One of the bright stars out of 2019 SXSW Film Festival in Austin was THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON, a feel good, honest to goodness, buddy movie with great performances from Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Zack Gottsagen. Not only did it win the Audience Award at the festival, it’s been pleasing audiences across the country with its warmth and humor. It’s sure to be on many lists at the end of the year as one of the best, freshest and funniest movies of the year. Cinemark caught up with the directors of the movie, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz to get a peek into what makes this movie tick.
Frank Gonzales (FG): How did you find Zack Gottsagen and get him involved? Did you write the movie for him specifically?
Tyler Nilson (TN): We’d known Zack for years before we even wrote the script. He had been studying acting and theatre for most of his life and he wanted to be in the movies. So we were having a conversation about the fact that there are not a lot of opportunities for someone with Down Syndrome. So he said “you guys made a short film that I liked, so let’s do one together!”
Michael Schwartz (MS): So he had the idea to make a movie together and we tailored a script for him. We spent a lot of time working on a script, trying to give him the best opportunity to crush an acting job. He’d studied acting in high school and college and really committed his life to movies. He even worked as an usher in a movie theatre, so he’s really committed to entertainment and a life in movies. So in order to give him his best shot at that we tailored this script specifically for him.
FG: Did Zack’s presence on set affect how the production went, how you guys and the other actors worked?
MS: Absolutely! But remember, this was our first movie too so we don’t really know how a set normally feels, Tyler and I are really about community and we saw how everyone kind of fell in love with each other. It became very familial.
TN: Zack is more upfront with what he brings, spiritually and emotionally. He’s really one of my favorite humans.
MS: And as loveable has he is in the movie, he’s that much more in real life. He can look you right in the eye and say “I love you, Mike” and he says it all the time. He’s not protective about that stuff.
FG: I imagine he had a profound effect on your talented cast of Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church?
MS: Oh sure. And I’m sure all of them will tell you so. I can tell you that Dakota and Shia fell in LOVE with Zack. It was really special to see; not just that they did, but how quickly they did. It was really inspiring to us as well.
FG: As first time directors, how did you round up such a great cast featuring Academy Award nominated and well established actors like Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and the rest?
TN: It was a little bit of a miracle. Actually any movie is a miracle. We couldn’t get anyone to read the script so we made a short trailer to show people. I played the Shia role, and Zack played Zack. So we showed it to people and they reacted to it and said they wanted to be a part of it. I remember Shia FaceTimed us. He said “I want to make that movie!”
MS: We also had some heavyweight producers involved as well who helped with the casting. I think we had this really great creative spark. Then when Albert (Berger) and Ron (Yerxa), and Tim (Zajaros) and Chris (Lemole), and Dave (Thies), and this whole team of great producers came in behind us, I think the actors were able to trust that it was going to be done right. Albert and Ron had worked with Shia and John and Bruce, so they were able to call on old relationships and say “Hey we have something that we think is pretty special.”
FG: The movie was filmed in Savannah and the surrounding area. Was there a particular reason for that? Did the area have the look and feel you wanted for the movie?
TN: We wrote the movie to take place in North Carolina and Savannah was a great double for the location.
MS: Tyler is from North Carolina and spent most of his life growing up there, so there was really a romantic story to why we really shot in Savannah…
TN: Tax incentives! Very romantic indeed!
FG: What kind of movie inspirations did you guys have when creating the movie? I kind of likened it to HARRY AND TONTO, or STAND BY ME. A buddy adventure. MS: Really any adventure movie were inspirations. BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, GOONIES, STAND BY ME. Those kinds of 80’s adventure movies.
TN: MUD was a big inspiration. The Coen Brothers’ OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? for sure. You know they say you are what you eat, well you are what you watch. We watched so many movies growing up you kind of add a little of that, and a little of THAT, and a dash of that, and some spice from that.
MS: You think ‘a scene like that would be great!’
FG: The wrestling aspect of the movie was a lot of fun. Were you big wrestling fans growing up?
MS: It was fun to watch, but tough to shoot. It would have been a lot easier if it was a chess match!
TN: Zack likes wrestling. He’s really into it and we wanted to stick true to what we were trying to get to at the end of the script. And Zack was like “I love wrestling so much. I love it, I love it, I love it!” So we figured out a way to incorporate it.
MS: It’s funny you know, because the easiest answer is usually the simplest way to the truth. Simply put, Zack loves wrestling and that was what was the most authentic.
