Tag Archives: Peter Farrelly

Director Peter Farrelly gets serious with Green Book

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.

Peter Farrelly

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.

DP Chat: Green Book’s Sean Porter

Sean Porter has worked as a cinematographer on features, documentaries, short films and commercials. He was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for Best Cinematography for his work on It Felt Like Love, and his credits include 20th Century Women, Green Room, Rough Night and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.

His most recent collaboration was with director Peter Farrelly on Green Book, which is currently in theaters. Set in 1962, the film follows Italian-American bouncer/bodyguard Tony Lip (Academy Award-nominee Viggo Mortensen) and world-class black pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali) on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South. They must rely on “The Green Book” to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism and danger — as well as unexpected humanity and humor — they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.

Green Book director Peter Farrelly (blue windbreaker) with DP Sean Porter (right, brown jacket).

Porter chose the Alexa Mini mounted with Leica Summilux-C lenses to devise the look for “Green Book.” End-to-end post services were provided by FotoKem, from dailies at their New Orleans site to final color and deliverables at Burbank.

We spoke to him recently about his rise to director of photography and his work on Green Book:

How did you become interested in cinematography?
My relationship with cinematography, and really filmmaking, developed over many years during my childhood. I didn’t study fine art or photography in school, but discovered it later as many others do. I went in through the front door when I was probably 12 or so, and it’s been a long road.

I’m the oldest of four — two brothers and a sister. We grew up in a small town about an hour outside of Seattle, we had a modest yard that butted up to the “back woods.” It was an event when the neighborhood kids got on bikes and road a half mile or so to the only small convenience store around. There wasn’t much to do there, so we naturally had to be pretty inventive in our play. We’d come home from school, put on the TV and at the time Movie Magic was airing on The Discovery Channel. I think that show honestly was a huge inspiration, not only to me but to my brothers as well, who are also visual artists. It was right before Jurassic Park changed the SFX landscape — it was a time when everything was still done photographically, by hand. There were episodes showing how these films achieved all sorts of amazing images using rather practical tools and old school artistry.

My dad was always keen on technology and he had various camcorders throughout the years, beginning with the VHS back when the recorder had to be carried separately. As the cameras became more compact and easier to use, my brothers and I would make all kinds of films, trying to emulate what we had seen on the show. We were experimenting with high-level concepts at a very young age, like forced perspective, matte paintings, miniatures (with our “giant” cat as the monster) and stop motion.

I picked up the technology bug and by the time I was in middle school I was using our family’s first PC to render chromakeys — well before I had access to NLEs. I was conning my teachers into letting me produce “video” essays instead of writing them. Later we moved closer to Seattle and I was able to take vocational programs in media production and went on to do film theory and experimental video at the University of Washington, where I think I started distilling my focus as a cinematographer.

What inspires you artistically? And how do you simultaneously stay on top of advancing technology that serves your vision?
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t discover film via fine art or photography, so I didn’t have that foundation of image making and color theory. I learned it all just by doing and paying attention to what I responded to. I didn’t have famous artists to lean on. You could say it was much more grassroots. My family was a lover of popular films, especially American comedies and action adventure. We watched things like Spies like Us, Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Princess Bride. It was all pure entertainment, of course. I wasn’t introduced to Bergman or Fellini until much, much later. As we got older, my film language expanded and I started watching films by Lynch and Fincher. I will say that those popular ‘90s films had a great combination of efficient storytelling and technical craft that I still resonate with to this day. It’s very much a sort of “blue-collar” film language.

Staying on top of the technology oscillates between an uncontrollable obsession and an unbearable chore. I’ve noticed over the years that I’m becoming less and less invigorated by the tech — many of the new tools are invaluable, but I love relying on my team to filter out the good from the hype so I can focus on how best to tell the story. Some developments you simply can’t ignore; I remember the day I saw footage in class from a Panasonic DVX100. It changed everything!

