by Chuck Reece
A year after our launch, The Bitter Southerner went looking for short films. We began with short documentaries (and a couple of long ones), and even made two or three ourselves in collaboration with filmmakers.
But we never ran a narrative film — a fictional story — until 2015.
That May, we ran across a little film called “The Moped Diaries.” It was a beautiful tale, the story of a young man on North Carolina’s Outer Banks as he suffered damned near every loss of love imaginable. But it wasn’t a downer movie. It was funny, heartfelt, and it captured the odd magic of Southern coastal life.
Filmmaker Tyler Nilson made “The Moped Diaries" on Colington Island, on the harbor side of Bodie Island, with his partner, Michael Schwartz. Schwartz was a California dude who began working with his neighbor Nilson after he moved to Los Angeles to seek his fortune in the film biz. After they met, Schwartz spent some months with Nilson on the Outer Banks, where they made their short film and where Schwartz fell in love with a girl — and North Carolina.
And our readers fell in love with “The Moped Diaries.”
Fast forward to June 2019, four years later, when we got an email from Nilson and Schwartz:
“A few years back, you posted a short film we made called ‘The Moped Diaries’ on your website and got us a bunch of fans. And now we have our first feature coming out in theaters in August with an incredible cast and team that includes six Oscar nominees!”
That film is “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” It stars Shia Lebeouf, Dakota Johnson, Bruce Dern, Thomas Haden Church, and a 32-year-old actor with Down Syndrome, Zack Gottsagen. “Falcon” snagged the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March. Early reviews from critics have the film at a perfect 100 on the Tomatometer.
As for The Bitter Southerner, our whole crew and our families are floored. This is not because we played a tiny role in spreading knowledge about the talents of Nilson and Schwartz. It’s because, these days, Hollywood rarely gives Southerners a film that portrays our region truthfully, and particular not one like “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
Instead, we have grown accustomed to seeing Hollywood address us as they have for nearly 100 years — without respect or understanding. We see exceptions, sometimes, but them’s the rules.
Not so with “The Peanut Butter Falcon.” It feels as if Mark Twain might have written it; it’s as true to the spirit of Huck Finn as anyone could be. It’ll bring a tear to your eye as quickly as that old man down the road’s memories of his favorite bird dog. It’s even got rasslin’.
But mostly, it’s got heart. Rendered in a way that will ring true to all Southerners, and particularly those of us who exist outside the lazy, stereotypical visions of Hollywood.
“Falcon” had its Hollywood premiere last week. It opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles. The first Southern screening, the following Friday, is in Asheville, North Carolina. Nationwide release is set for August 23.
I got on the phone recently with Schwartz. I wanted to know how the heck a film like this ever attracted the money needed to make it. Schwartz responded with a tale deeper, weirder, and infinitely cooler than anything I might have expected.
I’ll let him tell it from here, save for two questions it took me to get him going. The answers are in Michael’s own words, edited only for clarity and length. Try to imagine it in a voice that’s pure Cali, but with a twinge of twang, which I imagine comes from his Carolinian partner.
Watch a “featurette” on the back story of “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
How did you get the money to make the film?
Okay. So when you guys posted "The Moped Diaries" short film we made, after that, Tyler and I had been volunteering at a camp for people with disabilities. A friend of ours named Zack [Gottason], who now stars in "The Peanut Butter Falcon,” said, "Guys, I want to be a movie star." And we were like, “Hey, bro, that's really unlikely. You have Down Syndrome, and nobody makes movies starring people with Down Syndrome.” And he just looked at us and was like, "You guys made that 'Moped Diaries.' Why don't you make me a movie? We can do it together.”
I mean, he had gone to theater high school, you know? He's a good actor. He knew what he was doing. He just didn’t … there weren't roles written for him. So we planned to just go out and make it, like [we did] “The Moped Diaries.” We said, we'll probably need $30,000. Tyler can do [what is now] the Shia Labeouf role, and I can run the camera. Just like we did “Moped Diaries.” And Zack's great. He'll just be Zack.
And so we wrote this script. We literally went to the library — how do you write a script? — and checked out some books. Oh, the inciting incident has to happen on page 15 and then you have the love interest sparked on page 30. Then we're like, oh cool, we'll do that. So we really dove into the form and looked at other movies, like “Stand by Me” and “Mud.” We read Mark Twain stories. We were just gonna kind of blend all this shit up and make our own version.
So we did, and no one would read it for a whole year. We had the script. It was pretty good, but we needed somebody to give us $30,000 to make this. To be honest, we didn't even script “The Moped Diaries.” We just shot it and cut it together. We'd literally written no script. But no one would read this one. Tyler and I were sort of out of money, but we wanted to stay in L.A. to give this a chance to happen. So we built a tent in the park.
We were homeless, living in a park. No one's reading it, and we figured we needed to show them something. So we went and shot, like, a trailer, a trailer for what this movie would be. Me running camera. Tyler acting the Shia LeBoeuf role, with Zack being Zack.
Then, we messaged Josh Brolin on Instagram. It was amazing. He'd put up that it was New Year’s Day, and he said, “This year I want to help people.” We replied, “Josh, this is perfect ’cause we're looking for some help. And he replied, like, No, this isn't what I meant. There's no way I can do your $30,000 movie. But … I'm gonna do it. [Thomas Haden Church later stepped into the role, only after scheduling conflicts prevented Brolin from doing it.]
And then we started calling people, "We're making a movie with Josh Brolin, and here's the script!" And they were like, “Holy shit.” And then the [talent] agencies were like, “Well, cool. Can we like give you other actors to be in your movie? And we liked the script.”
We couldn't get $30,000, but we could get $3 million. Kind of funny how it all ended up working out. People are calling us right now and they're like, “Do you need $10 million for something?” And we're like, “Actually, we don’t. We're pretty good right now.”
We're sharing a one-bedroom apartment now. Indie film doesn't pay a ton, but it does get you off the street.
What do you believe this film represents?
I think it's the “Black Panther” of the Down Syndrome community! I have like 50 close friends with Down Syndrome now. That's how we came up. And we do the thing where we're like, oh, we're going to go out and listen to music. We're going to drink beers. We're not going to coddle you; we want to treat you like a real person.
We've done screenings for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation. We're going to the Best Buddies Conference in Indianapolis in two weeks, where I will say, “I'm not an advocate, because you people are already doing that really well. But I respect people with Down Syndrome as my equal.”
A lot of the stuff that goes viral might be, like, a high school football team handed the ball to a guy with Down Syndrome, and everybody got out of the way and let them score a touchdown. I don't like that. I'll be honest. I think that’s condescending. And we set up an opportunity for Zack to show up and act with seven Oscar nominees and to hold scenes with them.
What we've heard from the Down Syndrome community is: That's really important. So thank you for doing that. Even my own sister — who is a very smart person I love — saw the movie and came up to me like, “Wow, it's so good. And I'd never even thought that somebody with Down Syndrome could have a goal.” And I was like, people don't know much about this community. She’s not a bad person at all. She just has no experience of knowing somebody, a story where you’re like, oh yeah, they have a goal, they have an emotion, they have something they're working toward. or they have this ability to connect with people emotionally.
I'm proud of that for the Down Syndrome community. And at the same time, I'm not an advocate. I support advocates, and they're really good at what they do. I'm a storyteller. And I just thought, Zack was the best character I could write.
It wasn't like, Oh, I'm doing somebody a favor. This isn't charity shit. Like, this is the best character I could write.