MICHAEL SCHWARTZ The Peanut Butter Falcon interview

The Peanut Butter Falcon
is certainly a star-studded affair, starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, even wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts and rapper Yelawolf. But none outshine the film’s lead, newcomer Zack Gottsagen, a young actor with Down syndrome, whose character’s charisma inspires everyone around him and challenges their preconceptions. DAVID MORGAN-BROWN spoke to Michael Schwartz, who wrote and directed the film with Tyler Nilson, about this new star and the film’s unique Americana setting.

What was it that made you decide to make this particular story as your debut film?

Tyler is from the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the movie is set, so we knew we could borrow boats for free and tell a story there without pulling a bunch of permits like you have to do in Los Angeles. But the inspiration was really more Zack Gottsagen, who’s our lead actor with Down syndrome. Tyler and I met him probably eight years ago now at a camp for people with and without disabilities. And he was a talented actor. We were making some short films and he said “I’m ready to be a movie star.” And we said, “Zack, that’s pretty tough. There’s not a lot of roles written for people with disabilities.” But Zack is the most optimistic person you could ever meet, he just goes, “OK, why don’t you write me one? Do you guys want to direct movies? Write me one.” We said, “OK, let’s do it.” And then five years later, here we are. Took a long time. Took a long time to get people to read it and then agree to act in it or pay for it. But I’m so, so proud of everybody that contributed.

So you would say that Zack had quite a bit of an influence on the story itself?

Yeah, I think having Zack as one of our best friends helped us write an authentic character, so having experience knowing that somebody with Down syndrome can have a goal, knowing that they experience frustration, knowing that they have senses of humour, that they can feel defeat, that they can feel excitement. You know, the full range of emotions. I think it was really helpful. There’s a lot of disabled characters in movies throughout history haven’t been fully, fully rounded. You know, you have sort of a magical character, more of a stunted character. And for us, it was really important, knowing Zack, to write a fully realised, three-dimensional character.

I’ve seen that Zack and Shia in interviews are looking very close now. Did you see that bond evolve as you were making the film?

Yeah, I mean, Zack is impossible to not love. The first day that Shia showed up, we put both of them in the back of a pickup truck and drove around for a couple hours and they got to know each other and they had inside jokes and secret handshakes and watched wrestling. And I think it was just a very genuine connection. I think Shia really anchors his performance in caring about the story and caring about his fellow actors.

I thought the locations were really stunning, not ones I see a lot in other movies, so how was it that you found them and what was it that you had in mind while writing the script and doing location scouting?

We were looking at the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is that inland waterway, swampy coast with old boats. And you know, the way the light comes through the ocean mist. We had a saying every time we were looking at a shot or a set up, that everything should look like it might give you tetanus. There’s a rusty element to the whole world and a timelessness to it. And even the way we coloured it, we wanted it to feel old and classic and rusty, and that’s really how it is out there. When you get away from the strip malls and the stucco buildings that can make up a lot of modern America, there’s this sort of timeless fishing world that we wanted to tell this story. And it is a lot of overlap with things like Mark Twain stories or the movies Mud and Beasts of the Southern Wild, there was a similar aesthetic there. There’s a sort of a classic Americana that Tyler and I are both really drawn to.

What was it that led up to making this your first feature film? I’m just wondering if you had any sort of short films or any kind of work or education that led up to an opportunity like this?

It was a lot of hard work. Tyler and I, we were neighbours in Los Angeles 15 years ago, and we started to make short films together and then we were ready to try our hand at a feature. And this one, we thought that he [Tyler] could star in it in the Shia LaBeouf role with Zack and I could run camera and edit it and we could make it really small and tell this simple story. And as we started sharing the script and getting people involved, it just kept getting bigger and bigger to the point where we have the producers of Little Miss Sunshine in Nebraska, Albert and Ron, and Bruce Dern, who is royalty, one of the best actors ever. And Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. But our intention was to make it really small.

Indeed, you had quite a few big stars for this first feature, along with big name actors, a wrestler and a rapper appearing as well. Do you know what attracted this variety of people to the script or to the proof of concept of this film you made?

I think it was that the world that we created, that sort of that big, wide-angle, watery, rusting landscapes. And Zack, I think people really wanted to be in this story with Zack. And we were crazy for it, we were lunatics. You’d get on a plane and go to Nashville to have dinner with Yelawolf to sell him on the role of Ratboy because we pictured him when we were writing it. We wanted Bruce Dern so badly. We wrote him an impassioned letter, got in touch with our producers who knew him from Nebraska. So there’s a lot of the pieces that Tyler and I went after because we knew: your story is as good as the people that help you make it. Everybody was so important.