- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
California natives Eshom and Ian Nelms, brothers who write and direct together, are a likable pair. Genuine film fans who seem giddy, even after several short films and features under their belt, to call filmmaking what they do for a living. Like all moviemakers worth watching, they combine their geographic influences-the varying California landscapes-and the cinema that captured their imaginations growing up, to build stories around characters who have something interesting to say. A dry comedic streak runs through much of their work, including their latest film, Small Town Crime, but the narrative anchor is always, at its core, drama. And their films carry their interesting voice. Their influences seep into what they put on screen. And through an impressive parade of actors with whom they have lured with the quality of their scripts, they put out a growing body of impressive or intriguing pictures.
In Small Town Crime, Mike Kendall (the inimitable John Hawkes) is an alcoholic, washed up ex-police officer. Waking up in the middle of nowhere, having been black-out drunk, he finds the body of a young girl dumped by the side of the road. Alive when he finds her, she dies in the hospital, and he is compelled to find out who she was, and who killed her. He is his own worst enemy, but even when his determination is misguided, he makes for a compelling accidental hero.
Home Theater Forum spoke to Eshom and Ian, with Ian sporting a cold, about their latest film, their influences, and why films like Small Town Crime-a western-y, noir-like tale-are fun to make. The Nelms Brothers are set to helm Thunder Road’s thriller Capture as follow up to Small Town Crime, and serve as producers for the TV project, Everyone is Doing Great, directed by James Lafferty, with whom they worked on Small Town Crime, Waffle Street and Lost on Purpose.
Small Town Crime is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
HTF: I had the chance to watch the film yesterday for the first time and was really impressed by it and of John Hawkes' performance. What a great actor. I've Known since I saw him in Winter's Bone a few years ago that this guy can do just about anything, so I wanted to ask, did you write this with him in mind or did you discover his perfect fit for the character when you were casting?
“When we sat down with Octavia, John [Hawkes’] name was brought up] because John would be the best version of that character.”
Ian Nelms: We definitely try to write with a certain type of person in mind, but I wouldn't say that we had John in mind exactly, I feel like that was the decision later with Octavia [Spencer]. When we sat down with Octavia, [John’s name was brought up] because we all felt John would be the best version of this character.
HTF: Well I'd agree with that. He is genuinely terrific to watch. Here he's not really an anti-hero, he's more an unlikely hero, and I think he embodies that pretty darn well, with very good comedic timing which really worked in his favor, especially in engendering trust and likeability. Even though he's driving drunk and he's drunk most of the time, not exactly endearing qualities in a human being, somehow you can't help but get behind him. What made you want to dive into this area? What was the draw into this sort of western-y, noir detective loser who becomes a hero sort of realm?
“It helps when you get John Hawkes to be undeniably likeable. So there's a likeability and a quality in the man, you can't resist him.”
Eshom Nelms: I’m so glad to hear you say that you liked John’s character despite his idiosyncrasies that are definitely frowned upon in today's society. But his guiding light comes through his moral compass, and I think as long as you know he's doing what he's doing for a good cause, you'll go along with it. He can stretch the rules [and] play that grey area and hopefully people will go along with the ride. It helps when you get John Hawkes. So there's a likeability and a quality in the man, you can't resist him.
Ian Nelms: I think going into your second question, which is how we landed on this idea, my brother and I take this drive up to central California where our parents reside, very frequently. It's a three and half hour drive and takes us through this sort of dusty little town, Bakersfield, and some of the farmlands of the central valley. We were going up there one early morning [and] landed on the idea of what if this sort of fall-down drunk stumbled out into the night, drove his car, woke up in a dusty oil field (which we later changed to a train yard once we landed in Utah) and, on his way back into town, found a body. That was the impetus and the seed of the idea that launched the story. From that scene we unwound the story.
Ian Nelms: And probably the other half of that answer is, and I don’t know if you are having trouble distinguishing our voices, this is Ian by the way!
HTF: Well, I might have if one of you didn't have a cold [laughter].
Ian Nelms: Yes, Eshom has a cold. I don't [laughter]. The second half of that answer is, at a pretty young age, our mom got the Clint Eastwood collection for us. Every two weeks, we'd get a new videocassette of the Clint Eastwood classics. It was everything from his Dirty Harry series to the [Sergio] Leone Westerns, and then all of the other wonderful Westerns he was a part of, like [The Outlaw] Josey Wales, and the one where he paints the town red, I can't recall the name right now.
Ian Nelms: There were so many amazing Westerns and crime films. Pretty early on, with this kind of tough guy, Eastwood, Dirty Harry, very flawed but take-no-s**t [laughter]. But it comes down to him trying to solve a crime and do the right thing. He’s definitely headed in the right direction, which is what we really loved about him. And we’d read a lot of books, a lot of Raymond Chandler, too.
