By Iain Blair
Director, producer and writer Peter Farrelly is best known for the classic comedies he made with his brother Bob: Dumb and Dumber; There’s Something About Mary; Shallow Hal; Me, Myself & Irene; The Three Stooges; and Fever Pitch. But for all their over-the-top, raunchy and boundary-pushing comedy, those movies were always sweet-natured at heart.
Now Farrelly has taken his gift for heartfelt comedy and put his stamp on a very different kind of film, Green Book, a racially charged feel-good drama inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line.
Starring Oscar-nominee Viggo Mortensen and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali, it tells the fact-based story of the ultimate odd couple: Tony Lip, a bouncer from The Bronx and Dr. Don Shirley, a world-class black pianist. Lip is hired to drive and protect the worldly and sophisticated Shirley during a 1962 concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, where they must rely on the titular “Green Book” — a travel guide to safe lodging, dining and business options for African-Americans during the segregation era.
Set against the backdrop of a country grappling with the valor and volatility of the civil rights movement, the two men are confronted with racism and danger as they challenge long-held assumptions, push past their seemingly insurmountable differences and embrace their shared humanity.
The film also features Linda Cardellini as Tony Vallelonga’s wife, Dolores, along with Dimiter D. Marinov and Mike Hatton as two-thirds of The Don Shirley Trio. The film was co-written by Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie and reunites Farrelly with editor Patrick J. Don Vito, with whom he worked on the Movie 43 segment “The Pitch.” Farrelly also collaborated for the first-time with cinematographer Sean Porter (read our interview with him), production designer Tim Galvin and composer Kris Bowers.
I spoke with Farrelly about making the film, his workflow and the upcoming awards season. After its Toronto People’s Choice win and Golden Globe nominations (Best Director, Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor for Mortensen, Best Supporting Actor for Ali), Green Book looks like a very strong Oscar contender.
You told me years ago that you’d love to do a more dramatic film at some point. Was this a big stretch for you?
Not so much, to be honest. People have said to me, “It must have been hard,” but the hardest film I ever made was The Three Stooges… for a bunch of reasons. True, this was a bit of a departure for me in terms of tone, and I definitely didn’t want it to get too jokey — I tend to get jokey so it could easily have gone like that. But right from the start we were very clear that the comedy would come naturally from the characters and how they interacted and spoke and moved, and so on, not from jokes.
So a lot of the comedy is quite nuanced, and in the scene where Tony starts talking about “the orphans” and Don explains that it’s actually about the opera Orpheus, Viggo has this great reaction and look that wasn’t in the script, and it’s much funnier than any joke we could have made there.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
A drama about race and race relations set in a time when it was very fraught, with light moments and a hopeful, uplifting ending.
It has some very timely themes. Was that part of the appeal?
Absolutely. I knew that it would resonate today, although I wish it didn’t. What really hooked me was their common ground. They really are this odd couple who couldn’t be more different — an uneducated, somewhat racist Italian bouncer, and this refined, highly educated, highly cultured doctor and classically trained pianist. They end up spending all this time together in a car on tour, and teach each other so much along the way. And at the end, you know they’ll be friends for life.
Obviously, casting the right lead actors was crucial. What did Viggo and Mahershala bring to the roles?
Well, for a start they’re two of the greatest actors in the world, and when we were shooting this I felt like an observer. Usually, I can see a lot of the actor in the role, but they both disappeared totally into these characters — but not in some method-y way where they were staying in character all the time, on and off the set. They just became these people, and Viggo couldn’t be less like Tony Lip in real life, and the same with Mahershala and Don. They both worked so hard behind the scenes, and I got a call from Steven Spielberg when he first saw it, and he told me, “This is the best buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and he’s right.
It’s a road picture, but didn’t you end up shooting it all in and around New Orleans?
Yes, we did everything there apart from one day in northern New Jersey to get the fall foliage, and a day of exteriors in New York City with Viggo for all the street scenes. Louisiana has everything, from rolling hills to flats. We also found all the venues and clubs they play in, along with mansions and different looks that could double for places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, as well as Carolinas and the Deep South.
We shot for just 35 days, and Louisiana has great and very experienced crews, so we were able to work pretty fast. Then for scenes like Carnegie Hall, we used CGI in post, done by Pixel Magic, and we were also amazingly lucky when it came to the snow scenes set in Maryland at the end. We were all ready to use fake snow when it actually started snowing and sticking. We got a good three, four inches, which they told us hadn’t happened in a decade or two down there.
Where did you post?
We did most of the editing at my home in Ojai, and the sound at Fotokem, where we also did the DI with colorist Walter Volpatto.
Do you like the post process?
I love it. My favorite part of filmmaking is the editing. Writing is the hardest part, pulling the script together. And I always have fun on the shoot, but you’re always having to make sure you don’t screw up the script. So when you get to the edit and post, all the hard work is done in that sense, and you have the joy of watching the movie find its shape as you cut and add in the sound and music.
What were the big editing challenges, given there’s such a mix of comedy and drama?
Finding that balance was the key, but this film actually came together so easily in the edit compared with some of the movies I’ve done. I’ll never forget seeing the first assembly of There’s Something About Mary, which I thought was so bad it made me want to vomit! But this just flowed, and Patrick did a beautiful job.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film.
It was a huge part of the film and we had a really amazing pianist and composer in Kris Bowers, who worked a lot with Mahershala to make his performance as a musician as authentic as possible. And it wasn’t just the piano playing — Mahershala told me right at the start, “I want to know just how a pianist sits at the piano, how he moves.” So he was totally committed to all the details of the role. Then there’s all the radio music, and I didn’t want to use all the obvious, usual stuff for the period, so we searched out other great, but lesser-known songs. We had great music supervisors, Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval, and a great sound team.
We’re already heading into the awards season. How important are awards to you and this film?
Very important. I love the buzz about it because that gets people out to see it. When we first tested it, we got 100%, and the studio didn’t quite believe it. So we tested again, with “a tougher” audience, and got 98%. But it’s a small film. Everyone took pay cuts to make it, as the budget was so low, but I’m very proud of the way it turned out.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.