A Peanut Butter Falcon Takes Flight | Global Down Syndrome Foundation

A Peanut Butter Falcon Takes Flight


From Down Syndrome World Issue 3 2018

ZACHARY “ZACK” GOTTSAGEN, an accomplished stage performer and film actor who happens to have Down syndrome, was working on set for a movie in Los Angeles courtesy of the amazing nonprofit, Zeno Mountain Farm, when he met directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz. They were so taken with Zack’s intelligence, humor, enthusiasm, and joy for life that they decided to write a film for him to star in. The result, The Peanut Butter Falcon, incorporates Zack’s infectious personality and his love for wrestling into their lead character, also named Zak. The two relatively new directors gained the support of big-name actors including Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, and Thomas Haden Church.

Nilson and Schwartz hope The Peanut Butter Falcon, their first feature-length movie, gives people who are differently-abled a taste of the freedom they can enjoy when they follow their dreams.

A modern-day spin on Huckleberry Finn, The Peanut Butter Falcon follows Zak, a 22-year-old man with Down syndrome, who escapes the nursing home where he lives to pursue his ambition of professional wrestling. The budding wrestler hopes to meet retired wrestling legend “The Salt Water Redneck,” played by Thomas Haden Church, who lives in rural North Carolina. On his journey, Zak meets a crab fisherman and small-time outlaw named Tyler (played by LaBeouf), who becomes Zak’s ally.

Lucky Treehouse, one of the film’s production companies, describes the pair’s adventure: “Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whiskey, find God, [and] catch fish.” Tyler and Zak are eventually joined by Eleanor (played by Johnson), an employee from Zak’s nursing home who is searching for him as well as answers of her own.

“Many people struggle to maintain a regular life, not because of their disabilities, but because of others’ disbelief in their talents … I am making [this film] for the people who believe it is OK to dismiss them,” Nilson writes on Lucky Treehouse’s production website.

AN A-LIST CAST Gottsagen was excited to work alongside the Hollywood A-list actors. LaBeouf is known for roles in movies such as Transformers, Holes, and Borg vs McEnroe. Johnson is known for films including How to be Single and for starring in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. Church has acted in TV shows and movies since 1980 and most recently played the lead in the HBO series Divorce.

Bruce Dern, a two-time Oscar nominee, plays Carl, Zak’s roommate at the nursing home. Producers for the movie include Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, the talent behind Cold Mountain and Little Miss Sunshine. T Bone Burnett, the creative genius behind numerous award-winning film scores, produced the soundtrack.

In addition to Lucky Treehouse, the film was produced by Armory Films, Nut Bucket Films, and Tvacom Film and TV.


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THE MAKING OF A FALCON Despite its impressive cast and crew, The Peanut Butter Falcon’s true star is Gottsagen, 33, who credits his first acting role as the star of a natural childbirth instructional video on April 22, 1985. He was the first student to be fully included in a Palm Beach County public school, and in 2004, he earned a theater degree from the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Currently, Gottsagen lives independently in Boynton Beach, Florida, and works at a local movie theater.

For more than 10 years, Gottsagen worked with Zeno Mountain Farm, a nonprofit that hosts camps for people of all abilities in Vermont, California, and Florida. He worked with the nonprofit’s Film Camp and appeared in movies such as Burning Like a Fire and Life of a Dollar Bill. While filming a western called Bulletproof, he got involved with a documentary titled Becoming Bulletproof, which followed the movie’s actors and probed the question of why more actors who are differently-abled don’t appear in films. The movie was nominated at numerous film festivals and won the Best Film, Audience Choice, Festival Prize, Grand Jury, and Best Documentary awards at the Cleveland International Film Festival, Heartland Film Festival, Massachusetts International Film Festival, New Hampshire Film Festival, and the Vail Film Festival respectively. It was screened at the Smithsonian Museum’s 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 2015 — Gottsagen was the keynote speaker at the event.

But it gets even better. In a March 2018 Esquire cover story interview, LaBeouf gave Gottsagen some serious credit for sobering up. In the cover story, LeBeouf not only alludes to Gottsagen’s acting chops, he states, “That mother#>@%&* is magical.”

For Gottsagen, he is centered knowing he has an extended family of actors and film crews. He appreciates the opportunity to live out his dream of being an actor and has already started on two additional productions.

“I hope that thousands of fans see [The Peanut Butter Falcon],” Gottsagen told the Palm Beach Post. “I hope that they will love it, and the cast, a lot, including myself.”

In May, the Global Down Syndrome Foundation hosted a special screening of The Peanut Butter Falcon at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver. It was attended by a focus group of local self-advocates and families, as well as Gottsagen and his mother, Shelley, who flew in from Florida.

Shelley is an extremely articulate but quiet woman who clearly has a remarkable relationship with her son. While she is awed by how outgoing her son is, she is not surprised at his career choice.

“Zack told me when he was 3 years old, and every year after that, he was going to be an actor,” she told the audience. “I am definitely proud at what he has accomplished.”

Gottsagen, music and film producer Berger, and director Schwartz did a Q&A after the screening, and the audience left inspired and thoroughly entertained. The film is currently in post-production and will be released later this year.

Gottsagen’s talent and his many accomplishments have earned him Global’s 2018 Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award along with award-winning Irish actor, Colin Farrell. The award will be presented at Global’s 10th Anniversary Be Beautiful Be Yourself Fashion Show, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 20, in Denver.


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