Shia LaBeouf's new film, “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” is now showing in theaters nationwide and in an interview with The Christian Post, directors Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz laud actor Zachary Gottsagen for his wisdom and purity of heart exhibited on the set.
The “Mark Twain”-inspired film tells the story of two friends who embark on an unlikely journey together. “After running away from a residential nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler, a man who has Down syndrome befriends an outlaw who becomes his coach and ally,” the film's synopsis reads.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon” features Oscar-nominated actors LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, along with Jon Bernthal, Thomas Hayden Church, Bruce Dern and John Hawkes. The movie was created specifically for Gottsagen after writer-director duo Tyler Nilson and Michael Shwartz met him at a camp for actors with disabilities.
Below is an edited transcript of The Christian Post's interview with Nilson and Schwartz, who recount the challenges they faced while making the movie and laud Gottsagen for had on the crew and his co-stars because of how purely he channeled God when people needed it the most.
Christian Post: What inspired the story?
Schwartz: Our friend, Zack Gottsagen, who stars in the movie, the guy with Down syndrome, has been a friend of ours for a long time and we were drawn toward his energy. [He had been wanting to act but couldn't find anyone to take a chance on him], so we decided to make the movie with him.
The storyline, when you write something, it's where you get to live emotionally, these things take years. So we wanted to live in a place that was filled with love, good feelings and connection, and rope swings and summer days, and people being good to each other.
I think the simplest message that I would want to put out into the world is: "Let's be good to each other." On some level, I think that's what the movie's trying to say.
CP: During the filming of the movie, Shia LaBeouf ran into some trouble and was arrested. As previously reported by CP, Shia said Zack spoke to him about God during that time and it impacted him greatly. Did Zack frequently talk about God on the set?
Schwartz: Zack channels really deep stuff. There was a time where I was fighting with my dad, and he came up to me and he was just like, "Hey, you know your dad loves you. Family is the most important thing, and bringing anger is not going to help anything." He looks at you with such a purity of heart.
I think in that moment, too, when stuff had gone down with Shia, first, Zack got frustrated. And he said, "Shia, you're messing this up for me. You've got to be in movies before and this is my first movie, and you're really messing up."
I think with that purity of heart, me as a director, I was afraid of what Shia was going to say or what anybody was going to say. I was afraid to make people uncomfortable or really dial into the most truthful conversation that can be had, because that takes a lot of work and that's a practice.
[But] I think Zack lives in that place where he says exactly what's on his mind and he says exactly what he channels to the purest place. So I think that inspired Shia to say to Zack, he just looked him in the face and said, "Are you God?" and Zack said, "I think so." Shia said, "I've been looking for you for a long time," and Zack said, "I know, I'm right here."
That was just a really special moment.
CP: You initially faced some challenges in getting people to share your vision to even make the film. What enabled you to not lose hope during those times?
Schwartz: Teamwork. Tyler and I being a team. It's really nice that sometimes I can do the heavy lifting and he can rest. And then sometimes he can do the heavy lifting and I can rest. We made a promise to Zack and we take that really seriously.
We knew that we would complete the film; we knew we had the ability to make the movie, even if we got nothing but no's. So if I had to run the camera and Tyler had to do the Shia LaBeouf role, and Zack can be Zack, we were going to make that movie.
The way that it grew to include all the Oscar nominees, that's a bonus. The rejection that we were getting, the hardest thing early on was just that no one would read the script. It's really hard to get people to read the script.
Also, working with a guy that has Down syndrome, I think scared a lot of people. We did get people to read the script once we made a video. That started getting some traction. People were like, “Cool, so who do you want to play the Zack character, a movie star? Because if you're going to get money, you got to have a movie star in that role?"
[But] we were like, Zack is the best person for the job. He really is better than anybody else, so it should be his role. Luckily, we ended up ultimately with producers that got that and it worked out so well. It took us five years. There were a lot of years of rejection, but look at where we are now. I'm so grateful for all the people that did end up helping us and all the miracles, because nothing is for sure.
