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'The Peanut Butter Falcon' Writers On How Their Movie Went From a Fun Idea to Making a Positive Impact

August 9, 2019
3 min read time

A decade ago, Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson were working in their respective careers and living average, ordinary lives. Both were unknown in the film industry with no concrete plan or background to break in. But then, eight years ago, the duo met a young man named Zack Gottsagen. A chance meeting that would forever change their future.

“We were hanging out at a camp for people with and without disabilities, and Zack said, ‘I want to be a movie star,’” Schwartz recalls. It happened during an acting workshop at the camp in Santa Monica, a satellite of the original Zeno Mountain Farm in Vermont. 

“When Zack said that to us, we were like, that’s hard for anyone but it’s especially hard because there aren’t characters written for people with disabilities,” Schwartz says. “We were like cool...let's do it together. We’ll all do it.”

Nilson and Schwartz say they were drawn to Zack by his charismatic and undeniably exuberant personality—and because of his acting skills. “Zack had been studying acting since he was three years old,” Schwartz says. “He went to a performing arts high school and worked in a movie theater, so he was always close to movies.”

With no screenwriting background, Nilson and Schwartz decided to go where anyone looking to learn would: The library.

“We checked out books and were like ‘Okay, this is what has to happen on page 14, this happens on page 30,’” Nilson says. “We’ll plug this into that slot.”

After throwing around script ideas for nearly a year and reading up on how to execute a screenplay, the duo began their writing journey.

“When we started writing it went pretty fast, about six months,” Schwartz says. “Then, getting anyone to read the script took like a year and getting people to pay for it took another year. I would say, all in all, it took about five years to get to this point.”

Where they are at now is a place Zack Gottsagen has been dreaming about for more than two decades. In August, Gottsagen, Schwartz and Nilson walked down the red carpet at the Arclight in Hollywood for a special screening of The Peanut Butter Falcon. They were accompanied by other cast members, including Shia LaBeouf, Bruce Dern, and Dakota Johnson.

“I love doing this. I love being on the red carpet,” Gottsagen declares. “I just want all the people to have a really good time.”

The movie is about a man with Down syndrome named Zak (Gottsagen), who escapes from an assisted living facility where he’s been living for over two years. His goal? Attending a professional wrestling school in North Carolina.

“We took pieces of Zack’s real life,” Schwartz explains. “Zack loves wrestling, swimming, parties—and we worked it into the script.”

In the film, Zak eventually befriends a small-time outlaw named Tyler (LaBeouf) and the two create an unbreakable bond as Tyler helps Zak on his journey. As they work their way down the East Coast, an assisted living facility employee named Eleanor (Johnson) trails close behind, trying to find Zak and bring him back home.

“Working on this movie was much more off-book, much more reactive, a lot more listening,” LaBeouf says. “The script they wrote was brilliant, but when you get on set and you’re dealing with Zack… Zack’s going to take that dialogue where he’s going to take it and it’s really dependent on what he’s feeling that day."

LaBeouf and Johnson both said working with Gottsagen changed their lives, and their careers

“I love those boys so much,” Johnson said. “It definitely changed the way I approach working with other actors. Zack is the most pure, honest being I’ve ever met. I just prefer to approach everyone with love and no judgement—that's how it should be—that's how the world should be."

The Peanut Butter Falcon also promotes inclusivity, resilience and tolerance. For the writers, that wasn’t necessarily the goal. They wanted to make a movie about their friend. But the byproduct is one that will leave a lasting impression on those who watch.

“Something that started out with, ‘We want to make a movie with Zack’ has turned into something that's going to have a really positive impact,” Schwartz says. “We were at a Best Buddies conference in Indianapolis last week and a mother came up to us and said, ‘This might make it so my son can get a job. He hasn’t been able to get a job.’

Disability representation in Hollywood is severely lacking. According to a 2019 report by the Ford Foundation that cites a recent Annenberg study, the top 100 films of 2016 featured characters with disabilities only 2.7% of the time. In the last 10 years, the number goes down to 2.5%. Close to half of the films failed to have a single character with a disability.

And the vast majority of characters with disabilities on television—95%, to be exact—are played by non-disabled actors.

“People don’t often understand people with disabilities as real people,” Schwartz says. The Peanut Butter Falcon doesn’t sugarcoat Gottsagen’s disability, instead providing a brief look into a disabled man's life and journey. But according to the CDC, 61 million Americans (one-in-four) are living with a disability, so the film industry has a long way to go to fully represent this population of people. 

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a small step in the right direction for disability representation. The movie is also a dream come true for two unknown filmmakers and an amateur actor who have found their way to the big screen.

The Peanut Butter Falcon will premiere in limited release across the U.S. on August 9th.

 Check out the official trailer here!

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