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Peanut Butter Falcon, the hit indie comedy about Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who breaks out of his restrictive care home for adventures on the road (and rivers) of the American South, has been winning over audiences and earning plaudits since its world premiere at this year’s SXSW film festival.
Zak, played by Zack Gottsagen, is a huge wresting fan and is determined to make his way to the wrestling school owned by his hero the Salt Water Redneck.
Meeting the lonely and emotionally damaged Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) on the way, the two form a bond as Zak gets to take risks and Tyler finds himself an advocate for a young man held back from the ups and downs of real life for too long.
Dakota Johnson co-stars as Eleanor, a volunteer at Zak’s home who sets off in pursuit of the two men.
The film is the first feature for writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz – I spoke to them during the London Film Festival about finding breakout star Gottsagen, the extraordinary chemistry between the three leads, and being the Lost Boys to Dakota Johnson’s Wendy. (You can read my 5-star review, and watch the trailer and film clips, here.)
Sarah: First of all, congratulations on the film – I thought it was amazing. I know that you wrote it for Zack, but have you both always wanted to do a road – or raft! – movie?
Michael Schwartz: I think we’re sort of learning as we go? Tyler and I started out with commercials and short films and then the Peanut Butter Falcon really came from Zack asking us to make a movie with him, and us really diving into what we’re drawn to in narratives and classic literature, and wanting something that felt like an adventure and timeless.
And you know, when you write a movie you get to decide where you’re gonna spend your time for a couple of years. So I think Tyler, he’s a water man, he really knows boats and rope swings and we wanted to be out there living that life.
Tyler, I read somewhere that you lived on the high seas as an explorer! Is that true?
Tyler Nilson: It is true, yeah. I lived in Samoa for a long time. I always wanted to be kind of like an Alby Mangels [the Australian adventurer and filmmaker]. My goal is just to travel and be an explorer, which seems like a really strange but lofty goal.
I was in the South Pacific for a really long time. I got really bad staph infections and had to move back to the States, and I had to choose another goal and I decided to get into filmmaking.
It’s still exploring isn’t it?
Tyler: Yes, I’m still an explorer.
You met Zack in an actors’ camp for people with disabilities. What was it about him that really stood out, compared to the other people who were there?
Michael: Zack is a trained actor. He’s been studying acting since he was three years old and dedicated most of his life to acting.
He’s even been an usher in a movie theatre because he just wants to be close to movies and entertainment.
And he’s a performer, so at this camp we were making a short film and he was playing this bad guy in a Western. And I remember his entrance, he came in, he said “I’m gonna to sit down, take off my sunglasses. I sat down my drink, because that’s what the bad guy would do”.
He was sort of explaining his motivations in a way that showed he’s a natural performer and he understands the craft of acting really well.
I thought his performance was incredible. He completely held his own against these very, very experienced actors.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s really amazing. It’s really cool, as a filmmaker – as a first time filmmaker but even just as a filmmaker – our goal was to really show the world that Zack had a talent, and try to be of service to Zack.
And now there’s awards buzz for him. It’s so great if they’re talking about him being nominated for all these awards and that it’s a very real possibility. The world is not only seeing his talent, but seeing he’s a phenomenal talent.
There aren’t that many roles for actors with disabilities, and you’re both first-time feature directors. How do you get to the people with the money when you’re starting from that position?
Michael: A lot of tenacity and Google.
And even when we started this process with Zack, Tyler and I didn’t have agents or managers or know any famous people, so for us, we wrote a script, no one would read it, so we went and shot a proof of concept video – basically a five minute trailer that showed the tone of the film, and that Zack was a fantastic actor.
Then we were able to show that to producers and actors and money people – really, the proof of concept is what opened all the doors for us.
You’ve got big star names, including Jon Bernthal doing another of his small roles, where he pops up a Tyler’s brother. I don’t think he even says anything?
Michael: You see his mouth move, but we sort of leaned into the silent flashback as a way to pull out more emotion.
The chemistry between your three leads, was that something that just happened organically? Do you ever need to work at that kind of thing to get it on screen?
Tyler: No, the answer is really those people. You know, Zack and Shia, and Dakota and myself, and Mike, we all really love each other. We’re all really connected.
I think Mike and I cultivate that and the environment that we create on set, but the truth is those guys really are just really good friends. I think Shia really took to Dakota and Zack, and Dakota to all of us.
You know, I saw a really beautiful interview where she said that we were like the Lost Boys and she was our Wendy.
She really is isn’t she? She comes across as so caring in it.
Tyler: Yeah. I really love that Eleanor is arguably the strongest character in the film, yet still very feminine – it’s a really nice compliment.
When I’ve read about the actual making of film, it does sound like it was a sort of perfect dreamy experience. Has that changed you at all?
Tyler: Of course I feel changed, but Mike and I kind of live a perfect, dreamy, wild life. I think if anything it just came from us. That’s already who we are.
But yeah, I was living in a tent before we made the film, I was homeless. Mike was living in his car and the tent actually kinda looks like the raft a lot.
So now I share a one-bedroom with Mike, I still shower with a hose that goes off the roof and Mike still pees in a jug because he doesn’t have a bathroom in the living room. So yeah, we’re changed!
