With all of the sugary cinema stereotypes we’ve gotten of Santa, it’s only natural that audiences would get sick of seeing his nice side. The grouchy blowback has given us a “Bad Santa” taking shots with bimbos, a Krampus and his playthings putting terror in a family’s stockings and even Grumpy Cat seeing the North Pole as one big litter box. But there’s never been a feature where Kris Kringle turned a ho-ho-ho to a rat-tat-tat until the wonderfully seditious “Fatman.” Channeling all of his Mad Max / Martin Riggs aggression (and no doubt just a bit of anger at his self-diminished status), Mel Gibson delivers his best performance in ages as a has-been Santa who, along with his elves, have been reduced to government flunkies manufacturing jet parts to pay the Xmas bills. But that can’t compare to the anger of rich kid Billy (Chance Hurstfield), whose lumpy Santa diss has him order payback from the super-assassin Skinny Man (Walter Goggins), a stone killer with a very big chip on his soldier when it comes to pursuing the man unable to fill his biggest, impossible wish as a boy.
All roads littered with self-loathing, bodies and maybe even a bit of O.G. Christmas spirit will lead to the big gundown in “Fatman,” an ingenious, unexpectedly affecting film written and directed by Eshom and Ian Nelms (“Lost on Purpose,” “Small Town Crime”). The fact that you’ll take this way more sardonically serious than laughing the idea off is in no small part due to the score by Mondo Boys. They twist familiar chiming carols to knock the cheer from their faces, strum showdown guitars, bells and female voice a la Ennio Morricone and employ enough creeping synths and sampled percussion to fill twelve current assassin-action scores. While all stylistic roads lead to a showdown, “Fatman’s” charm is that it takes its sweet time to develop the characters into real people. It’s all part of the film’s thematic cue of being ironic as opposed to funny ha-ha as the Mondo Boys become the Carter Burwell to the Nelms’ Coen brothers.
But while they might share the first name of Michael, the Boys’ Schanzlin and Griffin aren’t in fact bros. But given that they’ve played together since their teens, the Mondos’ musical uni-mind is very much on display in just how surprisingly cohesive their score’s approaches seamlessly climb into the lumberjack / hitman chic cloths of “Fatman.” Channeling their diverse tastes into a series of mix tapes that got them on Hollywood’s radar, the Mondos have applied that label’s cutting-edge definition to the wildly creative “Dave Made a Maze,” the sensual series “The Girlfriend Experience” and the far more horrific “She Dies Tomorrow” and “The Mortuary Collection” in a flurry of recent scoring activity. But it’s likely the buzz of “Fatman’s” premise that will deliver this intriguing, innovative duo with the gift of their biggest audience yet for a bullet-riddled gundown that reaffirms the Christmas spirit like never before.
What does the word “Mondo” mean to you, and how did you pick your composing team name?
Mike S: “Mondo” is from an Alan Watts lecture we were into. He says it is the Japanese word for “Question and Answer.” We were making mixtapes at the time with that idea loosely in mind, blending other people’s music with some of our own so we called those Mondo Boys. People started wanting to work with us from those mixtapes online. It turned into the film work and we just never changed our name.
How does your partnership typically work on a film, or is every experience different?
Mike S: It varies from project to project, but we both write and produce on everything with the Mondo Boys name. Sometimes we’re together in one studio for the whole process, and sometimes we’re collaborating remotely, working at the same time from our own studios.
Mike G: We work with the director to try to figure out what the music is really doing for the movie, like a narrative and how it changes in the story. In reality it never really gets mapped out till the end because you might think the theme we have for the love story “should” play on a certain scene. But when it’s time to score it, the whole team including the director might realize the scene needs something different. So we like to talk and map out themes, even though they’re just the starting place.
One of your first scores was for the remarkably creative fantasy “Dave Made a Maze.” Tell us about scoring a film that out-Kaufman’d Charlie Kaufman.
