While talks surrounding representation in the film industry may have intensified over the past few years, accurate and inclusive casting continues to elude people with disabilities. The Peanut Butter Falcon, a new comedy-drama featuring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Zack Gottsagen is looking to change to that. What makes their film special? Both Gottsagen and his character have Down syndrome, representing one of the first times an actor with the disability is portraying it on screen. Telling the tale of a disabled man who dreams of wrestling and his relationship with a down-on-his-luck crab fisherman, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a moving, heartfelt film that proves the value of telling diverse stories through cinema.
We sat down with the duo behind the film, writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz, to chat about the experience of making the film with Gottsagen, what his casting means for the future and how they got the film produced in an industry usually unwilling to hear disabled voices.
Ryan Ninesling: How did you guys meet Zack and what appealed to you about him as an actor?
Mike Schwartz: We met Zack eight years ago at a camp for people with and without disabilities. Part of what we did there was making a short film and through that we discovered he was a really naturally gifted actor. He’s so open as a human being that it comes through in his acting. While we were making the film, Zack told us he wanted to be a movie star. We were honest with him and told him that they’re weren’t many opportunities in the industry for people with Down syndrome, and of course his response was, “well why don’t you guys make a movie with me?” We told him it was a great idea and immediately got to work on the script. We custom-tailored the role for him, a lot of the dialogue are things he’s said to us before and things in the film that the character of Zack is interested in, like wrestling, are the real-world Zack’s interests as well.
RN: As you said, there traditionally hasn’t been many chances for people with disabilities to break into the industry. What kind of impact has the film had for people now that they’ve seen that doesn’t have to be the case?
Tyler Nilson: I don’t think I really understood the impact, and really still don’t, but the best example I can give is when we showed the film at a Best Buddies conference in Bloomington, Indiana, which is an organization for people with Down syndrome. A mother came up to us after the screening and said seeing the film was an enormous deal for her. She told me how her son with Down syndrome had just graduated from college but couldn’t find a job because people don’t see him as equal and won’t give him the opportunity to be of service to anything. Seeing the film comforted her and convinced her that her son had a future. It was that moment that I realized that we had a larger impact than we ever imagined.
MS: It’s important that people see that Zack’s character has the full range of emotions of a human being. He gets frustrated, he has aspirations, he feels love. That’s something that not a lot of people have seen done before for a character with a disability, especially Down syndrome. The authenticity of his character has touched people.
RN: What do you think the impact of the film has been on Zack himself?
TN: Honestly? Not much at all. He’s so present and available as a human and as a performer that he always knew he had it in him. Zack knows he’s really talented, not in a cocky way but in a way that he knows he puts in the practice and has studied the craft since he was a kid. I think it’s had much more of an impact on the world around Zack than him as a person.
MS: Zack always knew that he was awesome, but that not everyone in the world could see that. Now everyone gets to see that.
RN: Something that really stuck out to me both in the film and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff I’ve seen is the bond you all formed on set. Can you speak to what that was like?
MS: It was like the best summer camp in the world. Tyler and I are pretty loose, we had never made a feature before, so we really wanted to create a good environment in order for that feeling to bleed over into the film. It’s a feel good movie that we want to make you feel like you’re going through something just like everyone on set was.
TN: We were basically running a communal therapy session for everyone to keep everyone loose. Everyone was going through stuff on set; Mike and I, Zack, Shia, Dakota. Everyone!
MS: [laughs] Even John Hawkes, who’s playing a villain. We’d shoot an intense scene with him and then we’d all go swimming after.
RN: A really unique thing about this film is the way you pitched it to people. Instead of sending out the script, you shot a really stunning test reel with Zack and then basically showed it off to as many people in the industry as you could. What was that like?
MS: We were up against a brick wall. We knew no agents, no famous actors, nobody. We couldn’t get anyone to read the script. It’s a lot to ask people to put aside time to look through a whole screenplay. We had a friend with a camera and we had time. So we just went and basically shot a five-minute trailer for the film that showed what the world felt like and the acting that Zack could do. It was much easier to show that, and almost immediately people started jumping on board. Shia saw it, our producers Albert and Ron saw it, our eventual financiers saw it, and basically said, “alright, it’s on.”
TN: We set a nice tone with it. Some of the shots from it are still in the full film, even the music is on point. It’s really hard to show tone and vibe in a script, and I think that proof of concept bridged the gap between on paper and on screen and helped people understand what they were getting involved in.
RN: What do you both want people to take away from the film?
MS: It’s more of a poem to me than a film. People take from it what they will. For me, I think we’re in a time in filmmaking right now where sincerity is the new cool. Caring is cool to me! I like showing a story where people care about each other and unify despite living in a world where there’s a lot of people tearing each other apart. I hope people come together after watching a film like this.
TN: I’ll mirror that sentiment. I want people to feel good when they go to bed at night. That’s really my goal with this movie.
RN: Now that you’ve proved this kind of film is possible, what would you want to say to all the producers and executives who have doubted the industry can make this movie and be successful?
MS: There’s a real fear that if the movie doesn’t do well in theaters that those kind of people will feel vindicated. But there’s so many people with different stories to be told and that’s an important thing to remember. Take The Farewell for example. That’s a wonderful movie that’s doing well. People like stories, especially ones that are unique. I think ours has the advantage of being built around Zack. Some would see that as a difficulty. We just thought it was smart storytelling that will differentiate itself from the stuff you’re used to seeing.
TN: I would tell producers to stretch and try to rethink the narrative. Sometimes what you thought was impossible was not. The truth is I do think this movie will have an effect on the industry going forward, but it’s up to people to let the film speak for itself. To me it’s a funny, moving movie that really grips people. I’ll just keep it simple: come out and see the movie! If those people saw how audiences are reacting to this film, they’d be ready to start doing the same thing.
‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ is in theaters August 9th. This interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
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