Story and photos by Callie Broaddus
The moment credits start to roll, chairs scrape as the entire room rises quickly to its feet. An immediate standing ovation secures Green Book the 2018 Middleburg Film Festival Audience Award for a narrative film.
Based on a true story, the film follows “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Academy Award® nominee Viggo Mortensen), a crude-mannered Italian-American bouncer from The Bronx, who takes a job driving the elegant and eccentric African American piano genius, Dr. Don Shirley (Academy Award® winner Mahershala Ali), on a concert tour through the Deep South. The year is 1962, and Jim Crow laws force the unlikely pair to rely on their travel guide, The Green Book, to navigate dining, lodging and “traveling while black.”
Woven together with sound by composer and pianist Kris Bowers from Netflix’s Dear White People (see Q&A, p. 44), who painstakingly reconstructed Shirley’s music by sounding out old audio recordings, as well as scoring the film, the story follows the bumpy beginning of a real-life friendship that would last over fifty years. Mortensen’s character is introduced as a racist tough guy, but his complexity and evolution throughout the journey are executed with likability and side-splitting humor. “He wasn’t what you expected him to be,” says director Peter Farrelly as we discuss the film over shared fries and crab cakes in the Salamander Inn break room. “And that kind of stuff warms your heart, because you realize he’s a complicated character. He’s not one thing.”
“And neither is Doc,” adds Mortensen. “It’s a movie that subverts first impressions, which are always limited, obviously, from both sides.”
“It’s also great that it’s not a story that specifically from one ideological point of view,” Mortensen continues. “But it respects the audience’s intelligence and allows them to make up their own mind what they think about it by just showing things that happened on this trip. And I think that’s a strength.” Green Book is a drama debut for writer and director Peter Farrelly, who is often credited for co-creating the modern comedy with his brother through hits like There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. The dialogue ranges from heartbreaking to hilarious in what may come to be seen as a breakthrough film for Farrelly, though that was not his motivation for taking the project on. “It was hearing the story,” says Farrelly. “I just loved the two guys. I knew it was an odd couple story. I loved everything about it, and it’s true, and they’re on the road, and it’s 1962, and it just—right away I thought, ‘I want to do this.’”
“It wasn’t an effort to do something different; I wasn’t even thinking that. It didn’t occur to me until I started trying to get it made, and people were like, ‘I don’t know…’ and I’m like, ‘What, are you kidding, this is so good!’ And they say were like, ‘Well, you never did this.’ And I went, ‘Ok, I hadn’t even thought about that,’” he concludes, in his conversational tone, adding with a laugh that the only people who ever doubted his ability to make the film were “studios and money people, those guys.”
Farrelly is self-deprecating about his versatility as a writer, and chalks his success up to being a failure early in life. “I was good at failure. I wasn’t afraid of it; I could handle it….Some people, if you’re a success at everything you do in life, you won’t take a chance at something that odds are you’re going to fail at. “You made me feel that about just doing the part,” says Mortensen, who is best known for his role as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, describing how his doubts were assuaged when Farrelly asked him to play the lead role. “I was like, ‘Ehh I don’t know, I think I’ll blow it.’ And you said, ‘Hey, I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t think you could do it.’”
In order to convince Mortensen that he was the right man for the job, Farrelly described a casting hurdle from Dumb and Dumber. “The studio said, ‘Not Jeff Daniels; he’s not funny.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean; he’s a great actor. If he does a funny role, he’s gonna be funny.’” Turning back to Mortensen, he adds, “I wasn’t talking you into something I didn’t believe. I knew 100% you were going to nail this part.”
And nail it, he did. Both Mortensen and Ali are rumored favorites in this year’s Academy Awards for their exquisite performances. “Any part you play as an actor, you’re putting yourself in a situation where your job in part is to look at the world from a point of view different from your own. In some cases, really different,” says Mortensen, trying to describe how he became Tony Lip. “In this case for me, this is a guy who thinks very differently about many things, and hasn’t travelled as much as I have, and, I don’t know, just has a different world view, totally. But I don’t know, that’s my job. I really enjoy it.”
I ask if anything special was left on the cutting room floor as they condensed pieces of the true story together into the film, which only chronicled the first two months of what was ultimately a year-long journey. Farrelly has an answer at hand. “During their trip, JFK was assassinated…they cancelled the tour for a while, and they went to the funeral, in Washington. In the first draft, that was in there.”
“It would have been cool, but it would have unbalanced it,” says Mortensen. “The only thing I didn’t like losing, if there’s something funny that came out of that—this is gallows humor—is when they found out, they were in a lobby,” says Farrelly. “And this is Tony Lip telling this story; we have audio tape of him telling it. He goes, ‘Yeah, you know, we’re in this lobby walking along, and I see all these people around a TV set. So I go over and I look at it. And I walk over to Dr. Shirley, and he said, ‘What’s goin’ on over there?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, some president got killed.’” Dr. Shirley responds that “some president” is his friend, President Kennedy.
Every decision Farrelly made, from what to cut, to whom to cast, from writing to music, comes together in this powerful, poignant and uplifting tribute to a beautiful friendship set in a period of deep racial divides. It is a story about overcoming differences and looking beneath the surface. I ask Farrelly if the nation’s racial and political climate today were a factor in making the film. “It wasn’t like, ‘Hey, let’s make a movie about what’s going on today,’” he responds. “It was the other way around. It came to me and I realized, ‘Hey, this really resonates with what’s going on today,’ which was kind of lucky.”
Green Book opens in theaters nationwiden Nov. 21.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of Middleburg Life.