“We knew it needed to be authentic and we couldn’t do that without Zack…” - hmv.com talks to the makers of The Peanut Butter Falcon
When writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Zack Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors back in 2011, he told them that he was going to be a movie star and that they needed to write him a part.
The pair stuck to their word, they wrote him a starring role, which they hoped to make on a tiny budget with no stars and shoot largely in Nilson’s hometown. It turned out that they couldn’t even get funding for that.
Determined not to give up, the pair scraped together $20,000 for a proof of concept video with Gottsagen. That got the attention of the industry and suddenly they were able to attract a cast that includes Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf and Bruce Dern for the movie, which is The Peanut Butter Falcon.
The movie follows Gottsagen’s Zak, a 22-year-old with Down's syndrome, who lives in a retirement home in North Carolina. Frustrated by his life in the home, he and a friend hatch a plan to escape. After breaking out of the home, he meets LaBeouf's Tyler, a troubled thief and fisherman, and the two set out on a Mark Twain-esque journey to try and achieve his dream of becoming a wrestler.
With the film arriving in cinemas, we spoke to Nilson and Schwartz about how they made this remarkable movie...
Can you talk us through the genesis of this film? Did it all start with meeting Zack?
Michael: “Zack’s been a friend of ours for eight years. We met him at the camp and he was an actor that we saw something special in. We were trying to move from short films into features and he wanted to be a movie star. We had a talk with him one night about how challenging that was going to be and how there aren’t roles written for people with Down's syndrome. But he was so positive, he said ‘You guys write and direct, I act, let's do a movie together’. He made the space for himself.”
How did the story evolve?
Tyler: “It evolved from simply wanting to make a movie with Zack into what it is now. We decided to set it in my hometown, because we knew we could get free stuff, free boats, people would do small roles. We just wanted to move forward with what we had.”
Did that affect your decisions?
Tyler: “You can’t write what you can’t do. We knew we couldn’t write a giant football stadium sequence. But we had a backyard, so let’s have a backyard wrestling match. Once you know what you have, that’s how you work. It meant we could really focus on character development.”
Did you share the story with Zack as you wrote?
Michael: “We talked with him a lot. A lot of the dialogue in the movie is what he said to us. We knew it needed to be authentic and we couldn’t do that without Zack.”
How was the casting process for the other roles?
Michael: “It was amazing. Tyler and I were fully prepared to make this movie with no other trained actors. Tyler was going to play the role that Shia does, Zack was going to be his character, I’d run camera with our friend Dave and then it’d be locals and begging for favours. And we couldn’t even get the money to do that!”
“We ended up making a proof of concept to show around. When people saw that, they signed on. To have a movie with Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf, Bruce Dern, it worked out so much better than we ever could have imagined.”
How did it get in those people’s hands?
Michael: “Emails. We emailed everybody we could. We got to Josh Brolin through Instagram, he’d put up a post saying he wanted to help people and we messaged him and said ‘We’ll take some of that help you’re giving away’. He wrote back in 10 minutes and said that wasn’t what he was talking about, but he would help.”
“We used that to call agencies and say that we had a movie with Josh Brolin. That meant they read the script and they liked it, that got us producers and that got us our cast. Shia actually got his hands on the proof of concept and he wanted to do it.”
How did you find that jump? You’d been planning to direct your friends and here you are directing Dakota Johnson and Shia LaBeouf…
Tyler: “They’re actors. They were professional and very talented and that made it easier. Directing non-actors is a lot of making them feel good, building their confidence up.”
Michael: “With our cast, they know that, so you can jump straight to talking about the story. You don’t need to be concerned about anything else.”
How did Zack find the shoot? It’s a big task to go straight into a starring role?
Tyler: “He was great and very well-prepared. He’d been training for a long time, he’s been studying acting longer than Shia has. The days are long, but they’re long for everyone. Once he found his groove, he was fine.”
What was the hardest day on set?
Michael: “It was very hot and that heat stayed long into the night. We had some difficult stunts. The bonfire was just so much heat, heat in the air and then the heat from the fire. It never felt hard though, we like extremes, I loved all those days.”
You’ve got Jon Bernthal appearing only in flashback, that must be a strange thing to direct…
Tyler: “He was fantastic. We had written some scenes, but he just wanted to help and support the film. He’s a really selfless actor.”
Michael: “It was a personal favour more than a decision. We asked Shia who he wanted his brother to be and he said ‘Bernthal’s like a brother to me, can I call him?’. He came down and he was great. It was probably a bigger deal to us. He’s the Punisher! But we got over that pretty quickly.”
How did you find choreographing the wrestling sequences?
Michael: “We had Jake the Snake and Mick Foley, so we had a lot of experience. We didn’t need to really go into the weeds with all that.”
Tyler: “It’s like shooting anything, there are angles you’ve got to get and it takes time to set up. But it never felt like a huge challenge.”
Was it always going to be called The Peanut Butter Falcon?
Michael: “Always. Before we even wrote a word. We were out drinking whiskey with Zack and that was the title. It’s always felt right.”
What’s next for you both?
Tyler: “We’ve got a script with Margot Robbie’s company Lucky Chap, that’s going to be a TV thing, which is a new challenge for us. It’s about these two girls who go and live in the woods in Los Angeles because they can’t afford rent. We’re going to pitch it this winter and hopefully, it’ll get going in January.”
And what about Zack? Has he booked anything else?
Michael: “He’s got a manager, he’s auditioning. He’s unflappable and he always knew he was awesome. I don’t think it’s changing his world that much.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon is released into cinemas on October 18th and will be released on DVD in 2020.