Fatman is a gritty and realistic take on the Santa Claus mythology from directors Eshom Nelms, Ian Nelms and distributed by Saban Capital Group. Starring Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield, Eric Woolfe and Robert Bockstael, the film will be available on VOD starting November 24th. Here is my interview with director Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime, Waffle Street):
To save his declining business, Chris Cringle, also known as Santa Claus, is forced into a partnership with the U.S. military. Making matters worse, Chris gets locked into a deadly battle of wits against a highly skilled assassin, hired by a precocious 12-year-old, after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking.
Keven: Like many viewers, I was a bit surprised by the tone of Fatman which opts for a more subtle and realistic approach to the concept of a modern era Santa dealing with a struggling business and well, people trying to murder him. Was this always the plan – to try to integrate as much “realism” as you can instead of going full camp?
Ian Nelms: “Absolutely. From inception, our intent was to play the film as grounded as possible… but this is a story about Santa Claus so there’s an innate humor in that “ straight” portrayal. The camp would have killed it for us. That’s not our flavor and has already been done many times. We didn’t want FATMAN to feel like a joke. We strived to keep it genuine and at times “heart-felt”. We wanted stakes and consequences not a gaudy overdone commercial version of Father Christmas. We’ve all seen that. Our goal was to craft a contemporary Christmas western, where Chris and Ruth are real people with real problems, then slowly add the more fantastical elements. That way the audience will appreciate them as people / characters.”
K: I was also pleasantly shocked to see that the film truly divides its screentime between Chris/Ruth and Billy/Walton Goggins’ characters and even though what Goggins does in this film is truly reprehensible, you find yourself kind of cheering him on in a strange way. Was this always the version of the film you intended, or did it expand because of Goggins and how damn great he is here?
I: “Love to hear that. Walton is such a beast! The script was always structured the way it plays in the film. We love movies where the villain is just as important as the hero. For us, it’s important to pull back the curtain a little on the heavies. Let the audience see WHY they’re acting the way they are. How are they justifying their actions. That emotional motivation/ backstory makes the villain or villains better characters. We approach each script with a “no character left behind” mentality. We love trying to make even a character with just a few lines feel as real as possible.”
K: I found myself fascinated by Goggins’ hitman character and all of the strange eccentricities he has over the course of the film. By the end, you kind of discover what drives his hatred towards Santa Claus and it sorta makes sense in a lot of twisted ways. Were there any other elements to this fascinating character you just did not have time to include in the film?
I: “What we had in the script is in there, but something interesting happened while we were shooting. We had a different intro for Skinny Man. He had a similar motivation and was collecting toys, but he worked in a toy store – where he’d give grief to the store’s manager, be rude to customers and try to pick up on the occasional single mom. But we changed it half way through shooting because of what Walton was bringing to the character. Skinny Man was always alpha, but the way Walton was carrying himself didn’t align with a man who would ever consider working for someone else. So, we came up with the idea of him having his own private, underground business of buying toys specifically ‘made by Santa’.”
K: Mel Gibson just works so well as this grizzled veteran trying to navigate a world where Christmas isn’t respected as much as it used to be and his showdown at the end of the film actually reminded me a lot of Unforgiven. What were some of your inspirations writing the script for Fatman?
I: “While writing the script, we were focused on filling what we saw as a void. We wanted to see something we hadn’t seen before – Santa being played as a real person. Looking back, we can now see a few more influences. Movies like Unbreakable and Unforgiven (funny you mentioned that one in your question). And as crazy as it sounds, those were actually the first two DVD’s we ever bought. Eshom picked up Unbreakable and I picked up Unforgiven. And FATMAN lends itself to both. Not exclusively those two films, but influences from both are definitely in there. As far as the dark-comedy, we love Shane Black’s films and a lot of Clint Eastwood’s work has a gallows humor to it. Dirty Harry and the man with no name (Eastwood’s Leone westerns character) have cracked off some incredible one-liners that are funny and just plain badass!”
K: Gibson’s doing some of his best later years work to date in this flick and there’s a scene in the stable where he’s getting very emotional looking through some files of children who were inspired by his gifts many years later – I really loved that moment and it made me tear up. What do you think Gibson brings to this role that say, Tim Allen or Kurt Russell haven’t, even though they all share this mythical character together?
I: “Mel nailed that scene and we feel like it comes back to how the film is being played. If it wasn’t grounded, we’re not sure that moment would hit as hard. There’s stakes and he’s a real guy, who cares and is trying hard to promote good in the world – he’s just lost his way. We can all relate to that. We’ve all felt like we’ve lost our mojo at some point or another and that’s where Chris finds himself, struggling, searching, fighting for what he believes in. And that’s a moment when we get to see it and feel his “spirit” returning. Mel understood the layers and he pulled us all right into that reality with him. It’s not silly, it feels more real. That’s the difference.”
