Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini, Mahershala Ali
Director: Peter Farrelly
Synopsis: In his powerful foray into dramatic work as a feature director, Peter Farrelly helms the film, inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and the 1962 Mason-Dixon line.
When Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Mortensen), a New York City bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in The Bronx, is hired to drive and protect Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on The Green Book – a travel guide to safe lodging, dining and business options for African Americans during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws – to steer them to places where Shirley will not be refused service, humiliated, or threatened with violence.
Set against the backdrop of a country grappling with the valour and volatility of the Civil Rights Movement, two men will be confronted with racism and danger, and be comforted by generosity, kindness and humour. Together, they will challenge long-held assumptions, push past their seemingly insurmountable differences, and embrace their shared humanity. What begins as two-month journey of necessity will establish a friendship that will endure for the rest of their lives.
Release Date: January 24th, 2019
From Father to Son: A Movie 50 Years in the Making
Nick Vallelonga, the oldest son of Tony Lip, grew up hearing about his father's journey with Don Shirley. "This was a story I had on my mind basically my whole life from the time I was a young kid," says Vallelonga, an actor, writer, producer, and director whose filmmaking credits include Deadfall, Stiletto, and the award-winning indie western, Yellow Rock, and Unorganized Crime.
Tony had grown up in The Bronx and had landed a job at the Copacabana night club, where he worked for 12 years, rubbing elbows with mob honchos and celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin. Although he stopped going to school after the seventh grade, he was garrulous and charismatic, and earned his nickname for his reputation of being able to persuade anybody of just about anything.
"I could make 50 movies about my dad," Vallelonga says. "He was one of those larger-thanlife, Damon Runyon-esque characters. When he walked into a room, you knew he was there." That made a big impact on his son – as did Tony's friendship with Dr. Shirley and the tale of how they met.
"As I grew up, I wanted to be a filmmaker and tell stories, and this was a big story that my father told me," Vallelonga says. "It was part of the family lore, but I also knew it was an important story about two very different people coming together and changing each other's lives and changing how they look at other people. It's an uplifting story that's as important and powerful today as it ever was."
For Tony, that trip with Shirley in 1962 had opened his eyes for the first time to the plight of African Americans in the South, and the barrage of humiliations – and very real dangers – visited upon Black people by racist laws and white privilege. Jim Crow laws restricted where Black people could eat, sleep, sit, shop, and walk. They determined which drinking fountains and bathrooms African Americans could use. Indeed, they circumscribed almost every aspect of daily life. Certain Southern towns even instituted "sundown" laws that made it illegal for Black people to be outside after dark. Arrest was the least-terrible thing that could happen to you if you were caught.
"What my father experienced with Dr. Shirley on that trip changed the way he looked at the world because he saw things that he didn't realise were happening, and had never seen before," Vallelonga says. "Ultimately, I think the same was true for Dr. Shirley."
Indeed, Shirley had lived a life apart from most other African Americans, both geographically and culturally. He had studied classical music overseas and, in the States, had performed primarily in the Northeast. When Tony met him, Shirley was living in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall. "It was just a two-month journey, but it was a big change for my father, and it changed how he taught us to treat people and respect people."
Vallelonga knew that one day he hoped to make a movie about this pivotal chapter in his father's life, so as Tony and Dr. Shirley entered the last years of their lives, Vallelonga recorded hours of audio and videotape with his father telling the story.
He also reached out to Shirley, whom he'd known as a family friend, and spent hours interviewing him. "I met Dr. Shirley when I was five-years-old," Vallelonga says.
"He was a meticulous, well-dressed, well-spoken, highly educated man. He was very, interested in my father's family, that my father was a family man. And he was so nice to myself and my brother. He gave us gifts. I remember he gave me ice skates when I was small. He was a really special human being, a very special person."
While Vallelonga sees Green Book as a testament to his father's character and legacy, he's especially proud that the film will showcase the musical talent of Dr. Donald Walbridge Shirley, the virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger, and performer.
