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‘Peanut Butter Falcon’ writers crafted the film for actor friend who has Down syndrome

“Peanut Butter Falcon” screenwriters Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson
Screenwriters Michael Schwartz, left, and Tyler Nilson crafted their first feature with their friend Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, in mind.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Michael: Zack Gottsagen is one of my best friends, an incredible actor with Down syndrome, and also the most genuinely optimistic person I’ve ever met. That’s not to say that he doesn’t acknowledge hardship and struggle, because he does, and he’s seen a lot of it in his life. It just means that he has a sincere and unwavering belief in himself and the best possible outcome in any situation. That optimistic self-confidence is contagious, and it’s the reason “The Peanut Butter Falcon” exists.

Tyler: Zack had become a very close friend of mine after we met at a camp in Venice Beach for disabled actors. In a conversation over dinner one night, he spoke about his desire to become a movie star. Michael and I didn’t sugar-coat it. We explained to him that even though he was talented and had been studying acting for years, there just weren’t many roles written in Hollywood for actors with Down syndrome (or any disability) and that there was a very small chance that he’d ever get an opportunity to play a major role. He responded with a smile and said, “Well … you guys make movies, why don’t you write one and I can be in it?! We can do it together!”

Michael: If you’ve seen Zack in “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” you know he is somewhere between “very persuasive” and “impossible to resist.” Even though Tyler and I didn’t have agents or managers and had never written anything longer than a short, the idea sounded good to us, and we promised to write him a feature-length movie and a well-developed three-dimensional character.

Tyler: Knowing Zack well and building “The Peanut Butter Falcon” around him helped define the themes that were best for the story to address and even the types of words and phrases his character uses. Zack’s range of life experiences are real, so the hope was that writing with them in mind would ground the emotional beats and allow them to feel authentic even in an imagined world.

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Michael: Zack isn’t a professional wrestler and doesn’t dream of becoming one in real life, but his dream to be an actor is parallel in a lot of ways, and he was able to use his own experiences working towards a goal to tap into what his character was feeling. In his real life, Zack has a loving family that has supported him, but in the movie his character is abandoned in a retirement care facility and frustrated by not being able to do the things he aspires to do.

Tyler: As storytellers, we also wanted to write something that could make an audience feel good. We wanted to make a character piece that had an independent feel and dramatic moments but also a heavy dose of humor and moments that could make people want to cheer.

When Michael and I talk about writing stories and making movies, one of the first questions that comes up is: “Where do you want to live for the next couple of years?” And there’s two parts to that. There is the physical location and also the emotional place or feeling. I grew up on an island off the coast of North Carolina, and I loved “Huckleberry Finn” as a kid, so setting an adventure story for Zack in a gritty, blue-collar world with a Mark Twain influence felt right.

Michael: Once we defined what we were doing with the story and character, the biggest challenge was keeping Zack in the role. More than once we heard potential producers say that they loved the script but that shooting with a disabled actor was a risk and that maybe we could consider using an able-bodied movie star playing the disability. Luckily, we ended up with an incredible group of producers and financiers that knew Zack was the best actor for the role and helped build a talented cast around him with actors like Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church and Jon Bernthal.

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Tyler: Any movie getting made is a miracle, and even though this one took us five years, I’m so grateful for the experience. We had a screening at the Academy theater when the movie came out a while back, and when the credits rolled and the audience was cheering, Zack tugged on my arm and said, “Look at all the people loving our movie! All our dreams are coming true!”


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