What new technology has changed the way you work (looking back over the past few years)?
I feel like the digital cameras, while continuing to get better, have slowed down a bit. There was such a huge jump between the early 2000s and the late 2000s. There’s no question digital acquisition has changed the way we make images — and it’s up for debate if it’s been a wholly positive shift. But generally, it’s been very empowering for filmmakers, especially on smaller budgets. It’s given me and my peers the chance to create cinema-quality images on projects that couldn’t afford to shoot on 16mm or 35mm. And over the last five years, the gap between digital and film has diminished, even vanished for many of us.

But if I had to single out one development it’s probably been LEDs over the last two or three years. Literally, five years ago it was all HMI and Kino Flos, and now I don’t remember the last time I touched a Kino. Sometimes we go entire jobs without firing up an HMI. The LEDs have gotten much better recently, and the control we have on set is unprecedented. It makes you wonder how we did it before!

What are some of your best practices or rules you try to follow on each job?
Every time I start a new project, I say to myself, “This time I’m going to get my shit together.” I think I’m going to get organized, develop systems, databases, Filemaker apps, whatever, and streamline the process so I can be more efficient. I’ll have a method for combining scouting photos with storyboards and my script notes so everything is in one place and I can disseminate information to relevant departments. Then I show up at prep and realize the same thing I realize every movie: They are all so, so different.

It’s an effort in futility to think you can adopt a “one-size-fits-all” mentality to preproduction. It just doesn’t work. Some directors storyboard every shot. Some don’t even make shot lists. Some want to previs every scene during the scouting process using stand-ins, others won’t even consider blocking until the actors are there, on the day. So I’ve learned that the efficiency is found in adaptation. My job is to figure out how to get inside my director’s head, see things the way they are seeing them and help them get those ideas into actions and decisions. There’s no app for that, unfortunately! I suppose I try to really listen, and not just to the words my director uses to describe things, but to the subtext and what is between the lines. I try to understand what’s really important to them so I can protect those things and fight for them when the pressure to compromise starts mounting.

Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga in “Green Book,” directed by Peter Farrelly.

On a more practical note, I read many years ago about a DP who would stand on the actor’s mark and look back toward the camera — just to be aware of what sort of environment they were putting the talent in. Addressing a stray glare or a distracting stand might make a big difference to the actor’s experience. I try to do that as often as I can.

Explain your ideal collaboration with the director when setting the look of a project.
It’s hard to reduce such an array of possible experiences down to an “ideal,” as an ideal situation for one film might not be ideal for another depending on the experience the director wants to create on set. I’ve had many different, even conflicting, “processes” with my directors because it suited that specific collaboration. Again, it’s about adapting, being a chameleon to their process. It’s not about coming in and saying, “This is the best way to do this.”

I remember with one director we basically locked ourselves in her apartment for three days and just watched films. We’d pause them now and then and discuss a shot or a scene, but a lot of the time it was just about being together experiencing this curated body of work and creating a visual foundation for us to work from. With another director, we didn’t really watch any films at all, but we did lots and lots of testing. Camera tests, lens tests, lighting tests, filter tests, makeup and SFX tests. And we’d go into a DI suite and look at everything and talk about what was working and what wasn’t. He was also a DP so I think that technical, hands-on approach made sense to him. I think I tested every commercially available fluorescent tube that was on the market to find the right color for that film. I’ll admit as convenient as it would be to have a core strategy to work from, I think I would tire of it. I love walking onto a film and saying, “Ok, how are we going do this?”

Tell us about Green Book. How would you describe the overarching look of the film that you and Peter Farrelly wanted to achieve?
I think, maybe more than I want to admit, that the look of my films is a culmination of the restraints that are imparted by either myself or by production. You’re only going to have a certain amount of time and money for each scene, so calculations and compromises must be made there. You have to work with the given location, time of day and how it’s going be art decorated, so that adds a critical layer. Peter wanted to work a certain way with his actors and have lots of flexibility, so you adapt your process to make that work. Then you give yourself certain creative constraints, and somewhere in between all those things pushing on each other, the look of the film emerges.

