The Peanut Butter Falcon director’s Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz were in London for the 2019 BFI London Film Festival. Having already won the audience award at this year’s South by Southwest festival it arrives in London with 3 sold-out screenings and being one of the hottest tickets in town. I got to sit down with the pair to discuss the movie, working with stars Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf, the upcoming awards season and what it really is like to be a small movie with big aspirations.
In the interview, we discuss how the film came to be, working with Zack Gottsagen and Shia LaBeouf, and what the pair have up their sleeves next!
Take me back to the start. I’ve listened to interviews with you guys and its quite an interesting story.
MS: It was a long process; it was 8 years ago and that’s when we first meet Zack and it was in Venice beach and it was a group of people hanging out. A camp is the easiest way of describing it, but just a bunch of people hanging out, making art together. We were making a short film called ‘Bullet Proof Jackson’ and Zack was an actor in it and he was giving a really great performance. He is so talented.
TN: He makes decisions like he has studied acting his whole life.
MS: He stays present. The most you can ask for in an actor is to stay present, not just say your lines and Zack is the epitome of that. You know he’s not always going to do what’s planned, he is going to keep people on their toes and that even elevates other actors and I know I am jumping around a little bit but Shia and Dakota would describe being in a scene with Zack as scary and intimidating because he is so present and he is so unpredictable but it makes their performance better because they are waiting to see what he is going to do and they have to respond for real and have to live it and not just say it.
Does that mean there was a lot of improv on set?
MS: It was interesting, it was probably 5% improv, but really meaningful improv. And you know when you see it, that’s in the movie. Tyler and I would look at each other and be like that’s in the movie.
TN: Rule number one was improv. That whole little scene is so perfect and well placed and timed. So that was us letting it go, letting the improv happen. The face slapping scene was really beautiful, that was letting them find stuff.
MS: Wherever good ideas come from I think we are always, as we are out there trying to harvest the most honest moments and our whole crew are. We wanted it to feel like a fable but also insanely grounded. Which are two things if you can pull it off together …
Well, I think you did.
MS: But going back to the original story. So, Zack, we were having dinner one night and me and Tyler make short films, like really small budget commercials but never really made a feature. Zack believed in us before we did, in a cool way. He is insanely optimistic and so he said I want to be a movie star. You guys tell me how to be a movie star and we were like that’s really hard for anyone but especially for you, because there aren’t a lot of roles written for people with down syndrome, there are no opportunities and he wasn’t like that sucks, he just said cool let’s do it. You guys write and direct and I’ll star and off we go.
At that point did you even have an idea?
TN: Yeah we didn’t have an idea. We just built it around Zack. We spent a year writing the script for him, tailoring the idea for two things; For Zack as an actor, we wanted to give him an opportunity to really perform. I think a lot people would approach it and shoot it like a doc so he doesn’t have to do any work. That was not our goal, we wanted to really show Zack as a phenomenal actor. Even yesterday we were in a Q&A and somebody said ‘Can you tell us about Zack’s family and what happened with him’? We were like it’s not a documentary, it’s a movie. Zack has a loving mum.
MS: Zack’s life is not the movie.
TN: So yeah, we tailored the script for him to give him the best story possible and the ability to act and also to what Mike and I knew we could get for free. We knew, where I grew up North Carolina and the exterior wouldn’t cost us anything. We have friends with boats and we had shot stuff out there before so that was sort of, we just tailored it to those two things and that’s what came out after a good year of work.
So, shooting in the water was nothing worrying for you guys?
MS: I think we are the perfect blend of really confident and naïve.
TN: Or just stupid.
MS: We would go out with a camera with 3 of us, it’s not a big deal shooting on the water. When we came back to make a full-on movie with a crew of 80 people you need an armada of boats and that was much more challenging.
How did it feel when you got greenlit and when you got backing. Did, they try and suggest another actor instead of Zack?
MS: It was kind of before. Ty and I couldn’t get anyone to read the script for a year.
That must have been tough.
MS: It made sense, we never really done anything before. So, we went out and shot a trailer for the film with Tyler playing the Shia role and Zack doing his part and I ran the camera with a friend. I think we were able to show that and people after a year of that not working and that isn’t working, people could see the world, they could see Zack doing a fantastic job acting and it helped move things forward. But I don’t think it ever felt greenlit to me.
When did it feel real? When you finished it? Was it when you finished the filming?
MS: For me, when it came out. For me South by southwest [SXSW], when it was done and for the first time a real audience saw it.
TN: I didn’t feel like until 2 or 3 weeks ago. It felt real, but I think it’s really common for films our size, we very, very, very easily could have completely disappeared into the ethers. There is so much content. We were shooting it and it finished and it didn’t for real. I think Mike and I have a really tenacious nature about ourselves so we weren’t ready to celebrate. No one really seen the film yet so when we were finished shooting, I was just starting to get ready for the edit fight, we have to go edit. And then we sat, you know Mike comes from edit and I have to tell you Mike as a director. I think his editorial knowledge is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. He is a phenomenal storyteller in edit and he worked with Kevin Tent and Nat Fulle. He really found a great form with those guys and really found those really beautiful improvs, those delicious little moments that make it feels how it feels.