Mike G: Yeah! “Dave Made a Maze” went to Slamdance. It was so fun to go to Park City and experience the crazy Sundance thing. That movie is so expressive and cartoon-like. That level of expression where gestures and looks get scored up with music, we really loved the chance to dig in it. Bill Watterson is such a creative powerhouse. He directed it and wrote it with Steve Sears. Bill didn’t really want us just to go for 80’s synth stuff. We really wanted somehow to get to some John Williams zone. Get into the spirit of what “Dave” was making, so when you get the paper cranes and cardboard tribal face statue, we weren’t scoring any quirkiness, we were trying to go pretty full on adventure music. It’s a really fun approach for us. Actually, it later helped us a lot with “The Mortuary Collection” where Writer/Director Ryan Spindell really wanted something in the world of John Williams. Even though “The Mortuary Collection” is really different than “Dave Made a Maze” on the surface, a lot of the same conversations were happening about expressiveness, getting us out of our shell, getting traditional sweeping, busy music that doesn’t sound like a rip-off. This sounds insane but actually it’s helped us with our work in some short films with Disney Animation. So this is only musically speaking, but all these projects are “cartoony” in a sense of heightened constant expression. It really helped us go full Disney, which was a huge goal for us to be able to pull off. It’s actually chaos every time. We’re working on it!
Would you say you’ve always been drawn to eccentric projects?
Mike S: It’s probably more that eccentric projects find us because we just own the fact that we can do any kind of music. And a lot of times it seems like a director is relieved that we have no qualms or pretension.
Mike G: We’re also a little younger than some composers and they know they can take their crazy movie to us and we don’t bat an eye. It’s really easy for us to get excited.
How did “Fatman” come your way?
Mike G: The Nelms Brothers wrote it and directed it and they probably had a lot of options for composers. We got our name in the hat and we just had a phone call with the brothers. It was cool to see right away they were very judiciously cutting everything in the movie that didn’t work the right way and really that first talk was a lot about our take on the story and stuff cause not many people had seen it and they wanted notes!
What was your collaboration with Eshom and Ian like? And would you say the way the directors work together compares to your artistic process?
Mike G: We kept feeling like it was great to work with the two brothers since we’re a duo too. You could definitely tell Ian and Esh would have different opinions on something but to see them work with each other was great. We learned a lot about that collaboration with them. They were really patient letting us find the sound. The music doesn’t always come out the gate how the filmmakers want it and it’s really no problem. We just went back and forth until it started to click. They seemed confident and supportive the whole time.
Mike S: Creatively they just always seem on fire in the best way. They’ve got lots of ideas and opinions between them, but always find a way to hit us as a unified front with any thoughts. Mike and I do our best to work in the same way, so it was inspiring to collaborate with a duo who has really honed in on how to really do it well.
What to you makes a “Christmas” score, and how much of one did you want to make “Fatman?”
Mike G: I’d say it seemed really fun to us that it would slot into a genre to some degree.
Mike S: Yeah. And it was really rare that Ian & Esh would say outright “this music needs more Christmas” – it was usually the opposite. There are a handful of moments in the movie where we dip into the heavy Christmas vibe but instead of epic choirs and horns, they had us lean more into more grounded instruments.
Mike G: They did let us do some sleigh bells though.
Mike S: Yeah! Gotta have that. But genre-wise the whole score came together as a pretty diverse mix.
How did you go about choosing and warping the familiar Christmas carols here?
Mike G: Well, hey, any time you have a song in public domain like “Carol of the Bells,” it’s the most fun to develop some take on it. We had to have a take on this music or it’s a waste of time. They could always just license old Christmas tunes if they wanted the same old thing. So the “how” of it is interesting, I don’t really know. For the most part it’s probably little instincts here and there, changing some notes, putting a new chord over something. Slotting in the happy Christmas melody into a stressful action cue. Fun stuff like that. It’s all the same choices other composers make but when we hand it off it tends to be like “oh crazy!” Honestly, sometimes people just give us the direction of “just do it like this but with that Mondo Boys secret sauce.” We don’t know what that is but we’re just trusting our instincts, looking at the cinematography, editing choices, tone of voice for the actors, and adjusting everything to what they captured. I think in this stuff you have a filter when you create something with your hands and mind without even trying. So it’s good to not copy/paste notes, just write it again and there will be a uniqueness in there.
Mike S: “Carol of the Bells” ended up being part of the Santa atmosphere in this movie. We used it as a quote more often than not. So it’s our original music but a little touch of that melody thrown in around “Chris” (Santa).
How did you hit upon the Spaghetti Western approach?
