THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON
About The Production
The Peanut Butter Falcon's inspirational story begins with its remarkable
leading man, Zack
Gottsagen, who makes an unforgettable feature film debut in the tale of two
dreamers drifting south on a
homemade raft. After meeting Gottsagen six years ago at a camp for actors with
disabilities, co-director and
co-writer Tyler Nilson saw a chance to shine a light on the performer's
charisma, determination and self-confidence with a story written expressly for
"I could see that he had a unique skill set," says Nilson. "He's a really
good actor. About five years
ago, my writing and directing partner Mike Schwartz and I decided that this was
the right time, and we sat
down to create a role that would showcase his abilities."
Schwartz and Nilson decided to create a modern-day fable about two strangers
who make their way
down isolated waterways and back roads and find an unexpected bond that changes
both their lives. "The
setting allowed us to explore some great characters for Zack to play off of,"
Pitching a script in which the main character has Down syndrome was a
daunting task, the writer/directors admit. To head off doubters, they decided to
create a short video demonstrating Gottsagen's talents.
The project caught the attention of Tim Zajaros and Christopher Lemole,
producers of the gritty post-WWII
drama Mudbound, which garnered four 2018 Academy Award
nominations, as well as veteran independent
filmmakers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, 2014 Oscar
nominees for Nebraska.
"I had the same feeling when I read this that I did when I read Mudbound,"
says Zajaros. "I finished it
and said, all right, let's make this movie. The reason I got into the movie
business was to make special movies
that you remember for the rest of your life. You don't often get that kind of
material so if there's a chance,
we have to try to make it. It was risky, but we don't necessarily judge what we
do based on an Excel
"Some projects just grab you," agrees Lemole. "It can take two years or more
to make a film, so we
try to trust our guts and do things we enjoy. This script was so ambitious. The
story has to stand up to some
classic films. Our lead actor has Down syndrome. And we are working with two
first-time feature directors. It
But Schwartz and Nilson's proof-of-concept video featuring Gottsagen
convinced them to move
forward. "We knew he could act in a two- or three-minute piece of film," says
Zajaros. "We decided to take
the chance. We went with a lot of faith. My gut said he would great."
The Adventure Begins
With a handful of short films under their belts, Nilson and Schwartz suddenly
found themselves at
the helm of a feature involving no fewer than seven Academy Award nominees,
including actors John
Hawkes, Bruce Dern and Thomas Haden Church, and producers Zajaros, Lemole, Yerxa
Working with largely untried directors, says Lemole, can be trying for
producers, but not in this case.
"It's a director's job to ask for the moon," he explains. "The producer's job is
to keep costs under control.
With Tyler and Mike, we had a really good dynamic that allowed us to be very
appreciated that it wasn't about cutting costs, it was about what was best for
the film. Their passion for the
project made it easy for us all to work as a team."
Once the film was greenlit, Schwartz and Nilson were swept into the whirlwind
of their first major
production without much opportunity to doubt themselves. "It was like a
tornado," Schwartz recalls. "We
had a schedule, but then we'd have to switch it because of weather or people's
availability. We didn't even
have time to be tired."
"We had written The Peanut Butter Falcon primarily for Zack to have the
experience of making a
feature film," adds Nilson. "I hadn't put a lot of thought into what it meant
for my future as a director or
what it could be like for me to have that experience. So there was no fear. It
was more excitement."
Although the six-week shoot was arduous, says Nilson, the producers, actors
and crew members
quickly became family. "Most importantly, I learned to trust my gut, but be open
to new ideas. There's a line
in the film: 'Hold on and let go.' That's what we had to do. For example, you
have an idea what a scene is and
you try to hold on to it, but sometimes you have to let your assumptions go. Who
knows? You could end up
with something even better."
"We flow together," adds Schwartz. "We're yin and yang. If we were exactly
the same, it'd be really
hard to be partners. But we want the same things. And we care about the same
things. We each do what we
do best, but we talk to each other about it first."