Dr. Shirley was a deeply private man, and most of the information known about him is found only in the liner notes for his albums, which he wrote himself, or in stories he told about himself to other people, including the Vallelongas. Details about his history can sometimes be contradictory. But according to the lore around him, Shirley became a student at the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of 9, made his concert debut with the Boston Pops symphony at 18, and would go on to earn multiple doctorate degrees and to speak multiple languages. In 1955, at the time of his first album for Cadence Records, Tonal Expressions, Shirley was described by Esquire magazine as "probably the most gifted pianist in the business… so good that comparisons are absurd." Legendary pianist and composer Igor Stravinsky, who was a contemporary of Shirley's, said of him, "His virtuosity is worthy of Gods."
"Dr. Shirley was a genius, an amazing, amazing man," Vallelonga says. "His talent was beyond belief. I'm glad that his name and his work and talent are going to get out there in the world through this movie."
Vallelonga says his father's work at the Copacabana gave him a real appreciation for music and musicians, so when he heard Shirley play, he knew the man had extraordinary talent.
"My father always talked about him and played his music in our home and made us listen to it," Vallelonga says. "That music opened up my world. I was listening to The Beatles, Jimmy Rosselli and Italian music, and Dr. Don Shirley. It was a great cultural mix for me." In 2013, after more than 50 years of friendship, Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley both died almost three months to the date of one another – Tony died January 4, 2013 at age 82 and Shirley died April 6, 2013 at age 86. After a period of grieving, Vallelonga returned to their story and started to think: Now is the time to do it.
Forged in Friendship: A Partnership Begins
This tale of enduring friendship ultimately became a movie because of an enduring friendship. Vallelonga had known actor Brian Hayes Currie (Armageddon, Con Air) for decades, and Currie had known Vallelonga's father well and had even appeared in Vallelonga's 2008 film, Stiletto.
So Currie was shocked when, a few years ago, at a coffee shop in Studio City, CA, Vallelonga told him this story about Tony that Currie had never heard.
"Brian said, 'Are you crazy?! You've got to make this movie!'" Vallelonga recalls. Currie's enthusiasm gave Vallelonga the final push he needed. "I told him I felt that I was finally ready to make it, and he agreed to write it with me."
From Currie's perspective, the story resonated with rare emotional depth and insight. "This movie is about seeing the world through another person's eyes or learning to live in the other guy's shoes," Currie says. "In many ways, both men are fish-out-of-water. At the beginning of this story, these two people have nothing in common, they should never have met, shouldn't even be together. But their story proves that very different people can understand and respect one another."
There's Something about Pete: A Writer-Director Arrives
Enter Peter Farrelly, who along with his brother Bobby, are the writing, producing, and directing duo behind nearly a dozen blockbusters, including There's Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, The Heartbreak Kid, and the modern classic, Dumb and Dumber. Together, they had forged a brand of comedy all their own – broad, boundary-pushing, riotously funny movies that often showcased the hidden comedic talents of well-known dramatic actors such as Jeff Daniels, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.
As Vallelonga and Currie began exploring script ideas, Farrelly, who was developing the DirectTV comedy series Loudermilk with Colbert Report alum Bobby Mort at the time, ran into Currie.
"I asked him, 'What's going on?'" Farrelly says. "He told me about this story based on his friend's father, the toughest bouncer in New York City, who took a job driving a Black concert pianist named Don Shirley to tour the South in 1962. I thought it was a home run. I said, 'Good for you. Go do it.'"
In the weeks that followed, Farrelly found he couldn't get what Currie had told him out of his head. "I just kept thinking about it," he says. "I'd be lying in bed thinking, 'God, that's a good story.' I'd be driving along thinking, 'Man, that guy's got a great story.' So finally I called Brian and asked, 'Hey, what's going on with that story about the Black pianist and the Italian driver?' When he told me, 'we haven't begun writing that,' I asked, 'can I write it with you?' He said, 'Really?' And I said, 'I'd love to come on board. I love that story.'" If a period drama laced with complex racial conflict seemed like a sharp creative turn for Farrelly, it was, but not entirely. "This movie is a departure for me," Farrelly says.
