Peanut Butter Falcon directors on Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf’s friendship – “There was a lot of laughing and connected conversations”

Outtake had to pleasure of sitting down with Peanut Butter Falcon directing duo, Mike Schwartz and Tyler Nilsen, to discuss their star-studded feature debut ahead of its premiere at London Film Festival.

Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

This film has a really interesting backstory. Could you talk a little bit about how you met Zack and how you wrote the story?  

Mike Schwartz: Zack is a really magnetic human being. We met him eight years ago in Los Angeles, at a camp where people with and without disabilities come together and make art. And Zack was giving a really fantastic performance in a short film, and at dinner one night he told us that he wanted to be a movie star. He’d been working really hard. He’d gone to a performing arts mainstream secondary school. He was an usher in a movie theatre. His whole life is about movies! At that moment I told him, “I’m so sorry Zack, there’s just not a lot of roles for people with Down syndrome. It’s hard for anybody to be a movie star.” And he has this level of confidence where he just went, “Cool. Well, you guys write and direct and I act, so let’s do it.” He’s like that. Last week, Justin Timberlake texted Shia and told him he loved the movie, and Shia told Zack, and Zack was like, “Great, I’m gonna make a dance video with Justin Timberlake.” Zach has no limits in his aspirations and what he thinks can happen.

So how did the story come together?

Mike Schwartz: So we knew we had Zack as a lead actor. And then we knew that we didn’t have a way to make movies other than through favours. We’d never made a movie before, we didn’t have agents or managers. Tyler’s from North Carolina so that’s where we’d set it. We knew we could borrow boats. We knew we could shoot without permits. It’s sort of like… do you have a show here called Chopped? It’s like that, it’s a big bag of beautiful ingredients, and you ask yourself how you can make them work together.

Tyler Nilson: We tailored the script to Zack, so because he loves wrestling, we had a wrestling match be the final act. He loves swimming, he’s a really good swimmer. So we said his character was a bad swimmer, to give him an arc. We started just really trying to tailor a script to who he was as a human being, and Peanut Butter Falcon is what came out.

I know you cited Mark Twain as an inspiration to the traveling fable format, but did you draw from any other sources?

Tyler Nilson: We didn’t really focus on Mark Twain, we just really liked the way he did exteriors and how he created a wildness, a timelessness in his work, so we borrowed some elements of that; But as far as things we focused on, we looked at Americana literature, and we wanted the way shots were set up to feel Norman Rockwell-ish… just very classic Americana and Western.

Mike Schwartz: Even the way westerns are shot. The way it shows the expansiveness of the desert, we really wanted to do that for the marshlands in the south. Call it a Southern! So that genre was influential not so much in story but in aesthetic.

Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

Of course, casting Shia Labeouf was quite the feat. How did that collaboration come about?

Mike Schwartz: We couldn’t get anybody to read the script because we were nobodies, so we had to shoot a proof of concept. Tyler was in the role Shia plays and Zack was Zak, I was running camera with our friend Dave and we went out and shot this 5-minute trailer. We sent that to Josh Brolin on Instagram, and he said he would do it. And then we got these producers because we could tell them we’d gotten Josh. There were a lot of moving parts, then Ben Foster wanted to it but couldn’t, so he sent it instead to Shia. And next thing you know, Shia FaceTime-d us, and we didn’t even know he knew about it or that he had our phone number! It’s funny, he holds the phone way too close to his face, you can’t take it seriously. But he told us he wanted to make this film, so it all magically happened. And he’s perfect, so perfect for it. He’s such a genius actor.  

And I heard he and Zack are really close now. Did they hang out before filming to build that chemistry and rapport?

Mike Schwartz: We’d all drive around and they’d sit in the back of the truck and talk for hours. And then they found they would watch wrestling together on TV every Monday and Tuesday night. All the time. They rap, they’re both really good rappers. There was a lot of laughing and a lot of real connected conversations.

You mentioned creating a proof of concept, which isn’t common practice. Was part of that because you wanted to prove that your lead, who has a disability, could handle the role?

Mike Schwartz: Yeah, we were asking for millions of dollars and had to respect that for an investor, it looked like a risk. Could Zack do it, and could he stay in the role? Before we found our investors, we had different financiers and companies offer to make it, but only if we got a non-disabled star to play Zak.

Tyler Nilsen: We wanted to respect our financiers and show that even though it’s commonly done with professional actors playing disabilities, that Zack is a phenomenal actor and can do the job. So we needed to do it in a short film, we need to prove that he could do it but also that we could.

Courtesy of Signature Entertainment

And do you think the industry is starting to get better at casting disabled people?

Mike Schwartz: I think our movie is helping with that. I think the success of our movie selling tickets, helps with that because at the end of the day, it’s a business. I think our movie making money is going to open the doors for lots of other diversity castings, because we’ve shown there’s money to be made, even if it stars somebody who doesn’t look like Tom Cruise.

Read our glowing review here. Peanut Butter Falcon is out October 18th.

Laura Potier

Co-founder and editor of Outtake, feel free to drop me a line with any questions or article pitches at laura@outtakemag.co.uk