The new Roadside Attractions film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” stars Shia LaBeouf (“Transformers”), Dakota Johnson (“50 Shades of Grey”) and newcomer Zack Gottsagen in a folksy Americana story of friendship and loyalty. Gottsagen, a young man with Down syndrome, plays the central character of Zak, who escapes from a state-run home determined to enroll in wrestling school. He and Tyler (LeBeouf) befriend each other with Zak’s caseworker (Johnson) also joining in the adventure.
First-time feature film writers and directors Tyler Nilson & Michael Schwartz have already made an impact with audiences with the project, receiving the 2019 Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight at the SXSW Film Festival. The story was inspired by Gottsagen, who they met six years ago. As they got to know the young actor, they created the fictional journey. In this exclusive interview, Nilson and Schwartz give their thoughts on working with the cast, their friendship with Gottsagen, and the story’s divine inspiration.
As someone who’s worked with Downs syndrome people in the past, there is something special there. The ones I have met seem to have a brighter, less cynical outlook on life. And the character of Zak certainly appears to be that way.
Michael: Yes. I think a lot of my friends with Downs have an elevated ability emotionally and greater access to joy.
Tyler: We’d known Zack for three years before we started writing the script. We met him at an actor’s camp out in Los Angeles. We just thought he was a really special human being and a fantastic actor as well.
What gave you the inspiration for his quest to seek out wrestling school?
Tyler: I think when you write what you know, it ends up coming out. We traveled with Zack for a long time, road trips, and wrestling magazines would fall out of his bag. A lot of the dialogue in the movie are things that he said to us over the years and through the writing process.
Not only with Zak, but you have assembled a very impressive cast, including Shia, Dakota, Elle Fanning, and Bruce Dern.
Tyler: There was something looking out for this story. We did a lot of preparation and put together the script and proof of concept which is basically a five-minute trailer before the movie’s made to show what the movie will look like and feel like and how good at acting Zak is, and I think that did a lot for us. I think there was something angelic overlooking this film for sure.
How long a shoot was it and did you have to make any adjustments to the schedule for Zak?
Tyler: We shot for 31 days and that being said, it was a different pace. It wasn’t slower or faster, but it was a different pace. With Zak we had to adjust the script and story and the entire dance floor, you might say, for him to match his unique abilities. What you might change with time or what might be a little longer or a little slower but is made up for a better take and Zak being connected with other actors and not on his cell phone. He was very elevated and more emotionally present. It was a trade-off but it was a gift to get the opportunity to adjust to him.
You also managed to get a few good wrestling cameos to go along with Thomas Hayden Church’s character.
Tyler: We’ve been fans of Jake the Snake and Mick Foley for quite some time. They are Zak’s favorite wrestlers. We reached out to them really early, and we got a lot of support from those guys. Mick Foley was one of the first to sign on. They’re great gentlemen and I’m really glad we got them in the movie.
Anything else about the movie you haven’t been asked yet?
Michael: I don’t know if we talk about the music as much. I think music for me is sort of an in-between the dream world and the real world. There’s access to emotions and tones through the music that is not captured with words. I feel like I’m on the clouds a little bit. I think Tyler and I really cared about the music a lot and we wrote for the music. The rhythm of the music was sort of based on the words of the script then we played the music on set. I was really grateful we were able to use a lot of the stuff we wrote. And also that our composing team that made original music that tied everything together just right.
The baptism scene stood out to me (Zak gets baptized in the river during his journey). I feel like when faith is portrayed, it’s authentic to see it affect the average person’s life as it does here.
Tyler: Here’s what I’ll say about that. If you’ll allow me to, I’m going to speak in a way that isn’t on the nose. Again, stories are stories and we take from them what we want. As a writer, I’m proud that you felt something when you watched that scene. I think there are a lot of undertones in the entire film that could speak to you if you were any religion or somebody that reads the Old Testament or the New Testament. We wanted the imagery to represent a lot of certain things. We wanted music to help people feel certain things and we wanted elements of the South to be portrayed as honestly and beautifully as we could. I grew up in a small town and I enjoyed going to a lot of different churches and I spent a lot of time in a Southern Baptist church. I got to experience that aspect of faith and that was a really unique experience for me. That being said, I think it’s pretty clear that the South in the film is represented in a way that is spiritual and as best we could have made it beautiful with some roots to a higher power. That also being said, whatever you take from it as a viewer is what you take from it.
I think we are all connected by something deeper than even I can understand, and I hope this film can help you feel that way. I think this film is allowing people to connect with each other in ways that they might have not realized, even though they are different. When you’re in a theater and you sit next to someone who is different, you can walk out and give a smile.
Michael: I think if any of us have messages we want to tell people, to approach them with love and empathy is the best way to open the door.
“The Peanut Butter Falcon” releases this month from Roadside Attractions.