TC-raised Filmmaker Brings his Award-Winning Movie Home
Lije Sarki and The Peanut Butter Falcon
By Ross Boissoneau | July 27, 2019
Lije Sarki is coming home, and he’s bringing some friends with him: Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, Zack Gottsagen, and more.
Sarki, who was born in Michigan and spent most of his junior high and high school years in Traverse City, was one of the producers of The Peanut Butter Falcon, starring the above actors, as well as John Hawke, Thomas Haden Church, rapper Yelawolf, and Bruce Dern. The Peanut Butter Falcon will be at the Traverse City Film Festival ahead of its national release Aug. 8. Northern Express caught up with Sarki in advance of his trip home.
“I grew up in Michigan, moved to Kentucky, then moved to Traverse City in seventh grade,” said Sarki by phone from his home base in Venice, California. He had always wanted to live in California, making an (ultimately futile) attempt to do so while still in high school. After graduating from Traverse City, he went to Michigan State to major in pre-med. “I always wanted to get out. I tried in high school, failed, came back, and then went to college. I thought the only way out was to be an engineer or a doctor or lawyer,” he said.
After graduating from college, he moved to San Diego, eventually ending up in grad school. He began working in the bar and restaurant industry while also doing some modeling and trying his hand at acting. “I was trying to figure it out. A modeling agency sent me on a couple auditions. I failed at being a movie star, but got in [the industry].”
That was good news for Sarki and, eventually, for The Peanut Butter Falcon. His trip to becoming producer of the film was just as improbable as that of the main character in the film. Sarki began working in the film industry, picking up skills as he went, from in front of the camera to behind it, then writing, directing, producing, and eventually landing a gig on this unlikely buddy road story.
The Audience Award winner at South By Southwest, The Peanut Butter Falcon tells the story of Zak, a man with Down Syndrome (played by Zack Gottsagen) who runs away from a residential nursing home to follow his dream of attending the professional wrestling school of his idol, The Saltwater Redneck (Church). Events conspire to pair him with LaBeouf, a small-time outlaw on the run, who becomes his unlikely coach and ally. Together they wind through deltas, elude capture, drink whisky, find God, catch fish, and convince Johnson, playing a nursing home employee charged with Zak’s return, to join them on their journey.
Sarki can’t find enough good things to say about the film and the people who made it. “It was a really good script,” he said of the film, which was written and directed by Michael Schwartz and Tyler Nilson specifically for Gottsagen, whom they met at a camp for actors with disabilities. “Everybody was doing it for Zack. There was no room for selfishness or ego. We were all there for the right reason.”
That includes LaBeouf, who was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct while on location for the film. At the police station, he was filmed making racist remarks to the police officers. The whole thing blew up, and according to an interview in Esquire, led to Gottsagen confronting LaBeouf about his behavior.
“Zack called him on it. Zack was disappointed,” said Sarki. He chose not to go into any other details, though in the Esquire interview, LaBeouf said Gottsagen’s disappointment in him changed the course of his life.
The Peanut Butter Falcon is not Sarki’s only credit. He’s produced more than 10 other feature films, directed two of them, and wrote one of them. He’s also created a short that went viral, a music video, and produced/co-directed a skateboarding docu-series, which took him back to his roots as a teenage skater. “I was a skate rat. To be doing this is such a leap,” he said.
While awaiting the next steps on The Peanut Butter Falcon — he says there is always a lot of hurry up and wait in filmmaking — Sarki filmed the movie Concrete Kids. It follows two nine-year-old boys on one adventurous night in Los Angeles. Sarki wrote, directed, and produced it over 17 nights on a budget of $25,000 — quite a departure from the multi-million dollar budget of Falcon.
“I got really lucky. It’s an anomaly of a movie,” Sarki said of The Peanut Butter Falcon. “Usually you have to beg people [to be in a film]. Everybody wanted to be in it. It was such a group effort.”
He first met writer/directors Schwartz and Nilson a few years ago at another film festival. They found out they lived close to one another and hit it off personally — especially when they showed Sarki the proof of concept video the duo shot with Gottsagen. “It got a lot of attention,” Sarki said.
Sarki said he enjoys the various facets of moviemaking. “The different jobs take different parts of my brain,” he said. “When I write, I dig deep for six weeks and grind it out. Production takes forever. A producer has to be selfless, be of service to every part of the film.”
He is looking forward to returning to Traverse City, where his mom and several siblings still live. “I make it back every couple of years. One Christmas I was back over Christmas, and it snowed a ton. I took one of my nephews to Holiday Hills. It seemed a lot smaller.”
He is currently working on several other projects, including a television show now at Sony that he penned with his writing partner, Ari Basile, and is producing with Will Arnett.
“I keep filling the shelves up,” Sarki said. “I’m grateful to be in the position I’m in.”