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Beating The Odds - A Leading Actor With Down Syndrome And First-Time Directors Guide 'The Peanut Butter Falcon' To Success

Posted By Tom Hymes, Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The independently produced film The Peanut Butter Falcon was released last August and became a sleeper hit by the end of the year. It amassed box office receipts in excess of $20 million to become one of the most successful independent films of 2019. To say the movie’s journey from concept to screen was fraught with challenges is to define the state of most indie movies, if not all movies. But in this case the challenges—first-time writer-directors, a tight budget and shooting schedule, and a lead with Down syndrome—were so baked into the making of the film that they eventually came to explain, if not define, its success.

Making the movie was a transformative experience for Tim Zajaros of Armory Films and Albert Berger of Bona Fide Productions, two of six producers attached to the project, along with directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. Starring Shia LaBeouf and Dakota Johnson, the movie’s titular character is played by Zack Gottsagen, a 30-something actor with Down syndrome, who is making his feature film debut. The screenplay was written specifically for Gottsagen.

“It all started with Zack,” recalls Zajaros. “The story of this film is that Tyler and Mike met Zack at an arts camp, while helping disabled actors and other people wanting to make films or art achieve their dreams. They learned he’d wanted to be an actor all his life, and they wrote this movie for him to star in.” That is the short version. The longer version tells the story of the special sauce that went into making The Peanut Butter Falcon.

“When Zack told the directors how he wanted to be a movie star, Mike and Tyler were honest with him at first,” explains Zajaros, who also has a cameo in the film. ‘We don't really have any connections,’ they told him, ‘and the reality is that it’s a tough business as it is, and the chances of somebody with Down syndrome ever getting the opportunity to be a lead in a movie is slim to none.’ Zack just sat for a second, thought about it and finally said, ‘Well, why don't you guys write it and direct it, and I’ll star in it?’ And being the great guys that they are, they just kind of looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, let’s do that.’”

That decision—as well as the decision to make a proof-of-concept short with Gottsagen in character—set the stage for everything to come, including cementing the directors to the project, along with their script and their star. It led to a production dynamic in which life and art would intertwine inextricably by creating a sense of community inseparable from the story itself.

“The sense of family on the set was on another level,” says Zajaros. “I mean, everybody. I don't even know where you start with the credit. With the script, I suppose, because that’s what brought us all together … and Zack. Every shooting day we would all go to dinner, cast included. There would be 10 or 12 of us, and that just doesn’t happen.”

Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz confer on a shot on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon
-photograph by Seth F. Johnson

The script itself incorporated elements from Gottsagen’s life, including his interest in wrestling, his passionate desire to do what he wants to do and his frustrations at any limitations imposed on him because of his disability. The movie is an adventure story featuring a young man with Down syndrome who runs away from the nursing home where he lives to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. A small-town outlaw, played by LaBeouf, becomes his unlikely coach and ally. Johnson’s character, a kind nursing home employee with a story of her own, joins them on their journey. Their Huckleberry Finn-like adventure involves a raft with a pole and achingly gorgeous vistas representing the Outer Banks of Northern Carolina, although the movie was actually shot around Savannah, Georgia. A bevy of veteran character actors, including Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and John Hawkes, anchor the film.

According to Berger, it was a spirit of generosity unique to this project that allowed the producers to stretch their modest $6 million budget to include such a stellar cast and uber-competent crew. In fact, it was the commitment of one cast member in particular that really made the difference. “Shia was a producer’s best friend on this movie because he did it for love. He did not do it for money,” explains Berger. “It allowed us to make deals with everybody else. That’s why you have the cast you have, because normally a guy like Shia would eat up all the money for the movie. But he didn’t. He did it for love, and then he had such a commitment throughout the whole movie.” Zajaros adds, “It was also because his commitment to Zack is real.”

Indeed, as explained by the producers, Gottsagen’s enthusiasm and honesty were in many ways the glue that bound everyone to the project and made the working atmosphere unlike any they had experienced before. For LaBeouf, his relationship with Gottsagen is there on the screen for all to see and appreciate. Without that bond, the movie would simply not work, and out of it came screen moments of unusual and quiet intensity.

“Shia is like an on-the-field coach in a way,” says Berger. “So you had Mike and Tyler, who knew Zack inside out and wrote this for him and had a real rapport with him, and then you had Shia right there, kind of reacting to whatever Zack would do and helping that process. Dakota also had a very strong relationship with Zack, so it formed a strong core.” Working with the actors required special patience, he adds. “Zack does not say the same thing the same way twice exactly, and neither does Shia, in a very different way. You have an actor like Shia who is all about honesty and finding it in the moment, and you have Zack.” Zajaros points out the combination is powerful, explaining, “Shia had a great partner in Zack because Zack isn’t anything but truth.”

