By Randi Altman
Universal Pictures’ Green Book tells the tale of an African-American piano virtuoso and his white driver. Based on a true story, this unlikely pair must navigate the Deep South in 1962 for a concert tour during a time most places to eat and sleep were segregated.
This unlikely pairing of the well-educated and sophisticated Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the blue-collar Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) ends up teaching both men a lesson in understanding and acceptance, and turns into a life-long friendship.
The film was nominated for five Golden Globes and won three: Best Screenplay, Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture. The work of the film’s editor, Patrick J. Don Vito, has also been noticed, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing, in addition to an ACE Eddie nomination in the Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy) category.
We recently spoke to Don Vito, who had previously collaborated with the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, known for unapologetic comedy films such as There’s Something About Mary, Dumb & Dumber and Hall Pass. Don Vito, whose resume includes other comedies such as Walk of Shame and My Life in Ruins, really enjoyed walking the line between comedy and drama in this film, which he says made for a fun but challenging edit.
Let’s find out more…
How early did you get involved in Green Book?
I got the script back in August of 2017, expressed a lot of interest to Pete and got hired! The movie started shooting right after Thanksgiving, and I began a few days before that. We set up shop in New Orleans, near where they were shooting.
So you were keeping up with camera?
Yes, I would get dailies every day and try to keep up with the footage. I’d cut during the week when Pete was shooting and he would come in on the weekend to look at cuts. We would discuss ideas, and I’d show him alternate cuts. We did that throughout the shoot, and when we were done shooting, we went to Ojai, where Pete lives, and cut there for six weeks. We then came back to Los Angeles to finish — we set up rooms at EPS-Cineworks.
So you were not on set but you were near set.
Yes. I popped in like the first day of shooting and said hello. I don’t think I ever went to the set again.
Do you prefer it that way?
I’m an editor. I like to tell the story. The set is a lot of sitting around, waiting and planning; you shoot for a couple minutes, then you stop and wait. I like to keep working, and in the cutting room it never stops. You’re always trying new things, looking at different takes and seeing what you can create out of something. It’s that process of always being engaged that I like. Every minute I spend on the set, I feel like I am falling behind. It’s different if you’re directing the film. I’ve directed some shorts, and that is fun because you are always busy and engaged.
Were there times when you realized a scene was close, but still needed something additional?
Yes, every once in a while something would come up and I’d say, “It would be great if we had an insert of this so I can bridge these shots together.” Or I’d say, “If there is time, can you get a shot of this?”
They had a second unit go out and get a bunch of insert shots to fill in gaps — driving shots and various things that we needed. That happened out of our discussions and asking, “What if we did that?”
How do you approach editing? Do you watch everything up front and then build selects?
Usually, but It depends on the scene and how I feel that day. I’ll watch everything and get a feel for what the scene is about and what I have available, and I’ll try to keep that in my head. Once the scenes are placed in the bin, it’s easier for me to visually remember where things are.
I’ll break down selects. Then if a scene is for some reason particularly difficult or causing me problems, I may jump around. I may start at the end of a scene and work backwards, or start in the middle and work out from there. It depends. I like switching it up and making my brain work a little differently each time. I try different tricks to kind of keep it fresh for me in my head.
What would an example of a trick be? Are there any scenes within the film that you can point to?
When Tony Lip’s wife, Delores, is reading the letter to her family and the guys are playing poker in the background — that scene was a little long. We had the entire letter being read on camera in the original cut. Then we went back to the table in the kitchen where the guys are playing poker and talking about Tony’s letters. “They’re not bad. You know? Oh, we had an artsy family.”
Originally, the joke was when the female family member says, “I want a letter,” and her husband answers, “Yeah, as soon as you make a meal.” That used to be in the middle of the scene. What I did was have Tony’s wife start the letter then cut over to the table and she’s now off-camera. You’re hearing her continue to read the letter while we are watching the guys play poker. Then we go back for the end of Delores reading the letter and the joke. It became a much better scene, and thanks to the joke it punched you right out into the next scene.
Essentially, it was just a little reorder, which we do once in a while. One thing I try to do with comedy is look at it as a mathematical equation. Say you have three jokes in a scene. You have A, B and C jokes. A is the funniest, B is not as funny and C is the least funny. You may have an idea of what the funniest joke is, but you don’t necessarily know which one it is until you play it for people. Once you have some screenings you know. You don’t want to end a scene on a B or C joke. You want to end on an A joke. So you can try to either remove a joke or try to reorder the scene so that it ends on the A joke. You want to build it from funny, funnier to funniest.
