The Peanut Butter Falcon: Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson

The Peanut Butter Falcon
The Peanut Butter Falcon
Directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson

by Alex Plant

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the debut feature from directing team Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson, who collectively go under the name Lucky Treehouse. It’s already made a big splash in the states at South by Southwest, where it won the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award. The indie film tells the tale of Zack, a wrestling-obsessed young man with Down syndrome, and the friendship he forms with Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) as the two of them escape their problems and travel across North Carolina in pursuit of brighter prospects. Zack is played by real-life Down syndrome actor Zack Gottsagen, and his stunning performance forms the heart and soul of the movie. “He created the opportunity. The Peanut Butter Falcon started with him,” muses Michael Schwartz on the genesis of the film. The pair had a three-year friendship with Gottsagen prior to making The Peanut Butter Falcon, which came about after they saw him perform in a film at a camp for people with disabilities. “He was incredible. He had a talent, was making really good decisions. And then one night at dinner he was sitting with us and he said, ‘I wanna be a movie star.’ And we said ‘Cool. That’s really challenging, not a lot of roles written for people with Down syndrome.’ And he has this really infectious self-confidence and he just said ‘Cool. You guys write and direct it and I’ll star in it.”

Wrestling forms a big part of the movie, with Zack searching for the wrestling school run by fictitious wrestler, The Saltwater redneck, played by Thomas Hayden-Church. But the movie also features actual professional wrestlers Mick Foley and Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Wrestling is clearly a big thing for the directors, as well as for Zack. “It’s cinematic”, says Tyler Nilson. “It’s pure. Good guys and bad guys. Very clear cut.” Both of them confess to being fans of Mick Foley’s autobiographies, but after reading the script a year before shooting started, the hardcore superstar quickly became a fan of theirs. “He kept calling every few months and saying ‘When are we going? I’m really excited about this!’”

Schwartz is very enthusiastic when talking about the topic of directing as part of a two-man team, “I’ve never directed a feature by myself. I just know how great it is to have a teammate. I acknowledge that I’m not perfect and to have my blindspots checked by someone I trust and respect a lot is… Our vision is very in line, but we get twice the angles on things, twice the ideas. It’s a really great set up.”

The Peanut Butter Falcon is an unashamedly heart-warming movie and that’s no accident. “Tyler and I talk a lot about feeling good coming out of the movies,” says Schwartz. “Smaller movies can be very dramatic and sad and we wanted something that felt celebratory.” Though this isn’t to suggest that the movie doesn’t have its more dramatic moments. The performances help create a beautifully balanced tone. There’s even some well-earned awards buzz. “People have been talking a lot about Zack and Shia being considered for awards, and that’s really exciting for me. I’m really grateful to be able to see that through, if that’s even a possibility,” says Nilson. “Even when the film came out and won South by Southwest, nobody would buy it because they said a film starring somebody with Down syndrome is not marketable. I’m really just grateful to relax and bare witness to what might be Zack getting nominated for something, some sort of award in the next couple of months.”

The pair have a great sense of perspective on things, which possibly comes from the fact that when they first came to Hollywood they were literally living in a treehouse. “A lot of good things happened there. This movie sort of got off ground when we were homeless in Los Angeles, living in a treehouse,” says Schwartz. “And that shit was lucky,” chimes in Nilson as Schwartz laughs. “It worked out well.”


Our review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

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