Mike S: The spaghetti western was actually in the DNA of this thing from the get-go. The Nelmses had it set up that way and we really leaned into it, especially in the third act. When it really came time for music though, they tended to feel like we didn’t need to go full Morricone. We can very easily fall into that because it’s kinda the best. They pulled us back on being too throwback Spaghetti Western and kept us in a fairly original, more modern hybrid zone. But this is a confrontation between two titans, and you’ve got to give it weight. You’ll notice there’s not a ton of “funny” music in this. We went for badass most of the time.
The third aspect of “Fatman’s” score is its synth-rhythms suspense-thriller vibe that could befit any recent score involving a hit man. Tell us about creating that sound
Mike G: Yeah, there really are the 3 sides to this score. Classic Christmas, dark synth and Spaghetti Western. We went after some specific sounds for the synth part because it ended up expressing something really crazy inside Walton Goggins’ character ‘Skinny Man.’ There were a few moments where strong Germanic ordered orchestra cues were temped under him, which was great. But we really got a hit of inspiration when one scene played with a psychotic 70’s synth. We all went “yeeeeessssss” because it really brought something special. It’s definitely all in Goggins’ performance, which was a total joy to put music to. This crazy synth helped us do a dance with it and never take away from the thing he’s doing.
How did you want the score to combine the movie’s various aspects, especially when choosing which tone to play?
Mike S: Well, each of the three main characters has their own agenda and their own musical palette. The boy, Billy, lives in the more typical holiday music world of chamber strings, piano, bells. All things Skinny Man move into a menacing, psychotic synth zone. And for Chris (Santa), we knew we had to build toward a heroic Spaghetti Western tone but not tip the hand too much until the third act.
“Fatman” has a sardonic, everyday tone that could easily befit “Fargo” minus the Minnesotan accents. How did the film’s far more “realistic” take on Santa and elves influence the score?
Mike G: It definitely did affect the score because there would be times where we’d play up something funny going on but the Nelmses have that really unique tone going. It’s like things are played pretty straight but then you notice one little line or look, and you laugh really hard because you feel like only you are in on a joke.
Mike S: Yeah, the music was played pretty straight throughout and if it didn’t have that deadpan thing with how they shot the movie our score would have probably had to chase some pretty crazy tones from scene to scene. Since they made it grounded, it let the music fly more for longer stretches.
There’s the theme of little kids betrayed in the film in how Billy and Skinny Man’s troubled childhoods lead them into paths of evil. How did you want to get across that idea of the wounded children behind the bad guys?
Mike G: Exactly! I think that line was really the work on the Nelmses part – actors, costume, production design and God knows what else. We just kinda couldn’t help but notice. We found a nice thematic melody for the bad guy and it plays a little psycho. Yet we were always aware on some level that this character has interesting sides and if some warmth comes through it’s only right because of how the character is crafted. So it’s not a story of “The Terminator” coming through to wreck some humans. Everyone involved here is a three-dimensional human. So how does that affect the music? I don’t know, I mean we just can’t betray what’s being crafted.
In a way, it’s Skinny Man’s cold, slithering music that makes for a significant amount of the score. How did you hear his character?
Mike S: You definitely know way too much.
Mike G: Haha, yeah there is some slithering going on. We all talked a lot about Skinny Man. Honestly the Nelms Brothers have a great sense of what he’s all about and we went too far sometimes. But Skinny is actually not cold. He’s super controlled but just on the surface. His eyes are the opposite of cold so that’s probably what made it really fun.
Fatman himself is an equally conflicted character. How did you want to get across the idea of a man who truly believes in his mission as much as he outwardly seems to despise it?
Mike G: You could say it’s the commercialism he hates but that’s probably not the most articulate. It’s something about the cartoon Santas on Coke cans and the surface-level Christmas cynicism that Chris seems to have been defeated by. What an awesome way to do Santa. Also how amazing that we got to score Mel Gibson commanding the screen like he does. He really brings it, it’s really hard to deny when we have these scenes that are so well crafted, a character that’s worth talking about. I guess our answers are revolving into just feeling really lucky to have done the music on this movie.
“Fatman” successfully walks a very tricky tightrope in between dead serious, bleakly sardonic and outrightly funny. How tricky was it for you to have your music maintain that balance?
Mike S: It actually never felt tricky. We tend to trust directors and their sense of what needs to happen emotionally at every level of a story. If we felt the line was getting too crazy or going too off-the-wall I’m sure we’d let them know but we never felt the need to question the tone here.