This is such a serious topic, but the film’s got funny moments as well. How did you walk that line?
That was probably the most difficult thing about it. You don’t want the jokes to seem like a joke. You want them to come out of a scene naturally — out of the drama, characters or the emotion of the scene. There were a lot of options as far as jokes. At first I cut everything in to see what was working and what seemed too jokey. You start eliminating things that take it to a different type of comedy and you try to keep it more real. That was always the mantra from Pete: “Let’s keep it real. All the comedy needs to come out of the scenes and not seem like it’s too much of a joke.”
Had you worked with Pete before?
Yes, a couple of times. I worked on Movie 43 with him, which was a very different kind of comedy. I also worked on a pilot for him a few years ago called Cuckoo, which was a remake of a British series. It didn’t get picked up.
Do you find that you tend to get pigeonholed as an editor? You are either a comedy editor or an action editor, etc.?
I think that happens to everyone. Absolutely, and it can be tough. Even with this movie, the studio asked for a reference list of people. I think that was because they looked at my resume and saw a lot of comedies.
The movie I did right before this, but isn’t out yet, is a drama called Three Christs. It has some comedic elements but it’s pretty much a drama. I think that gave me a better chance at Green Book. It’s directed by Jon Avnet and stars Peter Dinklage, Richard Gere, Walton Goggins, Bradley Whitford and Julianna Margulies. It’s a true story, also from the ’60s, about a psychiatrist who has three patients who all think they’re Jesus Christ. He decides to put them in a room together while they are in a psych ward to see what happens. Will they give up their delusions? Will they fight over it? I’ve known Jon Avnet since I was an assistant editor on Up Close and Personal in 1996.
Ok, let’s turn to tools. You use Avid Media Composer. Do you have any tips or tricks that you would like to share?
It’s not a trick, but when I start a movie I have one of the assistants set up Script Sync, which is really helpful for when you’re in the room with the director and the producers and want to quickly get to different line readings.
Basically, you put the clips on the script itself and you can click on a line and hear every single line reading of that line. I know editors sometimes take every single line reading of dialogue and cut them next to each other in a sequence. I prefer to use Scrypt Sync and make select rolls.
Speaking of assistants, how did you work with yours on Green Book?
Petra Demas was my first assistant, and she was great. She would help organize my room, and when I needed help I could throw her a scene. So she would help me cut scenes now and again when she wasn’t busy.
I had another great assistant named Bart Breve’. He did all the Script Sync work and helped out with dailies with Petra. They would keep me up-to-date with footage to make sure I always had something to work on. Bart was a local in New Orleans, so when I came back to LA, we hired Aleigh Lewis who handled all the visual effects — there are over 400 in the movie.
You assume because it’s a period piece there will be some visual effects, but that’s a lot of shots.
Absolutely. Aleigh helped keep all the visual effects organized. I relied on her to organize the visual effects and show me the new ones as they came in, so I could give notes. Pixel Magic did the visual effects, including the piano playing.
I was wondering about that!
Mahershala Ali is a good actor, but that’s virtuoso piano playing! He did take lessons for a few months from the composer Kris Bowers, who played the piano in the movie. Mahershala learned where to put his hands and how to sit like a classical pianist. Kris would play the music and they’d shoot that, then Mahershala would sit and he would play. Then we’d combine the two into a take. It was mostly head replacement kind of stuff.
What were some of the other VFX shots?
A ton of them were getting rid of modern things in the shots… modern cars, signs, cameras on buildings … that kind of thing. On top of that, the car they were in had a tear in the roof inside the car and it’s supposed to be a brand new 1962 Cadillac. About 85% of the car scenes are visual effects shots. There is an amazing bridge shot where the Cadillacs are leaving NY on the George Washington Bridge. In that shot the blacktop and all the cars are CGI. Pixel Magic took a modern stock shot and created that. It’s pretty impressive.
Fotokem, who processed dailies for us and provided the color correction, even did a few visual effects. When we saw the film in such high resolution during the color correction, we noticed modern elements in some shots that we missed and needed to remove. They took care of that.
Were most of the driving shot greenscreen?
No. It was almost all practical. We drove in and around New Orleans. The only ones that were green screened were when they’re driving in the snow, and still some of them are practical because we actually did get some snow just outside of New Orleans. It started snowing, so they got the camera crew together and went out and shot. Who knew it was going to snow in New Orleans?!