Interview with PEANUT BUTTER FALCON directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Shwartz

The breakout hit from the US is coming to Irish cinemas on October 18th.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is a modern Mark Twain-esque adventure starring Shia LeBeouf (American Honey, Fury) as a small time outlaw turned unlikely coach who joins forces with Zak, a young man with Down Syndrome on the run from the nursing home with the dream of becoming a professional wrestler with Dakota Johnson (Susperia, Fifty Shades of Grey) as Zak’s loving, but stubborn, carer.

Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Shwartz talk about their journey  making the movie below…

You discovered leading man Zack Gottasgen at a camp for disabled actors, can you tell us a little bit about the camp and the short film you first made together?
We met Zack 8 years ago at a camp for people with and without disabilities in Venice Beach, California called Zeno Mountain Farm. A really great group of people run the camp and volunteer a few times a year to make short films, or play sports, or take road trips. Zack was acting in a short western called Bulletproofand there is a documentary about the making of that film called Becoming Bulletproof.

You wrote the film specifically for Zack, can you tell us how the project grew from script to winning awards around the world?
When we met Zack we didn’t have agents, managers, or any famous friends.  We were just a couple of guys who had been working together making short films, commercials, and web videos for about ten years. 
Zack had been studying acting since he was three years old (he went to a mainstream performing arts middle school and high school) and was making great acting decisions.  At dinner one night Zack told us that he wanted to be a movie star.  We replied honestly that there weren’t a lot of opportunities or roles written for people with Down syndrome to star in movies and he didn’t skip a beat, he said, “Then why don’t you write one for me?  We can do it together.  You guys write and direct and I’ll act.”  
During the writing process we spent a lot of time together talking about life, movies, adventure, and what Zack likes and doesn’t like.  A lot of the dialogue in the movie comes from things that Zack had said to us in conversation.
When the script was finished we couldn’t get anyone to read it so we went and shot a 5 minute proof-of-concept video with our producer Dave Thies.  The purpose was to show what the world of the movie would feel like and also that Zack could do the job as an actor.
With the proof of concept we were able to get a little traction.  At that point our biggest challenge wasn’t casting Zack it was keeping him in the role.  Before we landed with producers that “got it” at Bona Fide and Armory we had offers to finance the movie but only if we’d cast a known actor without a disability playing disabled and that was an automatic “no.” Zack was the best person for the job.
Eventually, through things like contacting actors on instagram direct message we started to get people signed on. Shia and Dakota responded well to the proof of concept and from answer’s I’ve heard them give were draw towards working with Zack.
On set we all became a family and Zack was a leader of the culture.  We all really care about each other and the story and I think that comes through in the movie.

The film has rave reviews and has won an audience award at SXSW festival, what does it mean to you for the film to receive such recognition?
It might not be the coolest thing to say but audience reactions and positive reviews mean a lot.  We’re so proud of the work everyone put in from actors, to members of the crew, and producers and we like our team to receive the recognition we think they deserve.
When researching the film, did you watch any other films for inspiration?
There are a lot of movies that we love and every day we break down films and talk about what types of elements work well to make audiences feel certain ways, connect to characters, and trigger emotions. Tonally we were influenced by: Huck Finn, Stand By Me, Mud, etc.

The film is being called “a modern Mark Twain-esque adventure”, what do you make of the comparisons to Mark Twain?

We are fans of Mark Twain and appreciate the way he was able write characters and weave dramatic story lines with adventure and humor.


How did Shia LaBeouf & Dakota Johnson first hear about the film?
How did they get involved?

Shia first heard about he film from Ben Foster who was originally cast in the role of Tyler.  Ben’s wife got pregnant and the due date was just before our shoot so Ben did us a giant favor and sent the script and proof-of-concept video to Shia.  Shia watched the video and immediately face timed us and asked if he could make that movie with us.  Dakota was approached a little more traditionally.  Two of our producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa were in touch with her about another project and passed her the materials for The Peanut Butter Falcon.  She impressed us with her performance in a movie called Black Mass and she was excited about the possibility of working with Zack

You also have three Oscar nominees starring in the film (Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church). How did you get such a great cast for your first film.

Bruce, John, Thomas and Jon Bernthal were such important additions to the cast.  Again Albert and Ron were a huge help with casting.  They had produced Nebraska with Alexander Payne and were able to go directly to Bruce Dern. They’d also made a movie with John Hawkes called Low Down and the relationship was really helpful there as well. Thomas Haden Church read the script, understood the tone immediately and after a long conversation we knew he was our Salt Water Redneck.  

Bernthal came into the fold as a favor to Shia, they are good friends and when we asked Shia who he’d like his brother to be he said, “Jon Bernthal, let me call him.”  A few days later Jon was on set with us shooting.

How did Zack get on with the rest of the cast? He has great chemistry with Shia LaBoeuf, did they hang out off camera?


Zack was a leader of the culture on set and got along really well with everybody.  He’d grab the bullhorn from our first AD James a few times a day and make speeches about how well everyone was doing and how glad he was that we were all together.  His positive attitude was infectious and genuine. Zack and Shia would watch wrestling together every Monday night… and they’d rap battle on set.  Dakota and Zack had their own special shit two.  They’d go out to dinner and dance together.


Finally, the movies title PEANUT BUTTER FALCON refers to a wrestler, where did that name come from?

Salt Water Redneck was a real guy that Tyler grew up with; Mikey Wilson.  He had done some regional wrestling in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and he inspired the character.  When we were writing we never thought we’d get an actor like Thomas Haden Church to be in our movie and though we might actually have Mikey play the part.  We had a chance to screen the movie for him recently and he loved it.

PEANUT BUTTER FALCON Irish release date is October 18th.