The Peanut Butter Falcon Is a True Story in Its Own Odd Way


  • The Peanut Butter Falcon, with its big heart and lovable lead Zak, is a modern retelling of Huckleberry Finn’s coming-of-age story.
  • Tailored to star Zack Gottsagen’s dreams, the film builds a unique and true tale that mirrors his real-life journey to glory.
  • By merging Gottsagen’s aspirations with regional authenticity, the filmmakers created an authentic and heartfelt feel-good adventure.

One of the most enchanting feel-good movies in recent memory, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a coming-of-age road dramedy with a huge heart. Written and directed by Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the movie is a loose contemporary retelling of Huckleberry Finn yet builds an original tale around its lovable lead, Zak (Zack Gottsagen). Inspired to become a professional wrestler named the Peanut Butter Falcon, Zak is a young man with Down syndrome who flees the hospital with an unlikely criminal accomplice named Tyler (Shia LaBeouf).

As Zak and Tyler hit the road to meet Zak’s favorite local wrestler, Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), the two get to know each other and forge a tender bond that helps both find a healing path toward redemption. Yet, despite taking cues from the classic Mark Twain novel, the filmmakers built the story around the real-life hopes and dreams of star Zak Gottsagen and used the Huckleberry Finn road formula to tell its own unique true story.

What Is The Peanut Butter Falcon About?

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Released in August 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a touching coming-of-age movie and road dramedy that follows Zak (Gottsagen), a young man with Down syndrome who lives at an assisted living facility in the American South. Zak lives with an elderly roommate named Carl (Bruce Dern) and is cared for by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Zak has big dreams of becoming a pro wrestler by training under his hero, Salt Water Redneck (Church), an iconic wrestler in nearby Ayden, North Carolina.

When Zak plans to escape the facility and venture through the American South to meet Salt Water, Carl helps him flee without Eleanor noticing. Outside, Zak encounters a disheveled man named Tyler (LaBeouf). Tyler takes an immediate shine to Zak and agrees to accompany him to North Carolina to meet Salt Water. Meanwhile, Eleanor remains hot on their trail as she searches for Zak and tries to return him to his home.

The more time Zak and Tyler spend together, the closer they become. Tyler instills newfound confidence in Zak by teaching him wrestling moves, how to fire a shotgun, build a raft, and other life skills. However, Zak is unaware that Tyler is on the run from Duncan (John Hawkes) and Ratboy (Yelawolf), two crab fishers whose gear he burned. As Zak and Tyler journey further south, Eleanor and the two fishermen continue their hot pursuit. Along their riverboat sojourn, Tyler encourages Zak to realize his dreams, and Zak’s warmhearted company helps Tyler overcome the grief of his brother’s death.

Leading to a rousing conclusion, Eleanor finds Zak and Tyler and agrees to help them reach Ayden, North Carolina. When they reach Salt Water Redneck, they learn he is retired and has closed his wrestling school. Undaunted, Tyler convinces Salt Water to train Zak and the stellar adventure movie ends with Zak realizing his dream by facing Sam in the ring, played by real-life Wrestling Hall-of-Famer Jake “The Snake” Roberts. The story ends happily with Zak achieving glory in the ring before he, Tyler, and Eleanor move to Florida to live together as a family.

The Peanut Butter Falcon Is Tailored to Gottsagen’s Story

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Although the story structure loosely follows that of Huckleberry Finn, The Peanut Butter Falcon is specifically built on Zack Gottsagen. According to Deadline, directors Nilson and Schwartz met Gottsagen in 2011 at a camp for actors with and without disabilities in Venice, California. At the time, Gottsagen expressed his interest in becoming a Hollywood actor and making a film with Nilson and Schwartz. After agreeing to collaborate on a project, Gottsagen’s desire to become an actor was changed to a pro wrestler for the movie. As such, the filmmakers tailored the story to Gottsagen’s lifelong fantasy that ultimately became a reality.

