Winner of the Audience Award at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a heartwarming new adventure movie set in a Mark Twain-esque world. Telling the story of a young man with Down syndrome (played by newcomer Zack Gottsagen) and the drifter who joins him on his journey (Shia LaBeouf), this is the perfect crowd-pleasing and fun film to close of this summer of movie-going.
POPAXIOM got the pleasure to speak with Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, the writer-directors of The Peanut Butter Falcon. The Peanut Butter Falcon is now playing in select theaters and expands wide on August 23. You can read our review from SXSW here.
On Building the Story
POPAXIOM: You wrote the film with the main actor, Zack Gottsagen, in mind. How did he shape the story?
Schwartz: Zack is a guy we had known for three years before we started writing the script, and he was a really great actor. We met at a camp for people with and without disabilities making short films. And he told us one night that he wanted to be in features and he wanted to be in movies, so we had a frank conversation with him that was hard for anybody, but especially for him because there weren’t a lot of roles written for people with disabilities. He just said, “Okay, it sounds like we’ve just got to do it together. You guys write and direct and I’ll star. I’ll be the movie’s star.” And then from there, we traveled around with him for about a year, preparing the script to Zack as a person. It was really important to us to authentically depict a person with Down syndrome. And he really loves wrestling, so that was part of our narrative. He’s a really good swimmer, so we wrote that he was a bad swimmer so that he could have an arc. And then a lot of the dialogue that is in the movie are things that he’s said to us over the writing process that we would take notes on and say, “We gotta figure out a way to work that in.” The scene where he tells Tyler in the cornfield, “I have Down syndrome.” came from an experience where we lost him in a city one night and he was having ice cream with some people at a bar and we found him three hours later and he just said, “I don’t know if you guys know this about me, but I have Down syndrome, I get along with everybody, and I just don’t know if you know.” [We said,] “Zack, we’ve known you for years, we know you have Down syndrome. It doesn’t matter. We gotta go.” So a lot of that stuff is really tailored for Zack and the locations and sort-of the plot is more rooted in Tyler’s upbringing. Do you want to speak to that, Tyler?
Nilson: I’m from the outer banks of North Carolina and it’s a really beautiful place to be from. We wanted to show that place in a really unique and beautiful light, well-captured. Because when I grew up, it was changing really fast, it was a really kind-of gritty, blue-collar shrimping and crabbing villages when I was a kid and now it’s a lot more hotels. It’s kinda just going away is what I wanted to go play in and I also knew that we could get stuff there for free. Like we could get boats for free and I could call in favors. So a combination of who Zack is and a combination of things that Mike and I had at our immediate availability is what we decided to go with.
On Working with the Actors
POPAXIOM: You talked about working with Shia LaBeouf and all of these wonderful and acclaimed actors. What was it like working with such a great cast on your debut?
Schwartz: At the beginning, it really felt cool, and then became very comfortable. There wasn’t much time to feel overly geeked out. You could get one or two Bruce Dern stories on set that was sort of like a dream come true, and then you’ve got work to do, and days are really crowded on set, and you’ve got to get good work done, so it was immediately locked in to talking about story and talking about characters and shooting. So it was really exciting but also very natural.
POPAXIOM: Speaking of performances, you were able to get a tremendously emotional performance out of Zack Gottsagen. How did you work with him to make sure he was at his best?
Nilson: That’s a great question. Zack’s already a great actor. He’s trained. He’s been training since he was three, he went to a high school for performing arts, he teaches acting at a local JAC, he’s an usher at a movie theater. He’s been working at this for a long time. Really, when we came in, we already knew he was a great actor, it was just our job to create this space for him to be able to do what he does. His performance in this, he’s playing someone younger, he’s going through a lot of complicated emotions. He’s never been in an old age home, thank God. We asked him to stretch, he really had to be an actor. Really, we just created this dance space, this space for him to succeed, and let him have the time to do it and really just let him do what he does. I think it was just us getting out of his way in a lot of ways.
POPAXIOM: The chemistry between Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen on-screen is great. What was their dynamic like on set?
Schwartz: Maybe even better than it was [on screen]! We showed up with a pick-up truck to pick Shia up day one, and Zack was in the back in an old tire and told Shia to hop in back too, and we went for like a three-hour drive down the coast and those two sat in the back of this old pick-up truck for three hours. And Mike and I just let them just let them connect, and by the end of the ride, Shia and Zack were holding hands, leaning on each other. Even spiritually, they leaned on each other during the film. Shia leaned on Zack for partnership, and dare I say, some sort of spiritual salvation, and that was pretty apparent from moment one. There’s something about those two that connected really nicely.
