By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—After meeting Zack Gottsagen, an aspiring actor with Down syndrome while volunteering at a camp for actors with disabilities, Tyler Nilson, an actor, hand model and aspiring filmmaker, along with his co-directing partner Michael Schwartz, saw something special in the young man.
A few years later, they decided to write a script tailored to his interests and abilities. The result was a 10-minute film about a young man with a fondness for professional wrestling. The short film received so much positive feedback, that the filmmakers decided to expand that concept into a feature-length film. The result is the inspiring drama “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” starring Gottsagen and a more familiar name to movie audiences, Shia LaBeouf (the “Transformers” franchise).
The two actors play runaways—Gottsagen’s Zak has run away from the nursing home where he has been confined because of his disability and LaBeouf is running away from an angry crab fisherman whom he has stolen his catch. The unlikely duo become friends, and LaBeouf’s Tyler promises to take Zak to meet his pro wrestling hero—The Saltwater Redneck— who, as it turns out, has been out of the wrestling business for years and is living in the backwater swamps of the South.
With a heartwarming script and with LaBeouf onboard, the filmmakers were able to attract A-list actors including Dakota Johnson (from the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise), John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”), Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher”), Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”) and Thomas Haden Church, as the Saltwater Redneck. Rapper Yelawolf and real life pro wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts also star.
On the eve of the film’s release in theaters through Roadside Attractions, Nilson and Schwartz are delighted about the positive reaction they are getting from audiences and critics. The film won the Audience Award at this year’s SXSW in Austin. It also took home two awards, including the audience favorite, at the Nantucket Film Festival.
Q: How did you come up with the title?
Schwartz: We did a lot of the writing process with Zach. He really loves wrestling. A lot of the dialogue are things he’s said to us in the past. The name “Peanut Butter Falcon” just came out in a conversation Tyler and I were having with Zach. It’s more his discovery than ours.
Q: Kind of like how Tyler and Zak come up with it in the movie?
Q: Did you know right away you wanted to write a screenplay for him?
Nilson: No, but I knew instantly that we were going to be close friends. I knew I had an instant connection with him on a deeper level thank just shaking hands. It was about two or three years later that we decided to write this script. We saw Zach doing performances in short films. He had been in this short film called “Bulletproof Jackson,” where he played a bad guy and I was part of his gang. I got to be on set and watch him make decisions as an actor that were very informed, very present and intelligent. That was something I hadn’t really seen from other actors.
I’d been in L.A. doing commercials and small-time acting gigs for a long time but I’d never seen anyone be so loose and free and present as I had seen Zach. It was a perfect storm because Mike and I had been practicing our storytelling skills. We had taken it to a short-form base. We made a short, 10-minute story and it had been doing OK at festivals. My mom liked it and people on YouTube were saying it was great.
We were thinking of stretching it beyond that so we had a heart-to-heart conversation with Zach about how he really wanted to be in movies and be a movie star. We were really honest about it with him and told him there aren’t a ton of opportunities for people with disabilities to even be a bit-part in a film or TV show. We were open and loving but told him that statistically speaking, this probably isn’t going to happen. Zach believed in us more than we believed in ourselves. He said we could do it together. We would write it and he would star in it. It was one of those moments that was serendipitous and we had an inkling that we could actually do it. We then went to the library and checked out a bunch of books and started studying how to make a narrative, long form 90-minute film.
Q: You didn’t go to film school?
Nilson: Mike didn’t get a film school education; he got coffee. I was a hand model for a lot of years and got to experience being on set for a lot of hours being very close to talent like Brad Pitt, Brett Favre and John Slattery. I got to shadow these guys on set and watch how they move through the world and also how they work with directors in that commercial space, and just learn how sets work and how a director commands. That was sort of my formal informal training.
Q: The people in this film seem very authentic. They seemed to be from this rural area.
Schwartz: Some of them, like “Winki”, the guy in the fish house was a local named Rob Thomas. Shia got a job on a crab boat when he showed up during prep. For the boat chase—that’s his boat. Tyler just found him driving around.
Q: In the film, you don’t shy away from the reality of people’s prejudices and preconceptions about the disabled. In fact, there’s a scene where a kid calls Zak “a retard.”
Schwartz: It was important for us—and we talked about it a lot—to show a fully fleshed out world and character so that when you show the hardship that somebody goes through and the love that they can show within that, it offers the complete range of emotions. Zak isn’t just one type of person. He has frustration. He has goals. He has dreams. He has love. He has empathy.