That’s what makes the film so special!
TN: It is so special. Mike would go in, and find just the tiniest little things, you know he is scared of vampires and all these little moments that everybody loves, that Mike would carve out of the wood so we were in edit and it didn’t feel real to me and then we went to SXSW and we won and I was still nervous because we hadn’t been purchased.
How was that feeling?
MS: It was scary. I want to go back and change my answer. This is part of why we are a good team. Ty has a better answer than me if I’m being honest.
TN: Yeah, I do (just kidding).
MS: I was fearful too that we would going to disappear and fighting through to this day and for the next 3 months I think we will still be.
TN: I think I will rest in February! So, we won SXSW audience award and nobody would buy us. We couldn’t get a sale. So, it was one of these things like I won’t say any distributor’s names because I hope they are bummed out. A lot of the streaming online distributors wouldn’t offer money that was even comparable that if it cost us, whatever it cost us to make the film, they were offering 10% of that just to go on their website and disappear and even then if that have happened this film would have never been seen. There were so many miracles to get us here, that it wasn’t even until, we couldn’t sell out of SXSW, we ended up doing our own distribution self P and A deal but basically we went to theatres and was told by almost everybody except our financiers you will never make more than 3 million dollars with this film and it just so happened to cost you guys with P and A, 8 or 9 [million dollars] so you have already lost 6. And Crystal Mole of Armory Films stepped up and put it in theatres and believed in us and believed in the film. Thank God. And even opening weekend we made 3 million dollars.
MS: It had a small opening.
TN: We platformed into 3. For the 3/4 weeks we were still under the weight of like this probably is going to disappear which most films our size do.
MS: We were sneaking into the film and doing surprise Q&As all throughout Los Angles like 2, 3 times a day, we went with Shia a few times. We popped into theatres and say ‘Hey guys we really care about this movie’ and there’s 50 people in there.
TN: It wasn’t until last week until they announced we were the number 1 platform film in America in 2019 that it started to feel real and I think being here in London feels real. At BFI we have 3 sold out screenings. That feels real. Whereas before like Mike and I, it just didn’t feel real. It felt real as tangible but it felt like we have made the most beautiful thing [to me] in the fucking world and nobody had seen it. And now it feels even moving forward, there’s going to be an awards push and its looking like we are going to land around 20 million in the States and probably even better over here. I can tell there is a buzz that just happened last week so you are the third interview where it actually feels like it very real.
MS: It’s cool that there is even a poster in the tube station. We never had a push like that in the States, it was just all word of mouth.
TN: And I think the cool thing is that we did it basically with no P and A. Like we didn’t have a push, we just had word of mouth. It kept building. We are week 9 now and still in almost 600 to 700 theatres. And because we did that in the States, I think it‘s really cool over here in the UK that’s distributors can go ‘It worked over there let’s put a bunch of posters on the tube and stuff’ that’s really cool.
Award push, is that something you guys are gearing up for, I’m guessing its quite new to you?
MS: The whole thing is new to us but I think we have always been ambitious with this film and what I like about an awards push is that it will get more people to see it, and the pride, I am very proud of Zack, I am very proud of Shia, very proud of Nigel (the DP), proud of our team. So, to see them get the recognition and maybe get awards. I’m excited we get to send screeners around, our peers. We are going to send links around to our peers so they are going to get to see it. That’s exciting.
TN: Still in America no one has seen it. I mean a million people have seen it, but a million people is nobody. I don’t say that in a way that is not grateful.
What’s next for you two?
TN: We have a couple going, we are really diving into the TV world and really learning that rhythm of storytelling. We sold a script to Lucky Chap Entertainment. We sold a script to Warner Brothers and we are going out to pitch that show.
And you are staying together?
TN: Oh yeah, we are a team.
MS: We have a feature we are trying. It’s exciting. It won’t go as slow as Peanut Butter Falcon. We were fighting over music for a year.
TN: We had to write the end song for the movie.
MS: So, during that time we wrote a TV show and a feature so it‘s great to be perfect timing when Peanut Butter Falcon comes out, we had 3 things ready to go.
Are you fans of wrestling or was that Zack’s influence?
TN: Both. I have always loved Mick Foley. And Mike Likes Jake the Snake.
When he came on, I got very excited.
TN: And it’s funny because a lot of people know don’t it’s Jake the Snake and Mick Foley.
And he has had such a troubled life.
MS: It’s perfect because there is retribution of Samson and like the rehabilitation of Jake the Snake and him showing up in the movie and kicking ass considering where he was. Did you see the Resurrection documentary?
MS: It‘s worth it. It‘s just about Jake the Snake coming off the drugs and doing yoga. It’s a beautiful story. Mick Foley’s books are also amazing. They are such good storytellers and authenticity is always important to us.
How did you get them?
That is amazing. One last question, what was it like working with Shia? I feel like when he picks your project, he goes all in.
TN: Best experience in the world. He is a genius. He truly gave us everything. Still to this day he comes with us to surprise Q&As for 20 people. He gave us every part of himself.
MS: If you are starting a restaurant and you can get him to do it with you. Do it.
TN: If you can get Shia Leboeuf to do anything. Do it. He will give you it all!