To secure funding for the project, the filmmakers spent $20,000 creating a proof-of-concept video with producer David Thies and Gottsagen auditioning to prove he could carry a film as an amateur actor. The concept video was so successful that Nilson and Schwartz were granted the money to shoot a feature film. Therefore, without Gottsagen’s personal story being an inspiration and the proof-of-concept demonstrating his commanding screen presence, The Peanut Butter Falcon would look much different and far less original.


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The story of Zak chasing his dream to become a pro wrestler in the film accurately mirrors Gottsagen’s lifelong dream of becoming a Hollywood performer. Therefore, The Peanut Butter Falcon parallels Gottsagen’s life story, with the glorious triumph at the end of the movie doubling for Gottsagen’s success as an actor. In the movie, Zak overpowers the bullying Sam by lifting him over his head and launching him out of the ring, a feat that Zak’s hero Salt Water Redneck claimed was impossible.

In reality, Gottsagen gives an earnest and heartfelt performance that stays true to himself and remains on par with LaBeouf and Johnson, achieving the kind of vicarious success Zak does in the ring. The result is a rare confluence of a movie with a happy ending on and offscreen. According to Schwartz via Slash Film:

“He told us about some of the things that he’d been through, but also some things he had ambition for,” Schwartz explains. “So in the movie, he really wants to be a wrestler, but in real life, he really wanted to be an actor… [It] was really just taking a bunch of Zack’s pieces and stringing them out on a narrative that worked.”

Despite giving an authentic lifelike performance, one of Gottsagen’s biggest challenges was playing a character a decade younger than himself. When asked about the challenges, Gottsagen passionately stated:

“That is my real life from back home in West Palm Beach, Florida. I have been studying my whole entire life. This is a big movie, right now, so that’s why I have improved. To tell all the teachers they are wrong.”

How Huckleberry Finn Is Adapted to Tell Zack Gottsagen’s Story

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In addition to building the narrative around Gottsagen’s personal experience, hopes, and dreams, the decision to meld the story with Huckleberry Finn was made out of practical resourcefulness. Nilson claims he didn’t “know it was the right vehicle” to tell Gottsagen’s story, but that “it was really all we had” relative to their location and resources. As Nilson notes:

“I knew we could go shoot in the marshes. I knew that we could build a raft out of trash because we had a friend with a junkyard. We couldn’t do a space film, you know? It’s just, what do you have?”

Part of the regional authenticity of the American South in the esteemed feel-good movie derives from the filmmaker’s upbringing in North Carolina, where much of the film was shot. The filmmakers cast non-professional actors and famous performers to blur fact and fiction, and to elicit a specific time and place. For example, Rob Thomas, the man who plays Tyler’s boss Winkie in the film, was a local fisherman who the directors found and felt was perfect for the part. According to Nilson:

“Shia got a job on a fishing boat during pre-production to be authentically a crab fisherman, and that guy Rob ran the boat and taught him how to fish. So when it was time to run that scene, we were like, yeah, he’d be good in there, and even better than an actor.”

Nilson and Schwartz unequivocally credit Gottsagen for the success of The Peanut Butter Falcon, knowing that without his shared experience serving as the blueprint for the uplifting adventure movie, the result would look much different. In Schwartz’s words:

“[Zack’s] a born entertainer. Zack’s kicking ass, and we just want to help create the opportunity for him to kick more ass, and so we just sat down and all wrote out a script, built a dance floor, and Zack just went out and danced.”

Since his breakout performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon, Gottsagen has continued to live his dream of becoming a Hollywood actor. He can be seen in everything from Best Summer Ever and God Save the Queen to the upcoming high-school prom drama At Last. Meanwhile, thanks to his inspirational story and genuine performance, The Peanut Butter Falcon could become just as timeless as Huckleberry Finn.

The Peanut Butter Falcon is available to stream on Netflix.