The Peanut Butter Falcon is released in cinemas today, but is the movie based on a true story? The film centers around Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who runs away to realize his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. Although this is a fictional story, there is some truth behind the events of The Peanut Butter Falcon.
Starring Shia LaBeouf, The Peanut Butter Falcon finds Zak escaping from the nursing home he’s been living in for the past two years. He makes his escape proper by getting on a boat owned by LaBeouf’s Tyler, who agrees to take him from Virginia to North Carolina, where Zak hopes to attend a wrestling school he’s seen on TV. Along the way, Zak and Tyler begin to bond, which is further developed when Dakota Johnson’s Eleanor (who worked at the nursing home) joins them, and the feel-good movie received positive reviews when it premiered at SXSW 2019 back in March, winning an Audience Award at the festival.
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The story of The Peanut Butter Falcon, which in the movie is the wrestling persona Zak adopts, has been made-up by writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, but it’s rooted in reality thanks to the character of Zak. Not only is he played by newcomer Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome, but it was actually built around him and the character draws heavily upon his own personality and experiences.
As detailed in The Peanut Butter Falcon featurette, the directors met Gottsagen at a camp eight years ago, where he told them he dreamed of being an actor. They were initially realistic about his chances, explaining that there aren’t many opportunities for actors with DS. Gottsagen then asked them to make a film for him, and they agreed, wanting to build a movie around him to provide the same opportunities afforded to able actors. Even though studios wanted them to cast a bigger name (and thus an able actor), they shot test footage with to prove that he could do it, and sent that video out to the people who’d become the fellow cast and crew members, who wanted to work with him.
What Nilson and Schwartz decided to do was figure out Gottsagen’s interests, which turned out to include wrestling, swimming, and going to parties, and then write a film based on those things. His co-stars all discuss how open, honest, and purely good he is, which are attributes that then make it into the character of Zak in The Peanut Butter Falcon. Likewise, his rebellious spirit shines through, as does his ability to get one with people. Gottsagen first started studying acting when he was just three years old, and had always dreamed of being a movie star, even working in a local cinema. The camp the directors met him at was Zeno Mountain Farm, a Los Angeles-based organization that hosts camps for people with and without disabilities, where Gottsagen was attending an acting workshop.
Even though The Peanut Butter Falcon‘s story isn’t technically true, it’s quite clear that Nilson and Schwartz took a lot of inspiration from Gottsagen’s life. He is someone who had a dream his whole life and managed to realize it despite the odds, thanks to his own talent and help from friends made along the way. The Peanut Butter Falcon might switch acting for wrestling and add in Shia LaBeouf, but that central idea remains true to Gottsagen’s life.
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