Friendship and Film

Two friends — one a former Aggie — are behind this summer’s feel-good adventure movie The Peanut Butter Falcon.

by | Sep 3, 2019 | Culture, Features

Best friends Michael Schwartz ’01 and Tyler Nilson are living the Hollywood dream.

The film they wrote and directed, The Peanut Butter Falcon, hit theaters last month. Starring Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson and Bruce Dern, the film also features newcomer Zack Gottsagen as a man with Down syndrome who sets off on an adventure to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. It received the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at this year’s South By Southwest.

Success did not happen overnight, Schwartz and Nilson said.

“We didn’t have any agents or managers or famous friends,” said Schwartz. “There were 10,000 road blocks along the way. It’s just stopping at each road block.”

Tyler Nilson (left) and Michael Schwartz on the set of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Courtesy of Michael Schwartz

Schwartz and Nilson met 14 years ago as neighbors in Los Angeles. Schwartz had returned from a cross-country bike trip and was working as an editor. Nilson had worked as a boatman in Samoa, landing in L.A. and working acting gigs.

“All I really wanted was to be an adventure guide or a writer, or somebody who was out living a really unique life and writing about it,” said Nilson.

The friends began to collaborate, working on short spots and the narrative short film The Moped Diaries in 2014.

The Peanut Butter Falcon started with a promise to a friend. Schwartz and Nilson met Gottsagen a few years back as volunteers at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp for people with developmental disabilities. Gottsagen told them he wanted to be a movie star.

“It was in a conversation we were [having about how] there’s just not roles written for people with Down syndrome,” Schwartz said. “So he came up with the solution when he said we should just write it.”

The duo took a year to plot out the movie and write the script. To accurately portray a man with Down syndrome, the two relied on their friendship with Gottsagen, including road trips they had taken together. They also were counseled by such organizations as the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, Special Olympics and Best Buddies International.

The hard part was getting would-be producers to read their script. They even shot a “proof of concept,” a five-minute trailer for the film — highlighting the look and feel of what they had in mind and Gottsagen’s acting abilities.

Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen at the SXSW premiere of The Peanut Butter Falcon.

Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW

After a couple years of shopping around the script, an Instagram post changed their direction. At the end of 2015, actor Josh Brolin posted a message about how he wanted to help people in the new year. Nilson and Schwartz sent a direct message saying they could use his help.

“He wrote back maybe 10 minutes later and said, ‘that’s not what I was talking about, but I will help you,’” said Schwartz. “That really changed things for us because we were able to call producers and say we’re making a movie with Josh Brolin.”

They shot the film in 2017. It takes place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where Nilson grew up. When Gottsagen’s character meets LaBeouf’s, a crab trapper who is on the run, the story riffs on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the two, then joined by Johnson’s Eleanor, sail down the coast on a raft.

Schwartz described making the movie as a special experience.

“We really were like the Bad News Bears of moviemaking, because we’d never really done it before,” he said. “We kind of ran it like therapy summer camp. If anybody had something emotional to bring, we made space for it. Zack and Shia and Dakota, we all became fast friends.”

Added Nilson: “I love all things that allow people to express themselves cathartically. It’s a release valve on that stress that we all carry around.”

Going forward, the duo have vowed to stick together and work as a team on future projects. Schwartz said his notion of being part of a team came from his experiences at UC Davis, where he ran cross country and track.

“It’s really great when I get tired to have somebody pick me up,” he said. “And when Tyler gets tired, I get to carry the weight for a while. At Davis, being part of a sports team really set that pattern in me in a good way.”