TN: And growing up around the time of Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant had an influence on us.
MS: And wrestling is awesome! In its own strange, weird and beautiful way.
FG: Let’s talk about another character from the movie, Ratboy. He’s not on screen much, but makes an impression. The actor, Yelawolf where did you find him?
MS: He’s a rapper and has these really captivating music videos. So we started researching him and thought this character is really like Yelawolf. And it turned out that he really worked on a crab boat in real life and worked in the south. So we just went with him.
FG: For Dakota Johnson you see a grounded performance. Was that part of the Zack effect?
TN: Possibly, but I also think that when you’re put in different worlds and different roles you get an opportunity to shine in them. She’s really talented and it was a pleasure to work with her.
FG: And for Shia this is one of his best performances in a while and it’s great to see him out there tackling a good role and giving a great performance.
MS: I’m really proud of him. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time and to get to see him take after take and to see how he elevates the other members of the cast was incredible. He and Zack were really similar in how they elevated those around them. They were doing it for real and wanted to make it GREAT!
FG: It seems like the chemistry between Zack and Shia could be felt coming off the screen. Was it immediate as soon as they got together?
TN: Yeah! We had an old pickup truck that we’d drive around in. And we’d throw them in the back and went for these three hour drives around the Georgia countryside. And they’d be talking about love and family and anything else under the sun. We were all very tight and the connection between us was instant.
MS: I think because Zack and Tyler and I had already been friends for eight years, had done road trips and experienced so much by then, that there was this vibe. So everyone just followed that. We didn’t have to find our footing since we knew who we were.
TN: It was somewhere between camp, and how quickly bonds can form, and family. With a family it’s a slow burn and with camp it’s like you’re two days in and you feel like you’ve know someone forever. That’s how it felt on the set.
In a classic adventure tale worthy of Mark Twain, a down-on-his-luck fisherman and a young man bent on achieving an impossible dream make their way down the waterways of a mythical American South with the help of a succession of colorful strangers. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and newcomer Zack Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon is an inspiring and heartfelt slice of timeless Americana that took home the 2019 Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight at the SXSW Film Festival.
At loose ends since the death his brother, Tyler (LaBeouf) has resorted to stealing the catch of other crab fishermen to survive. At the same time, Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, dreams of life as a professional wrestler. They both soon find themselves on the lam, as Tyler is pursued by a pair of angry fisherman (John Hawkes and Yelawolf), while Zak busts out of his care facility and hightails it from North Carolina toward Florida to find the professional wrestling school of his hero, the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church).
With no money, map or even pants, Zak’s plans soon come to a screeching halt, just like Tyler’s battered fishing boat. A chance meeting sets the pair on a path that introduces them to a world they never dreamed existed. Along with Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a conscientious aide from Zak’s residence who comes to retrieve him, they set sail for a once-in-a-lifetime journey on a makeshift raft through an unfamiliar and extraordinary landscape. Filmed in and around Savannah, Georgia, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a joyous and uplifting folk story that celebrates the friendship of three unexpectedly kindred spirits.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz in their feature film debuts. It stars Shia LaBeouf (Transformers franchise, American Honey), Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey franchise, Suspiria), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, The Sessions), Bruce Dern (Nebraska, Coming Home), Thomas Haden Church (Sideways, Spider-Man 3), Jon Bernthal (“The Punisher,” The Wolf of Wall Street), rapper Yelawolf and, in a role written especially for him, Zack Gottsagen.
Producers are Albert Berger (Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska), Christopher Lemole (Mudbound, Billionaire Boys Club), Lije Sarki (Concrete Kids, ToY), David Thies (“Rod Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory,” “Man vs. Machine”), Ron Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska) and Tim Zajaros (Mudbound, Arctic). Director of photography is Nigel Bluck (Deadpool, The Home Song Stories). Production designer is Gabrael Wilson (The Ropes, Nightstalker). Editors are Nat Fuller (Maleficent, The Last Witch Hunter) and Kevin Tent (The Descendants, Nebraska). Costume designer is Melissa Walker (The Neon Demon, Keanu). Music supervisor is Zachary Dawes. Executive producers are Carmella Casinelli (The Blue Mauritius, Connie & Consuelo), Manu Gargi (The Double, Silence), Aaron Scotti (Arctic, Beast Mode), Tim Shriver (The Ringer, Amistad) and Michelle Sie Whitten. Co-executive producer is Matthew J. Malek (Silence, To the Bone).