About 8 years ago, when Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz were volunteering at a retreat outside Los Angeles for people with disabilities, they met a movie star.
They weren’t sure what it would be, or how they would do it. They just knew Zack Gottsagen had to be the star of their first feature.
That gave rise to The Peanut Butter Falcon, a Mark Twain-style fable starring Gottsagen as an escapee from a group home who intends to meet his idol at a camp for aspiring professional wrestlers. Instead, he winds up on the run along the North Carolina coast with a stranger (Shia LaBeouf) seeking redemption for past troubles and a state-appointed volunteer (Dakota Johnson) tasked with finding him. Together, they form a surrogate family of sorts, build a raft, and share an adventure.
Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, had studied dance and theater with the dream of being in the movies, but wasn’t getting opportunities. After he approached them, the filmmakers thought they would create something small in about six months. Instead they secured an award-winning cast in a project that spanned five years.
“We had never made a movie before,” Schwartz said during a recent stop in Dallas. “We were just a couple of guys with no agents or managers.”
So they wrote a screenplay to accommodate likely budgetary and scheduling constraints, figuring they’d have no money and a cast of unknowns. Nilson grew up in North Carolina, where he knew he could use outdoor locations and boats for free.
“We couldn’t write a courtroom drama because we didn’t have a courtroom,” Nilson said. “Where I come from, you can go outside and point a camera and roll it, and no one bothers you. So we took that approach. What do we have immediately available, and how can we use that to tell this story?”
The directors — who met as neighbors and became close friends with similar creative ambitions — shopped their script to potential financiers, but struggled to get anyone to read it. So they created a proof-of-concept video starring Gottsagen to showcase his personality and acting ability to investors. That did the trick.
Not only did Nilson and Schwartz find supportive producers, but suddenly the cast was littered with recognizable faces including Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, and more.
Production took place during the summer of 2017, when Gottsagen — who’s in his early 30s and works as an usher at a movie theater as well as a part-time dance instructor — formed a close bond with LaBeouf.
“From the first minute they showed up on set, they were really interested in each other,” Schwartz said. “They’re both really hard workers and had a common goal. They really had a respect for each other and dove into their characters together.”
Of course, the shoot had its share of weather-related logistical challenges, too, that caused the cast and crew to frequently adjust on the fly. Needless to say, the star didn’t mind.
“Our story has a lot of nature in it,” Schwartz said. “It’s challenging to deal with a tide that shifts 14 feet every six hours, but also that intensity and that realness makes it into the movie.”