There are all the usual paths that film projects take on their way to the big screen and then there’s the one-of-a-kind flight plan followed by The Peanut Butter Falcon, the heartfelt comedy-drama from Roadside Attractions.
Co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who represented The Peanut Butter Falcon on Saturday at Deadline’s The Contenders Los Angeles, told the DGA Theater audience that they started with a central star and then built a film around him — which sounds rather routine until you consider the fact that their star was a 34-year-old unknown amateur actor named Zack Gottsagen who was born with Down Syndrome in Boynton Beach, Florida.
The filmmakers met the charismatic Gottsagen while they were volunteering at a special-needs camp in Venice, California. A day that started as an exercise in good deeds ended with a new friend and fast-ramping ambition.
“It was one of those moments when I met him and it was like: ‘This guy is just a beautiful soul and somebody I want to connect with and be around,” Nilson said. “Then we learned that he wanted to be an actor and had been studying acting his whole life.”
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Two cast members joined the filmmakers on stage: Shia LaBeouf and Gottsagen himself. LaBeouf recounted how anxious he was to build a rapport with Gottsagen when they first met during a loud ride in the back of a truck. The anxiety melted away when Gottsagen simply reached over and held LaBeouf’s hand. “So there were were, two grown men holding hands int he back of a truck,” LaBeouf said.
The film premiered at SXSW, tells the story of Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from a residential nursing with dreams of following in the bootsteps of his idol, The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). As a concerned employee (Dakota Johnson) sets out to find him, Zak meets Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a small-time outlaw who becomes Zak’s unlikely compatriot.
And the title? The Peanut Butter Falcon is the chosen wrestler name for Zak’s character. The film has become a straight-up indie hit, taking in more than $20 million at the box office.
Schwartz said the model for the character was the actor playing him: “A lot of the character is based on Zack’s real life things he loves, he really loves wrestling, he loves adventure.”
A key concern was avoiding the superficial and stereotypical portrayals of people with disabilities that too often make it to the screen.
“There’s not a lot of characters with disabilities that are written with a full range of emotion,” Schwartz said. “We know in real life that Zach has frustration about the way he was treated in acting school. In high school his teachers didn’t want him there and he had to fight to be there so we have [story] beats where he’s frustrated…we have beats where he’s funny, he has goals, he has aspirations. We really wanted to craft a complete character that was sort of built around Zack.”
The panel ended with LaBeouf and Gottsagen demonstrating their secret handshake. It may have been the sweetest stage moment of the day, another soaring moment for The Peanut Butter Falcon.
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