Spread Your Wings With The Peanut Butter Falcon

The story behind an unlikely filmmaking adventure

Zack Gottsagen and Shia LeBeouf make waves and friends on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Zack Gottsagen knows exactly who his favorite professional wresters are. "Mick Foley and, of course, Jake 'the' Snake Roberts," he said.

"I'm gonna jump in and say Mick Foley's got my heart," added Tyler Nilson. "He may not be the best in the ring, but as far as a general wrestler, and the personality, and the contributions he's made to society."

The list of their hero's achievements keep going: three large, self-penned volumes of his autobiography ("He's wrestling's Proust," exclaimed Nilson), he does stand-up tours, and volunteers his time at RAINN, a sexual assault hotline. "And he dress as Santa Claus every winter," noted Michael Schwartz. "Wrestling is a place for big personalities and performers to go."

Of course the trio are going to talk wrestling, because the great American art of the grapple is, in a way, the subject of their debut narrative feature, The Peanut Butter Falcon (starring Gottsagen and directed by Nilson and Schwartz) , which returns to Austin this week after winning the Audience Award at SXSW this year. In a year in which diversity in representation and storytelling is so important, audiences in part responded to the fact that the film was very much driven by Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, but also to its heartfelt adherence to the classic American adventure story. "It was great to play it at South By," said Schwartz, "because the audience was willing to go on a ride."

A ride, a walk, and a long, leisurely float. The Peanut Butter Falcon has its point to make about how society discards people – those living with disabilities, the old, those with a good heart but a penchant for bad mistakes – but it does so with as a wistful adventure that would make Samuel Clemens proud. Zak (Gottsagen) is a young man with Down syndrome, stuck in a retirement home because the State of North Carolina doesn't have anywhere better to put him. With nothing but the dream of becoming a professional wrestler, he takes off with an itinerant crab fisher called Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), with his compassionate social worker, Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), in hot pursuit. The real world wants him back, but this is the Outer Banks, where new friends and new adventures – or at a cool breeze and an shady tree – are always just around the bend.

And also around those corners? Foley and Roberts as a pair of fading backyard wrestlers, taking bumps in the mud pit behind a farmhouse. It's an unlikely place to see two WWE Hall-of-Famers, but they were the trio's dream casting, and they said yes to this tiny, underdog road movie. "We didn't reach out to other wrestlers," said Schwartz. "They were our top choices."

Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz behind the lens on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon (Photo by Seth Johnson)

Austin Chronicle: How did you all meet in the first place?

Tyler Nilson: Mike and I met 12 years ago, just living in the same building. We were neighbors, and got to talking, and I recognized a spark in him that I have in myself – a commitment to really wild stuff.

Michael Schwartz: We're both delusional.

TN: And Zack and I met eight years ago at camp, just kicking around.

Zack Gottsagen: It was Zeno Mountain Farm.

TN: Yeah, our buddy Will Halby runs this place, and we were all volunteering, hanging out, and Mike and I were hanging out with Zack, making short films, small films, and Zack was making super-intelligent, creative decisions as an actor in the stuff he was in. We'd be talking about a scene, and he'd be like, "I'm going to come in, take my glasses off, put them down, pick up the glass and take a drink of the water, because that's what this bad guy would really do," and I was really impressed. I'd never really seen someone so committed to developing character before, and really being present. I learned that Zack had studied in high school, and was committed to live entertainment, teaching dance, and was an usher in movie theaters.

ZG: Up until five days ago, when my job closed, and now I'm out of work.

MS: But now we're all here, and that's work.

TN: So we were all talking, and Zack expressed an interest in being in movies, and being a movie star, and Mike and were pretty clear and open and honest, and the statistics showed that there weren't going to be a lot of people in Down's syndrome, and Zack had a pretty easy solution. He told us to make it.

ZG: i was excited that those two put me somewhere, and I would do whatever they need.

MS: We create the dance floor, and then Zack comes in and dances.

AC: Even within the wrestling industry, backyard wrestling is very underground, and has a stigma attached. Where did you even hear about it, and how did it become part of the plot?

MS: I grew up watching wrestling, but for this movie? It's all built around Zack, and Zack loves wrestling.

ZG: Yes, I do.

TN: Zack had gotten really sick one time when we were hanging out, and we couldn't put you on a plane, so you stayed with me a couple of extra day. I videoed you, hugging that toilet with those wrestling magazines all around you. He was really sick, and wanted to read wrestling magazines – that was his comfort blanket. And Mike and me, when we were writing, we didn't want to write a chess film, where the end was a chess match. Zack didn't like chess, and we wanted him to have the best time possible, so we went, "Zack loves wrestling. Great."

MS: And it's so fun to watch, and be a part of. Wrestling and movies are storytelling. It's the same thing. You've got good guys and bad guys, you've got all of it wrapped up in there.

TN: It seemed natural. It seemed like the right choice.

"He really did work the crab boats." How Shia LaBeouf got convincingly grimy for The Peanut Butter Falcon.

AC: And for a first feature, to go, "OK, we're going to get Shia LaBeouf."

TN: First feature, guys with no agents, starring in a guy that has never been in a film before.

MS: That wasn't our first course of action. Our first course of action was to make it for $30,000. No one would give us $500. So we made a trailer with Zack, and showed people what the movie felt like, and what Zack's acting was like, and then producers went, 'OK, actually, you know how this would work? If you get actors like Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson and John Hawkes in it.'

TN: Because we were so insular, and had been working so hard on this, and looking inwards, when stuff arrived outside of us, it wasn't super-stressful. I wasn't stressed having someone like Dakota or Shia, actors of that calibre. It was a gift.

MS: It was a blessing.

TN: Yeah, everyone showed up.

MS: Everybody elevated. I've only made one film, but I think it's rare to have everybody come in and make it better. The cinematographer made it better, the set designers made it better.

TN: The first AD ...

MS: ... Made it better.

AC: And there's something very rough-hewn about Shia's performance. There's a griminess, a sweatiness. Even the tan is what you get from working on water, not from a tanning salon or the beach. He really looks like he'd been working crab boats.

MS: He really had been working crab boats. He got a job on a crab boat, and he would pull crab boats for hours before turning up on set, and in the prep.

TN: And he would wear our clothes that we'd been wearing for years. He saw my favorite hat, that I've had for 13 years, and went, "Can I have that?" "Sure." He was Mike's bracelet, this piece of rubber –

MS: It was an engine o-ring.

TN: He just wore our dirty old clothes. These are the shorts. I'm wearing them right now.

The Peanut Butter Falcon opens in Austin this week. For review and listings, float on over to our Showtimes pages.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon, Zack Gottsagen, Michael Schwartz, Tyler Nilson, Shia LaBeouf

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