"But this story is actually taking me back to what I have always wanted to do. Over the years, when people asked if I'd ever do a drama, my answer was always, 'Yes, when it comes along.' It's the universe that brings it to you. It's like asking, 'When are you going to fall in love?' It comes when it comes."
Not long after Farrelly came onboard the project, he, Currie and Vallelonga met at a diner. "Pete was great," Currie recalls. "He said, 'we're absolutely making a movie of this. I promise you right now. I have an inclination when movies are going to be made and this story is going to be made.' Pete was busy with Loudermilk, so Nick and I went off to hammer out the first draft."
Vallelonga and Currie had a rich trove of material to work with: Vallelonga's taped interviews with Tony, the notes from his interviews with Shirley, plus photographs, brochures, postcards, even the map showing the route of the trip, all of which Tony had kept. After Tony and Dr. Shirley's initial two-month trip, they quickly did another tour that lasted for about a year – Shirley then asked Tony to join him on his tour of Europe, but Tony declined because he didn't want to be away from his family any longer – so Vallelonga and Currie had access to the stacks of letters that Tony and his wife, Dolores, had sent to one another while Tony was on the road, which captured the emotions and experiences each was going through.
"There was so much information, so many great stories," Vallelonga says. "Some of them so fantastic that no one would believe them. We spent three, four weeks outlining the beats and then creating the scenes." When they'd finished, they presented their draft to Farrelly. "He was genius at knowing how to fine-tune it," Vallelonga says. "The three of us honed it, honed it, and honed it, starting all over from the beginning with Peter's input."
Although the screenplay is based on true events, so the general narrative arc of the script was set, Farrelly's gift for storytelling and character, and his precision as a writer, made it all come together.
"Pete knows what works and what doesn't, what's important and what's excessive," Currie says. "He loves to tell stories, and he captivates an audience when he speaks because he knows what makes a story work."
The Storyteller: Peter Farrelly's Superpower
After the script was completed, Farrelly sent it to his long-time producing partner, Charles Wessler. He told Wessler almost nothing about it. "He just said, 'read it and tell me what you think,'" Wessler recalls. "As I started reading it I thought, 'This is different from anything we've done.' By page 22 I thought, 'This is perfect for Pete.' I loved it and told Pete I wanted to be part of it."
Wessler, who has worked with Farrelly for nearly 30 years, says most people don't realise that the filmmaker famed for his comedies holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and has written two novels.
"Over the years Pete has shared hundreds of fantastic stories with myself and friends," Wessler says. "They span from childhood to college and moving to L.A. after graduating university. He has such a vivid eye for all human details. He has always had a knack for mixing the 'funny,' the 'tragic' and 'humanity.' What makes Pete such a wonderful director is his honesty. He is an amazing observer of life and people and translates that to his screenplays and films. Doesn't hurt that he is hilarious and fun to work with."
Award-winning actor Viggo Mortensen, who plays Tony Vallelonga, says the power of Green Book comes not just from the fact that it's a true story, but from Farrelly's strengths as a writer-director, which are grounded in sensitivity and realism.
"You have to see these characters as real people, in real settings and Pete managed to do that," Mortensen says. "The period details, the dramatic aspects of the story are so well handled. There are funny bits, but it's not funny in the way his other movies are. The humour comes more out of situations and the contrasts between the characters. There's a lot of attention to detail, an authenticity that helps you to believe."
Academy Award®-winning actor Mahershala Ali, who portrays Dr. Don Shirley, says it's the balance of humour and real drama that makes Green Book powerfully authentic.
"It rings true because it is a mix," Ali says. "The way Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Nick Vallelonga sculpted this script, it pulls you to the heights of laughter and plunges you to the depths of struggle and pain."