K: The way you take the appropriate amount of time to deliver those magical little “Santa” reveals was perfect. I really loved the nods to Chris’ super human strength too. How difficult of a balancing act was it to try to integrate these fantasy elements into a movie that to me, felt very serious – to the same degree that a movie like Old Man Logan carried?
I: “Thanks for that comparison – loved that movie! Our approach was to introduce you to the man first (Not Santa, Chris as a person), then start to slowly weave in the mythos. And we didn’t want to have sleighs flying across the moon, we’ve all seen that. We were interested in the moments between. The moments we never get to see. What happens right before he leaves and when he comes back? When he has to fix a floorboard in the sleigh or feed the reindeer? What would the economic reality be for his workshop? All those questions provoked scenes in the film.”
“It was interesting to think about Chris’s “ abilities,” and how he would deal / use them in everyday life. When he’s in the bar and has that moment with the trucker – we had to come up with how his “all knowing” ability would really work. What would Chris feel or sense? We decided if Chris knows when you’ve been bad or good, it must be on sight or if he sees your name, he gets a download of who you are and what your life has been like. Otherwise, he’d be overwhelmed with billions of voices in his head and become schizophrenic. We had a blast answering questions like this and working out the world!”
K: I am assuming your movie budget wasn’t massive, but you managed to deliver a film that looks like it belongs on the big screen without a doubt. Were there any set pieces you wanted to do originally that you just couldn’t execute because of that restraint?
I: “Fortunately, our desired world lent itself the budget we had. But it was still a considerable task making it all work. We never had to abandon a set – it was more like, okay this is what we have, how do we pull off what we want for that. Pre-planning really helped us build exactly what we needed with a bare minimum of waste. But that’s just making a movie. You always have the 200 million dollar version and then you have to figure out what you can actually do with what you have.”
K: Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance as Ruth (aka Mrs. Claus), for me, was so incredibly important because her chemistry with Gibson had to really click in order for the audience to get on board with their struggles. She was incredible and I would LOVE to see more of this character one day. Plus – having an African American play a typically white role was very refreshing. What was it like having Marianne play this iconic part?
I: “She’s terrific! So talented, such a great person. She and Mel had wonderful chemistry. Marianne possessed the qualities we were hard after for Ruth: warmth and strength. Those two things don’t always go together, but they do with Marianne! In one of our first conversations, Marianne told us how much she liked how there wasn’t any special attention given to the fact that Ruth was a person of color. That she simply was. That’s exactly how we approached it – it shouldn’t be mentioned, it just is. It reflects the world we want to live in and we’ve made similar choices in our last three films. It’s something we’re passionate about and will continue to do moving forward. And we’re very excited to expand the FATMAN universe with Ruth continuing to be a big part of it!”
K: Would you ever consider a sequel/continuation of this film and if you did, which direction would you take it? Would you reveal more backstory as to how Chris and Ruth found one another and took the Christmas throne if you will?
I: “When we came up with the idea, the first thing we did was write two short stories. We had a modern day version (close to what Fatman is now) and a prequel… an origin story. We went with the modern day version, because it was more “do-able”. But over the fourteen years it took us to get the movie made, we’ve certainly had time to think of where we might take a sequel. Last thing we want to do is let the cat out of the bag early with specifics, but we are very excited to expand this world!”
***Major Spoiler about The Fatman Ending Ahead!***
K: Was there ever a version in your mind of this film where the bad guy wins? Because for a minute there, I almost thought that’s where this was headed and in some strange way because of how good both Goggins and Gibson are – you could have opted for either scenario and the film probably would have still worked.
I: “We always had Chris and Ruth coming out on top – the ending hasn’t changed much since the first draft. We’re sure some lines and nuances were swapped out, but it always went down in similar fashion. We were absolutely out to create two equally and compelling characters and pit them against each other. And we think that’s what’s fun about it – you could have a cool version with either one winning. That really keeps your audience on their toes – unsure who might win.”
“Fatman has to be the best surprise of 2020: A shining gem in a shit soaked year of chaos and uncertainty. From the slow and unsettling build-up with just enough “Santa” reveals to keep you hooked and intrigued, to the explosive and thrilling conclusion, this is a film destined to become a holiday favorite for years to come.” – Keven. Read his full review of ‘FATMAN’HERE.