The connection extended off the set as well. “Shia had an episode where he had something that kind of turned his whole life around on this movie,” says Berger. “There was a scene where he was supposed to drink, and he drank, and it carried on into the evening, and he ended up in jail. Out of that—and it’s been very well reported—came his whole dynamic with Zack and the disappointment Zack felt and how much he was depending on Shia. I think that not only turned Shia’s life around but resulted in Honey Boy. “It’s brilliant,” Berger says of LeBeouf’s performance in Honey Boy, “and I would say the only other thing that rivals it is his performance in our movie. I mean, these are monumental back-to-back performances.” 

Producer Tim Zajaros (pointing) of Armory Films on set.
-Photo by Seth F. Johnson

Producer Albert Berger of Bona Fide Productions with Zack Gottsagen,
star of
The Peanut Butter Falcon
-Photo by David Thies

Overcoming challenges was the story of this movie’s journey, because nothing about getting it from A to Z was easy. “We thought the movie was great and we believed in it, but we could not find a festival to take it,” says Berger. “We could not find a distributor to distribute it. And finally, after getting turned down by all the major festivals, we got into South by Southwest, where we won the Audience Award. Out of that festival, we were able to engage with a great distributor, Roadside Entertainment, but still Chris [Lemole] and Tim [Zajaros] and their company, Armory Films, supplied a lot of the money to release the film. Because of them, this movie could be everything it needed to be.” It was, adds Zajaros, an “extraordinarily hard shoot.”         

“I worked harder on this than I have on maybe any other movie, and everybody says the same,” concurs Berger. “It’s important for the PGA audience to understand this because the PGA does a great job in determining who should get credit and who actually did the work as producers. But it’s very important to also understand that sometimes it takes a group and sometimes that entire group contributes. And when that happens, everybody needs to be recognized.”

Continuing an industry trend, several production companies were attached to the Peanut Butter project, raising the question of how so many people with different ideas about what a film should be can come together to agree on a strong singular vision.

“This [subject] is very important to me, because sometimes Ron [Yerxa] and I are the only producers on a movie,” says Berger, whose credits number around 30 and include Cold Mountain, Little Miss Sunshine and Nebraska. “And sometimes you’re brought together with this new group, and you’ve got to figure it out as you go. Somebody at the PGA screening said, ‘How is it possible that six people all have the PGA mark?’ The simple fact is that if everybody is there for the right reason, and you put your ego aside, you figure out a way to work together where everybody functions to the best of their capability. They don’t jump out of their lane, and they figure out what’s best for the movie. That happened on Little Miss Sunshine and it happened on this one. I think it’s very important that people figure out how to work together in the best interests of the movie, and I’m very proud that our group was able to figure that out.”

“I agree,” responds Zajaros, whose 16 producing credits include Mudbound and Arctic. “It was film first for everybody. Egos were thrown out the door. Sure, I’ve been on movies where people have producer credits, but really didn’t do much and maybe shouldn’t have gotten that credit. But literally every producer on this movie brought something very important to the shoot.”

In the end, the filmmakers expressed a deep satisfaction with the experience of making this movie, combined with a slightly bittersweet sense of what could have been. “It’s run its course,” Berger says of the film’s theatrical run, which topped out at about 1,600 screens. “Now the DVD is on iTunes, and it’s really got a great life. Of course, the difference between now and when Little Miss Sunshine was made [in 2006] is that it’s much harder to get people into the theater, particularly for an independent film. People will go to the theater to see Batman, they’ll go to see Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, they’ll go to see the Marvel movie, but now streaming has taken over the whole province of film.

You know,” he adds after a moment’s thought, “Roadside did a magnificent job with this movie, but you have to wonder, if a big studio had really gotten behind it, the opportunities would have been limitless. This movie connects with people, and when a movie connects with people it doesn’t matter if it’s a $100 million Marvel movie or a $4 or $5 million movie.”

For Zajaros, producing the film brought many exhilarating moments that he savors. “The feeling I got from this movie—and I don’t want this to sound arrogant because it was our movie—but it’s why I got in the business. There are not that many movies that make me feel like that anymore.”

The word-of-mouth hit continues to soar. Gottsagen received the Rising Star Award at the 2020 Palm Springs International Film Festival. He was also the subject of a December Los Angeles Times profile with the headline, “Zack Gottsagen has Down syndrome. And a movie role. And a best bud named Shia LaBeouf.” This momentum is not lost on the producers, whose hope is that the buoyant flight of The Peanut Butter Falcon is a sign that Hollywood is serious about embracing diversity in front of and behind the camera.

“Storytelling is coming back, and what is changing now is new voices and diversity and people being able to finally tell their own story,” says Berger. “I think we are to some degree participating in that because of Zack and because Mike and Tyler saw this opportunity to work with him to tell a story that he would be comfortable with and would be able to deliver on, and I think the next frontier is Zack telling his own stories. That’s where it really starts to get exciting.”

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