Jim Burke produced the Academy Award®-nominated film, The Descendants, and coproduced Farrelly's second film, Kingpin. He has known Farrelly for many years and has long wanted to see Farrelly expand into other genres. "Pete's comedies are great, but I know there's more to him than that, and I wanted to see that on film," Burke says. "When he came to me with this idea I thought it was terrific. I believed that this story could have some sharp edges on it with both these characters and that Pete would handle it tenderly." Burke also believes that Farrelly's comedy work has prepared him well for a transition to drama, crystallising his skills as a writer. "With comedy, you have to work a joke and use just the exact right sequence of words, or the whole joke sort of topples," Burke says.
"Peter's used to that, and he applies that in dramatic screenwriting as well. His finest quality as a writer is his doggedness because what writers do is re-write. If you're lucky, your first draft is pretty good, but the hardest part of writing is going from pretty good to very good to excellent, and to hang in there, do the work, and be open. That's what Pete does."
The Octavia Touch: An Oscar® Winner Joins the Filmmaking Team
Oscar® winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures) has long been a champion of stories that shine a light on the African-American experience and that expand the depth and diversity of the lives we see portrayed on screen. After she co-executive produced Ryan Coogler's searing 2013 drama, Fruitvale Station, she generously offered her passion, insight and advocacy to Green Book, joining the filmmaking team as executive producer during the early stages of development. "Octavia brought to the project her unique insights and thoughtful sensitivity," Farrelly says. "She is so gifted an actress, but also a storyteller, and her insights about complex relationships between disparate personalities were invaluable. She had palpable enthusiasm for telling this story, and we feel very fortunate for her involvement."
The Odd Couple: Finding Laughter and Depth in Character
Green Book is a drama, of course, but there are moments of levity that are organic to the story, and cemented in character. "I told everyone I was writing my first drama," Farrelly says. "But as you go on into the characters and their story, you realise it's a real odd couple." The refined, elegant artist and the rough-around-the-edges tough guy. "To put these two guys in a car together, it's just The Odd Couple on a road trip. There are things Dr. Shirley talks about and Tony has no idea what he's saying. They are quite opposite, and that's where most of the comedy humour comes from."
In fact, Tony and Dr. Shirley are about as opposite as two men can be, on almost every level, and it takes a while before they begin to understand what they have in common.
"Doc's not like any of the African-American people that Tony has grown up with in New York City," Mortensen says. "He's never seen a man like this. At first Tony feels this guy is very prickly, finicky, even snobbish. Tony may not be as bright as Doc Shirley in some ways, but he has good instincts, street smarts, and he can tell that Doc Shirley seems to think that Tony's beneath him in a lot of ways. And while Doc thinks Tony's useful because he's a good bodyguard and driver, he also thinks he's annoying. Tony's talking all the time in the car, smoking, eating constantly, asking personal questions. And Doc Shirley's used to having drivers who are discreet and polite and don't talk unless they're talked to. You can see both guys' points of view right from the start of the trip."
Their relationship is almost adversarial at first, but as Tony and Dr. Shirley spend time together, they have arguments and discussions and begin to reveal themselves to one another. All while trapped in a car together. And that road-trip element was a big attraction for Farrelly.
"It's interesting how many of my movies actually have road trips in them," Farrelly says, citing Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary, just to name a few. Farrelly himself has driven cross-country 22 times – 16 of them solo. "I love nothing more than to get in the car and just go. It helps me think. It clears my head. It's something in my brain that just keeps drawing me to these kind of stories. I can't get enough of them." Mortensen believes that road movies present situations where people are forced together, which often result in discovery and self-revelation.
"In general, road movies give you an opportunity to put characters together that normally wouldn't spend a lot of time together," Mortensen says. "Interesting things can and will happen. The longer you spend with someone, the more you may get along or not get along. The more you'll learn about them and yourself. There's just no way around it. Our road movie happens in a Cadillac Coupe De Ville in 1962 driving through the South, and we are in situations constantly where we're just tied together at the hip because I've got to be his bodyguard and be with him everywhere he goes. That's the job. As much as the story at the heart of Green Book is about the obstacles that Tony and Doc Shirley face together – institutionalised racism and other problems along the way – I was most drawn to the more complex obstacle of what each of our characters has to deal with in himself. And how each comes to deal with it."
