Interviews · Movies

The Nelms Brothers Dish on Making A Contemporary Western with Octavia Spencer

We chat with Eshom and Ian Nelms about what it takes to make an excellent, small movie about some messed up people just trying to do the right thing.
Stc Bts Ian Nelms Eshom Nelms Scott Forster Hawkes Credit Ngoc Nguyen
By  · Published on March 20th, 2018

The Shallow Pocket Project is our way of getting to know the filmmakers behind the independent flicks that we dig. Check our last chat with Lauren Wolkstein and Chris Radcliff (writers/directs of ‘The Strange Ones’). Special thanks to my fellow Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness, especially Brad Gullickson and Darren Smith.

Eshom and Ian Nelms are the writers, directors, and editors of a mean little film called Small Town Crime. The movie features a hell of a cast, with John Hawkes, Octavia Spencer, Robert Forster, Anthony Anderson, and Clifton Collins Jr. The whole cast showed up with their best game. From minute one, you can’t look away. You might want to for all the dirt-baggery these characters exhibit. But, you can’t. The group of characters is a mess of messed up people, just trying to do the right thing. Well, some of the time at least.

Hawkes stars as Mike Kendall, an ex-cop, and present-day alcoholic. Headed home after another dysfunctional all night drunk, he sees a young woman very badly injured on the side of the road. Just because he’s a broken man and incapable of managing his drink, that doesn’t mean he has lost his altruistic side. He stops and brings her to the hospital. When she doesn’t make it, he takes it upon himself to investigate the case. It’s the right thing to do. Of course, it’s also an easy angle for him to exploit to worm his way back onto the force.

Small Town Crime Poster

So, how did they come up with their characters for Small Town Crime?

Eshom Nelms: We have this long drive through oil fields and agriculture and some really barren landscapes. It’s very western aesthetic and that’s where we thought of it. We thought, “Okay, what if a guy finds a body out here?” Then we’re like, “What if he an alcoholic ex-cop?” Then we kind of built the story all around that. There was definitely a crime thriller vibe to that. Our biggest influence is when we were kids, our mom got the Clint Eastwood collections. Every two weeks we would get another Clint Eastwood classic in the mail. VHS cassettes! And we would watch all the Dirty Harry’s, all the Leone westerns, and beyond that of course with Josey Wales and whatnot.

Ian Nelms: I really think it’s that synthesis that created this sort of character for us in this environment.

Eshom Nelms: And Eastwood’s amazing at playing that sort of gray area character that you still want to follow because he’s such a badass and at least his moral compass is heading in the right direction. He’s trying to do good even though he’s doing a lot of shitty things on the way sometimes. He’s out to get it done and get the bad guys.

If there was ever a film of grey-area characters, this one is it. That’s what makes the movie so watchable. There are no black hats and white hats in this modern day western. There are only people just trying to make their way the best that they can.

As we talked, it unfolded that their idea of this film as a western came down even to their cars. In the Nelms brothers minds, the cars are stand-ins for their horses. And, for Mike Kendall, they knew they needed to get exactly the right horse. Eshom Nelms shared a memory from their youth of a high school bud who had a souped up Nova. They recalled going out back in the day, riding in the back, and just being smashed into the back of the car as their friend roared down the street.

They knew that was the feeling they needed to convey for Kendall’s character. And, god damn, does that come out on the screen. Drunk, sober, angry, whatever. Kendall smokes out his tires everywhere he goes. And, that’s a fit for his character. He’s full speed ahead.

Stc Robert Forster John Hawkes Credit Saban Films

That car in the film is the real deal. And Hawkes is driving like a lunatic for the shoot.

Eshom Nelms: It’s amazing. It’s interesting because after one impressive gravel spewing 180 where he does that and hits his perfect mark and then slingshots down the road. John comes back and he pulls up. We have a stunt guy on hand the whole time to do any stunt he’s not comfortable with and this guy leans in the window and goes, “John, have you done a lot of driving before?” And he’s like, “No actually. I have my car that I doodle around in.” But he’s like, “I’m not even really a car guy.” “Once I get in this car as Mike Kendall, he takes over.”

But, how do they even get to the stage where they can make this movie? It’s hard to get any single movie made. Whether it’s via the Hollywood blockbuster system or an indie affair. It’s really hard to get an indie film made. So much has to come together. It starts with a script. The characters in their films, especially so in their latest feature, have substance to them. Every character has a purpose and a backstory. It’s what helps their projects connect with potential supporters.

In this case, their first and biggest supporter of the film was Octavia Spencer. Yeah, Hidden Figures and The Shape of Water Octavia Spencer. The Nelms brothers were working with her on another project, and she asked what they had going on next. So, they showed her the script and the lookbook for this project, and they say she was immediately in.

