There’s something undeniable about a movie that captures your imagination and grabs hold of your heart.
It’s even more rare when a film’s reel life so closely mirrors the real life happening behind the scenes that the two become intrinsically linked and wholly inseparable.
Maybe that’s why The Peanut Butter Falcon, the debut feature from co-writers and co-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, feels so damn special. There simply has not been another movie like this to come around in quite some time.
The film centers on Zak, a young man with down syndrome, who wants nothing more than the chance to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler in Florida.
Zak is played by Zack Gottsagen, a young man with down syndrome, who wanted nothing more than the chance to pursue his dream of being an actor and playing a leading role in a movie, something he had never seen a person like him do.
Nilson and Schwartz met Gottsagen five years ago while making a short film at Zeno Mountain Farm, an annual camp for people with developmental disabilities, in Lincoln, Vermont. And that’s when Gottsagen pitched them on his idea.
“We had that conversation after the short film. ‘You guys make films, what’s my next step? I want to be in features. I want to be a movie star,’” Schwartz recalled, “and we were being frank with him, and said, that’s hard for anybody to do, but especially you because there’s not a lot of roles written for people with disabilities, and he goes, ‘Well, you guys do it, and we’ll do it together. You write and direct and I’ll star, and here we go.’ He really spoke the film into existence himself.”
When you consider that the end result, The Peanut Butter Falcon, features a literal who’s who of decorated Hollywood royalty and A-list stars, including three Oscar-nominees (John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern) plus Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson, along with the fact that Nilson and Schwartz had never directed a feature before, it’s almost a miracle that the movie was even made.
Not surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome was an initial skepticism about casting someone with developmental disabilities in the lead role.
Nilson and Schwartz made sure to speak to experts and advocates as they wrote their script, including the Global Down Syndrome Foundation and Best Buddies International.
“They said, ‘Please, please show the true hardship and bullying that happens because we want complete characters shown,’” Schwartz said.
He and Nilson wanted to avoid creating a stereotypical character or, worse, a character that lacked genuine depth. What they wanted to do, and what they succeeded in doing, was transfer Gottsagen’s personality and soul to a fictional representation of himself.
“I never thought about that we were writing a character. People are like, ‘This is so crazy. You have a guy with down’s syndrome and he’s a full character.’ Well, yeah, he’s our friend…,” Nilson said.
“And he is a real person, a human being,” Schwartz finished.
"When we were making the film and writing the film, we were in our own bubble. The way we treat Zack, yeah, we shoot guns and drink whiskey and you’re a human being and we treat you that way. There’s no other way to do that,” Nilson continued. “And now the bubble is a little bit open, and we’re coming out and people are going, ‘How did you guys make him a real character?’ And I’m like, how the fuck could you not? How could you not make him a real character? How did people in the past not treat Zack like a human being?”
Ultimately, The Peanut Butter Falcon succeeds not because of its depiction of a young man with a developmental disability, but because of the story at its core, a story about friendship and the determination to live life by one’s own sense of purpose, and not what society deems appropriate.
To that end, Nilson and Schwartz realize, and fully appreciate, the significant accomplishment they achieved, especially if you stop to consider how Hollywood has historically approached this kind of story and this kind of role.
“I was aware of, the way that culture is shifting and trending. We’re not going to get a Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks again, and I love that movie. I’m not poking holes at it. I think it’s a beautiful film. It’s one of my favorites of all time,” Nilson said. “We’re not going to get a Rain Man, and I love that movie too. We’ve shifted to a place where actors don’t do that anymore. They’re not going to be doing a disability for that sake. I love those movies so much, and I didn’t want to redo that by any means, but it became a thing, probably in the last year, ‘Oh, oh, this is cool, we did it for real.’ And we also didn’t do it in a way that feels saccharine or sappy.”
John W. Allman has spent more than 25 years as a professional journalist and writer, but he’s loved movies his entire life. Good movies, awful movies, movies that are so gloriously bad you can’t help but champion them. Since 2009, he has cultivated a review column and now a website dedicated to the genre films that often get overlooked and interviews with cult cinema favorites like George A. Romero, Bruce Campbell and Dee Wallace. Contact him at Blood Violence and Babes.com, on Facebook @BloodViolenceBabes or on Twitter @BVB_reviews.