Ali sees the close proximity of their characters in the car as a force that closes the gap between their different worlds. "It's not that they become more alike per se, but that they learn how to accept each other and become real allies over time," Ali says. "They come to realise they're on this journey together, as friends, as sort of teammates, and it's beautiful to watch that happen."
In Black and White: Race, Sexuality, Conflict and Connection
For the filmmakers and cast, the subjects that Green Room dives deep into – from race to prejudice to sexuality to stereotypes – still resonate today. "This is a movie about a relationship between a black man and a white man before the Civil Right Act, and the backdrop is one of obvious socio-economic and racial tension," Mortensen says. "In many ways, we're facing the same problems today that are depicted in the film. There are a lot of mirror images and mirror concepts that our story deals with, between 1962 and now, and I think people will find that enlightening as well as entertaining."
In many ways, Green Book is a film that will force audiences to confront our own preconceptions and unexamined prejudices. "There are things in Green Book that are going to piss you off about the way man treats his fellow man," Wessler says. "But there's a redemption here – two men who forge a connection, despite their differences." Mortensen believes that when a film that deals with these issues is set in the past, it can sometimes help us to see our present more clearly.
"Stepping out of our present time can also strip away all of the noise of our own immediate preoccupations and prejudices," Mortensen says. "All those things that keep you from listening to someone when you're have an argument. When you look at a period movie – if it's as well constructed and directed as Green Book is – and at the way people behaved in the past, it often allows you to learn things about now that you might not learn from watching a movie in a contemporary setting."
"This story is told with such a light elegance," says Dimiter D. Marinov, who portrays the cellist, Oleg, in Dr. Shirley's musical trio. "I believe it's a masterpiece about being human, about human relationships, about the way we exist. Every single person, especially young people, should see this film and realise that if you want to change something in the world, start with yourself. It's a film about goodness, real goodness. It shows you that if you're open to it, you will change, and your change will change others. History repeats until we learn."
Nor are those lessons limited to race. "Don Shirley happened to be gay at a time when it was particularly difficult," Farrelly says. "That's something that will resonate today with people throughout the world. This story took place in 1962, but these are the same issues we're talking about now."
The way these two characters – two opposite men who seem to have no shared experiences on which to build a friendship – eventually come together is what gives Green Book its power and its relevance, believes Ali.
"This is a perfect film for audiences around the world because it's about people who are different and who are able to discover their similarities and teach each other things about their differences," Ali says. "They're able to accept each other. These men come from very, very different worlds and they become allies."
The Casting Lip Service: Viggo Mortensen Transforms into Tony Vallelonga
When it came time to cast the film's two central roles, the filmmakers knew finding the right actors would be key to creating an authentic and emotional journey for the audience. "I remember sitting with Brian Currie and Nick Vallelonga, and all these actor names were flying around – a lot of Italian names," Wessler says. "And then Pete said, 'You know who's perfect for this? Viggo Mortensen.' It was one of the first names to come out of Pete's mouth. And everyone went, 'What?! Isn't he like Danish or something?'"
But Farrelly had been thinking about Mortensen while he was writing the script. "My first thought about who could play Tony was Viggo Mortensen," Farrelly says. "When we got around to casting, I brought him up and everybody was saying, 'You won't get him; he's impossible to get; he doesn't do a lot of movies.'"
The esteemed actor is known for being selective about his roles, even turning down leading roles in major studio projects in favour of character roles in smaller, independent films. But Farrelly was undeterred. "I thought, 'Well, let's just send it to him. We have nothing to lose.'" Vallelonga was intrigued. "If you look at Italians portrayed in movies like Goodfellas or TV shows like The Sopranos, you see a certain group of Italian actors," Vallelonga says.
