We’re transitioning out of the summer movie season and into the fall, which means we’re going to start seeing a lot of the movies that will be the talk of the town during awards season. While much is yet to be determined, it seems like a sure bet that The Peanut Butter Falcon will be a big part of that conversation. The slice-of-life tale has been earning heaps of praise from critics ever since its debut at SXSW.
There are many hooks to this one. It features an acclaimed performance by Shia LaBeouf, who is on his way to making something of a comeback. There’s also the star at the center of the whole thing, Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down Syndrome who has earned widespread acclaim for bringing the character of Zak, who runs away from home to chase his dreams of becoming a pro wrestler, to life. The well-rounded ensemble also includes Dakota Johnson, Thomas Haden Church and Bruce Dern.
For whatever praise The Peanut Butter Falcon earns, much of it is owed to the filmmaking duo of Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. I was lucky enough to chat with them recently about the movie in honor of its theatrical release. So, without further adieu, here’s our chat.
I think everybody that makes a film, of course, would like to have people respond positively to it. But you guys are sitting on one of the best-reviewed movies of the year. How has that been for you just taking all that in?
Tyler Nilson: We were at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. And I was nervous because you’re like, there’s always gonna be one that drops. And then we went to 99 percent and I feel great. I feel great. It feels really nice that the majority of people I think are really responding to this film. We put a lot of love and hope into it and tried to make something with our best friend. And so to have people say it’s not terrible feels really nice.
Michael Schwartz: It makes me feel proud as well, because there’s so many people that are involved in making a movie. So I see us sort of as head coaches. And I’m proud of our players. I’m proud of Shia and Dakota and Zack and the performances they gave and our DP Nigel. So to have all the work recognized as positively, I don’t even see it as really about anything in particular, just everybody as a whole. It’s really cool to see that being embraced.
Tyler Nilson: And my mom likes it, too. That’s a cool thing too. Mike’s mom really likes it.
Michael Schwarz: My mom’s gone fangirl, like calling me every day. I think she’s got a Google Alert set or something.
Tyler Nilson: Yeah, it’s really sweet, because we came from the world of shorter films and short films and I think I would always be like, “Hey, we have a new short film.” And my dad is like, “Yeah, whatever. Anyway, So the football.” Not that that’s a bad thing, but I think, maybe two weeks ago, my parents were like, “Oh, you made a movie. Wow, we didn’t really know.” And I was like, “Yeah. I’ve been telling you about it for years.” And they’re like, “Oh we thought it was a ‘movie,’ like one of your adorable little movies.” It’s a cool thing to see my parents feeling a lot of pride.
You mentioned the team involved, and Shia is kind of having himself a moment right now. Having worked with him, what do you guys think sets him apart from other performers? because there’s just something about him clearly.
Michael Schwarz: I’ll say Shia cares more than anyone, except Tyler and maybe myself.
Tyler Nilson: We care. Every detail matters. The boat, like I chose the colors of the sail, and like this flower color here. We care about that and Shia shows up and cares intensely, if not more so about all the details, too. And I think that pressure, when we’re all caring so much about how the product turns out, creates a really nice product.
Also focusing on the team a little bit. Zack has been a huge focus of this whole thing, and obviously, it’s amazing what he was able to do. So how did he become your guy?
Michael Schwarz: Zack has been studying acting since he was three years old. He went to a performing arts high school. He teaches acting. So it wasn’t surprising for us. I mean, I think we knew that Zack was the best actor in the world we knew when we started making the film. We knew him for three years before we wrote the script.
Tyler Nilson: Yeah, I think people paying attention to Zack right now is really interesting because I’ve known he’s a wonderful actor for eight years now. I think the general public hasn’t seen something like this before. Hasn’t seen somebody with a different ability, or disability, or Down Syndrome being in a feature film like this. I think it’s really common for an actor like that to be maybe a B or C character, somebody who just pipes in with a little wisdom and says this sort of very small nugget of wisdom, but that’s it. And we were like, no, we’re gonna write something starring Zack and make something starring Zack and I think the world’s a little bit like, “Oh, we haven’t seen this done before.” I love Rain, Man. I think it’s a great movie. I love Forrest Gump. I think it’s a great movie. Those are actors playing a disability. And I think this is the first time an audience really gets to see doing it for real.
Given that this is pretty new for a lot of people. And in a world full of a lot of ugly movies, this is a very feel-good movie. So what do you guys want everybody to take away from the experience?
Michael Schwartz: I think for us it’s really about lonely people loving each other and that, if we all love each other just a little bit more the world might be a little bit better place.
Tyler Nilson: Yeah, acceptance of one another. You know, when we were making the film, no matter what, with Zack, there was no amount of, “Hey, Zach, could you not be you” that we were gonna do. Zack’s always gonna be Zack, and that’s a real gift and a blessing. And so just accepting him for who he is and then helping craft a story around him, and loving him for the differences. Zack is different than me. It was really beautiful to dive into that and learn him and get to know him. And sometimes in this world, it’s people that are different than us. Maybe we don’t want to accept or talk to or open a door to. And so I think that if anybody takes anything away from this movie, maybe just your fellow man. “Hey, who are you? I’m Tyler. Nice to meet you.” It’s let me show you a little love and stay connected with you. And I think that would be a real nice thing for this world to step into. Not that we’re not doing that, but I think It’d be cool. A little reminder.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is in theaters now from Roadside Attractions.