‘Green Book’: How the True 1960s Heart-Tugger Made It to the Screen

Making his first drama as a period true story wasn't easy for Peter Farrelly, who relied on gifted stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
'Green Book': How the True '60s Heart-Tugger Made it to the Screen
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In September, when writer-director Peter Farrelly prepared to world premiere “Green Book” at the first film festival in his 40-year comedy career, he had some strong preview numbers behind him, a thumbs up from Steven Spielberg, and the easiest edit he had ever had. “I didn’t have performance anxiety, I’ve had that before, but not about movies,” he said. “But I wasn’t expecting that reaction, which was crazy. That was a film lover’s crowd. And I didn’t expect the audience award.”

Farrelly and his brother (and until recently, creative partner) Bobby never planned their Hollywood career. Mostly they wrote their own stuff. “Something About Mary” was an old script they had read 10 years before that was mired in development hell. “There’s a really good movie in there,” they thought. After “Kingpin,” they asked to see it again and “Boom! We’re off,” said Farrelly.

The only script anyone ever sent to them was “Fever Pitch,” written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. “We gave them a couple of notes,” Farrelly said. “Other than that, we’re creating our own stuff. People ask me, ‘Would I ever do a drama?’ ‘Yeah, when it happens.'”

Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly'Dumb and Dumber To' film premiere, Los Angeles, America - 03 Nov 2014
Peter FarrellyBroadimage/REX/Shutterstock

“Green Book” got started when Farrelly bumped into an old actor friend, Brian Curry, who had played small roles in his films. He was writing a screenplay, a true story about a black concert pianist in 1962 who lived above Carnegie Hall. His record company was sending him on a tour of the deep south and he was afraid of going there. So he went to the Copacabana and hired their toughest bouncer, a racist Italian guy with a sixth grade education, to drive him. The two hit the road together for a year.

“That’s a home run!” said Farrelly. “I kept thinking about it. I called him to see where it was. ‘What’s going on now with that script?’ ‘Oh we haven’t begun it yet.’ ‘Can I write it with you? I love this story.'”

Curry and Nick Vallelonga, the son of the bouncer Tony Lipp, started writing the following Monday. “Nick had been smart,” said Farrelly. “Twenty years ago, he went to his father. He knew the story and knew Dr. Shirley. He shot a one hour and half videotape of Tony Lip telling the story, with all his Tony Lipisms. He’s not exactly politically correct in the telling of the story. I don’t want to say some stuff that will get me fired from Hollywood. The words he was using were all pejorative for being gay, black, everything. But he had a love for Dr. Shirley and how he changed.”

The script was character-driven. “They’re such opposites,” said Farrelly. “They had such a long way to go. All it took was getting to know each other. Both of them had preconceptions about the other one that were inaccurate and untrue. They both have walls up and they cut through the bullshit. That’s the message here: we are all the same. But we didn’t set out to make a message.”

They stuck to the first few months of the trip, ending with Lip bringing his friend home for Christmas. “We reordered it,” said Farrelly. “It’s all true: RFK, punching out the policeman, the YMCA. More happened we chose not to use.”

Two months later, they felt they had a good script, and the movie kept moving forward with several financing detours — one came just as they were prepping a start in New Orleans. “It’s a miracle it got made,” said Farrelly, who managed to get the movie back from Focus Features after a management change and took it to Participant Media, where they assembled a tight seven-week 1960s period production with a $23-million budget, which meant nobody was getting paid much. (Everything was shot in Louisiana, even a driving snow storm.)

It was hard to get to Viggo Mortensen. Casting director Rick Montgomery had Farrelly write to the right rep, explaining: “This is a departure for me, I’m not doing ‘Dumb and Dumber.'”  The actor read the script, but the New York-born Mortensen wasn’t sure he could pull off this beefy Italian New Yawk lug. “I kept pushing him. ‘No no, you can do it.’ I had no doubt,” said Farrelly. “‘You were Russian in ‘Eastern Promises’, I said. As it turned out he gained 45 pounds, and he sounded just like him.”

L to R: Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK
“Green Book”Universal Pictures

Of course, Farrelly couldn’t help going for funny moments, even while shooting what he considers to be his first drama. The writers pulled him back, and he kept the actors on track on set. “None of us knew until we started shooting that it was really funny, until two of the world’s best actors were doing the words,” he said. “It’s killing me, we’re giggling. Viggo had never done anything to get such laughs. I could see that he could get caught up: ‘That’s one laugh too many; let’s keep it real.'”

Both actors offered research points and weighed in on anything that felt wrong. Mortensen recognized that tin foil didn’t show up until later. “If you have brilliant people around you,” said Farrelly, “listen to them!”

Farrelly recognized that he and his co-writers were favoring Tony Lip’s point-of-view on the story, mainly because Don Shirley died in 2013. So they asked Octavia Spencer to be an executive producer, adding her point of view to Ali and producer Kwame Parker. “We were concerned about the perception, ‘Why are you guys making the movie?’ The answer is, ‘I hate fucking racism,'” said Farrelly. “I hate it. I knew we had to bounce the story off people, starting with Mahershala during two weeks of rehearsal. We went through all the lines; he had a lot of thoughts. He kept it real.”

They kept some potentially troubling scenes, including one in which Tony introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Ali endorsed the scene completely, saying he never eats fried chicken or watermelon in front of other people.

The director also kept the “Green Book” title, which came from the original Lip video. “What the hell is he talking about there?” They Googled and found out about “The Negro Motorist’s Green Book.” Only older guys had ever heard of it.

After the easiest edit he can ever remember (the rough cut of “Something About Mary” made him throw up), Farrelly showed “Green Book” to Spielberg, who enthusiastically pushed to get the movie released by big Universal over Focus Features. Nevertheless, the film’s awards status could be shaky, considering its respectable-but-not stellar 70 on Metacritic (including a pan from the New York Times and some backlash from the African-American community) alongside Mortensen’s controversial use of the n-word at a Q&A, for which he apologized.

At last weekend’s Governors Awards, people kept coming up to Farrelly (who recognized that “Green Book” is tough to nail in a 30-second TV spot) to tell him they loved the movie, which opened soft in limited release in 25 cities in order to build word of mouth. It goes wide, possibly too soon, over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday.

Universal chief Donna Langley hopes that awards talk will soon start to turn the movie into more of a must-see. Many people love the movie. “Green Book” is well inside the comfort zone — not unlike “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Crash” — for the older white voters who dominate the Academy.

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