Sometimes you find the Spirit of Christmas in the strangest of places. For brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, it was at an awards season screening of Hacksaw Ridge in December 2016. The pair had already been dreaming of Fatman and its desperado Santa Claus for more than a decade when they attended the event. But they weren’t there that night for Santa; they came for a Q&A with Mel Gibson, the mercurial filmmaker who seemed to be on the cusp of reconciliation with Hollywood.
Arriving to his own screening renewed and happy, and with a bushy gray beard worthy of Methuselah, Gibson could still make a hell of an impression, both on an industry impressed by his World War II drama and the two young filmmakers with eyes due North.
“Gibson came out and he had this amazing beard,” Ian recalls over a Zoom interview, still with a twinkle in his eye. “He was a little slumped over and kneading his beard, very passionately talking to the audience about what he was excited about in the film and why he made it. But he also was right at the end of that award circuit, and you could see that he was a little worn out… you could see the wear and tear on him [and] a guy that was little beaten down at that point. We instantly looked at each other and we’re like, ‘That’s the guy.”
They were ready to shout that’s our Santa!
It’s an unusual origin story for a Christmas movie, but then Fatman isn’t your child’s new Netflix Christmas darling. Starring Gibson as an aged and broken man who is clinging on to the last vestiges of hope for a better tomorrow, Fatman seeks to ground Father Christmas with the same dispirited nihilism that James Mangold applied to Wolverine a few years ago in Logan. Both movies are ostensibly Westerns, informed by the deconstructionist streak of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, and both end in a bloodbath.
Yet whereas Unforgiven is the story of a cowboy, and Logan a clawed antihero, Fatman is about Santa existing in a world where hitmen like Walton Goggins’ “Skinny Man” come out of the woodwork, eager to claim his scalp. However, if you sit down and ask the Nelms about this somber approach to the character, it makes perfect sense in the early 21st century.
“When we were doing some of the research and finding out how much money the holiday season really drives our economy, it’s amazing, right?” Eshom says. “You can see why that engine was created.”
Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum, Americans alone spend more than $1 trillion a year on holiday retail. And that doesn’t even consider how much more is spent on holiday festivities, public events, and travel.
“I mean, Rudolph, which now seems to be a staple of Christmas, was actually an invention of [retailer] Montgomery Ward’s back in the day,” Ian says. “That’s a marketing ploy. Rudolph doesn’t exist!”
This cold economic reality informs the brothers’ approach to Santa. Other than his genuinely sweet partnership with Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), aka Mrs. Claus, Gibson’s Chris Kringle is despondent and cynical about the world today. It’s why he allowed his operation to become subsidized by the U.S. government, which in turn wants to prop up the American economy but is as oblivious about the Spirit of Christmas as the little boy (Chance Hurtsfield) who puts a bounty on Santa’s head after receiving a lump of coal on Dec. 25.
It’s an unorthodox take, and one the Nelms’ have been working on for the better part of 20 years. The pair tell us that the concept first came to them in 2003, fortuitously around the same time they bought their first DVDs: Unforgiven for Ian and Unbreakable for Eshom.
“This sort of superhero-Western mashup was, I think, a big catalyst for the film,” Eshom notes, particularly appreciating how grounded and stealthy the superheroics were in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Their premise also fit into each brother’s preference for niche “alternative Christmas movies.” As a pair more inclined to enjoy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Gremlins during the holidays, not to mention the Gibson-starring Lethal Weapon, they saw an opportunity to make a unique genre-bender.
However, real movement on Fatman didn’t start until the Nelms began getting their foot in the industry in 2006, and they’ve been refining the idea ever since.
“We always wanted him to be an everyman,” Eshom says about the creative process. “We wanted [Chris and Ruth] to be really relatable and have a lot of what people would consider blue collar problems.”
As the sons of small business owners, the Nelms were able to understand that dynamic intimately, even if the stakes they saw growing up were never over the soul of Christmas.
Says Ian, “[Our parents] owned a photography business for 20 some odd years, and our mom was very much the Ruth. She was the backbone of that business, and he was very much the Chris, where he was the lead photographer. She was an amazing photographer in her own right, but he was the lead photographer and the business had his name on it, and he started it before he even met our mom. But he wouldn’t have lasted five seconds without our mom, because she really held that thing together. Even though he was a great photographer, the logistics eluded him, completely.”