Eshom Nelms: You don’t really think about Octavia Spencer being synonymous with crime thrillers, but she has a real affection for them. She said, “Let me read it.” We gave her the script. Two days later she calls us back. She’s like, “I’m in. I’m EPing this. Bring your list, boys. Come on over. Bring your lists. We’re gonna figure out what actors we wanna get here.”

The whole process of getting a film made is building brick after brick until you have a church at the end. The first supporters you attract to the project can serve as essential cornerstones going forward. For them, Spencer’s interest in crime thrillers and continuing their collaboration was a boon.

Subsequently, she linked them up with both Hawkes and Anderson. Hawkes then delivered Forster to the project, and things slowly started to come into place. Once they had such an amazing cast assembled, it was much easier for them to start generating the required money to get the project underway. And then, it was time to have some fun with the casting process.

Ian Nelms: We have a lot of fun counter-casting. We’ll pick someone that doesn’t usually do that or pick someone and maybe go talk to them and just see if they’re interested in that. Also, in that conversation, if you don’t know them already you’ll start to see if there’s a version of that character that they could play and they can do to bring something to the role rather than just kind of cardboard, cutting out to do what you wrote. There’s something amazing about putting Anthony Anderson in a role where he’s funny and lovable and likable, which he usually is, but where he’s also heavily dramatic and gets fucked up. It’s a serious situation. There are some serious repercussions at the end. It was fun to put him in that role and see him be able to straddle those two sides of emotion.

They talked a lot about collaboration and their process. I suppose, obviously, as brothers and co-directors their collaboration with one another is ingrained into the creative process. However, they were very open that while not too much of the script changed from writing to shooting, they welcomed what their newfound cast brought to the table.

Independent films tend to draw out so-called character actors. People who really become their roles. Hawkes certainly fits that description. And it’s absolutely lovely to see him headlining films. He might be one of the most underrated working actors today. Collins is another chameleon.

Ian Nelms: Someone like Clifton Collins Jr. took the role and said, “Hey. I’ve got a friend. He used to be a crip, he used to be a pimp. Let me go talk to him and see and talk with him about everything we wanna do here that we talked about.” We had this big discussion about what we wanna do with the character and he really liked it and he’s like, “Alright. Let me bring some shit to you.” And he went off and he came back and he was like, “What if we said something like this that means the same thing, but just a little different?” And we’re like, “Okay. Great. I don’t even know what the fuck you just said, but, yeah.”

I remember seeing him in ‘Traffic’ and we were such big fans of his. We said since ‘Stoned Age,’ which was a goofy comedy, like a stoner comedy. Then seeing him in ‘Traffic’ playing Frankie Flowers, this gay, eccentric hit-man. He’s so different. I remember seeing him and going, “That can’t be Clifton Collins Jr. who played Tack in ‘The Stoned Age.’ That can’t be him, but he looks so similar.” I remember looking him up and I was like, “Holy shit! He’s so good. This guy can do anything.”

Small Town Crime Jeremy Ratchford Credit Saban Films

They trust their actors to learn their characters. That’s really what we mean when we say ”character actors” anyway. These are the type of actors who make it their mission to thoroughly mine the script for details and background to inform the choices they’ll be making. They aren’t your “same smoldering glare in every role” guys.

The Nelms brothers gave the actors leeway and a chance to pitch their ideas. For example, Jeremy Ratchford, who plays the bespectacled hit-man, showed up with that giant goatee on the day. The brothers first instincts were that it wouldn’t work. How could it? The guy is supposed to make his living by fronting as a cop. No one would believe this. According to the Nelms, Ratchford pitched his counter-argument, “No, no, no. You don’t understand. The way I see this character is that, you know, he’s like a rhino. He doesn’t know what he looks like. He doesn’t know that he shouldn’t be playing a cop. He’s completely oblivious to what people think of what he looks like.”

It was the right choice, and it’s a great look for his character. They added the spectacles and a hearing aid in one ear as a hint to his youth. But, it all adds up to a terrific standoff in a bar which ends disastrously when his fake badge is called out. These small decisions and the Nelms’ faith in their actors are what come together to make this movie so perfectly watchable in every way.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. The Blu Ray for Small Town Crime drops 20 March. It’s blind buy good. It features three separate commentaries, one of which is Octavia Spencer’s first ever commentary extra. If you dug the chat, head over to In The Mouth of Dorkness for the full hour-long conversation. We get into the challenges of shooting in the desert, what their most satisfying moments are as directors and what it took (a shit load of hard work and hustle) to capture that insane final shootout.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.