Nilson: He has aspirations beyond himself.
Schwartz: We didn’t want to show just part of a character; we wanted to show a full character and the experiences they go through. We talked to the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and to the Special Olympics, and they said, “Yes, please show this.”
Nilson: Don’t be afraid to shy away from that because people use that word. It’s OK to talk about people using it.
Q: Shia and Zach have a nice onscreen chemistry. Were some of the moments between them improvised like when they pat each other on the face?
Schwartz: That was improvised.
Nilson: Let me talk about it. We were shooting that day and I was off talking to Jon Bernthal about something else. The raft was pretty small so Mike went out and directed the scene (where Shia’s character and Zach’s character) are on the raft. I was watching the monitor and listening to them after talking to Jon, and Mike was telling them, “If there’s anything you two want to talk about right now, please feel free,” and they started doing that. I was watching it and thinking about how Mike opened that space up for them. He also protected it too. It was such a magical moment; it felt so connected and beautiful. One of our producers, said, “Let’s turn it around and get it from the front angle.” And Mike was like, “Nope. We got it. I’m not going to make these guys do an impression of something they just did.” So, we got it and then moved on.
Q: How did you know the chemistry between them would work? Was Shia in your short film?
Schwartz: No. We had originally planned for Tyler to be in the (feature film) role but it kept getting bigger and bigger and we got great producers and actors in it.
Nilson: He also was in this movie called “American Honey,” where he co-starred with actors who were a little different.
Schwartz: We felt like he had something special and how well we knew Zach and what we knew of Shia, we thought they could work really well together. Tyler and I just tried to cultivate a space on set that was open.
Q: Did they have much time to get to know each other before you began production?
Nilson: The truck that Jon Bernthal drives is a ‘72 F-250 Ranger. We picked him up Day 1. Zach said, “Nice to meet you, Shia,” and gave him a big hug and welcome. We told him we we’re going to go down to a boat dock a couple of hours south. With no room in the cab, those guys got in the back. There were a couple of tires back there and they sat on them talking while we drove down the road. We could see them talking and their hand gestures. For the next week, we would go on these long drives and let them sit in the back on those tires. It was kind of cool. People in these little towns would point and say to each other, “Is that Shia LaBeouf in an old rusty pickup?” It was fun watching them connect and build a relationship.
Schwartz: Dakota (Johnson) showed up a week later, and immediately they were just a family group. Zach fell in love with her very quickly. The emotions they show in the movie was happening behind the scenes as well.
Q: Was Shia the first star onboard?
Nilson: Yeah. He’s a guy who was and is still attracted to things that are firsts and are different and unique. Zach was No. 1 on the call sheet. Shia came in and had to be in the story and in life to be of service to Zach. He was there to guide him on this journey. To star in an indie film with somebody with a disability—a real disability, not a fake one or acted one—has never been done before. It was a bit of a moon landing. Shia likes to take bites into things that are challenging as a performer and he’s a cathartic actor—somebody who goes through a cathartic process. Because of that, he’s an actors’ magnet, and we could get people like Dakota signed on and Thomas Haden Church. Jon Bernthal came out to do a small but a beautiful part because he had worked with Shia on “Fury” together. As far as the cast goes, the combination of Shia being an actors’ magnet and the script and it being a first time for everyone with the material, it was kind of attractive for all.
Schwartz: Our producers made everyone feel comfortable. Tyler and I see ourselves as story Sherpas. We helped it along.
Q: There was story of a Down syndrome man with a passion for wrestling who called himself the Sherminator who got to meet his idol. Did you hear about that?
Schwartz: Yeah. That happened while we were shooting. It sort of shows, in a nice way, the collective unconscious, that the story is ready to be told and come out. How amazing is it that the “Sherm” happened at that time? That gentleman’s story is wonderful and beautiful too. People are gravitating towards these sorts of stories and are ready to digest a hero that doesn’t look just like them. I think it’s kind of rad.
Q: Did you lose any shooting days after Shia’s run-in with the law in Savannah (where the film was shot)?
Nilson: I believe that happened on a Friday and we were back to shooting on Monday. Even just seeing him now in the hallway (of the hotel where the film is being promoted) and seeing him happy makes me emotional. I think, “Oh my God, my friend is happy. I’ve seen him unhappy. I’ve seen him go through the ****. And maybe now he’s getting to place where he can feel safe and accepted again.”