According to Lemole, although the bar for success was set high from the
beginning, the finished
product exceeded everyone's expectations. "If we had gotten to 75 percent, I
would have been very happy,"
he says. "But we broke through the ceiling in terms of what I expected. I can't
wait to show this movie to the
world. There were times we all lost sleep. Three weeks before shooting, we still
didn't have our Salt Water
Redneck or our Eleanor, but in the end we couldn't have put together a better
Three for the Road
Gottsagen plays Zak, a young man who has been warehoused in a facility for
seniors because of a
lack of better alternatives. Passionate about professional wrestling, he watches
decades-old matches over and
over on VHS. His all-time hero is the Salt Water Redneck, whose North Carolina
wrestling school is
advertised endlessly on the tapes. With the help of his elderly roommate, Zak
makes a midnight run to
freedom. His plan is to track down his idol and attend the Salt Water Redneck's
It took all of Nilson and Schwartz's determination and vision to get the
movie made, Gottsagen says.
"I love Tyler and Mike for pulling this off. They pushed us hard every single
day. They are great directors and
I hope we can work together again. I feel so much love with these two and I'm so
happy to be a part of this
Gottsagen's relentless optimism is backed up by the kind of fierce ambition
that makes stars out of
actors, says Nilson. "Zack has always believed in himself. He has unwavering
faith. We were shooting a scene
where everyone was jumping off a 35-foot-high platform into the water and we had
to use a stunt double for
Zack and he got kind of mad. He wanted to jump, but at first the stunt
coordinator wouldn't give his
approval. So at lunch we snuck out and started jumping him at low heights. He
was fine, so we bumped him
up higher. In the end, he did his own stunt. It felt great. The whole movie is
about someone like Zack being
able to do what other people do."
The actor also worked through a painful condition that might have sidelined
About three weeks into shooting, with his most critical scenes coming up fast,
Gottsagen developed a hernia.
He refused to step aside. "Zack came through for us even though he was often in
an enormous amount of
pain," says Schwartz. "We thought it might be all over - there was no replacing
Zack - but he kept
showing up to work."
Casting the role of Tyler, the troubled and troublesome fisherman who becomes
companion, was a delicate proposition, according to the filmmakers. Initially
the character, who is on the run
from adversaries who mean to do him some serious harm, has no interest in
helping Zak. So the actor playing
him needed the sensitivity and patience to work opposite a newcomer, but also
the depth to understand and
convey Tyler's own demons. Enter Shia LaBeouf.
"We got blessed with a lightning bolt with Shia," says Nilson. "He is one of
the most dedicated
actors I have worked with. The whole heartbeat of the film is Tyler and Zak and
the way they get along. Shia
came in and built a real relationship with Zack that could not be faked. He's as
much a filmmaker as he is an
actor and he cares about the movie as much as we do. He isn't willing to just
move on after a certain number
of takes. Every scene has to be great."
LaBeouf says he was on board after reading just the first 30 pages of the
script. "I talked with Tyler
and Mike on Skype and we hit it off pretty good. Working with them felt like a
constant conversation. Even
when we got off set, it kept going, sometimes all night. What any actor wants
from a director is somebody to
lean on, to hire the right people and to trust those people. And these dudes did
that. I'm really happy with
how the movie has turned out. I can be pretty hard on my work, but this one is a
The actor calls Gottsagen one of the purest, most intensely good people he
has ever met. "He's really
elevated in terms of feelings," LaBeouf explains. "It's not a logical thing.
He's just expressive. Zack can't lie.
He wears his heart on his sleeve. We got to a place where we were so connected
we really just didn't even
need to talk. It's just a knowing silence."
The connection was essential for the characters the two actors play,
according to Lemole. "When
they team up, they become fellow outlaws in a way. They are both running from
something. And now they're
friends. I can't imagine having anyone else in these roles. The brotherhood
between those two is undeniable
and then when you add in Dakota Johnson, you've got a family. The chemistry
between all the actors is
unmatched in my experience."
