SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) – It's a seemingly nondescript Wednesday afternoon for everyone in the newsroom, but in the lobby directors/writers Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson are two days away from the opening of their first feature film, "The Peanut Butter Falcon."
"I didn't have any famous friends, no agents or managers. So, it would have been hard regardless. And then when people finally did read the script, they wanted us to cast our lead role, somebody with Down syndrome, with somebody like Dustin Hoffman or a Tom Hanks. And we really wanted to cast the guy that we wrote the film for, which is Zack Gottsagen," Schwartz explains.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon" tells the story of Zak, a young man with Down syndrome, runs away from the nursing home to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. It's a truly original idea; no wonder Hollywood had a difficult time wrapping their head around it.
Tuesday night, I had sat with them for a post-screening Q&A. Traditionally it's incredibly awkward to watch a film with the people who made it. Even the slightest of normal movement from a critic can be interpreted as some kind of condemnation of the movie. And yet, I could help but follow Schwartz and Nilson into the theater where they watched the film's capstone scene.
During the Q&A, Nilson told the crowd that they were the best audience that the film has ever had. The day after, he was still raving about the experience.
I had watched the film the week before. As much as I enjoy sitting down and talking with artists, I needed to see the film and they way it depicted its lead character and his disabilities before I agreed to moderate the post-screening event.
Obviously, I enjoyed the film. So did that night's audience. It's hard not to. Gottsagen's performance is smile inducing and the magical realism of the story inviting. Seeing a actor with Down syndrome playing the role of a character with Down syndrome shouldn't be a new, thrilling experience, but for all the inclusion and diversity that the film industry has embraced that has yet to really extend to those with disabilities.
The journey to making the film started five years ago when Schwartz and Nilson met Gottsagen.
Schwartz recalls, "We met Zach at a camp for people with and without disabilities in Venice beach and he was acting in a short film and we saw that he had a lot of talent. We had a conversation with him one night and he said he wanted to get into features and he said, there's not a lot of opportunities. Then he said, 'Let's do it together.'"
Nilson and Schwartz had made commercials and short films, but had no experience when it came to feature-length movie. Nilson jokes that they rushed to the library to check out as many books on film making that they could find. Books that he explains are still garnering late fees.
"I thought it would take us like six months of hard work and a took us five years," Nilson says. "So, if I had known it was going to take us five hard years, I don't know if I would've done it like this because if you can't see how long the road goes, you're just on the road."
"Being naive helps," Schwartz interjects.
While crafting the script the duo were heavily influenced by Gottsagen's love for professional wrestling and birthday parties. They were also inspired by his struggles.
"It's an adventure story first and foremost. And then within that added the element of Zach's unique character and what a person with down syndrome, um, what type of goals they might have or frustrations or life experiences," Schwartz explains.
Nilson adds, "Writing for this was sort of like the [Food Network] show 'Chopped' where you get a brown bag and there's like an onion and a piece of bubble gum and some salt and they're like, 'You've got to make a souffle.' We have the elements of Zack Gottsagen being a wonderful actor and wanting to write something that was sort of tailored for him. And then it became an element of like, what could we get for free?"
Josh Brolin, who was initially attached to the project before opting to play Cable in "Deadpool 2," helped open a few doors for the directors. Those doors would ultimately lead to the casting of the likes of Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern and Jon Bernthal. They even brought in wrestling icons Jake Roberts and Mick Foley.
Nilson can't decide if the best villain's performance in the film is John Hawkes or Jake Roberts. That's not an insult to either actor, more of testament to how good both actors are at being bad guys.
During the Q&A they directors were asked about their current 100% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Nilson admits that it is something that he has paid attention to. Now that the film has been made, the hope is that it will be seen.
"The Peanut Butter Falcon" is a really small movie and a lot of producers took risks with us to make this movie and it comes out just in a small amount of theaters," Schwartz says, "And if they do well in those small amount of theaters, then they get expanded to a wider release."
Schwartz and Nilson agree that they'd love to audiences to see the movie in a theater, rather than at home alone on a streaming service.
"I think unlocks more emotions in a fuller experience," Schwartz says.
Having shown the film in a couple of cities ahead of its theatrical release, Nilson admits that he's been surprised by the impact the film has already had on audiences.
"I wasn't aware of was the effect it might have on others, specifically those who are surrounded by people with disabilities and have people like that in their lives."
In these pessimistic times, "The Peanut Butter Falcon" offers movie goers the opportunity to see something different; something that will put a smile on their face and change the way they see people with disabilities. It might even change the way that some view themselves. You have to admire Gottsagen's passion. Many of us want to be movie stars; Gottsagen is one.
Visit www.thepeanutbutterfalconmovie.com for more information on where the film is currently playing.