All of “Fatman” drives to the big confrontation between Santa and Skinny Man. How did you want to propel the film in that way and deliver on the violent, mano-a-mano action when it finally hits?
Mike G: In this case it was about saving that gear for the third act. There’s a lot of teasing those Spaghetti Western instruments – playing them off of each other as it’s intercut but you only really know looking back. The Nelmses had it crafted really in a great way so when the music is there it’s huge and doing something. But there are important stretches with no music. We always know that no music is a musical choice in itself, so we embrace that when it’s right. In this case we definitely agreed. And then we get to come in with something bold you feel it because you forgot about music and it gets to come in to add and deepen something
You’ve scored the sure-to-be controversial school shooter film “Run Hide Fight.” Tell us about that film and its score.
Mike S: So it’s late March, early April and we were all very much quarantined. No more shooting. We felt very fortunate to have work still to do on other projects. I think we’re doing Amy Siemetz’s “She Dies Tomorrow”, and then “Run Hide Fight” which ended up being this whole brilliant experience for us during a time that we could have just paused with the rest of the world.
Mike G: Yeah, we were just happy to be cookin’. And Kyle Rankin, who wrote and directed “Run Hide Fight” was looking for music. It was amazing to us – they had a locked cut and no temp music. During lockdown it was just a gift. We watched it and it was disturbing and very well crafted and opened up some very fruitful conversations right away. We talked on the phone with Kyle and had a very extensive, interesting conversation about themes. How will it be perceived from a distance? But more importantly we honed in on the characters and story. We were really in from the beginning. The editor Matthew Lorentz and sound designer Shawn Duffy really set us up for some great music moments. These are people who focus on excellence and leave you space to do the same. How brilliant is that? Talking to the actors and everyone too, it all comes down to Kyle Rankin being that calm presence yet challenging when you need it.
Do you think this movie might destroy Santa or Xmas for any little kid who sneaks a viewing of this? Or in fact, strengthen that belief?
Mike G: Okay! There’s a really brilliant thing they did in this movie with regard to that. I won’t be the one to say whether it’s “kid safe” or not – Mike S is the one with kids, so I’ll let him take the lead on this one..
Mike S: It’ll probably be a few years before my kids get to see this one.
Mike G: The Nelmses did a brilliant fix about Santa being real. I’ll leave it unspoken. But that’s safe. The general nature of the violence, etc. is not for us to comment. The spirit of Santa is truly strengthened in this story though. From a character perspective, legacy, perspective and pathos.
In spite of how visceral it ends up getting, would you in the end describe “Fatman” as a “Christmas movie?
Mike G: We’re becoming critics here, but we love being in rooms where we don’t belong so let’s be critics! It has more “Christmas Movie” energy than “Bad Santa,” for sure. There’s honestly something so cool that they do that’s unspoken in this story that we realized while working on it. It’s an unspoken thing that every Christmas movie makes an issue that is never brought up here. Don’t want to say what it is but in terms of is it a “Christmas movie” I’m definitely saying “yes.” It’s so weird to say but it’s more of a Christmas and love-of-Christmas movie than a lot of recent ones. There’s a certain level of grounding these ideals and concepts with where we are now and working up from there. You know with communication you have to start with the energy of who you’re talking to and then you work from that place. The Nelms Brothers really know what they’re doing, and it is very challenging to the Christmas ethos. But like a rebellious teenager in the family, they sometimes end up being the most integral and supportive of the family long-term, after the ruckus.
How have you adjusted your creative process with the pandemic?
Mike S: We’re actually perfectly suited for it. We’ve been working solidly through lockdown and we really just feel for everyone affected and are so thankful that we can still be doing what we love.
Mike G: It’s important to be thankful and look around to see who else can use a little help.
After so many years together, what does your name and music mean to the filmmakers who seek you out?
Mike S: Another really good question. It’s a hard one. We don’t really know, because it’s not exactly up to us. But we try to make it mean SOMETHING.
Mike G: Hopefully right now it means honesty in the collaboration. We really appreciate the work of the directors we’ve been able to work with and we just try to support it and let them help us get it there. A film production has so many parts. We learn a little more about all of it and what they need on each movie we do. There are hundreds of punches and blocks as the filmmaking team fights to make a great movie. We love to be the last big upper cut.
Watch “Fatman” on VOD now!
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