CP: What are some of the misconceptions about working with people who have Down syndrome?
Nilson: To be super honest, Mike and I, I guess we didn't have really any preconceived notion, so all I can do is retrospectively say, "Oh, people thought that about Down syndrome, that's interesting. I never thought that."
When we were writing the script we had to tailor it for Zack. We were aware that he is not an actor without Down syndrome, he has Down syndrome. So we had to, even in our shooting, directing and writing process, had to tailor it a bit more for him.
For example, wheelchair ramps. Wheelchair ramps are just the physical tailoring of the world around us to somebody that's in a wheelchair. I think in some ways, we can do that on a larger scale spiritually or energetically or even just the way we approach other people. Maybe it's not as tangible as something like a wheelchair ramp, but it might be a little less tangible.
Zack gets really hot and doesn't sweat like other people. It's something I didn't know about Down syndrome or some people who have Down syndrome. So we were just like, let's write water scenes and make sure he's cool. So we'll have the scenes in the water. So stuff like that, just tailoring to him. That comes from leading with an open heart.
Schwartz: I think there was something really wonderful about Zack. Zack was a leader on our set. He controlled the tone and the environment. He would take the bull horn from the first AD after scenes and say, "Thank you so much Dakota for being here and being in the scene with me. It was really a pleasure to act with you. And thank you, Nigel, for running the camera. And Tyler was the best director today." That sometimes got on my nerves, 'cause I was like, "What about me?" But he really was a leader and he was self-confident.
I think one of the powerful things about Zack is that he's sort-of emotionally elevated, and he is confident in what he's doing. He knows he's awesome and other people rally around that. And not in a cocky way; he doesn't have the self-doubt.
We had three actors that have Oscar nominations, Shia and Dakota are some of the best of their generations. Shia has been quoted as saying, "If I had a third of the confidence that Zack had, I'd be a better person." We have these insecurities and I think Zack was able to lead because of his lack of insecurities. And the way that he ran toward his goals, I think it inspired everybody around him on our team.
CP: Is that why you included the baptism scene? It was touching to see Zack get baptized.
Schwartz: The whole movie is really a rebirth for Zack's character, and finding family. So these really deep-seated themes, "friends are the family you choose," "choose your best life," "rebirth." So when Zack is breaking out of the retirement home, we intended for that retirement home to be away from the majesty of the outdoors.
For Tyler and I, the outdoors is really powerful, spiritually. So rebirthing from indoors to outdoors was a big deal. Then the baptism scene represented Zack's willingness to embrace the new and embrace things that feel good, embrace things that wash you off from your past sins.
Shia's character represented that there's a different path for everybody. He was told in the scene, "If you come down and you'll be cleansed of your sins, and these wolves that are hunting, you'll be forgiven, everything will be good." And he couldn't do it. He said, "I need a baptism by fire." Toward the end, he gets his baptism by fire, and he's getting his rebirth there.
CP: How did the film impact the actors on set or yourselves?
Schwartz: I'm so grateful for everybody that helped us. I'm happy that even the "bad guys" in our movie — John Hawkes and Yelawolf — were having really connected, emotional experiences as well.
John Hawkes teared up and cried when he had to leave. He wanted to stay there forever. I had the same feeling as well. I think we all felt like there was something really special going on there. Like there was something looking out for this movie. I think now that it's out and this five-year process is over, I think that thing is still looking out for the movie. But we do need people to go see it.
There's a landscape right now where people don't go to the movies as much as they used to. I've been around for a lot of these screenings for our movie, and it is really special to see people moved, and happy, and emotionally affected to think about their own lives. So I think, in a lot of ways, stories are powerful; movies are powerful. I'm grateful for everybody who has helped us. It's something like going to church; it affects you emotionally, it gives you something to think about it. It's a good force in the world.
Nilson: The trajectory of this movie is so unconventional. We're expanding on screens. We started out on 17; we did well enough to get this 50, and they put us on 900. Then they put us in 1,200, and this weekend we're at 1,400.