Writers Tyler Nilson, Michael Schwartz, and leading man Zack Gottsagen talk about the making of indie hit Peanut Butter Falcon
On January 1, 2016, Josh Brolin posted an innocuous selfie montage to Instagram with a caption mentioning, “My hope is that I give back in 2016.” Most people would scroll past, tap twice, or just unfollow. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, though, were unemployed, homeless and desperate. The duo sent a DM to Brolin, a complete stranger, about a script they’d written called The Peanut Butter Falcon. The A-list actor responded within minutes.
Fast-forward to 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a word-of-mouth hit in America, overtaking The Farewell to become the biggest indie platform release of the year. Although Brolin eventually dropped out due to Deadpool commitments, the freewheeling drama secured major names like Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, rapper Yelawolf and WWE’s Mick Foley. So, next time you ask a celebrity to run you over, just think: could I be pitching them a 98-minute sleeper hit indie movie instead?
Nevertheless, the one actor you’ll remember after the credits will be the film’s dynamic lead, Zack Gottsagen. When Nilson and Schwartz met Gottsagen at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for performers with disabilities, Gottsagen quickly proved himself to be charismatic and instantly likeable, the kind of warm presence audiences would love to spend a movie with. But as an actor with Down syndrome, Gottsagen didn’t exactly slot in with the roles typically available in the industry and had never appeared in a feature before. Which is why Nilson and Schwartz wrote The Peanut Butter Falcon specifically as a vehicle for Gottsagen.
It’s a few hours before the gala screening at the London Film Festival when I speak to Gottsagen, Nilson and Schwartz in the Mayfair Hotel. Since the world premiere at SXSW, Gottsagen has been hearing from viewers with Down syndrome who didn’t realise it was possible for them to be movie stars. “A lot of people have been coming up to me,” the actor says. “They really want to follow their dreams and follow their hearts. I had always been studying, playing, auditioning and teaching kids. It took a really long time for me.”
“We were told over and over again that no film starring somebody with Down syndrome would ever be marketable or make any money” – Tyler Nilson
“When we tried to sell the film, people didn’t think we were going to be successful,” Nilson notes. “We were told over and over again that no film starring somebody with Down syndrome would ever be marketable or make any money. When we won SXSW, people told us the film wouldn’t make more than a couple of million dollars at the box office, and they wouldn’t make offers on it.” Nilson’s explanation for the growing ticket sales? “It’s Zack. When you get a lead actor like Zack, it’s hard not to feel good.”
Gottsagen plays Zak (note the spelling difference), a 22-year-old with Down syndrome who lives in an old person’s home due to a lack of alternatives. One night, Zak escapes the watchful eye of his empathetic carer Eleanor (Johnson) and runs off in pursuit of a wrestling school in North Carolina. Zak then encounters an impulsive crabber, Tyler (LaBeouf), and the film kicks into gear as a hangout movie: the trio of Gottsagen, LaBeouf and Johnson sailing, bonding and messing about on the water. At the press screening, the audience clapped at the end even though no one from the cast or crew was there.
Nilson and Schwartz may be first-time filmmakers but they had a foot (and a hand) in the industry. Nilson, I’m excited to learn, was a hand model whose jobs included doubling for Brad Pitt and David Beckham. When the handiwork dried up, Nilson camped out in the woods to avoid paying rent. “I built a tent out of scrap lumber and Mike was living in his car,” Nilson recalls. “We thought it would last three months until we got the movie going, but it took about a year.”
Brolin was the first actor they reached out to. What’s the secret to pitching a celebrity via Instagram? “Cold messages should be short,” Schwartz suggests. “If you can get across what you need in two sentences or less, you’ll get a response.”
LaBeouf signed onto the project moments before flying to Finland to spend a month in isolation. The actor hadn’t even read the screenplay yet – a brief video of Gottsagen was enough to convince him. “Shia spent six weeks alone with the script in the cabin, and he became it,” Nilson says. “When Shia showed up on set, he was Tyler.”
“Shia is a very good friend,” Gottsagen adds. “He’s a brother to me. Me and Shia did a lot of training, and we have an energy. We got to drink whiskey and party and have a good time.”
There’s an elephant in the room. In July 2017, a month into filming, LaBeouf was arrested in Georgia for drunken behaviour; a few days later, TMZ leaked CCTV footage of LaBeouf spouting racist remarks to a police officer. LaBeouf swiftly tweeted, “I am deeply ashamed of my behaviour and make no excuses for it… It is a new low. A low I hope is a bottom.” LaBeouf returned to the set and the shoot continued. In fact, his 10-week stint in rehab – enforced as part of his arrest – was delayed so that the movie could be completed.
“I didn’t want Shia to blow my chance with this film. I wanted to see the new Shia. I wanted the right thing for him, and for my life too” – Zack Gottsagen
LaBeouf would later publicly thank Gottsagen for saving his life with some harsh words. “Shia had a very rough time,” Gottsagen explains. “That’s why I was getting so mad at him. I didn’t want to see the old Shia. I got it into his head what was going on. I didn’t want Shia to blow my chance with this film. I wanted to see the new Shia. I wanted the right thing for him, and for my life too. That’s how I fixed it.”
“Shia was always very ‘on’ on set,” Schwartz adds. “He was such a hard worker, and always ready to contribute and rehearse. Some of the more emotional stuff – I think the face-slapping scene came a day or two after. But Zack asked Shia to step up and help him make the movie – it was in a way that Shia was open to hearing.”
Regardless, LaBeouf’s raw, heart-on-sleeve performance is compelling and complemented by Johnson and Gottsagen’s contrasting energies. The awkward flirting between LaBeouf and Johnson is a particular highlight, as is the sense that the film’s Mark Twain-inspired journey is a metaphor for Nilson, Schwartz and Gottsagen’s years-long battle to get the film made.
“I’ll tell you something that affected me,” Nilson says towards the end of the interview. “We were at a big film festival in Nantucket. Zack, Mike and I were at the back of the theatre, watching people come in. Zack leaned over to me and said, ‘See, I told you. Our dream came true.’ I started sobbing in the movie theatre.”
I ask Gottsagen if he’s been getting more auditions now he’s the new Shia LaBeouf. “I actually forgot to tell you guys,” Gottsagen says. “Someone just told me about getting a role for me, and that they’re saying the same about Shia… So we might act together.” But Gottsagen mentions another movie – it’s a huge project yet to be announced – that I sense he wasn’t supposed to reveal to a journalist. Nilson and Schwartz are stunned, delighted, and full of their own questions.
Next up for the two directors is a TV project with Warner Bros and Margot Robbie’s production company. Schwartz describes the series as “loosely based on that time we were living in a tent. It’s about two girls that live in the woods and take mushrooms and talk to mountain lions and have a wild adventure.”
At which point, Gottsagen interjects to say, “I am doing different things from them. Those two are doing something else. But we will always be The Peanut Butter Falcon family. We will always be together, no matter what.”
“Bad boys for life,” Schwartz says, laughing. “I love you.”
“I love you guys,” Gottsagen responds.
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in UK cinemas on October 18