Writer/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz are among the nominees for the DGA’s Outstanding First-Time Feature Film Director for 2019. The honor came after an unbelievable year for the partners, as they not only delivered their little movie that could, “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which scored raves and the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at SXSW, but landed a distribution deal with Roadside Attractions, which took them to over $20 million at the domestic box office. That doesn’t happen much anymore.
How did Nilson and Schwartz pull off this rare feat? Like many breakouts, the short filmmakers listened to their own intuition, crafted a unique story that touched them, and found gifted producers to back them.
Eight years ago in 2011, they met a young actor with Down syndrome, Zack Gottsagen, at a Venice camp for actors with disabilities. “We were enamored by him as a human being,” said Nilson in a telephone interview. “It was love at first sight. This is my guy. He’s a special human. We spent a couple years with him making short films, having fun and experimenting. Three years in, he had a heart to heart with us about his dreams and what he wants to do. He let us know he wanted to be an actor, wanted to be in a film. He’s earnest and truthful; we’d seen him performing in our short films, he’s loose and honest, hits his marks and says his lines. We said, ‘let’s do it together.'”
The short filmmakers decided to play to their limited strengths. Nilson grew up on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “I know we can go to my hometown and borrow things, so we set it in a fishing village,” he said. “I knew we couldn’t get any location for more than a day or two, so it was a road film, we have to be traveling. We had Zack. We just started writing around the stuff we had. We wanted to write a twofer and create a character for Zack that was honest and rooted.”
Nilson and Schwartz wrote a script inspired by both Gottsagen’s quest to become an actor and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Their conversations with Gottsagen revealed “a full range of emotions,” said Schwartz. “How frustrated he was by how teachers treated him at his performing-arts high school, how he had aspirations and goals to be an actor, similar to the way the character wants to be a wrestler. He’s so funny to be around. The plot was inspired by a lot of what does Zack love: wrestling and birthdays.”
The duo raised financing for this funny and poignant $6.2 million dramedy by showing investors a five-minute, $20,000 proof-of-concept video. Tim Zajaros and Christopher Lemole of Armory Films financed the film and produced with producers Lije Sarki and David Thies as well as Bona Fide Productions’ Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who soon began adding cast to the project, from “Nebraska” Oscar nominee Bruce Dern to John Hawkes.
“We didn’t understand how favors work,” said Nilson in a telephone interview. “We didn’t have agents or managers. We said, ‘Hey Albert, could you call John Hawke?’ We asked them every favor and they did it. And people kept saying ‘yes.’ We realize that now.”
In July 2017, they started the six-week “Peanut Butter Falcon” shoot in the sweltering deltas around Savannah, Georgia, starring Gottsagen as nursing home resident Zak, who escapes his prison (wearing only his tighty-whiteys) to join a wrestling school run by the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). Dakota Johnson plays the nurse who chases after Zak, and at the last-minute, as Ben Foster was about to have a new baby, he had to drop the role of a troubled fisherman who shepherds Zak on his quest. He showed the five-minute video to Shia LaBeouf, who signed up via Skype, saying, “I want to make this movie with you.” Shortly, LaBeouf, Johnson, and Gottsagen formed an on-set family. This comes through in the film.
Gottsagen elevated his costars by not only winning them over but by always being open and unpredictable. He came out with one of the movie’s best lines — “rule number one is party!” — on his own. The directors had a habit of letting the camera run on the actors to see what they would get: this was such a moment. While Gottsagen can read and always knew his lines, his improvising did force LaBeouf and the other actors to lean in and listen, to be more actively engaged.
“We wrote the script tailored for Zack,” said Nilson. “Shia, Dakota, and Zack were so well-prepared that they were able to play a little jazz on top of what was scripted there, as they pursued honest emotions.”
Notably, LaBeouf stars in another DGA rookie nominee’s film, Alma Har’el’s “Honey Boy,” which he wrote from the rehab facility he entered the day after completing “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” He had no trouble tapping into his troubled character’s feelings of pain and inadequacy. He was arrested for public intoxication three weeks into shooting and was sentenced to check into rehab at the end.
“We didn’t know what happened,” said Schwartz. “When he came back to set the next day, Zack said, ‘Shia, I know you’ve done this before, but this is my shot. Don’t mess this up for me.’ The way Shia described it, that’s the day he became sober.”
With leading man Gottsagen sitting next to them at the first public screening at SXSW, the filmmakers were overwhelmed. They both cried when Gottsagen told them, “My dreams came true, guys.”