crappy movies’ — literally, that’s what they would say — ‘but what do you have that’s bigger?’” Ian says.
“Fatman,” was their answer, the offbeat tale of a world-weary Santa Claus headed to a snowy showdown with a hit man hired by a boy not at all OK with the lump of coal under his Christmas tree.
When agents and producers read it, they invariably praised its quirky, cool mix of action thrills and dark comedy. And then they passed.
“Our reps would get us in with that script, and we’d go to places where they’d be like, ‘OK, this is good, but you guys can’t make this,’” Ian says. “We’re like, ‘Why?’
“They’d say, ‘All you have is these little $5,000 movies, $1,500 movies. I’m not giving you 20 million bucks.”
The Nelms brothers did have a lot to learn then about the field they’d entered with wide-eyed naivete and the optimism of self-taught auteurs in 2001.
But what Hollywood missed in those meetings was the resourceful determination that in time delivered the brothers from their small hometown in the San Joaquin Valley to what now is their biggest release yet and the realization of a long-delayed dream.
“It took us 14 years from inception to completion, because we needed something to show the tone,” Ian says of the most common critique they received when pitching it over the years.
“People dug the script. They just didn’t understand what we were going to do with it exactly.”
From fans to films
Eshom and Ian grew up in Woodlake, a small town outside of Visalia, where the highlight of the weekend was a trip to town for half a dozen VHS movies and a box of donuts.
“We grew up on a horse ranch, about 10 acres. so we had a lot of chores, but between that we would watch the movies and pound some serious donuts,” Ian says.
Eshom planned to be a professional paintball player until he cottoned on to the financial limits of that dream. His artistic talent then won him a scholarship to the Kansas City Art Institute.
Ian, one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the nation, received an athletic scholarship to attend California State University, Bakersfield, where his love of literature led him into college plays.
One night at school, Ian stayed up late to catch the Charles Bukowski biopic “Barfly” and the fashion and entertainment satire “The Real Blonde” on IFC, and found himself deconstructing them as he watched.
“I could see how they were made,” he says. “You could sort of pull back the curtain a little bit, you know. We were used to watching like ‘Predator’ and ‘The Terminator,’ and without any knowledge of how things are made it’s just magic on the screen.”
Eshom called the next morning from Missouri, excited to tell his brother about the films he had watched the previous night: “Barfly” and “The Real Blonde,” too, as it happened.
“It was like, holy smokes, we’d watched, unbeknownst to each other, the same two movies,” Eshom says.
They talked for hours that morning, and by the time they hung up had decided to write and shoot their own films when summer break arrived.
“We had a weird epiphany,” Ian says. “From that day forward the goal was to write our first script and see if we can make some short films. And we did. And they were terrible.”
Welcome to Hollywood
After reading a book on how to sell a screenplay in L.A., the brothers did a quick down-and-back on a day right before Christmas 2000.
“Great time to hit L.A.,” Eshom jokes of the time of year when Hollywood turns into a ghost town until the new year.
But it kind of was. Because as they followed their list of agencies and production companies up and down Sunset and Wilshire they found front desks and reception areas abandoned.
“We would blow past the receptionist desk and go looking down the halls, screaming, ‘Hey, anybody here?’” Ian says. “Some poor (soul) who was still there would stick his head out of his office and we’d bum-rush him.”
They received what in hindsight were brushoffs and form letters — “Good luck with the script!” — but that was enough for them to rent a crummy apartment off Hollywood Boulevard the following summer.
Fate struck in the form of the driver who rear-ended Eshom one day, an accident that led to an insurance check used not to repair his 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon but for a Panasonic DVX100, one of the first digital cameras almost as good as film.
With it, they shot their $1,500 debut, “Squirrel Trap,” which got them into the Palm Beach International Film Festival. The follow-up, “Night of the Dog,” made for a whopping $5,000, took home top prizes in Palm Beach and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
A few years of screenplays that never got made led them back to their DIY roots and “Lost On Purpose” which starred Jane Kaczmarek, C. Thomas Howell and James Lafferty was shot near their hometown — “A dairy epic,” Ian sardonically says of its not-so-commercial genre.
“Waffle Town,” their adaptation of the novel of the same name, starred Danny Glover and Lafferty, again.
But it was “Small Town Crime,” a hit at the 2017 South by Southwest Film Festival, which got them to “Fatman.”
“Small Town Crime” showed the industry what kind of tone the Nelms brothers would bring to an offbeat crime caper, and its cast — Octavia Spencer, a friend from their earliest days in Hollywood, John Hawkes, Anthony Anderson and Robert Forster — testified to kind of talent they might attract.
“That one popped,” Eshom says. “That was the one that was our tone in the crime thriller sort of dark comedy we were going for.”
Adds Ian: “That’s what opened the door to get to ‘Fatman.’”
Naughty and nice
Four years ago this month the Nelms brothers caught a Q-and-A with Mel Gibson at the Directors Guild for his Oscar-nominated film “Hacksaw Ridge,” and on him saw a glorious beard.
“He’s up front, kneading the beard, talking,” Ian says. “You could feel his shoulders were heavy. You could see that the filming had been tough and this (awards season) circuit was tough, and he was a little beat up from it.
“And we were just like, ‘That is Santa Claus,’” he says. “This is the guy we need to play that role.”
The “Fatman” script went out to Gibson and many others, so Ian didn’t think much at first of the email that arrived one day from no obvious sender.
“It said, ‘Love the script, really got a laugh out of it, let’s have a chinwag,’” he says. “No sign-off, no name.”
He wrote back and said, thanks, can’t wait to meet — who is this?
“And he’s like, ‘Oh, this is Mel,’ and I was like, ‘Ahhhhh!’” Ian says.
“I know we hugged,” Eshom adds.
“Oh, yeah, we hugged. We were super-excited because he was our No. 1 choice for the role.”
Jean-Baptiste and Goggins filled out the key roles, with young actor Chance Hurstfield the spoiled kid who puts out the hit on Santa.
The film was shot in Ottawa in the first months of 2020, with the climactic shootout between Gibson and Goggins done over four days when the temperature dipped to 36 degrees below zero.
“It would take two idiots from California to think writing a gun battle in the snow is a good idea,” Ian says. “It was amazing to shoot. It looks amazing. But it was brutal.”
Gibson, who awed the brothers with his easy willingness to share stories and advice from movies he’s acted and directed, also surprised them by the way he treated his leading role as no more important than any other member of the cast or crew.
“Ian and I are dressed like we’re going to summit Everest,” Eshom says.
“We look ridiculous,” Ian says. “And Mel is there in costume with fingerless gloves, his head exposed, a Carhartt jacket. He’s got a little underlayer on, but it’s negative 36 degrees.”
Once, after wrapping a scene with Gibson, the brothers say they told him he was free to hit the warming tent.
“We turn around 20 minutes later and he’s right behind us,” Ian says. “We’re like, ‘Sorry, man, did you not get the message you were cut?’ He’s like, ‘You guys are out here in this (stuff), I’m out here in this (stuff).
“He said it in front of the camera crew and the actors, and everyone just went, ‘Yeah.’
“Like, ‘Let’s man up. We’re going to get through the next four days of this (stuff) and it’s going to be awesome.’”