Heading to select theatres August 9, and expanding in the coming weeks, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is a sweet crowd-pleaser of a movie that is having an unexpected effect on the filmmakers. Co-writers/directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz have taken an unorthodox journey to the big screen with this artisan film, a true labor of love that has taken them more than five years to complete. And they are doing it with a Down syndrome actor in their leading role.
Zack Gottsagen makes his feature film debut in the movie playing Zak, a young man forced to live in a retirement community (his roommate is played by 83-year-old Bruce Dern) because the state doesn’t have a residence for him. Tired of that life and eager to live his own dreams, Zak stages a breakout and ends up on a long journey through the heart of the Deep South.
During a recent interview, the co-writers/directors talked about their decision to cast an actor who had Down syndrome in the lead role of Zack, noting that it’s not the traditional decision.
“I think it's real commonplace, and was commonplace, for a person with a disability to be played by a bigger actor,” Tyler Nilson said. “We have a guy with Down syndrome playing a guy with Down syndrome. It's not something I've seen done a lot.”
Several actors over the years have played characters with developmental disabilities, from Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN to Sean Penn in I AM SAM. But THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON captures real authenticity in Zak’s journey by allowing Zack Gottsagen to embark on the quest at the heart of the story. The young man is trying to reach a wrestling school that he learned about on an old video tape. He doesn’t even know if the school still exists, but he’s adamant about seeing for himself.
As the movie has made the rounds at different film festivals, winning the Narrative Spotlight award at this year’s South by Southwest fest, Nilson and Schwartz have received a valuable piece of feedback that they are really taking to heart.
“Mothers with sons that have developmental disabilities are coming up to me now and saying things like, ‘If this film does well, my son might have a good shot at getting a job. Because he can't get a job right now because people don't want to take a shot on him,’” Nilson said. “I didn't realize. We had given Zack a job. We created a job for Zack … we all created this opportunity for him to star in a feature film. And it might give people that I wasn't even aware of a shot to do something as seemingly unimportant as just having a job.”
While THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON leans on the acting chops of its lead, Zack Gottsagen, it surrounds the young man with a wealth of fantastic character actors. Zak is joined on his journey by another character who is dodging trouble, Tyler, and he’s played by Shia LaBeouf. Zak meanwhile has a nurse from the home seeking to bring him back safely, and she’s played by Dakota Johnson. Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, John Hawkes and Jon Bernthal make up key supporting parts.
Look for THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON when it opens in select theatres near you beginning on August 9.