LaBeouf, who has been acting professionally since he was a preteen, says
Johnson brought a level of
professionalism to the set that goes beyond anything he has seen before. "Her
first day was eight pages and
she cut right to the chase," he says. "Dakota is really powerful in a Jodie
Foster kind of way. She has the
strength to put you in your place. And her bond with Zack was amazing. They're
so good together. Once she
showed up, he didn't care about me anymore."
Johnson plays Eleanor, an empathetic volunteer at Zak's nursing home who has
a special connection
with the young man. When he disappears one night, she goes on the road to try
and rescue him before he
gets in over his head. But by the time she locates him, he's had a taste of
freedom, Tyler-style, and there's no
going back. Against her better judgment, Eleanor agrees to escort Zak to Florida
on his quest to find his
"Working with Zack has been one of the best experiences of my career,"
Johnson says. "Actually of
my life. There are no games, no judgment and no room for anything but honesty.
We just love each other.
I've never had that before. I can be completely open with him.
"I didn't really have an idea of what it was going to be like when I came
in," she says. "I came in later
than the guys and the first day for me was probably our biggest scene together.
It was pretty hardcore and
very beautiful. And not like anything I've ever imagined could exist on a film
set. We had to open our hearts,
just like the characters."
Hot on the Trail
Duncan and Ratboy, a pair of crabbers who are looking for retribution after
Tyler destroys their
equipment, are close behind as Tyler, Zak and Eleanor continue their journey
south. After dealing with
Tyler's antics for too long, Duncan is out for blood this time. John Hawkes, who
plays Duncan, brings an air
of real menace to the character. "I have so much respect for John's work," says
LaBeouf. "He's just a smart
dude. He makes good choices and he's fun to watch. I was kind of intimidated. I
thought John was the kind
of guy who takes everything seriously. But he's the best."
Hawkes says he was interested in the project as soon as he heard that
producers Ron Yerxa and
Albert Berger were involved. "They are producers extraordinaire. And then
meeting Tyler and Mike
reinforced my interest. It's always really great when the directors have written
the script. And the screenplay
itself was a little piece of magic."
To prep for their roles as fishermen, both he and LaBeouf trained with
crabber Rob Thomas. "He's
a legendary fisherman locally and a wonderful man," Hawkes says. "Getting out on
the boat with him at five
in the morning was really enjoyable. You can see why people love to crab.
There's an autonomy and a
peacefulness to it. That said, you're laying buoys and coming back to them later
and people may have stolen
your catch. It happens all the time. That's what sets Duncan after Tyler."
After more than 30 years of acting and over 100 film and television roles,
Hawkes knows the mood
on a set always comes from the top. "When the producers and the directors are
great people who care about
what they're doing and want to make things as good as they can possibly be, it's
real joy," he observes. "The
people who worked on this were really fantastic. There aren't many actors more
dedicated than Shia. He cares
more than most people, and that's an exciting prospect. And Dakota Johnson is a
delight. She's a lot of fun to
be around and a real talent. But my favorite part of the experience was getting
to know Zack and seeing his
approach to life and to work."
Duncan's sidekick in the film, a seedy tough guy known as Ratboy, is played
rapper, songwriter and producer Yelawolf, in his professional acting debut. "I
knew I was going to be joined
at the hip with someone, but you never know what that's going to be like until
you meet," says Hawkes, who
was already a fan of the musician. "He turned out to be a really terrific actor
and a really terrific human
Nilson says that he was always impressed with Yelawolf in his music videos
and when he saw the
video for "Til It's Gone" he said, "That's Ratboy."
The rapper returns the praise, "they have their vision and they stick to it,"
he adds. "They work super
good as a team and it seems like a well-oiled machine, you know? I just had to
step in and rock. They made it
super easy for me. The vibe was good, and the character wasn't a huge stretch.
I'd work with them anytime."
Accomplices and Inspirations
Zak does not make his late escape without help, which comes in the form of
Carl, his octogenarian
roommate, played by Bruce Dern. "I'm just a geeked-out fan of all the people in
the film," says Nilson.
