They don’t make movies like The Peanut Butter Falcon anymore. We have become too cynical, but directors Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson took down our defenses with their earnest film. I was surprised to learn that this was their first feature film, but it comes to no surprise that they are nominated for First-Time Feature Film at the Directors Guild of America Awards. The Peanut Butter Falcon wins you over with its simplicity and its honesty.
The story of how the friends wrote and directed their first feature film is as interesting as the film they made. Nilson and Schwartz have known their star, newcomer Zack Gottsagen, for a few years and they wanted to showcase his charisma with a project they created themselves. That bond is immediate when you watch the film. If this movie was made a few years ago, it probably would’ve been a star vehicle for an actor on the hunt for awards recognition, but Gottsagen, an actor with Downs Syndrome, only has to be his authentic self. The camera loves him.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is so engaging because Schwartz and Nilson focus on the story and the drive of the characters. The film isn’t flashy or pretentious–it’s sweet without being saccharine and honest without being blunt or mean. It’s a story about finding yourself even while being your true self. To pull off a film with a central theme of found familial love is hard to accomplish, but Schwartz and Nilson are so genuine that it’s second nature to them.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your DGA nomination. What was it like when you found out?
Tyler Nilson: I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe it.
Michael Schwartz: It’s really cool. When we started making this, we just wanted to make a movie with our friend Zack [Gottsagen]. We’ll figure it out. I can run camera and get some people to help. And then we got these talented actors and these producers to help. It’s still a small movie, but the level of talent involved really helped us make the movie we wanted to make.
AD: I didn’t even realize that it was your first feature honestly. It’s such an assured film.
Tyler: I think there’s a confidence you have when you’re naïve. When I was young, I used to run track or the Fourth of July footrace or something like that, and there would be some 12 year old that would attack me in the last mile. I would think, ‘They don’t know they’re supposed to be tired yet.’
AD: Well, that paid off really well. Did you guys set out to make a movie about a found family?
TN: We wanted to curate something around Zack, because we think he’s really talented and we wanted a showcase for him. When the emotional writing really started, that came from my own wounds of being a child of divorce. Sometimes, as a writer, you’re constantly trying to create a place that you wish existed. I have a real family fantasy. I love the idea of the idea of connectedness and that not necessarily being your blood. It wasn’t an intentional thing but I think there’s a common theme of community and family that comes from us.
AD: That sort of innocence is hard to pull off. I don’t think we see that unironic earnestness anymore. Was showing kindness something you wanted to put forth as well?
MS: I think Tyler and I are just sincere guys. When we care, you know it. I think the people we got to make this with are the same. Zack cares and you know it—there’s not an ironic bone in his body. In hindsight, Shia [LaBeouf] said in an interview that sincerity is the new punk rock. It’s the most punk rock can be. I do think it’s just what came out of us. We’re corny.
AD: Corniness is underrated, I think.
TN: Good. We like that. (Laughs)
AD: There is that really great moment when Zack says, ‘I’m a Down Syndrome person’ and Shia’s character says, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ If this movie was made 20 years ago, the whole movie might focus on that, but Peanut Butter Falcon quickly moves beyond that and Zack is just one of the guys. Can you talk about the importance of including that in the script?
MS: We’ve known Zack for 3 years and there’s an element of catering to people with disabilities that make them feel less than. There’s a way of treating people as equals. We met Zack at this camp, and at camp we learned that treating people as equals and honoring their different abilities is the best way to create an honest relationship. That carried over to the writing process and the filmmaking process.
AD: I’m always fascinated with duos work together. Can you tell me what your personal process is? Does one person write a scene and the other directs it? How do you share duties with one another?
TN: When Mike and I moved to LA, I don’t think either of us were striving to be directors. I wanted to be an actor, and Mike wanted to be an editor. So we were both on different sides of the whole process but found ourselves there. It was not our first choice. There’s a quote, and I’m sorry I don’t know who said it, but it’s essentially the people in power probably don’t want to be in power. It’s more about the story and getting it out, so it wasn’t ever about the specific hats that we were wearing at the time. Like with the water scenes, I was swimming around, and we have a nice symbiotic way of working together. It’s like a dance or a relationship in a lot of ways. I really respect Mike and I trust him to be better than me. A lot of our directing is done in the writing process. When we are writing, we are talking about the details. We will have different opinions about stuff, but then we figure it out before we’re on set. We know what it’s supposed to feel like.
TN: Yeah. A good example of that is when we are on the raft. The moment when Shia is having that emotional breakdown, and we are seeing flashes of Jon Bernthal. I wasn’t even there. There wasn’t enough room on that boat for me, and I didn’t want to sit at the monitor and just watch. I was chasing the boat down the creek with Jon Bernthal and witnessing something beautiful. And that came from Mike’s directing and creating the space. Maybe we don’t even use words in some instances?
AD: This has to be such a great moment for Zack, and that has to feel so good for you guys since you’re all such good friends. Do you feel like there is any sort of lingering responsibility as you go around with your first big awards season?
MS: I think, now that the film is done, the viewer can just press play, and we don’t need to be there to guide them. Zack had goals, but he never really got overwhelmed or starstruck. He wanted to be an actor his whole life. Having someone like Taika Waititi come up to him and tell him that he really loved his movie is cool for him. I also don’t think it phases him. In the last two weeks, I’ve seen him go up to Brad Pitt and Adam Driver and Jamie Foxx and have really connected conversations. I think it’s because he respects the work, and he’s done the work.
AD: He exudes this unshakable confidence that is really refreshing to see. It must be great to work with him.
MS: Yes, it’s really inspiring. He’s a really remarkable human being with a unique set of skills and he was a leader on set. He led the community. He grabbed the bullhorn from the first AD between scenes and gave people toasts and gave people hugs. It wasn’t cheesy—or maybe it was—but it felt good, you know?
MS: There’s a lot of people that love him and want him to have a place in the entertainment industry. It will be fun to see how hew grows and shifts.
AD: And it must be really interesting to see what a director who doesn’t have that history with him can help him accomplish.
TN: Yes, totally.
AD: I read that you guys would play music before filming a scene. How do you think that would drive the emotional beats or energy.
MS: Film is such a multimedia mix of performance and cameras and and music and sound design, and we write knowing that. We make playlists to write to or loop a song for 3 hours while writing, and it almost plays into the rhythm of the dialogue. On set, it kind of plays into that. It’s not always intentional, but we’d think, ‘Well, we gotta loop that song now.’
AD: I love that.
MS: We’d have a boombox, and Shia really gravitated towards that and got the vibe. It was about communicating the tone of the scene or themes without words.
AD: It has to help drive intentions. Maybe more people should do that?
TN: You never want a director to just give you line readings. If you have a vibe setter, you’re going to get there better than anyone else can tell you.
MS: And the cool thing about doing it on set with a boombox is that you’re the thermostat. You set the temperature for the scene. We share that energy.