Shia LaBeouf made some frank and emotional statements about his personal struggles on the set of “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” his Mark Twain-inspired indie film that premiered at the SXSW film festival on Saturday in Austin, Texas.
Zac Gottsagen, an actor with Downs and the film’s lead, also revealed to the Q&A audience how his relationship with LaBeouf helped the star after his high-profile arrest in 2017.
“I felt really fragile coming in, but got even more fragile when we were there. A lot of the stuff you see on the boat is me at bottom barrel,” LaBeouf said of numerous film sequences where he and Gottsagen’s characters are adrift on a raft, attempting to sail from from North Carolina to Florida.
“I was also reaching for god real heavy. I don’t know if I could have heard some of the things I heard from any other man. We had conversations I wouldn’t have carried on with any other person … really deep conversations you can only have with Zac, otherwise you would dip off and it would feel too saccharine,” LaBeouf said.
LaBeouf was arrested on location in Savannah, Georgia for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Video footage of LaBeouf in police custody was subsequently released, and showed the actor berating an African American officer and accusing him of making the arrest because he was white. LaBeouf was admittedly intoxicated and has made numerous apologies since.
“Shia had been [through] struggle and bad times. I did change Shia’s life around to make it better,” Gottsagen told the crowd at the Austin Convention Center’s Atom Theater. When the audience applauded this sentiment, LaBeouf appeared to wipe away tears.
Writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz stood with their cast, missing key players from an impressive ensemble that included Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Thomas Hayden Church and John Hawkes.
Gottsagen received a standing ovation for his turn as Zack — a 22-year-old, orphaned Downs man who was relegated by state officials to a senior living home. Zak dreams of escaping to attend a pro wrestling camp run by a Hulk Hogan-esque ’80s performer (Hayden Church), a figure he’s grown to worship thanks to a VHS tape laying around the retirement community.
The home’s general manager Eleanor (Johnson) thinks his ambition is amusing but not too threatening, until he actually pulls it off. On the road he meets the troubled Tyler (LaBeouf), a fisherman who crosses a nasty business competitor (Hawkes). Zak and Tyler take to the sea to escape their respective crimes, and bond along the way.
The most uplifting part about the filmmaking process was its inception. The filmmakers said they had a relationship with Gottsagen before “Peanut Butter,” and he confided that he wanted to be an actor. Gottsagen asked the team to conceive a film for him to star in, otherwise the opportunity would not have been there.
“We wanted to create the most authentic experience we could,” Nilson said. “And the film’s wrestling is an allegory for acting, because there aren’t many opportunities for people with Downs to act, nor is there that opportunity in pro wrestling.”