SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” will tell moviegoers the story of a down on his luck fisherman who goes out of his way to make a young man’s dreams come true. Behind the scenes, though, a pair of rookie writer/directors were doing the same thing in real life.
Mike Schwartz and Tyler Nilson have been friends for nearly 15 years and have already worked together on smaller film projects like 2014’s “The Moped Diaries” and 2015's “Alex Honnold: At Home Off the Wall,” a documentary short about the famous rock climber featured in last year’s Oscar-winning “Free Solo.”
Neither Schwartz nor Nelson had agents or managers or knew “any famous people,” as Schwartz put it, when a mutual friend with Down syndrome named Zack Gottsagen convinced them to make their first feature-length film. Schwartz and Nilson met Gottsagen at a special camp in Los Angeles and were taken by the young man’s enthusiasm for movies.
Gottsagen studied acting since the age of 3, and even worked as an usher at a local theater. “All he wants to do is make movies,” Schwartz said. And although there are not many acting opportunities for people with disabilities, Gottsagen’s can-do attitude would not be denied.
“He just said, ‘Let’s do it together,’” Schwartz said. "'Let’s make it.’”
From there, Nilson and Schwartz came up with the story that became “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” a buddy tale that follows a pair of mismatched characters who set out on a journey through North Carolina’s Outer Banks to track down a professional wrestler named The Salt Water Redneck. The goal was to tap into that feel-good vibe the directors loved from films like “Stand By Me,” “Goonies,” and “O! Brother, Where Art Thou?” — the kind of films, Schwartz claimed, “We weren’t getting to see enough of.”
“We’re big Mick Foley and Jake the Snake fans,” Nilson said, when asked where the wrestling angle came from, and it helped that Gottsagen loved the idea as well. The Outer Banks locale was more of a financial move. “Originally we were going to make it for a few thousand dollars,” Nilson said. “We were going to really try to bootstrap it.”
Those modest expectations changed when, after circulating a five-minute trailer to prospective parties, the project grew to enlist a top-notch cast that included Oscar-nominee Bruce Dern, Dakota Johnson, Shia LaBeouf and Thomas Haden Church as the Salt Water Redneck. Of course, Gottsagen rounded out the lead cast; his character is the one in search of the wrestler, and his own moniker gives the film its name. And according to Schwartz, the young man made a big impression on his fellow castmates.
“They all said down the line, it’s intimidating to get into a scene with Zack because you know he’s going to be present,” Schwartz said. “And if you don’t match him, you’re going to be the weak link in the scene.”
From the way Schwartz described the atmosphere on set, it didn't sound like there were a lot of weak links to the shoot.
“It felt like everybody fell in love,” he said, “and I think everybody fell in love with Zack.”
Making “The Peanut Butter Falcon” may have fulfilled their lead actor’s dream, but the directors also took a lot from the experience. The 12-hour days include plenty of memories, such as buying The Salt Water Redneck’s car off Craigslist, and shooting a scene on a sandbar that makes Gottsagen and LeBeouf appear that they are walking on water. But when asked what they’d remember from the shoot years from now, Schwartz was quick to express his gratitude for everyone involved.
“I want (the audience) to see the work that everybody did,” he said. “I want them to see what Zack can do as an actor. I want them to se what Shia can do as an actor. … I want them to see how Nigel worked the camera. … Twenty years from now, I’m going to be so really grateful and say, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see how good the B camera was?’”Comment on this story
Nilson shared similar sentiments. He said he’d remember “spending time with the friends that I made on set … that became my family. Being present with Mike, seeing Zack realize a dream and being of service to that.”
When asked if there’s a message they want their film to send, Schwartz quickly went to a line from Bruce Dern’s character, Carl: “Friends are the family you choose.”
“People take from it what they will,” Schwartz said, “but I think this movie feels like … gosh, maybe we can just all love each other a little bit more.”