DENVER (CBS4)– When Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz set out to make “The Peanut Butter Falcon” they were not expecting the outpouring of support that would follow. The writer-director duo met their lead actor, Zack Gottsagen, at a camp years ago.
He’d been acting for years and told them he wanted to be a movie star. They recognized his potential and got to work.
“When we set out to make this movie with Zack it was because he’s a talented actor, not because he has Down syndrome,” Schwartz said. “He’s just a person that we wanted to make a movie with.”
Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, plays the role of young man who escapes a retirement home and sets out on his mission to become a professional wrestler. Along the way he meets up with characters played by Shia LeBeouf and Dakota Johnson. While filming, it was Gottsagen who took over the role as the leader on the set.
“He’s very present with other actors,” Nilson said. “I think he kind of scared some of the other actors. It was kind of cool to watch.”
“They were intimidated, I think,” Schwartz added. “The way Shia puts it he says ‘The most you can ask for from an actor is to be present in the scene and listen. And Zack is always doing that, so if I don’t get to his level I’m going to look like a bad actor.’”
The duo set out to make a good movie, but it turns out they accomplished so much more.
“Now that we’re showing it to people we’re hearing stories from mothers of other people with down syndrome who take us aside and say ‘you don’t know what you did. If people watch this movie, my son might be able to get a job. He can’t get a job right now,” Schwartz said.
The executive producer of the film is Michelle Sie Whitten. She is the president and CEO of the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, which was established in Denver in 2009.
“It was just a privilege to work with Tyler and Michael,” Whitten said.
She said she loves the idea that the writers made the film like they would any other movie. Their lead actor just happens to have Down syndrome. It was only later that they realized their film sends a powerful message to a huge community of people who are differently-abled.
Whiten said, “I think if we just have more people who are differently abled being allowed to act and being allowed in schools for acting, and graduating, and actually performing things would be a lot different, and a lot better.”
The Peanut Butter Falcon opens Thursday at the Esquire Theatre in Denver.
Schwartz says it’s worth your visit to the theater.
“With any movie, especially right now with streaming, it’s important for people to see small movies in theaters. It’s a really great environment to see a movie and it also helps movies like this get made.”