When Zack Gottsagen, a young man with acting dreams who also happens to have Down syndrome, asked creative duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz to write and direct a film for him, they responded with pure determination to make it happen. “Honestly, I thought, ‘That’s a great idea,’” Schwartz says. “He’s the best actor we know.” Impressed with Gottsagen’s work in the Peanut Butter Falcon’s ‘proof of concept’ reel, Shia LaBoeuf and Dakota Johnson jumped aboard the Mark Twain-esque tale of Zak (Gottsagan), a man on the run from a care home in pursuit of his wrestling dreams, aided by outlaw Tyler (LaBoeuf) and disillusioned care worker Eleanor (Johnson). A heartwarming story for the ages, touching on the power of dreams, familial friendships and love, it’s proven a launchpad for the directors who received a DGA nomination in the First-Time Feature category, and are about to start casting their new series with Warner Bros. and Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment. Following the story of two girls who venture into the woods to take magic mushrooms, Schwartz and Nilson have dreams of casting Brad Pitt in a rather unusual role, but are open to suggestions. More on that below.
DEADLINE: You both met Zack at a camp event, right? You were making a short film with him?
Michael Schwartz: Yeah. We knew Zack for three years before we decided to make a film together. We’d been working our way up from 30-second pieces to five-minute pieces to a 10-minute piece, and we wanted to try a feature. Then Zack also wanted to get into features at the same time and he wasn’t getting opportunities. We were at the camp and Zack just said, “I’m ready to be a movie star.” And we had this grounded conversation about how there’s not a lot of roles written for people with disabilities. He is the most optimistic dude in the world and he just goes, “Well, no problem. You guys write and direct. We can make a movie together.” It started with that.
DEADLINE: How did you get the concept seen and cast? You’ve said you didn’t have many industry connections in the beginning.
Schwartz: The trajectory was, we made the ‘proof of concept’, we wrote the script and then we started sending it to people that we really admired. And ultimately, our producers on the film, Lije Sarki and Dave Thies were with us from the beginning and they knew the story. Then we landed with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who did help us so much with casting and lending. They’ve made so many good movies, and are known as the good guys in Hollywood for a reason. When they lent their talents to the project it went to the next level. Then because of their legitimacy in the movies that they’d made, our financiers and producers at Armory, Chris Lemole and Tim Zajaros, felt comfortable supporting the whole project.
DEADLINE: Did the Huckleberry Finn/ Mark Twain feel of the story solidify for you right away? It’s set in the Outer Banks in North Carolina and Tyler you’re from there?
Tyler Nilson: Yeah. That’s, that’s where I’m from. As indie guys coming up—and by ‘indie’ I mean we never had money to make anything, so we had to do it really, really independently. But it really just came from what we had. I think when you’re young up-and-comers, it’s really just a game of, ‘OK, what do we have?’ Well, I’m from a very unique location and we could go there and shoot. We can’t ever get anything for more than a day or two, so boom, it’s a road trip film, they’re going to have to be moving and traveling. I could borrow a boat for a day or two. So that’s the opening scene where Tyler has a boat. But I can’t borrow somebody’s crab boat for a month. So, it’s just, ‘Let’s just use a trash raft because we can’t afford a boat.’ We really just came from what we could get our hands on. And that ended up as you get these guys in the South floating down this river on a raft and connecting to people that you didn’t expect. It was following this beautiful Mark Twain-ish approach, and it just found itself naturally. We certainly didn’t set out to do that, but then it’s really just out of necessity and a lack of being able to put the story in space and having giant set pieces.
DEADLINE: Shia LaBoeuf FaceTimed you before he’d even finished reading the script. What was that conversation like?
Schwartz: We were trying to get it off the ground and we were sending it to different people. Albert and Ron got us an opportunity to send it to such talented actors, and Ben Foster had been signed on to play the role of Tyler. But then his wife got pregnant and she was going to be due right around the time that we were shooting. He said, “Guys, I love this story so much. You know who I think would really do great since I can’t do it anymore is Shia LaBeouf.” Then Ben sent the material to Shia, and Shia was getting ready to go and do one of his performance art pieces where he was going to be offline in a cabin in Finland for a period of weeks. He didn’t have time to read it, but saw the ‘proof of concept’ and the world and what Zack was like as a performer and he FaceTimed us.
Nilson: From the plane.
Schwartz: He just said, “Please let me do this with you. I’m really interested in doing it.” And we said, “Oh, wow. Holy s–t, you’re Shia LaBeouf. Of course. You’re so talented.” He said, “Cool. So I’ll come out of this cabin and then we’ll go to work. And you just tell me yes and I’ll be there.” We didn’t have a way to get ahold of him for six weeks. We actually sent a script via a snowmobile to his cabin, which was the only way we could get ahold of him. It was crazy.
DEADLINE: At the time Shia was a bit in the weeds himself in terms of his acting career. At TIFF he told me, “They were throwing dirt on my back.” What’s it been like for you guys to see him rise up this season and see his film Honey Boy and see his renaissance in tandem with The Peanut Butter Falcon’s release. It has to feel pretty meaningful?
Nilson: Yes. Shia became a really close friend and somebody we really care about and love. When we write stories or when we’re working, we look at it as a real opportunity to go to a catharsis and a change and to leave things behind. That’s our approach. It’s more therapeutic than, ‘Let’s make money,’ or ‘Let’s get famous,’ or whatever. Shia came in and really went through that cathartic experience, and then got to make Honey Boy and went through that cathartic experience. We’ve just really gotten to see him move into a new chapter for himself. I’m so proud of him and I love him so much. I feel so supportive of him and it’s been a blessing. It’s been a blessing just as people, as friends, like, maybe we helped out. Maybe we were of service to Shia, and maybe we helped him get to that place. It’s phenomenal. It’s phenomenal to see anybody make changes for the better, let alone to have maybe helped out a little bit.
