Dubbed by Variety senior film critic Peter Debruge as “a sincere, Southern-fried buddy movie,” “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” directed and written by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, details the budding relationship formed between a grifter with a heart of gold named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a man with Down Syndrome who runs away from a senior citizen home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler (Zack Gottsagen), and his caregiver (Dakota Johnson). Gottsagen stands out in the film created just for him. Playing a fictional version of himself, the film follows his character’s transformation from a mere product of his circumstances to someone who controls his narrative. He also manages to build his own makeshift family along the way.
What was that like to shoot that opening scene?
Michael Schwartz: “It was great. That was the first scene that we shot with Bruce Dern and there was a lot of choreography. And Zack was pretty good with all that stuff. Then, the thing that I think he did really well with was the dropping of facial expressions of the eyes and then committing to the run out. It was all pretty natural.”
Tyler Nilson: “When we were writing the script, we really did our best to tailor it to Zack’s strengths. He’s really good with physical stuff. We spear-tackled him onto a really big pad and I remember him wanting to go more because he knew he could do it better, and we actually ended up getting it on the fifth or sixth time better. He really loves to give his all and we got exactly what we wanted.”
Let’s talk about his actual escape and the stark contrast to the opening scene’s plan. It’s much quieter — just him and his roommate (Bruce Dern) — and he coats himself up with oil before quietly slipping through the window. Where did that come from?
Schwartz: “[We had heard] a story about [a person] actually lathering up and slipping out through prison bars in county jail. So, we thought that was like the coolest prison escape story and sort of applied that to Zack with a little bit of a rebirth. The way that’s written, it’s like Zack’s rebirth. He’s going from the inside of this institution to the outdoors and like a new beginning.”
What was the process like for you prepping for the role?
Zack Gottsagen: “Very easy. It’s about me.”
Schwartz: “I give him more credit than he gives himself. I think his gift as an actor is staying present. You know, as a director all you want from an actor is somebody who stays present, someone who’s listening, somebody who reacts, somebody who knows the story and Zack did that. Luckily we had a talented cast who did that as well. But Zack didn’t grow up in an institution. He has a family that loves him, a mother that loves him. But there were things that he was adjacent to. Like he had a hard time in the school system; people didn’t give him the respect that he deserved and he felt like didn’t get the same opportunities. So we’d have conversations about motivation; for instance, in the opening scene [we asked him to use] the feeling of when [he was] in high school, [to] bring that to this scene. And he was like, ‘OK, I got it.’”
Gottsagen’s character gets treated as though he can’t do things for himself and LaBeouf’s character Tyler becomes his advocate and really allows him to do those things. The scene that shows the relationship best is when Zak comes out with a shotgun and saves him. It also works to shift the narrative. What was that scene about?
Schwartz: “I think it was really important for us [Nilson, Schwartz, and Gottsagen] to have Zack as a three-dimensional character and his own hero within the story and not a charity hero. There’s certain things and there’s words that have been used to describe certain films that have actors with disabilities as ‘inspiration porn’ and we didn’t want to have that. We really wanted to make him a well-rounded character with agency… It was important for us to have earned moments and that was one that he earned.”
Nilson: “I say this a lot about Zack: I know he’s a phenomenal human and somebody who’s capable of things that I’m not. One of those things is acting. He’s a phenomenal actor and he’s capable of being present and available and he just hadn’t really gotten those shots because of his extra chromosome. So that shotgun scene kind of represents like ‘I can do this on my own. I can act. You get me on stage and I’m going to entertain you more than anyone else.’ I think that’s why that scene feels so good.”
What were you thinking while shooting that scene?
Gottsagen: “Those guys [John Hawkes, Yelawolf] were very, very, scary. They were scaring me. They’re good actors.”