That dynamic informs much of Fatman, which ended up being the Nelms’ fourth feature film. The movie is accurately marketed on the grizzled violence that eventually puts Goggins’ Skinny Man on the opposite end of a snow bank from Gibson’s Kringle. The slender one bellows, “I’ve come for your head, Fatman!” But the film surprisingly plays its absurdities straight, not least of all because of Gibson and Jean-Baptiste’s affection.
It’s one element the brothers emphasized to Gibson when they finally got in a room with the filmmaker to pitch the project; another was how stripped down and crusty their vision of Santa would be.
“The pictures that we were showing him were these pictures of these old trappers, and these guys who were visiting Antarctica in the early 1900s and they were on dog sleds,” Ian says. “We were… really bringing it back to a place of when this guy got started. Maybe the jacket is real leather and that’s real animal fur? It’s like it goes back to a time when he was originated, and we felt like that jacket had been upgraded for hundreds of years with Ruth stitching it up.”
It clearly wasn’t Tim Allen’s Santa Claus, but that was the point. They expressly pitched that point to the star they’d grown up watching in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies, and Gibson in turn ran with the “cowboy” angle, modeling Chris on several people he knew in his own life.
Even with this background, audiences will likely be surprised by how stripped down Fatman is when they watch it for themselves. Because while there may be elves with bells on their shoes, for example, these helpers work in a low lit, industrial hell and on a stretch of Alaskan farmland far removed from a magical workshop.
Says Eshom, “We were like, ‘Okay, Santa’s in the North Pole?’ Well, there isn’t shit at the North Pole. So if he really wanted an infrastructure and to [actually] get supplies and power, and all this stuff, we’re like, ‘Okay he’s got to be somewhere where there’s a slight civilization. So Alaska.”
It’s part and parcel for an approach that pivots on grounding the Santa Claus mythology in as much reality as possible. This Santa still rides around the world on magical reindeer, but we don’t actually see that Christmas Eve adventure. Instead we bear witness to the aftermath, where Chris comes home exhausted and bleeding, with a hole in his coat from where some kid shot him with a BB-gun.
It’s obviously unlike any Santa you’ve ever seen before. And while the film has already been welcomed by a niche audience in limited theatrical release, it’s also received plenty of criticism for its violent portrayal of Father Christmas. But the Nelms are unbothered by that criticism.
“This isn’t for kids, you know?” Eshom says. “If you want Miracle on 34th Street mixed with Die Hard, this might be your flavor.” Additionally, each director is stunned at how much more timely a beleaguered Santa feels in 2020, since they’ve been trying to get this movie off the ground for 14 years.
“We finished shooting right at the beginning of the pandemic,” Ian says. “We finished shooting and then the next day they shut down all productions in Canada. We were really fortunate to finish on time and then we spent the next six months editing it in my basement. So we had a wonderful distraction, which was nice, but it was a weird time to do it because the tension [is] ratcheting across the world, especially in our country being hit so hard by the pandemic.”
Ironically, they made a film about a once benevolent figure looking at the rising despair and naughtiness of modern American society, and recoiling. That tension, which is as tight a string can get without breaking according to Ian, has only gotten further strained since the film’s edit locked.
Nevertheless, the filmmakers don’t view Santa Claus or the Spirit he represents as a cynical one, even in Fatman. Rather they describe Gibson’s Chris Kringle as something of a guiding light: a man who gives toys to urge children toward whatever skills or proclivities they might have to better realize their futures. So Chris’ wearied resolution to continue the job is as optimistic as it is archetypal.
“I think he’s disgusted in himself, really,” says Ian. “He has that line at the end of the film where he just says, ‘You know, it’s partly my fault that we’ve gotten to this point.’ He’s talking about the state of the world, and he feels like he hasn’t quite been doing his job the last few hundred years. He’s let everything kind of slip and slide, as people do… But he’s trying to figure out how to get it back, and that’s really what the bottom line is, right? Like a call to action, he’s got to get back to the old ways.”
Maybe we all can this Christmas.
Fatman is available on VOD and in limited theatrical release now.