By Kristen Lopez: For More Info, Go Here…
When you’re covering disabled representation in cinema it often feels like you’re yelling into the void. So when you meet filmmakers and screenwriters who understand the issues inherent in the narrative it provides hope for greater understanding. Directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz want their latest feature, The Peanut Butter Falcon, to be a story that goes beyond being a disabled story and is a story about people. Starring newcomer Zack Gottsagen as a man with Down Syndrome going on an adventure to meet his favorite wrestler, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a Mark Twain-esque tale of friendship, family, and breaking down ableist thinking to allow for greater independence.
As Peanut Butter Falcon producer Chris Lemole tells the story, Nilson and Schwartz “wrote this film for [their] friend” Gottsagen who they met while working at Zeno Mountain Farms, a camp known for working with people with and without disabilities. The 2014 documentary Becoming Bulletproof documents ZMF’s goal towards helping people with disabilities work in film. Gottsagen, who has studied acting since the age of three, came to Nilson and Schwartz one day to declare, “I want to be a movie star. I want to be in a feature film,” Schwartz recounts. The two men, though supportive, were hesitant to provide encouragement knowing “There [are] not a lot of characters written for people with disabilities.” But Gottsagen refused to be discouraged, asking the directors to work on the project with him, and with that the trio decided to press forward.
But almost immediately there was hesitancy from Hollywood studios. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a rarity in cinema: a story starring not just a person with a disability, but one that is prominent and not hidden (like deafness or blindness). Too often disabled narratives attempt to glamorize and that was never the case here, a problem that caused Nilson and Schwartz consternation. As Nilson explains, several studios offered the pair an increase in budget if they were willing to cast an A-list (and, by extension of that, able-bodied) person in the lead role. And though the two were living on the edge of poverty – “I was eating just enough food, calorically, to get by; one piece of chicken, one half of sweet potato, and one spoonful of butter daily, very skinny,” according to Nilson – they refused to budge on having any else but Gottsagen in the role. “Deep in my heart I knew…somehow, somebody would step up and say we’re going to fully support this thing,” says Nilson.