Eshom Nelms: Comic books, too, like Sam and Twitch, stuff like that. A lot of different infusions of media that we enjoy [laughter].
HTF: Yeah. And you might be thinking of High Plains Drifter. Isn't that the one where he paints the town red?
Ian Nelms: There it is. It is High Plains Drifter!
Eshom Nelms: Yes! Thank you.
HTF: For the past couple of weeks, I've been watching some of the old Clint Eastwood films. I recently watched Two Mules for Sister Sara. And I've got Joe Kidd coming up this weekend. And what I notice, when you watch some modern day films, like a John Wick film, a movie that I love, but it's set in a pristine world. The hero is highly skilled and very able to take care of themselves. But then you have the sort of the heroes like Clint Eastwood, flawed in his moral compass but also in his ability to execute on his plan. In his films, someone always seems to gets the jump on him pretty easily, just like they did that with your Mike Kendall character. Mike gets bumped on the head when he's looking for the one dude from the other end of the phone who liked Motown music. And I think that is a genuinely interesting quality in the heroes that I grew up watching, the Clint Eastwood ones and other. They're imperfect in how they go about reaching their goals. Is that another draw? That they don't have to be these impervious superhero, I-can-kick-your-butt-if-you-threaten-me, but they're vulnerable the entire time?
‘[T]here's a scrappiness to that character in that you feel that even when he gets down, he's going to keep fighting.”
Ian Nelms: Yeah, I think there's a lot of fun to what you just said. Those type of scenarios get us really excited because I do feel that, one, it humanizes them, and two, there's a scrappiness to that character in that you feel that even when he gets down, he's going to keep fighting. As you mention in the John Wick character, there are definitely times when he's down, and it's usually 10 against him and he takes them all out or something like that. But he is often getting beat up pretty good, too. I guess in Noirs and Westerns they let their characters not be aware of everything. They get beat up more, get the snot kicked off of them. Chinatown I think is a good example of that. It's almost like [Jack] Nicholson's character fails his way upward that entire film [laughter] getting his ass kicked.
Eshom Nelms: Yeah! We think along the lines of "Is this luck or skill?" [laughter]. What exactly is his ability? Was this all part of [Mike’s] master plan to go to Randy's bar to get [the bad guys] to come to him? Was that part of the plan or did he just happen to fumble in there and then pirouette out like all the classic amateur sleuths?
HTF: And there's something about the man in black [hero]. In this case, the Mike Kendall character is wearing a cheap black suit searching for the truth on a black stallion. In this case, it's a muscle car, that gorgeous Chevy Nova. And I'm not a car man, but I know a great car when I see one. And this may seem like a silly question, but how did you land on that car and where did you find that car? It's a beast.
“John [Hawkes] came back and the stuntman just was utterly astounded at his ability and said, "John, do you do a lot of car driving?" and John said, "Not really, I'm not really a car guy, but something happens to me when I get in this Nova and Mike Kendall takes over.”
Eshom Nelms: [laughter] Yeah, so Ian and I had a dear friend in high school who essentially had that car. One day he took us out for lunch and said, "Hey, we're just going to take a little joy ride down this back road and let you see what my car can do." It left such an astounding impression on us. It was a slingshot that forever burned into our cerebrums. We've been waiting to do a movie with it ever since. We wrote that car into this movie hoping we could build one that was like our friend's car in high school [laughter]. We found that car in Utah, it’s very much like our high school friend's Nova. It’s a '72 with a '70 grill on it. It was built for the strip. When Ian and I found that beast, we just had to have it. We had an allotment of money. We had to beg for more to get it, and then we had to beg the guy down and promise that it would be shown off in the film [laughter], and so he went for it. Ian and I have never gotten more thumbs up driving a car down the street as we took it back to the set.
John Hawkes said, "I want to do a lot of the driving, as much as I can." Obviously, we had the stuntman on set, who was there to do everything and show John how to handle the car properly. And after one particularly impressive gravel spewing, 180, John came back and the stuntman just was utterly astounded at his ability and said, "John, do you do a lot of car driving?" and John said, "Not really, I'm not really a car guy, but something happens to me when I get in this Nova and Mike Kendall takes over [laughter]."
HTF: You assembled a really good cast: Octavia Spencer, Clifton Collins, Jr., Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, and John of course, among many others. That's a very high caliber cast. How important it is for smaller films to land such recognizable and respected names, and then how it was working with that really wonderful cast.
“I think the most important thing is probably getting the right person for the job, and luckily and thankfully, the right people for these jobs were the main actors [laughter], which was amazing. They really responded to the material and kept coming on board.”
Ian Nelms: I think it's really important. The most important thing is probably getting the right person for the job, and luckily and thankfully, the right people for these jobs were the main actors [laughter], which was amazing. They really responded to the material and kept coming on board.
