Is The Peanut Butter Falcon a True Story? Is Zak Based on a Real Person?

‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ chronicles the journey of Zak, a man with Down syndrome, as he escapes his nursing home to meet his hero, the Salt Water Redneck. On the way, he joins up with Tyler, another man on the run. The two have their share of struggles as they trudge their way across the backwaters and marshlands but soon find themselves enjoying the travels and becoming fast friends.

Directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the 2019 adventure film narrates a heartwarming and gritty story of friendship, compassion, and dreams. The story is further elevated by a perpetually rough-hewn and authentic feel contributed to by the stellar performances, backdrops, and cathartic character arcs. These elements contribute to a genuine emotional resonance within the film, which forces us to ask whether its narrative is inspired by real life.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: Zack Gottsagen, Wrestling, and Mark Twain

The emotional center of ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ rests with the titular party lover, and the same dynamic exists between the film’s production and the actor who depicts Zak, Zack Gottsagen. Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz first met Gottsagen at a special camp in Los Angeles and were charmed by his enthusiasm for acting and developing character. After making a short film with him, Nilson and Schwartz began planning a feature film surrounding Gottsagen as someone with Down syndrome rarely found traditional roles written for them. When asked about the inspiration behind including wrestling in the film, Schwartz replied, “I grew up watching wrestling, but for this movie? It’s all built around Zack, and Zack loves wrestling.’

Initially, the filmmakers assumed that they would be working with a small budget, and set the screenplay in a way they wouldn’t have to film in one place for more than a day. This resulted in the roadtrip format of the film. Nilson grew up around the Outer Bank region in North Carolina, explored the islands, and knew locations he could use for the scenes. For the journey itself, they didn’t want to borrow someone’s boat for a month and thus wrote the characters’ waterway trip being carried out on a makeshift raft. Thus, with the thought of budgetary constraints and the knowledge of picturesque Outer Bank locales, the story was imbibed with a Mark Twain-esque adventure feel.

When a five-minute concept for their movie made an impact, it drew talent to the film and gave producers assurance, opening up a world of possibilities for the writer-director duo. Nilson, Schwartz, and Gottsagen are all fans of wrestling, and decided to include their favorites within the movie. These were WWE Hall-of-Famers Mick Foley and Jake ‘the’ Snake Roberts. Foley, known well for his alter ego, “Mankind,” takes on the role of the backyard wrestling referee in the movie. Roberts, on the other hand, essays the unapologetic wrestler who fights Zak in the ring.

Talking about the wrestling stars’ segment in the film, Schwartz said, “Zack sort of freaked out. He was really inspired to be talking to those guys, and they brought a reverence for wrestling and an authenticity to that scene that I think bled over to everybody.” He continued, “I know Thomas Haden Church was cornering those guys in the lunch tent and saying, ‘What can you tell me about being a wrestler?’ I think it really elevated his performance as well.”

The filmmakers also seem to have taken some inspiration from Mick Foley, who was most active in the Second Golden Age of wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s, similar to the character of Salt Water. In his early days, Foley traveled 400 miles to train with Dominic DeNucci, a legendary wrestler from the First Golden Age of the sport. During this time in his life, Foley struggled to make ends meet, slept in his truck, and survived on a diet mainly comprised of peanut butter and bread. By coincidence or by design, Zak also takes up a long journey to train under his wrestling idol and seems to really have an appetite for peanut butter.

“I’m gonna jump in and say Mick Foley’s got my heart,” Tyler Nilson confessed in an interview. “He may not be the best in the ring, but as far as a general wrestler, and the personality, and the contributions he’s made to society.” Another major factor that brought the characteristic gritty and authentic feel to the movie was Shia LaBeouf’s incredible dedication. The actor was enthusiastic about joining the production and arrived on set after having spent a month isolated in cabins in Finland for an art project. The actor’s rough look and deep tan were created by his uncompromising commitment to authenticity.

In the preparation time leading up to the film and before shoots, LaBeouf worked on a crab boat, pulling crab pots for hours. LaBeouf used the filmmakers’ worn clothes to complete the look. The cap he wears in the movie is actually Nilson’s favorite, which he has used for more than a decade. He also wore Schwartz’s engine o-ring and Nilson’s shorts. ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ is a fruit of immense labor. From the filmmakers building the fictional narrative around Zack Gottsagen and his love for wrestling to the unique backdrops, cinematography, and the extraordinary efforts of Shia LaBeouf. With the story revolving around wrestling, further authenticity was ingrained in its sequences by real-life wrestling legends inspiring and adding to the filmmaking process.

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