So many films are described as “feel good” that the term’s in danger of over use. But there are those that deserve the accolade and The Peanut Butter Falcon, released in UK cinemas on Friday after screening at last week’s London Film Festival, falls into that category. The story of a young man with Downs Syndrome, who follows his dream to become a wrestler, it’s the first feature from writing/directing duo Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz but, as far as they’re concerned, the film belongs to one person. The inspiration for the film, Zack Gottsagen.
The actor, who has Downs, met Nilson and Schwartz several years ago. Schwartz describes him as “a really magnetic character, who’d been studying acting most of his life and he asked us what he needed to do to be a movie star. We said it’s hard for anybody to be a movie star, but you have Downs Syndrome and there’s not a lot of roles for people with Downs Syndrome. But he very optimistically said, ‘You guys write and direct. I act. Let’s just do it together.’ The problem existed for ten seconds before he solved it!” And it was there that the film started. Nilson and Schwartz wrote it with Zack in mind, making sure that his character kept that artless, positive attitude, which let nothing stand in his way.
A feel good movie was what the pair had in mind when they started on the script, but one that allowed the audience to challenge their own attitudes, especially towards the main character. “We were conscious that we needed to present a couple of points of view,” says Schwartz. “Tyler’s (Shia LaBeouf) character presents one perspective, Eleanor’s (Dakota Johnson) another. Neither of them are fully right, but they’re right in their own ways. And they come together to form a family that is better off together than they would be apart.” The movie’s tone has led to comparisons with Mark Twain and Huck Finn and, while the two acknowledge that, a more practical reason came into play. Tyler Nilson comes from the Outer Banks in North Carolina, where the film is set and shot, and that meant he knew the waters really well – and knew where to get boats for free.
Nilson and Schwartz have collaborated for a number of years, meeting in the car park of an apartment block in Santa Monica when Nilson was living in his truck. Until now, they’d concentrated on making shorts so The Peanut Butter Falcon represented a huge leap into the unknown. “We weren’t ready to make a feature film,” Schwartz admits. “It’s a very refined form of storytelling. We were ready 15 years ago to make 30 second commercials and you can mostly make that work with some voiceovers and really pretty shots. And then you get to a short and ten minutes is a long time to keep somebody engaged. It’s all about building skills. It took us a lot of time to learn how cameras worked and everything else that went with it.” Nilson adds, “And you have to learn how to tell a story to keep you engaged for a period of time. It’s like honing a stand-up act or any kind of performance. When you have 90 minutes or more to tell a story, you can’t have five seconds that’s off.”
Next up for them is a TV show which pairs them with Warner Brothers. Based on their time living in a tent in Los Angeles, it’s about two young women who can’t afford rent in the city, so build a tree house in the hills above Hollywood. The script for the first season is written, but for now the two are concentrating on their first feature. As Nilson puts it, “There’s a lot of awards buzz and recognition for Shia’s performance and Zack’s performance and I’m really grateful for that. So, at the moment, Mike and I are supporting those guys.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon trailer
Tyler Nilson and Mike Schwartz were talking to Freda Cooper.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is in cinemas on Friday, 18 October.
Read our review of the film here.