The Peanut Butter Falcon is the feel good watch of the summer that you didn’t know you needed. An indie comedy with real road movie vibes, it follows a young man with Down syndrome, Zak, who makes a daring escape from the retirement community where he lives to pursue his dream of training as a wrestler.
The man behind that character is Zack Gottsagen. And he’s not just the star of this picture, he was the inspiration for it. Writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz built their feature debut around Zack after meeting and befriending him at a camp for people with disabilities. During that period, Zack shared his dream of becoming a movie star with Nilson and Schwartz. When the pair told Zack it would be a tough dream to achieve, he challenged them to make a movie for him.
Some while later, they did. The Peanut Butter Falcon is that movie, and Nilson and Schwartz have taken to the road to share how it happened. On a stop in Denver, the pair reminisced about sweaty days of shooting, the long circuitous road they followed to get the picture made and even what it was like to watch a personal hero watch their film.
When you watch, The Peanut Butter Falcon, you can’t help but feel a pang of longing for the beautiful surrounds against which this adventure unfolds. If those generous pans over the Outer Banks feel almost reverent, that’s because they are. And they were as much a part of the film’s conception as Zack was — indeed that place is a part of the team that made the picture, a place that was home once.
Never far from nature, Nilson and Schwartz elected to edit the film in Crested Butte. Said Schwartz, “I think maybe we’re just drawn towards soulful places. Outer Banks is one of them, Crested Butte’s one of them.”
Long before Nilson and Schwartz were ready to hit the edit room, the world around them helped them shape their story. While writing the script they took road trips with Zack, winding their way around the country to chase down their story.
“When we were writing it, we were road-dogging a lot,” Nilson recalled. “It kind of came from that wanting to hang out with Zach, take a road trip with him, and write with him. [The movie] sort of naturally found it, found that, that rhythm, found itself.”
Schwartz agreed, citing inspirations and self-reflection as the key to capturing the narrative. “I like literary adventures. I live adventures, like, I rode my bike across the country before I met Tyler and he ran a boat in Samoa for surfers, so I think there’s that part of adventure spirit that I think we’re drawn to,” he said.
Beyond that, there was some self-knowledge to guide them. The film could have been about anything, but they chose to make it about things that meant something to everyone involved — why make a movie about the tannins in wine when Zack loves wrestling?
As it happens, wrestling came into the story simply because some wrestling magazines fell out of Zack’s bags on one of those road trips. Nilson and Schwartz loved the idea of working things Zack loved into the story, because they understood that passion had to be at the heart of the project.
Considering that there was a point in time where it looked as if The Peanut Butter Falcon couldn’t even be made on the slightest of budgets ($10,000-20,000), the team had to find joy in the work.
Nilson put it best, when considering a creative project, ask yourself, “What do you want to do for two years?”
It took longer than that to bring The Peanut Butter Falcon to the screen, but a combination of craft, magic and “a whole pile of miracles,” made it happen — with a cast Nilson and Schwartz daren’t have dreamed of: Shia LeBeouf, Bruce Dern, Thomas Hayden Church, Dakota Johnson and John Hawkes all signed on to share the screen with Zack.
“It shouldn’t have happened. I don’t know how it happened. But, we’re super grateful,” Schwartz said.
It happened, in part, thanks to test footage and a certain endearing doggedness that manifested in a series of Instagram DMs to people Nilson and Schwartz admired who might help move the needle. An early win in that arena saw Josh Brolin attach his name to the project, and then Hollywood started to pay attention.
In the end, Nilson and Schwartz found themselves watching Bruce Dern watch their movie. An experience neither of them are likely ever to forget.
“[Dern] didn’t know Thomas Haden Church was in it,” Nilson said. “He’s sitting there, he goes, ‘Is that Thomas?’ ‘He’s really good, he’s really good.'”
But even among stand-out performances from a lot of stand-out performers, Zack carries the day and his friends are so thrilled to share his talent with moviegoers.
“Yeah, it’s not like, ‘Oh, we’re letting this guy do it who’s actually not very watchable,'” Schwartz said. “Like, no he’s watchable as fuck!”
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in limited release on August 9, 2019.
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