Making of The Peanut Butter Falcon

For years, moviegoers and fans of wrestling have found themselves the unlikeliest of bedfellows. In wrestling, cinema lovers can share their love of detail character work and precise stunts with a brand new audience; in many ways, wrestling is the perfect allegory for those who want to beat the odds and carve out a Hollywood career.

So it comes as no surprise to find that wrestling was one of the main passions in the life of Zack Gottsagen, the breakout star of the upcoming film The Peanut Butter Falcon. Just as his character wants to find work as a professional wrestler, Gottsagen had always dreamed of starring in a major Hollywood film. This makes The Peanut Butter Falcon the rare film with a happy ending both on and offscreen.

Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who dreams of following in the footsteps of his wrestling hero, the Salt Water Redneck. Because his small community lacks the resources needed to help him live independently, Zak is placed at a local retirement home for full-time care. There he spends most of his days plotting a grand escape, much to the frustration of the local caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). When he finally slips out and hits the open road, he quickly stumbles across Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a self-destructive fisherman haunted by the death of his older brother. With nothing to lose, the two men make a break for the Georgia coast — and Salt Water Redneck’s world-famous wrestling academy — with Eleanor hot on their heels.

Much has already been written of the partnership between Gottsagen and writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. The three men met years ago at a camp that brought together artists with and without disabilities; when Nilson and Schwartz spoke openly about the challenges Gottsagen would face as an aspiring actor, his response was to challenge them to write a role that only he could play. So while The Peanut Butter Falcon is the rare movie to feature an actor with Down syndrome in a leading role, the focus is tied specifically to the experiences of its star. There are times when Gottsagen’s performance works broadly in opposition to general misconceptions about Down syndrome as a genetic condition — Zak is keenly aware of the areas in life where he can remain autonomous and the areas where he needs a helping hand — but the story was meant to be Gottsagen’s and Gottsagen’s alone. “He told us about some of the things that he’d been through, but also some things he had ambition for,” Schwartz explains. “So in the movie, he really wants to be a wrestler, but in real life, he really wanted to be an actor… [It] was really just taking a bunch of Zack’s pieces and stringing them out on a narrative that worked.”

Playing a character about a decade younger than himself was a unique experience for the leading man. When asked if it was a challenge to slip back into his mindset as an aspiring artist, Gottsagen instead points out how far he’s come in the intervening decade. “That is my real life from back home in West Palm Beach, Florida,” he offers, noting that he had a lot of teachers in high school that did not take a personal interest in his ability as an actor. When viewed through this somewhat autobiographic lens, his performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon makes this Gattsagen’s very own revenge story. “I have been studying my whole entire life. This is a big movie, right now, so that’s why I have improved,” he says with emotion. “To tell all the teachers they are wrong.”

Gottsagen also enjoyed the opportunity to work with LaBeouf, who has talked in other interviews about the important role The Peanut Butter Falcon played in changing his life for the better. “In pre-production, we had this old pickup truck and we used to drive down to that shrimp dock where we were shooting,” Schwartz recalls. “Shia and Zack would just sit in the back and get to know each other.” For his part, Gottsagen credits LaBeouf with trying to make him a better wrestler — and for being the far inferior rapper. The actor frequently challenged both LaBeouf and Alabama-based rapped Yelawolf, who has a small role in the film, to rap battles behind the camera. This all added to the easy chemistry that LaBeouf and Gottsagen developed onscreen. The film is rarely preachy, 

To find the right vehicle for Gottsagen’s story, Schwartz and Nilson took a page from the novels of Mark Twain and sent both Tyler and Zak on their own riverboat adventure. This modern retelling of the Huckleberry Finn adventure uses its source material to score a few subtle points about modern America — especially through the characters’ shared exploration of the south and the treatment of those held as the ‘other’ in society — but the filmmakers had more practical production concerns when working on the script. “I don’t know if it was the right vehicle,” Nilson responds when asked what made the Huckleberry Finn narrative the right vehicle for Gottsagen’s story. “It was really all we had.” The two filmmakers knew they had to build their film around an inexpensive premise; thanks to a childhood spent in North Carolina, Nilson was able to draw on authentic (and cost-effective) experiences to create the various components of The Peanut Butter Falcon. “I knew we could go shoot in the marshes. I knew that we could build a raft out of trash because we had a friend with a junkyard. We couldn’t do a space film, you know? It’s just, what do you have?”

When on location for the film, Schwartz and Nilson also tapped into a few local connections to pull non-actors into the film. This adds an element of locality that softens the sometimes jarring presence of the film’s star-studded cast. For every recognizable face — John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, and Thomas Hayden Church all play minor roles — there are a handful of local businessmen and backyard wrestlers who further connect The Peanut Butter Falcon with its Southeast locales. One character — the fisherman who reluctantly fires Tyler after the latter gets caught stealing from crab pots — remains fresh in the filmmakers’ minds. “Shia got a job on a fishing boat during pre-production to be authentically a crab fisherman, and that guy Rob ran the boat and taught him how to fish,” Nilson recalls. “So when it was time to run that scene, we were like, yeah, he’d be good in there, and even better than an actor.” Schwartz agrees. “We just pulled him over and were like, ‘Hey, come over here and do this scene!’ And he was like, ‘OK!’ I don’t even think he has a TV.”

If there’s one place where Schwartz and Nilson went for broke, it’s the soundtrack. The Peanut Butter Falcon brings together some of the best bluegrass musicians of the decade; folk songs and spirituals are ever-present on the soundtrack, echoing the role music played in the production of the film itself. Like the touches of Twain peppered throughout the script, the soundtrack works to make the film both timely and timeless, walking a line between centuries-old instrumentation and contemporary sound. Like most soundtracks, it also helps lock in the film’s melancholic tone. “When we were on set, we had a guy that had a boombox,” Nilson recalls. “That was just his job. ‘McKay, play it!’ Whatever song we’d been writing to, he’d play it over and over again while we were getting ready. Then we’d shut the boombox off and shoot the scene, and the rhythm of the songs found their way into the scene.”

To their surprise, Schwartz and Nilson were able to secure the rights to many of their songs at a fraction of the cost they expected. “I’d say 90% of the songs, a large chunk of the songs, we were just like, ‘What’s the price on that?’ and they were like, ‘They’re giving it away!’” Nilson says with a chuckle. For the original songs, the filmmakers brought in bluegrass luminaries like Zach Dawes and Jonathan Sadoff (Punch Brothers), Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Chance McCoy (Old Crow Medicine Show) to provide original music for the soundtrack. “I think musicians sort of speak the same language as filmmakers,” Nilson offers. “It’s about listening and motion, creating an experience, and telling a story, which is usually three acts. The similarities are really beautiful.”

In the end, no matter how the various pieces come together, Nilson and Schwartz push all credit for The Peanut Butter Falcon back towards Gottsagen and his instincts as a performer. “[He’s] a born entertainer,” Schwartz says with a smile. “Zac’s kicking ass and we just want to help create the opportunity for him to kick more ass and so we just sat down and all wrote out a script, built a dance floor, and Zack just went out and danced.” With any luck, Gottsagen will soon wow his offscreen crowds as much as he wows the wrestling fans in the film.

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