Tyler Nilson’s spent a lot of time indoors over the past six months. Ever since his new film The Peanut Butter Falcon won the Audience Award at South by Southwest in March, the 38-year-old cowriter/codirector has been chasing festivals through airports from Rhode Island to Maui or stuck at his desk e-mailing PR departments and pushing clips onto social-media feeds. Most recently, he’s been watching a lot more TV as some of his lead stars, Shia LaBeouf, Zack Gottsagen, and Dakota Johnson, sit down for morning talk shows and late-night interviews. The spotlight is not his preferred setting. (In fact, the lifelong surfer and nature boy went barefoot to his own Hollywood premiere.) But after spending five years struggling to get the movie made, Nilson’s happy to be able to milk it. Actually, he’s happy just to have electricity.
“By the end of 2016, I’d stopped making commercials and had been living in a tent in the hills above L.A. for a year,” Nilson says. “Six months later, I’d gone from a being a homeless guy with a dream and a hundred pages [of a script] to a guy who was on set in the Georgia swamp, directing Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, and Bruce Dern in a multimillion-dollar feature film. And it was all because we made a promise to a friend to put him in a movie.”
That friend is Gottsagen, a 33-year-old actor from Florida who happens to have Down syndrome. Nilson and his cowriter/codirector, Michael Schwartz, met Gottsagen at a camp for people with disabilities roughly eight years ago. They immediately recognized his talent. They also recognized that his chances of being a movie star were basically nil. “That’s a part of the population that doesn’t traditionally have characters written for them,” notes Schwartz.
So they decided to write his character into a movie.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is the tale of two rebel refugees: Gottsagen plays Zack, an out-of-place 22-year-old placed in an old-folks’ home who busts loose with dreams of becoming a professional wrestler, disability be damned. LaBeouf plays Tyler, a troubled crab trapper running from trouble. Thrust together by fate, they chart a course for a fresher life, traveling along a circuitous stretch of fictional marshland based on Nilson’s coastal home in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. In fact, Nilson goes as far as to call it “an Outer Banks fairytale.”
Actually, it’s more like the Odyssey, as the two misfits sneak their way south, with equal nods to Mark Twain and the Coen Brothers and maybe a touch of Maurice Sendak. There are bonfires. Makeshift boats. Misadventures. A little bit of love interest. A bunch of male bonding. Plus gobs of gorgeous coastal scenery and enough feel-good magic to secure a national release. (As of August 9, it’s showing in select cities before a nationwide release starting August 23.) Not bad for Nilson, a guy who moved to California in 2004 with zero Hollywood ambitions.
“There’s nowhere farther from Hollywood than the Outer Banks of North Carolina,” says Nilson, who, like most year-round residents, spent his formative years surfing, fishing, and slinging food to tourists. “So making a movie was something where I didn’t know I could dream that big—or even think that big. I just wanted to make surf movies.”
Instead, he started acting in commercials. But his real big break came as a hand model. Schwartz and Nilson were neighbors in Santa Barbara. Shortly after they met, Schwartz started working on the first iPhone ads; he asked Nilson to demonstrate how the touch screen works. By 2011, Nilson could palm up to ten grand a day just pouring liquor bottles, holding pens, and opening car doors for stars like Brad Pitt. But his soul was in storytelling. And as he started writing films, he knew just the place to pull from.
“Growing up on the Outer Banks was pure poetry,” he says. “It wasn’t a culture of marketing agents and businessmen. It was pirates and fishermen. There were characters. And that’s who I gravitated toward. I got a job on a crab boat when I was younger, and I always found myself working in places where people had really good stories to tell.”
It’s this grittier side of the Outer Banks that gives the The Peanut Butter Falcon its texture, not the state’s miles of sunny beaches that draw millions of visitors a year. Or the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” wave energy that makes Cape Hatteras a surfing mecca. Or even the legendary sports fishing that fuels multimillion-dollar charter boats to the Gulf Stream and back. Instead, Nilson draws from the barrier-island chain’s brackish estuaries and blue-collar, commercial-fishing tradition and a culture that’s the century-old spine of backwaters everywhere. One that’s entirely devoid of glamour but where even the double-wides and dive bars get million-dollar views. It’s no accident The Peanut Butter Falcon boasts possibly the best movie high-speed boat chase outside of James Bond films—or that Zack’s wrestling hero is named the Salt Water Redneck.
“As far as the plot goes, the boat chase wasn’t super important,” Nilson admits with a chuckle. “That was just something I really wanted to do. But to get Thomas Haden Church to play the Salt Water Redneck—who’s based on a guy who worked fishing boats in Wanchese and went to wrestling school—or to get Shia LaBeouf to play a crab fisherman from Colington, that was really special for me.”
It’s that same level of humble self-awareness, humor, and honesty that permeates the film—that and a sincere love of the pure coastal existence. In fact, some of the most delicate moments occur when there’s no real action or dialogue, just the characters moving between the marshland and the sea, appreciating the moment.
In that way, it’s the opposite of adrenaline-driven, action-sports fluff, where the expert athlete almost dies beneath an avalanche. Or the man-versus-nature dramas where some poor city slicker must rediscover his raw animal nature to beat back the elements. For Tyler and Zack, surviving outdoors is easy, rain or shine. It’s society that makes life hard, with things like laws, rules and regulations, and the very concept of limits. It’s anything that says, “You can’t do this,” whether it’s trapping crabs without a license or dreaming of being a professional wrestler with a disability. Or turning a dream—and a friendship—into a blockbuster movie.
“I wouldn’t go that far yet,” Nilson laughs. “This film still could come out and do really bad. I hope not. I pray not.” But, he says, they’re proud of the story and the message that you can accomplish something that somebody else says is impossible. “I believe humans constantly change our reality with our thoughts and stories. And the stories we tell become the world we live in.”