We don’t need a tent anymore, but we still kind of live in the tent.
I suppose, if you have such a great experience the first time, maintaining that on future films so you don’t become disappointed…
Tyler: Oh, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we’ll be okay. It’ll be a new experience for sure. But, moving forward, you know a lot of it was like the environment that was cultivated by Mike and I.
If you came to our house, I think you’d probably feel a little bit like you were in a Peanut Butter Falcon house. And if you hung out with us you’d probably feel really good too.
So I think the art that comes from us moving forward will probably feel similar in tone and spirituality.
In terms of the actual film itself, which are your favourite scenes?
Michael: I mean, it constantly changes for me, but right now I’m really enjoying the scene in the moonlight where Tyler leans against the boat and Zak lays on his back in the sand. And they talk about whether Tyler’s a good guy or a bad guy. I love the pacing of that, and the connectedness and the way that it was Shia’s decision to hand-roll a cigarette there, and have that thing with his hands throughout the movie.
And it really is just beautiful to me when he lights it up and it shines on his face and the emotion and the connection.
Tyler: I would agree with Mike on that one. I think that, again, it changes all the time, but I think that scene specifically is probably why people are buzzing about awards for those two. And so I’m really grateful for that scene.
I liked his actual escape as he slips through the window. And also I loved the scene on the raft when he catches the fish.
Tyler: I love that scene, too.
But the other one that affected me, I suppose, is in the gas station when Tyler is having that conversation and joking with the attendant and then Eleanor walks in and the whole tone changes. He becomes quite creepy because he knows stuff that she doesn’t. And I thought that was really well done. The tone changed.
Tyler: The convenience store, you know, I probably wouldn’t use the word creepy. I think I’d maybe use cheeky.
I think it’s that he knows something that she doesn’t and he feels like he’s got the upper hand, and he’s not a man that often has the upper hand.
Tyler: yeah you know that whole scene is an interesting scene. There’s a balance there where there’s a constant power struggle between the two of them. I like when Eleanor leaves and flips them off. And that wasn’t written. That was Dakota, doing something off-book and we decided to keep it.
But there’s something in that little moment where she flips him off that she actually takes the power back. And then when he’s walking out and they kind of salute each other, it feels like a nice acknowledgement of, there’s a balance of power.
You’ve had near-universal acclaim for the film. Can you remember how you felt when you first watched an audience watch your film?
Tyler: I wish I can tell you that I felt completely happy and content. But the truth is, this has been a huge uphill battle the whole way. I always have loved the film, I knew I’d love it when we were writing it. I knew I would love it because Zack was in it.
But we finished the film, had a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, won the South By Southwest [Narrative Spotlight] Audience Award and still couldn’t find a distributor that believed in the film.
You know, people, all the streaming services, told us that a film starring somebody with Down syndrome wasn’t marketable or sellable.
So our chances of disappearing into the ether of forgotten film history were really, really, really high.
I don’t think until a couple of days ago, when we hit Number 1 platformed film in America, did I have this moment where it felt like we actually were going to make it out of this one okay. You know, we convinced somebody to give us millions of dollars to make art.
We heard from numerous people – even when Chris Lemole at Armoury [Films] came back and doubled down and helped pay for the P&A [prints and advertising], paying for the advertising of the film to get it distributed – we were told that the film would never make over $3 million from a lot of people.
It feels good that people like it, but it feels even better now that people liked it enough and supported it enough that we get to talk to you about it.
It’s done incredibly well financially. And I think this year particularly, there have been quite a lot of independent films that have done very well in terms of acclaim, but haven’t translated that into bums on seats. And yours really has.
Tyler: It’s amazing to have critical acclaim and some financial reciprocity. So yeah, it’s a real blessing. I think the thing about those numbers to me is that it’s really just trackable that people are watching the film. If we hadn’t, if we had made $100,000, I think it would have been clear that not many people had seen the film. [It’s] really just nice to be like, wow, people are watching that film. What a blessing.
What do you both have planned next?
Tyler: We have a TV show with Margot Robbie’s company, LuckyChap, that is in development over at Warner Brothers that we’re really excited about. And we have a movie about Cuba in the early nineties that we’re really excited about as well, that we’ve written and we’re taking out.
Are you finding doors opening more now because of the Peanut Butter Falcon or is there still always that struggle?
Tyler: It does appear that it’s a bit easier to get our foot in the door, but we still have, as filmmakers, a requirement to deliver scripts and films that are good.
So it feels nice that the door’s open, we’re not fighting to get the door open, but we still have work to do.
I think times are so difficult at the moment that people want escape, and also want to see that people can be who they are – and stories like Zak’s appeal to that. Or is there something else that you’re seeing in people when they watch the film?
Michael: I think in these divided times, even more than the road [movie] aesthetic, it’s just a very simple message of people can love each other and care about each other, coming from diverse backgrounds.
And I think that’s what’s really resonating with people. I think the road element helps, it’s fun to look at an adventure, but I think it really is the emotional depth that’s resonating with people.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is in UK cinemas now. Check out my 5-star review, the trailer and film clips, here.