"Especially Bruce Dern! The intensity and gravitas that he brought to set was
Dern's thespian roots trace back to the famed Actors Studio, but his career
received a big boost from
famed low-budget auteur Roger Corman. He says that Corman, for whom he made 11
films, is responsible
for getting his name and those of fellow actors Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and
Dennis Hopper above the
title in films. He admits to seeing a parallel between himself and his
character. "I wrote a memoir called
Things I've Said but Probably Shouldn't Have," Dern says. "That's Carl. He
probably drank a little too much
Wild Turkey and people got tired of putting up with him, so he ended up in this
The actor, who was nominated for his supporting role in 1979's Coming Home
and won a Best Actor
Oscar 35 years later for Nebraska, says he took on the role because the film
catches "lightning in a bottle."
"Zack on the screen is magic," says Dern. "He gives everyone his heart every
day. He brings it take after take
after take. And he's legitimately funny. He is in on every joke and has an
appreciation for them. Audiences
will see his charm and fall in love."
The object of Zak's odyssey, a washed-up wrestler who goes by the moniker
Salt Water Redneck, is
played by Thomas Haden Church. "My character had a brief encounter with
wrestling stardom back in the
'90s," Church explains. "He made it to the big leagues for about the amount of
time it takes to drink a cup of
coffee, but he's still a local legend. Zak knows him from these ancient videos
he watches, but his life has
changed and he's a lot different than what Zak thought he was going to be."
Church was drawn to the wealth of talent attached to the film as well as the
visual and emotional
worlds of the film. "They rang true to me," he says. "I have family from the
Deep South and have spent a lot
of time on the coast of Texas. This is so authentic to a world I am familiar
The Salt Water Redneck may have retired from the ring, but in Zak's heart, he
is still a champion.
And like so many before him, the Salt Water Redneck has a hard time saying no to
the young man's
determination to become the Peanut Butter Falcon, the wrestling nom de guerre he
and Tyler cook up one
"As an actor, Zack fully engages and comes up with spontaneous and authentic
moments," says Church. "His innocence is paired with unusual acuity and
everybody responds to it. And he's
got charm for days with the ladies."
Becoming a pro wrestler was never on Church's own radar, but he says that
working with wrestling
stars Mick Foley and Jake the Snake was a thrill. "I learned my first wrestling
move," he boasts. "I felt like a
master wrestler. It's been an honor to get to know Mick and Jake. They are the
only pro wrestlers I've ever
met, and both are very entertaining, colorful, good-hearted guys."
The Hostess City of the South
The Peanut Butter Falcon was shot in and around Savannah, Georgia, in the
midst of one of the
city's notoriously sultry summers, when weather conditions can be extreme.
Temperatures regularly top 90
degrees, with humidity of 90 percent or more. Frequent rainfall can bring
thunder and lightning storms, so
the company had to be extremely nimble to accommodate last-minute changes. But
the city's many charms
easily outweighed those concerns, says Nilson. "We love Savannah, I can't count
one time I wished we'd shot
somewhere else. It was the perfect place."
The film was shot by Nigel Bluck, a native Australian who has been honored
around the world for
his cinematography. His camera captures a stylized, languid version of the
backwaters and byroads of the
rural South, from swampy, reed-filled inlets and intimate sandy beaches to
wide-open fields and scrubby
woodlands, transforming Savannah, Georgia in to North Carolina flawlessly. He
finds innate beauty and
mysticism in places more often portrayed as hardscrabble. "It is a beautiful
part of the world," he notes. "The
people are very colorful, vibrant and comfortable with themselves. Even the
poorest parts are free and lush
and full of possibilities for fantasy and magic."
Bluck says he and the directors talked extensively about keeping the camera
"transparent." "It was
important that the camera not call attention to itself, but to be silently
observing this journey," he explains.
"There's a mythical feeling to the script that reminded me of Huckleberry Finn.
Visually I was going for a
sense of timelessness that you see in all the great road pictures. We wanted to
tell the story with a sense of
ultra-naturalism that reflects the realities of Tyler's life and some of the
surrealism of the fantasy realm of
He carried that philosophy through to photographing the actors, especially
Johnson. "We chose to
emphasize a sort of uncurated beauty that fits into these settings," he says.