DEADLINE: That scene where Zack says, “I’m a Down syndrome person.” And Shia says, “I don’t give a s–t. Have you got supplies?” The chemistry between them is so perfect, and there’s a total lack of consideration for Zack being anything other than a man among men. Did you always know Shia could carry that moment so perfectly? What was your direction for that scene?
Schwartz: I feel like it was there on the page and we did it a couple of times throughout the script. That was the first piece of Tyler and Zack having that level playing field in a relationship. It is, ‘I don’t give a s–t. Not that I don’t care about you, but, ‘That’s not defining who you are.’ That theme comes back with the sailboat and the dune scene where they’re sleeping under the stars. Then there’s another line that finishes that trilogy of moments for me, and it’s when Tyler is on the porch at the Saltwater Redneck’s trailer. Saltwater Redneck had been built up to be almost this ‘larger than life’ character. Tyler turns to Zack and says, “He’s just a man, like you and me.” The layers of hierarchy, of what people, or society can construct around people, are immediately leveled. We knew that that was there on the page, and we knew that Shia was such a good actor and elevator. He elevates every project that he’s in. I’ve seen it firsthand, and knew that he could get there.
DEADLINE: You’ve described working with Zack as being of a different kind of experience for the other actors because he’s really living the scenes and his performance is extremely present.
Schwartz: I think it brought a spontaneity and a realness to all the scenes. Every actor responds well to different things, and it was our job to create a space where Zack could do really well, and Shia could do really well, and Dakota could do really well. And all of them needed slightly different things. And the beautiful thing was, because Zack is a little more unpredictable, he doesn’t get nervous. He really listens to people, and if there’s a sound in the background he’ll respond to it. I think that creates a space where the other actors are listening as well. You can find moments that aren’t exactly on book that are really special. And Tyler and I are not word- perfect directors. We go after those really special moments because that’s what feels most connected to us.
DEADLINE: That incredible scene where Zack lifts Jake the Snake over his head—what was the experience of shooting that?
Schwartz: That was just a really fun scene. Zack really loves wrestling. So when he met Jake the Snake—and there’s another wrestler in our movie called Mick Foley, who was similarly a former world champion and legendary—Zack sort of freaked out. He was really inspired to be talking to those guys, and they brought a reverence for wrestling and an authenticity to that scene that I think bled over to everybody. I know Thomas Haden Church was cornering those guys in the lunch tent and saying, “What can you tell me about being a wrestler?” I think it really elevated his performance as well.
We had so many people there that day. There was Tyler and I in our journey going from guys that had made a short film to somehow convincing these really wonderful producers to help us out, to then being on set. We had Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, two wrestling legends and our friend Zack who just wanted to be a movie star. And these local wrestlers from Macon, Georgia that actually do backyard wrestling. Then we were shooting it like an opera in slow motion. I remember Tyler looking at me at one point and he’s just like, “Can you believe they’re letting us shoot this s–t?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s really special.” It was a really special day.
DEADLINE: What’s next in the pipeline?
Schwartz: We’ve been in our edit process took so long, we wrote three things while we were editing Peanut Butter Falcon and we love all of them. I’m looking at Tyler right now, trying to decide what’s public or what’s not public. I would say we’re working with LuckyChap, Margot Robbie’s company, and Warner Bros. on an episodic show that we are really excited about.
DEADLINE: The Wildest Animals in Griffith Park.
Nilson: It’s about these two girls who go out in the woods of Griffith Park and start taking mushrooms and talking to animals. They become better, more beautiful and realized versions of themselves, accomplish bigger goals for themselves and change the world in the process. It’s a kind of beautiful expose on changing yourself to change the world, and how going internal can have a massive effect on the external. But this one’s done very colorfully and uniquely.
DEADLINE: Self-development through plant medicine is very much in the ether right now.
Schwartz: Yeah. We’re excited about that one. And we wrote another feature but I think we’re not going to talk about it right now. We’re just really excited to have opportunities. To have conversations and friendships with people that are more experienced, and great artists in their own right. You can be at a party having a conversation with the guy that wrote Dead Poets Society and get notes on a script. And I think that’s different for us this time around and so exciting to learn from the people that are our elders and have been doing it for so long, who we respect so much. It’s the door that’s opened with Peanut Butter Falcon that I’m maybe most grateful for.
DEADLINE: What stage is the Griffith Park show at right now?
Schwartz: We’re about to start casting. We’re trying to cast the two leads and then taking it to networks and streamers to see who can be the best partner for it and just see who wants to make a beautiful, wild woman, mushroom, mountain lion-talking TV show.
DEADLINE: I hope there are actually talking mountain lions.
Schwartz: Oh, there are.
Nilson: Yeah. Come on now. We’re talking about doing mushrooms in the woods, man. You’ve got to have a talking mountain lion.
Schwartz: Right now, we’re just trying to decide who should be the mountain lion voice. Who do you think would be a good mountain lion? We think it should be Brad Pitt. Or Josh Brolin. Or Benicio Del Toro.
Nilson: You know, McConaughey could do it.
Schwartz: Oh, McConaughey could do a great mountain lion.
Nilson: When you write this, you get to cast for us because it’ll probably get back to them.
Schwartz: You could do a poll on Deadline. If you were doing mushrooms, who would be the voice of the mountain lion?
Nilson: Yes. Comment below your favorite actor for the voice of the mountain lion while you’re on drugs. Share it with your friends.