"But the quintessential Italian in a movie is Marlon Brando in The Godfather. Marlon Brando was Irish, but his level of acting made everyone think he was Italian. He played Italian better than an Italian. Viggo is our Marlon Brando." Two days after they sent Mortensen the script, Wessler says, Mortensen called Farrelly. "I told Pete, 'Well, I really like the character for many reasons and I love the story between these two men,'" Mortensen says. "I just wasn't sure I'd be right for it. I hadn't played a guy like this before. But he insisted, so I said, 'Let me read it again.'"
Mortensen read it again – and again – and like Farrelly and Currie before him, he couldn't get the story out of his mind. So he called Farrelly. "We had these long conversations about it, and I guess part of my initial reticence had to do with a fear of not doing justice to the character," Mortensen says. "However, even when I unhesitatingly choose to take a part on, creatively there's always an element of fear involved. From years of experience, I eventually find that this fear is a good sign, a sign that maybe I should face the challenge. So I said yes." That did not entirely alleviate his concerns, though. "Even into our first days of shooting, I was still a little worried about certain details," Mortensen says. "But once we got going and I began to incorporate what I had learned about Tony Lip and his background, and got to know Mahershala's and Pete's ways of working, I got more and more comfortable."
Months before the shoot began, Mortensen had jumped on a plane from his home in Spain, flown to New York, and had driven to Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, to meet the Vallelongas – Nick, his brother, Frank, and their Uncle Rudy – at the Tony Lip Restaurant, which Frank runs.
"They were very generous with me from the moment we met," Mortensen says. "I thought I'd be there for an hour or two, and instead we had an immense, four- or five-hour, incredibly good Italian meal, and a great conversation. And I realised something surprising and very helpful about Tony: how much he was like my dad. Even though the Vallelonga and Mortensen families are very different – ethnically, our backgrounds – we related to each other strongly, to a shared sense of humour and a family dynamic. My dad was from Denmark, but his attitudes in terms of race and politics, his working-class background, a certain stubbornness, a certain charisma – all of that was very similar to what they were telling me about Tony. The kind of jokes Tony told, his behaviour, his contradictions – I just kept relating it to my dad and shared that with them. We laughed and bragged about our fathers, found real common ground. That kick-started it for me."
Mortensen says he was most attracted to Tony's heart and his accessibility. "He's the guy you don't want to mess with," Mortensen says. "But as coarse and maybe as violent as he seems at first, he proves to be a man of his word who's essentially decent. He's a natural gentleman, and he did what he had to do to make some money, whether as a bouncer at nightclubs, or driving a garbage truck, or playing craps, cards, whatever. He's a character with a lot of natural charisma and a person who is a real force-of-will."
By the end of the night-long conversation, the family's belief that Mortensen understood Tony had eased his concerns. "When I left and started driving back to Manhattan, I was thinking, 'OK, maybe I can do this… All right, I have some allies,'" Mortensen says. "That night I started to feel like there was a seed there that could become a little tree. That was an important encounter, and I'm really grateful to the Vallelonga family for helping me." Vallelonga recalls watching how, over the course of that meal and hours of conversation, Mortensen "little by little morphed into my father."
"By the end of the night, Viggo was smoking like my father, and he was talking like us and studying us," Vallelonga says. "From the very beginning, he got it."
Mortensen, who is well known for his extensive preparation for his roles, dove into the character, listening and watching the audio and video tapes of Tony, going to the Bronx neighbourhood where he lived, and spending hours there, "talking to the old timers about the way it used to be," Mortensen says. (He even binge-watched every season of The Sopranos, which he had never seen.) At one point prior to shooting, Mortensen returned to New Jersey and spent a couple of weeks with the Vallelonga family, listening to them, talking to them, learning from them.
"He didn't even tell us he did that," Wessler says. "Viggo was struggling with Tony's accent. He worked his butt off to get it just right. Nick called up from New Jersey and told us about what Viggo was doing and said, 'He's talking like us now,' and he was. That's why one wants an actor like Viggo."