"She looks natural and gorgeous.
It makes it easy to understand Tyler's attraction to her singularity."
Music for the Road
The Peanut Butter Falcon soundtrack is a spirited and eclectic collection of
American music that
evokes the exhilaration of an open-ended road trip. It includes bluegrass,
gospel, country, rockabilly, folk and
indie rock, from artists as diverse as the Staple Singers, Colter Wall, Ola
Belle Reed, and Yo La Tengo, plus
original music from a quartet of composers.
The directors specifically sought out music that would feel at home in the
film's distinctly American
landscape while also reinforcing the unique personalities of its trio of
travelers, according to music supervisor
and composer Zachary Dawes. "The setting is very much a character in this film,"
he says. "They wanted to
stay true to that and also have something that could pendulum between the
edginess of Shia's character and
the sweetness of Zack's and Dakota's. So there are elements of dissonance and
distortion and heavy
percussion at times and then also sweet bits for the story of the new family
As Dawes and fellow composer Jonathan Sadoff began writing original music for
the film, they
realized it was essential to bring in musicians fluent in the score's musical
language. They turned to a pair of
virtuosi, multi-instrumentalist Gabe Witcher and banjoist Noam Pikelny, who are
also credited as composers
on the film. "They are players of the highest caliber and their role ended up
being more significant than just
playing," says Dawes. "They're so good and so creative that they ended up being
a part of the scoring process
in the studio."
Executive music producer Charles Barsamian worked with the directors, the
producers, Dawes and
the other composers to assemble the soundtrack. "Everyone was so passionate
about making it the best film
it could be," he says. "Zach did an extraordinary job finding source music to
supplement the original score."
The original music includes both traditional and nontraditional elements,
says Barsamian. "Jon
Sadoff is more of a traditional film score composer, whereas Gabe Witcher and
Noam Pikelny, who are
members of the band Punch Brothers, contributed more of a bluegrass element. But
the whole through-line
is Americana. Bluegrass fiddler Sara Watkins recorded some original vocals over
a song called 'Long Hot
Summer Days.' It's more than superficial background music; it all impacts the
scenes and the movement of
Besides being intimately involved in selecting songs for the film, the
directors also co-wrote the film's
end-title song, "Running for So Long (House a Home)."
An Honest Story
The road to completing The Peanut Butter Falcon, like the route its
protagonists follow, was
sometimes difficult, often unpredictable and always gratifying, according to the
filmmakers. "Mike and Tyler
wrote an amazing script," says producer Zajaros. "They lived with the movie long
enough to know exactly
what they wanted. They found the perfect locations. The love and enthusiasm they
brought to the set every
day had a profound effect on all of us."
His hope is that the film will be as special to audiences as it is to
everyone who worked on it. "It
could potentially start an interesting conversation," he says. "But it's also
just incredibly entertaining. It has a
ton of heart and a lot of fun. There are elements that everybody can relate to
in one way or another. I can
keep watching it over and over again. It's a story told honestly, and that's the
right way to tell it."
Lemole is hard-pressed to think of another film like The Peanut Butter
Falcon, and he is excited to
share it with a wide audience. "It's a story that breaks your heart and puts it
back together again," says the
producer. "It addresses real issues without being preachy. One of the most
important things it has to say is
that everybody is entitled to their hopes and dreams. We all have to try and be
realistic in our expectations,
but at the same time, there is no reason to leave anyone on the sidelines. I
know Zack's not going to become
a professional basketball player or an Olympic swimmer. But neither am I. He's
such a special guy and I'm
proud that we were able to celebrate that."
The co-directors say all they set out to do was tell a good story, one that
would open up pathways for
people to look at the commonplace in different ways, and to give Zack Gottsagen
a chance to do something
he dreamed about for a long time. "We really wanted to make something that would
be fun for all of us and
for the audience," says Nilson. "And I wanted to give my really good friend Zack
an opportunity to be in a
movie. And maybe allow people to see him differently."
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