When movie directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz wrote “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” they planned it as a $200 stint. Originally, Nilson planned to film it as such a small venture they wouldn’t even buy a filming permit.
The film, an adventure story reminiscent of a Mark Twain novel, would feature Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome and dreamed of becoming a movie star.
The story tells of Zak (played by Gottsagen) running away from an elderly home to pursue his dream: professional wrestling. On the way, he encounters a ragged outlaw who accompanies him on the journey.
But when famed actor Shia LaBeouf and actress Dakota Johnson joined the cast, Nilson knew the film would break bigger than he had anticipated. LaBeouf would play the outlaw Tyler, and Johnson an elderly home aide Eleanor.
Since then, the movie won the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at South by Southwest and was acquired by Roadside Attractions, a film company that released the 2018 top independent film “I Can Only Imagine.” It will be released on Aug. 9.
Drawing on experiences
Nilson, who grew up in the Outer Banks, said his time spent in eastern North Carolina inspired the plot and several of the scenes. He said a scene when character Tyler stole a crab cage reminds him of North Carolina. Other motifs, like fishing and adventure, reminded him of the Outer Banks.
Another element of the film that grew from Nilson and Schwartz’s life was the decision to cast friend Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome.
“One day, (Gottsagen) said, ‘Why don’t we make a film together?’” Schwartz said.
Nilson and Schwartz considered Gottsagen’s request, ultimately deciding to shoot the film. They said they didn’t choose to cast Gottsagen as a charity for the disabled community; the choice was because he was such a talented actor and improviser. Sometimes he would ad-lib lines when they were shooting and it would turn out better than the planned script, Schwartz said.
Gottsagen ad-libbed one of Schwartz’s favorite lines in the movie: “Rule number one is party.”
‘Struggles and high points’
Nilson and Schwartz said they wanted Gottsagen to feel natural in his role. For instance, the film allowed him to express his passion for wrestling and explain that he is “a Down syndrome person.” He got to use his real name Zack for his character, just dropping the “c”.
He also presented authentic challenges of living with Down syndrome. For example, Zak lived in an elderly home because the state had no other place to care for him. And many characters called him “retarded.”
“You represent both the struggles and high points. That’s where a lot of soulfulness comes from,” Schwartz said.
The directors also made sure they didn’t go easy on Zak in the plot. He was subject to violence and suffering like any of the other characters. Tyler holds a knife to Zak’s neck on a boat and Sam (played by Jake Roberts) pins him to the ground in a wrestling match.
“It’s common to go easy on (people with disabilities.) It’s important to treat people as people and not go too easy on anyone,” Nilson said.
Despite the violent scenes, transformation and growth are themes in the film: Zak escapes barred windows at an elderly home, opening himself to a new experience in society.
“It’s a rebirth story,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz and Nilson hope the film will bring viewers the same renewal and joy that Zak and Tyler felt after their rebirth.
“It’s a cathartic, fun ride,” Nilson said.