That sounds a little arbitrary and Pete and I had some discussions about how it should look, but they were broad conversations. Honesty and authenticity were very important to Pete. He didn’t want things to ever look or feel disingenuous. My very first conversation with him after I was hired was about the car work. He was getting pressure to shoot it all on stage with LED screens. I was honest with him. I told him he’d probably get more time with his actors, and more predictable results on stage, but he’d get more realism from the look and from the performances dragging the entire company out onto the open road and battling the elements.

So we shot all the car work practically, save for a few specific night scenes. I took his words to heart and tried to shape the look out of what was authentic to the time. My gaffer and I researched what lighting fixtures were used then — it wasn’t like it is now with hundreds of different light sources. Back then it was basically tungsten, fluorescent, neon mercury and sodium. We limited our palette to those colors and tuned all our fixtures accordingly. I also avoided stylistic choices that would have made the film feel dated or “affected” — the production design, wardrobe and MCU departments did all of that. Pete and I wanted the story to feel just as relevant now as it did then, so I kept the images clean and largely unadulterated.

How early did you get involved in the production?
I came on about five weeks before shooting. I prepped for one week and then we were all sent home! Some negotiations had stalled production and for several weeks I didn’t know if we would start up again. I’m very grateful everyone made it work so we could make the film.

How did you go about choosing the right camera and lenses for Green Book?
While 35mm would have been a great choice aesthetically for the film, there were some real production advantages to shooting digitally. As we were shooting all the car work practically, it was my prerogative to get as much of the coverage inside the car accomplished at a go. Changing lighting conditions, road conditions and tight schedules prohibited me from shooting an angle, then pulling over and re-rigging the camera. We had up to three Alexa Mini cameras inside the car at once, and many times that was all the coverage planned for the scene, save for a couple cutaways. This allowed us to get multi-page scenes done very efficiently while maintaining light continuity, keeping the realism of the landscapes and capturing those happy (and sometimes sad) accidents.

I chose some very clean, very fast, and very portable lenses: the Leica Summilux-Cs. I used to shoot stills with various Leica film cameras and developed an affinity for the way the lenses rendered. They are always sharp, but there’s some character to the fall off and the micro-contrast that always make faces look great. I had shot many of my previous films with vintage lenses with lots of character and could have easily gone that route, but as I mentioned, I was more interested in removing abstractions — finding something more modern yet still classic and utilitarian.

Any challenging scenes that you are particularly proud of?
Not so much a particular scene, but a spanning visual idea. Many times, when you start a film, you’ll have some cool visual arc you want to try to employ, and along the way various time, location or schedule constraints eventually break it all down. Then you’re left with a few disparate elements that don’t connect the way you wanted them to. Knowing I would face those same challenges but having a bit more resources than some of my other films, I aimed low but held my ground: I wanted the color of the streetlights to work on a spectrum, shifting between safety and danger deepening on the scene or where things were heading in the story.

I broke the film down by location and worked with my gaffer to decide where the environment would be majority sodium (safe/familiar/hopeful) and where it would be mercury (danger/fear/despair). It sounds very rudimentary but when you try to actually pull it off with so many different locations, it can get out of hand pretty quickly. And, of course, many scenes had varying ratios of those colors. I was pleased that I was able to hold onto the idea and not have it totally disintegrate during the shoot.

What’s your go-to gear (camera, lens, mount/accessories) — things you can’t live without?
Go-to tools change from job to job, but the one I rely on more than any is my crew. Their ideas, support and positive energy keep me going in the darkest of hours! As for the nuts and bolts — lately I rarely do a job without SkyPanels and LiteMats. For my process on set, I’ve managed to get rid of just about everything except my light meter and my digital still camera. The still camera is a very fast way to line up shots, and I can send images to my iPad and immediately communicate framing ideas to all departments. It saves a lot of time and guess work!

Main Image: Sean Porter (checkered shirt) on set of Green Book, pictured with director Peter Farrelly.