Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf in The Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of a 20-year-old man with Down syndrome named Zak (Zack Gottsagen) who winds up on the road through North Carolina's Outer Banks with troubled ex-fisherman Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) to pursue Zak's dream of becoming a professional wrestler. The co-writing/directing team of Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz visited Salt Lake City to promote the film (opening Aug. 9) and talked about the struggles and payoffs of making a film with a lead actor with a disability.
On the origins of the story.
We were volunteering at a camp for people with, and without, disabilities, an actors’ camp. And Zack was making really good acting decisions. He’d been studying acting since he was 3 years old, he went to a mainstream theater arts high school. But he had frustration: “I want to be in a movie. I want to be a movie star.”
He had trained so long to do it, but how do you get a break? He said, "I’ve done everything I can; how do I take another step?" We didn’t know. There’s not a lot of films written for people with disabilities, and he didn’t just want to be a “B” character. So he said, “Well, let’s just do it together. If you wrote and directed a short film, set in the Outer Banks, I could act in it.” And we thought, “Yeah, that seems like the right thing to do.”
We’d planned to make it really small. Tyler would play Tyler, I’d run camera and we’d do it with like four people. Then it kept getting bigger and bigger as people wanted to help.
On learning how to write a feature screenplay.
We went to a library and checked out books about how to write movies, because we didn’t know.
I love stories. I’ll sit here and tell stories all day long. We had done a 10-minute short, we knew how to tell stories at that pace, but for 100 minutes or 93 minutes, that’s a whole different game. We had to go and study. It’s like we were pretty good at karate, but we had to learn jiu jitsu. We spent one, two, three years studying that craft: What makes a 100-minute film work? What creates empathy? How do we guarantee that the audience gets it.
We’d watch a movie, and on Netflix you get the timeline: It’s 14 minutes, there’s an inciting incident here.
Or we'd learn what didn’t
work, or would work if you had moved that over here.
On making Zak a well-rounded character rather than a prop for Tyler's character to learn lessons.
We set out to write it for Zack. And we know Zack as a complete human being. He gets upset; he has goals. There’s a Spike Lee term, the “magical negro,” and you can copy and paste that onto “magical disability person.” We looked at how to avoid that.
The script opens and closes on Zack. You could make arguments that it’s 50/50, or 51/49 Zack, but it wasn’t really a challenge to tell it from his perspective. I like his perspective. As a writer, it was more exciting and unique to try to capture that.
On the film's distinctive North Carolina atmosphere.
I don’t like stories that could take place anywhere. I’ve never liked movies that are just like, pick a city and say a name. For me, place really plays a character. You know Tyler better by knowing the location. By saying we’re in an arbitrary city, a metro area with cool haircuts, I know nothing about those people. ... We wanted the world to feel rooted, and you can’t do that without talking about the place.
Even talking about the grit, the humidity. With our director of photography, we worked to feel the heat and the sweat. Shia would do jumping jacks between takes. It was still 105 degrees, but he wanted to spike it so he was sweating more. A blue-collar guy is not the same as a guy working in New York City.
On the challenges of getting financing.
The first 20 people we talked to … we couldn’t even get meetings to begin with. ... Then people would read the script and like the script, but were like, “Okay, so you need somebody like Dustin Hoffman to play this Zak character.” And we just said, “We’re not doing that. We have the actor and he’s really great.” And they said, “Either we’ll give you the money to do it with someone like Dustin Hoffman, or we won’t give you money.” We ultimately landed a guy [Christopher Lemole of Armory Films] who had a family member with Down syndrome, so he connected with the story. Also just to be blunt, enough money to make a bad business decision.
[Armory Films] had done Mudbound
and had done okay with that, were rolling in it a little bit. He was like, "Okay I’m in." If it wasn’t for Chris Lemole ... I would get his face tattooed on my bicep. We got a one in a billion guy at a one in a billion time. A hole-in-one with our eyes closed.
On the story as a metaphor for Zack Gottsagen's own dreams.
You can look back on metaphors and think, “Oh, this is clear.” But at the time, it wasn’t a clear “let’s do wrestling because it’s a parable for acting.”
But looking back, it is perfect. His desire to be a wrestler is perfectly parallel.
And my desire as a filmmaker to help him along the way, the other main character is named Tyler.
That’s the elevated, intellectual way of talking about it. But it was actually more like Chopped
, the cooking show. We have Zack, Tyler’s from the Outer Banks and we can get boats for free and nobody’s going to stop us and ask for permits, and we like Stand By Me
so we’re going to take some of that.
On hopes for the movie now that it's out in theaters.
I think this film is rare. Movies are changing; the way people digest movies is changing. If this film doesn’t do well, if the business doesn’t show that people are willing to accept someone like Zack as the hero, then films like this just won’t get made, ever again, realistically. I’m really praying that people can see Zack as a hero, and that they go see it in theaters. This one’s got heart, it’s got some bite, and I think it’s worth seeing in theaters.