It all started with Octavia Spencer reading the script and saying, "I want to [Executive Produce] this, and I want to be in it." And we said, "Absolutely." She asked, "Who do you want for the lead?" And then we all sat down and landed on John Hawkes. I think there's this wonderful quality that John has where he can be kind of dark, brooding, but can be funny and really personable. And then Octavia's like, "Who do you want for my husband?" We said, "Anthony Anderson is our number one choice." And she was like, "I don't think you get him. He's on Black-ish, but I can try." So she ran into him at a party and pitched it to him. He read it. And he just says, "Alright, I’m in.” And so, with those three, we were green lit. And then it was John Hawkes who is good friends and had done a picture with Robert Forster. He said, "What do you think about Forster for the grandfather?" And we said, "Absolutely." He then said, "What do you think of Don Harvey for the bartender? I just can't get Don Harvey out of my mind." And we said, "Absolutely." And then our DP, Johnny Derango, who has made three films with us now at this point, had worked with another director who was friends with Clifton Collins, Jr. He knows what fans we are of Clifton’s, so Johnny reached out and the other director helped us out. Clifton read the script quickly, and we were on a Skype call within 48 hours. He was excited about it.
“Everybody knew the material really well when they sat down and had a ton of questions for us so that they could really suck every little piece out of it. It was awesome.”
Eshom Nelms: He was already popping in the gold teeth and asking us if we’d read Iceberg Slim’s “Pimp”. That's what really excites us, when actors come full of ideas. We also had several actors from what we call our “film family”. James Lafferty and Jeremy Ratchford who together play the hitmen. The glasses-wearing hitman is Jeremy and the handsome front man is James Lafferty. We have Dale Dickey who we adore, who comes in as the bartender and just steals it. And then we have Michael Vartan, Daniel Sunjata - it was just such an honor to watch Caity Lotz, Stefanie Scott — to work with so many talented people who really elevated the film and made it what it could be. We're really honored to have such a talented group of people collaborate with us.
Ian Nelms: It felt like every scene we were stepping into Christmas dinner.
Eshom Nelms: Yeah, it was. Incredible.
Ian Nelms: It was always someone incredible doing a scene with John or with somebody else. I really felt like everybody brought their A game. Everybody knew the material really well when they sat down and had a ton of questions for us so that they could really mine every little piece out of it. It was awesome.
Eshom Nelms: Also, we were able to get really talented people out of the local Utah casting.
HTF: Wrapping up, I wanted to say that one of the things I really liked about the film was that it's a violent, dark story wrapped around the ordinary, suburbia, ordinary homes and concerns. And you have dialogue that reinforces the ordinary nature of the world that you've created, which gives it a little bit of humor. Like the offer for juice or milk or tea, and John says, "Oh, I'll take juice." And he's sucking on a juice box. And the exchange about off-brand cereal and raisins. Those moments of the very ordinary really helped the film. And I was glad you mentioned Johnny Derango because I think when you get a really good cinematographer-and I don't know how much Small Town Crime cost to make-but they can make a five million-dollar movie look like a 15 million-dollar movie. And he really captured the ordinary. I watched Sicario a couple of weeks ago for the first time. And that is a film all about the washed-out, ordinary suburban, dirty world. And I was reminded occasionally of that film just from what you guys were going for, which was “normal”. But you guys would shoot, and it would be lit so well that it seemed like a much more expensive movie. Is that something that you pay close attention to? Trying to maximize the budget that you do have so that everything shows up on-screen.
Eshom Nelms: Without a doubt. Our number one goal is to make this look five time the budget that we actually have. We've done a lot of DIY in our day. Johnny has too. And that's enabled us to go out and make that happen and bring that to fruition. It would warm Johnny's heart to hear you compare it to Sicario. I will be sure to pass that on, Neil [laughter].
Ian Nelms: It really helped a lot too with having Johnny because we've made three feature films and probably five or six short films with him. And we have such a shorthand-a quick easy line of communication-he understands our pace. He understands the look we're after every time. And it's always different. The last three movies we’ve made with him all have very different looks. But he's always able to find something that we really like. He's such a great collaborator and really quick when it comes to lighting. At one point he had 45 minutes to switch his lighting setup around so we could shoot the other side of the scene. We looked at him and said, "We got 20. Can you do it?" And he said, "Let me give it a run." And he did it. He's just that kind of guy.
Eshom Nelms: He's just a great human being as well. He really brings a great energy to the set. And that's why we work with him time and time again, and will continue to do so.
HTF: Congratulations to you both on the film. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I know you guys haven't done sequels, at least as of yet, but this is a character that I would love see continue in some kind of way if you're able to. But all the best for the future. And I look forward to what you've got coming out next.
Eshom Nelms: Thank you, Neil. We also wanted to say this is the first time Octavia's ever done [an audio] commentary, so we were so honored to have her and John on this one. Thank you for your time!
HTF: Thank you both.