On Crafting the World
POPAXIOM: So you are able to create an immersive and surreal world within the film, almost as if we are seeing things through the protagonist Zac’s perspective. Why did you want to build this feeling?
Schwartz: It’s a wonderful feeling to have. I think when Tyler and I write something, it’s selfish in a way. Where do we want to live for the year that it takes to write it, or in this case, the five years that it takes to make it. And in my own way, I want to see the world more like Zac sees it. I think everyone that worked on this film had a heart-opening experience. You know, I don’t like to speak for other people, but I know the cast members still speak about it a lot. I know that Tyler and I, our lives were changed, our hearts were opened by being with Zack, and I think if we did a good job of showing the world through Zac’s eyes a little bit, people can love each other just a little bit more. It’s a good feeling. It’s an elevated way emotionally to connect with people.
POPAXIOM: The cinematography is very ambitious, and you worked with Nigel Bluck, who has worked on True Detective and Lord of the Rings. How did having a great crew behind you help bring your vision to life?
Schwartz: It was fantastic! Tyler and I had a very distinctive feel in mind, and it sort of comes back to your question about literature. We wanted it to feel composed and handheld, which is tough to do on a movie of this size, and I think that Nigel was really able to hit the tone that we were looking for creatively. He also made a smaller movie called The Tree which sort-of felt dusty and dreamy in its own way. I think that there’s something we like to describe when we’re talking about the cinematography or the set design is that everything should feel like it might give you tetanus, dusty and rusty, and Nigel is just so good at putting the camera in the right place all the time and then also, to his credit, we didn’t do marks with the actors. So he had to sort-of follow the performance without being handheld and I’m just so grateful for what he brought to the story and his team. Because visually, there’s sort-of five characters: Tyler, Eleanor, Zac, the landscape, which really comes through in the cinematography, and the music.
On Telling a Unique Yet Universal Story
POPAXIOM: Not many movies are as successful as yours at portraying characters with disabilities. Why do you think it is important for films to have diversity and inclusivity like this?
Nilson: I think the thing about shooting a film with somebody or shooting a TV show with somebody that has a different ability is a very unique thing to do, and forgive me for trying to say this in a way that could not sound bad on paper. I understand that, from a business perspective, a lot of people are really scared about this. It isn’t something that has been marketable. And it isn’t something that has proven easy in the past. We were really lucky and blessed to have wound up with pretty fearless producers between Ron Yerxa, Albert Berger, Chris Lemole, Tim Zajaros, we really got some fearless producers, and I’m gonna say Dave Thies and Lije Sarki as well. Chris over at Armory Films came in and financially supported us when other people wouldn’t, when other people were really scared of this. My hope is that people in the industry and people in the world will see that the things they thought were impossible with a disability or the biases they had against somebody that has a difference or disability were simply biases. You know, with Zack, we definitely shot a little bit slower because we wanted to create this space for him to go into the place he needed, but it wasn’t dramatically much different. It was just you had to have producers step in and allow that to happen.
POPAXIOM: This was a passion project of yours. What did it feel like when it finally came to fruition?
Schwartz: A miracle! A whole stack of miracles surrounded by a bum of miracles. It was amazing. I think Tyler and I when we started, we didn’t have any agents or managers or anything as friends, so we planned to make it small. And that’s the cool thing about making movies now. If you’re really committed, you can make something for a couple thousand dollars and tell a story. I know for sure we didn’t expect to have actors like Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson and three Oscar nominees making it with us, and it just feels like that’s even beyond our control. We did a lot of preparation and we were able to write a script and show people what it looked like, and shot a proof-of-concept, but the level it got to just made me feel like something was looking out for the film bigger than us.
POPAXIOM: Your film won the Audience Award at SXSW. Why do you think this story is connecting with audiences so well?
Nilson: My gut is I think the film is working with everyone because everybody can relate to it. Something really nice in this world where, and it’s not nice where we seem divided, but I think that there’s a lot of fighting going on and it seems tense sometimes out there, and I think there’s something nice that we can all agree that Zac’s a hero and it feels good to see him get a shot and doing something really great. And no matter what might be affecting us in a way outside of that, at least we can agree on something. And if we can all agree that Zac’s a hero, we can all agree on something. It’s a good place to start.
Be sure to see The Peanut Butter Falcon, now playing in select theaters and expanding on August 23.