By Shelley Ginsburg-Brown
Before the opening of the film “The Peanut Butter Falcon” this past summer, a member of its promotions team reached out to offer Easterseals opportunities to screen of the film and then potentially share news about the film. We receive similar requests from time-to-time, but this one had some unique aspects going for it: lead actor Zack Gottsagen happens to have Down Syndrome, recognizable celebrities such as Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and Thomas Haden Church are acting alongside him, and it had already won an Audience Award for Narrative Spotlight from SXSW 2019.
After watching the film, it was clear that the team behind this project had created something special. Learning more about the story that brought this film to screen solidified my thoughts that this film would hold a unique place in film history.
Since Zack Gottsagen was a child, he dreamed of becoming an actor. He worked at accomplishing his goal by taking acting classes, attending a performing arts high school and working at a movie theatre.
Around eight years ago, Gottsagen’s dream began to become a reality when he met Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz.
“I told them to write a film about me!” Gottsagen said.
The three men met at Zeno Mountain Farm, a camp in Santa Monica for people with and without disabilities. They were in an acting workshop.
“We were hanging out and Zack said ‘I want to be a movie star,’” Schwartz said. “And we were like, that’s hard for anyone, but it’s especially hard because there aren’t characters written for people with disabilities. And we were like cool… let’s do it together. We’ll all do it.”
Nilson and Schwartz, both with no screenwriting experience, set out to write The Peanut Butter Falcon for Gottsagen to star in. In order to learn the craft, they spent countless hours in the library studying writing and filmmaking. They also worked closely with Gottsagen to write his character as authentically as possible.
“Zack’s dialogue came from Zack,” Nilson said. “We were like ‘What do you think?’ He really loves wrestling so we’re like do you think that would be cool?’”
“We took pieces of Zack’s real life,” Schwartz said. “Zack loves wrestling, swimming, parties and we worked it into the script.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon is about a man with Down Syndrome named Zak (Gottsagen) who escapes from an assisted living facility where he’s been living for over two years, to attend a professional wrestling school in North Carolina. Along the way, he befriends a small-time outlaw named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf) and the two create an unbreakable bond as LaBeouf helps Gottsagen on his journey. As they work their way down the East Coast, an assisted living facility employee Eleanor, played by Dakota Johnson, trails close behind trying to find Zak and bring him back home.
“Something that started out like we want to make a movie with Zack has turned into something that’s going to have a really positive impact,” Schwartz said.
After seeing the movie and learning the story, I had become quite the Peanut Butter Falcon fan and Easterseals also shared news of the movies opening on its social channels.
A nice summary of the film’s impact came from my Easterseals colleague Allison Collins-Smith, “[The film] not only portrays someone with a disability, it resists the urge to sugarcoat Gottsagen’s existence as a man with Down Syndrome. The unintentional byproduct is inclusivity, awareness and tolerance.”
The connection with the movie then came full circle as “The Peanut Butter Falcon” producers were presented with the PGA George Sunga Award at the Media Access Awards on November, 14, which is presented by Easterseals Southern California.
On the red carpet at the event, Executive Producer Aaron Scotti shared, “we kind of went in like we’re going to change this guy’s life by the end of the movie we realized he changed all of our lives… regardless of if you’re a producer or do anything else in the world, I think everyone needs to meet someone like Zack.”
It was at that moment that it became clear to me that “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is more than an enjoyable film. The film, and its backstory, also provide an excellent example of what Easterseals means when it says we are looking to “change the way the world defines and views disability.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon is now available on digital and blu-ray/DVD. Learn more: https://www.lionsgate.com/movies/the-peanut-butter-falcon
Movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UNl9RqjLCwc