The easy explanation of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon would be that it is a Mark Twain-esque adventure of a grimy small-time criminal and a man with Down syndrome who has run away from home with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler. There is a subtle charm and fun to the film folded into the drama that made its world premiere at SXSW March 9, but the nuance and layers of themes of family and acceptance run deep like the deltas of North Carolina on which the film was was shot. And the entire film was made because of one person: Zack Gottsagen.
Nilson and Schwartz first met Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors about eight years ago in Venice, Calif. They were making a short film with Gottsagen and Nilson said that he was making intelligent acting decisions. Needless to say, the filmmaking duo was impressed.
“Zack expressed he really wanted to be an actor in movies and he came to a couple auditions with me for commercials and we talked about the possibility of someone with Down syndrome starring in a film,” Nilson told Deadline. The three had a heart-to-heart talk and Nilson was honest with Gottsagen and said: “statistically speaking, it’s probably not going to happen.”
“It wasn’t because he wasn’t talented — it’s the marketplace,” Nilson continued. “I don’t think people finance movies like that…but then Zack had an amazing, sort of bullish but brilliant idea. He asked, ‘You guys could make me a movie. Why don’t you just write it?'”
So they did. They planned to shoot the movie themselves tailoring it to Zack’s strengths. And with Schwartz coming from an editing background, they were on their way to make a small feature. They created a $20,000 proof of concept video which captured the essence of this unique story and soon enough, the team started to grow. High-profile actors eventually hopped on board including Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, Jon Bernthal, and, of course, Shia LaBeouf, who played the aforementioned grifter — the role initially played by Nilson in the proof of concept.
LaBeouf came into the project when Ben Foster was attached and the script got into his hands when he was getting ready for a trip to Finland. “It was full of Americana, you know?” LaBeouf told Deadline of the script. “It was just a fucking beautiful culture — Route 66, diners — it read like a needlepoint pillow. I was walking into a cabin in the woods in Finland and I had this script of these disparate people who were kinda in a very similar position and then I saw the [proof of concept] video and saw how equal [the characters] were.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon finds Tyler (LaBeouf) and Zack creating a very unlikely relationship while on their journey through the outer banks of North Carolina. Zack’s end goal is to enroll in a wrestling school owned by the famed wrestler The Salt Water Redneck (Church) and when Tyler finds out, he starts training him throughout their road trip. As a result, Zack end up adopting the wrestling moniker The Peanut Butter Falcon. It could easily be a sappy, afterschool special and, as LaBeouf says, it has potential to “dip off into Hallmark channel” territory. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but Schwartz said they tried to avoid that because that’s not the kind of film they were trying to make. Labeouf said that if this movie were in the hands of other filmmakers it wouldn’t have worked the same way.
“There was no pussyfooting around it and it wasn’t cutesy, but it also wasn’t ironic and mean,” said LaBeouf of the film. At one point in the movie, Zack tells Tyler at the beginning of their journey: “I want you to know about me. I am a Down syndrome person.” Tyler responds, “I don’t really give a shit. Do you got supplies on you? That’s what we need.” The scene could easily play into cruel but instead, Tyler’s brashness is something that Zack isn’t used to, therefore refreshing. He is always used to being over-coddled at the nursing home where Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) cares for him. The scene not only builds a solid foundation of their relationship as two guys who are in the same situation, but it has Zack being treated like an equal for the first time in the film.
“We didn’t wear kid gloves with the showing the hardships that people with Down syndrome go through,” said Nilson. He pointed out that he was nervous by adding some “cringe moments” into the movie when it comes to Zack, but when they finished, they were happy that they didn’t go “too soft”.
LaBeouf adds, “Anybody else who is making these movies about people who are objectified or diminished in society rarely invest the time to understand those people to be able to have the perspective and make it from within their own agency, as opposed to objectifying them.”
Watch a clip from the film below.
The theme of family speaks loudly in the film, as we learn that Tyler has lost his only family and Zack is in a nursing home because he doesn’t have one. It’s as if their meeting is serendipitous — they share common ground in that they are just trying to find family, whether they like it or not. And there was certainly a familial bond on set — especially with Gottsagen and LaBeouf.
Gottasagen, who is a huge fan of wrestling like his character, said he loved doing their “special handshake” in the movie which reflected their brotherhood on and off set. The bond brings authenticity to their relationship in the film. A lot of the times, some of the moments that resonated deeply in the film were the unscripted moments when the two of them were just messing around. LaBeouf said that this worked out because their acting respective acting styles fed into spontaneity and while they are doing scenes multiple times, there are moments when you find a “sweet spot” of synchronicity — and it happened a lot between the two of them. Amidst the wild environmental and crazy elements of the shoot and the delicate acting relationship, LaBeouf said “You need to maintain spontaneity because it could dip off into the cutesy fast.”
“I would say I had the most fun in my life [with this movie],” Gottasagen chimed in. “I do love everything about what I do but just so you know, Shia has always been a brother to me.”
Not wanting to sound too cheesy, Schwartz said that there was an authentic familial connection with everyone on set and at one point during filming, he admitted: “I hope this movie turns out good, but I’m here for the experience.” His sentiment reflects the film in that Tyler and Zack had a goal to meet, but in the end, it was the journey that was memorable.
In a divisive time where cynicism reigns supreme, The Peanut Butter Falcon brings a warm story to the forefront. Sure, it has a layer of grime, humidity and swamp-induced mosquito bites all over it, but heart shines through. It brings inclusivity of a highly underrepresented community into the spotlight and brings in optimism in a unique, off-center way in a time when Rockwellian fables and joyful endings are considered niche.
LaBeouf shared a story about when they screened the film at a charity event for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. “We went to this party where [Zack] got up onstage and flexed for a while, but after there were other people with Down syndrome coming up to him saying like, ‘I’ve never met a movie star like you before’ — and you could see it, even before the movie, the shared secret, the camaraderie that exists, that mother fucker’s gonna change the world.”
“I just wanna say I hope this movie will make people follow their heart, follow their dreams, don’t give up, and just keep on trying,” he said adding that The Peanut Butter Falcon felt like a miracle for him. “I hope all the people who see it will love it, but if not, that would be their loss.”