There are some stories that simply need to be told. Movies that are required to find the light of day. There’s no true financial push; just an obligation to a certain group of people and a moral that the world must know.
When it came to the writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the world needed to see The Peanut Butter Falcon. No matter how long it took, it needed to happen. When I spoke to them about the new film starring Shia Labeouf and Dakota Johnson along with the screen debut of Zak Gottsagen, you could tell it was the purest form of a labor of love.
The film is centered around Gottsagen’s Zak, who has Down’s Syndrome and forms an unlikely friendship and bond with Labeouf’s Tyler, a drifter who helps the young man get to a wrestling school down south. Gottsagen has the disability in real life, but never let it stop him from achieving his dream of being a movie star.
“Zak will say he’s been studying acting his whole life. He studied it in high school and college. We met him in a camp for people with disabilities who were making films. He really wanted to be a movie star,” Schwartz said. “We told him there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for people with Down’s Syndrome to star in movies, so he said, ‘let’s do it together.'”
The actor pulled off his dream in his first try, and the role is the type of performance that transcends the entire film. I am talking about pushing other actors to give their best, be their best, and make the best movie. Gottsagen had the skill set and didn’t just fall into it, according to Nilson. In a film also starring Bruce Dern and John Hawkes, he needed to be on his A-game, but it was the attentiveness shown that set Gottsagen apart.
“He (Zack) is going up against legendary actors, but he’s listening, responding, and staying present all the time,” Nilson said.
Scoring Labeouf for their film was the equivalent of a dream for the pair, in large part because of his commitment to the role. “We’d never thought in our wildest dreams that we would have the caliber of actor that is Shia Labeouf,” Schwartz noted. “We thought we were going to make it for $20-30,000 dollars with Tyler and I working the camera and editing, and we’d get some friends to help put. But then it just grew, and we did get our first choices. Shia has always been one of my favorite actors.”
While most actors take a role, performing to the best of their ability and then leaving it, Shia goes the extra mile. “He cares and he means it. He wants a pound of flesh in a role, leaving something there. It’s a cathartic release for him,” Nilson said. “Shia wants to do that. Commitment is uncommon to say when it comes to giving 100%. Mike and I committed 100% to making it. Zak and Shia committed 100% to it.”
The film started with Shia and Zak trading scenes, and then the rest of the cast came on, saw what they were doing, and decided to give it all. “Bruce referring to it as pushing the raft,” Schwartz recalled.
The Peanut Butter Falcon was a car made of assorted parts, and the filmmakers compared the process to a popular cooking show. “Do you know the show, Chopped? Where you are given a list of ingredients and you must make a fantastic meal? We knew we had Zak, and that Tyler grew up on the outer banks around crabbing and had friends with boats, so we could shoot a lot of those scenes for free. We then went to the library and checked out books about making a screenplay,” Schwartz said.
It was the unity on the film that made it possible to become a real thing, according to Nilson. “We were making small stuff and hadn’t thought about diving in, but when people started coming together in an unlikely way, it started to come together,” Nilson noted.
Down’s Syndrome was already connected directly to their lives. “One of our best friends has Down’s Syndrome. One of the scenes in the film, Zak’s character tells Shia’s character that he has Down’s Syndrome, and Zack did that with us in real life.”
The pair know they have captured lightning in a bottle with the film, and one of the actors gave them proof. “John Hawkes came up to me and told me he had worked with a lot of actors, and Shia is the best actor he has worked with,” Schwartz said.
One of the best aspects of the film is the love of wrestling and how it can inject passion into a life. Finding Mick Foley and Jake Roberts, two real-life wrestlers who play meaningful roles in the film, wasn’t as hard as the filmmakers thought. Foley was the first person to say yes to the movie.
“He does stand up shows where he tells stories. We had the script and no one had read it yet. We met him in his hotel and gave him a copy. He was in, but it took another three years to get everything else together,” Nilson said.
They contacted Jake “The Snake” through social media, who plays a character that they feel is their true villain in the film. I’d let you figure it out by watching it, but I agree with them. Roberts casts a healthy shadow in a small yet pivotal role.
Some films come together quick, make a few bucks, and drift away from your memory. The Peanut Butter Falcon is something else. It will stay with you for a while. I am talking about a true healing power, the best a film can offer. Here’s a movie that picks up your day and wipes the dirt and filth away with its powerful message on friendship, love, and finding hope in the future.
Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz didn’t plan on making this kind of impact, but they have due to the collaborative efforts of many and their own true grit.
If you choose not to see this film, you’re living wrong. You are definitely not a “good guy” if you don’t. You’ll have to watch the film to see what that means.
See what I did there? I hooked you. That’s what Nilson and Schwartz did here. They hooked my attention and now, they own it for good.