"Viggo is a great guy, the consummate professional, and he never stops working," Currie says. "When you're sitting down and having lunch with him, he's always talking about the character and how to improve it. He fully immerses himself. When he goes out at night, he's wearing his 1960s clothes. He's always going over his lines: 'How about that word? Would this word or phrase be better?' If you say, 'Yeah, let's change that,' it clicks off in his head and the very next time he executes the scene, it's changed. It's just incredible to witness his mind at work.'"
"Viggo did a deep, deep dive into this character," Burke says. "I've never seen an actor dive so deeply for a part. The level of commitment was amazing."
For Vallelonga, certain moments watching Mortensen play his father were transcendent, almost as if he were channelling Tony's spirit. "Sometimes it's almost eerie for me, watching Viggo," Vallelonga says. "His mannerisms, the way he smokes, and lights a cigarette is exactly like my father, he's got it all down. I see my father. It's very eerie but in a good way."
Once Mortensen had signed on to Green Book, the filmmakers needed to find an actor who shared that level of commitment and could both embody the complex, brilliant Dr. Shirley, and also hold his own on screen with Mortensen. Early on, one name kept coming up: Mahershala Ali.
Doctor in the House: Mahershala Ali Embodies Dr. Don Shirley
Mahershala Ali had just won the Academy Award® for Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance in Moonlight, followed by roles in the series, Luke Cage, and the film, Hidden Figures, and had just signed on to the HBO series, True Detective. "He was very busy," Farrelly says. "But we wanted him, and we took a shot and went to him and it just miraculously worked out."
Ali was drawn to the role by the challenge of playing such an enigmatic character. "What really intrigued me about Don Shirley was how complicated he was," Ali says. "There's so much to pull from in terms of the things he was dealing with, the things he struggled with, the things that he exhibited a degree of excellence in. The range of things that I was going to be challenged with and tackling – all that was really attractive to me."
For all of Shirley's musical excellence, worldly travels and myriad accomplishments, Shirley, Ali believes, was a lonely man who never felt as if he belonged anywhere.
"I think the audience will find he doesn't quite fit into any world," Ali says. "He was highly educated and cultured and lived and trained in Russia and in London. Because he was African American, he's not someone who was going to be embraced in the classical world, and because he was classically trained, he doesn't really want to play the popular, so-called 'Black music' of the time."
Currie says there's a scene in Green Book that underscores the isolation Shirley experienced. "Tony and Dr. Shirley have pulled over to the side of the road somewhere in the South so that Tony can fix the car," Currie says. "Dr. Shirley is looking out the window, across the road, at these Black farmhands working in the field – a scenario unchanged in the South for over hundreds of years. And there is Dr. Shirley, this well-dressed African American with a white chauffeur, looking at them, toiling away in the heat and humidity. And they, in turn, are looking back at him. They had never witnessed such a thing. The whole scene is without words, yet it speaks volumes."
Ali's charismatic personality and his brilliance as an actor made the reserved, genius Shirley more accessible and understandable, Wessler says. "He plays a man who could otherwise be misconceived as a kind of a malcontent, a loner, arrogant," Wessler says. "But Mahershala's natural warmth and dignity allows him to play Shirley in the way he probably really was, with a lot of grace, a lot of love and heart."
Actor Mike Hatton, who plays bassist George in Shirley's trio in the film, says that watching Ali become the character was awe-inspiring. "He is nothing like the real Don Shirley," Hatton says. "They talk differently, stand differently, look different. Their mannerisms are different.
You watch and see the process that he goes through to get into character and, man, he is really working. He's an amazing actor and so sweet, handsome, and charming. He's one of the coolest dudes I've ever met in my life."
Marinov, who plays the other member of Shirley's trio, agrees. "Mahershala was the first actor who shook my hand when I arrived on set," Marinov says. "He's an Academy Award®- winning actor, but there isn't even the slightest feel of star entitlement about him. He is genuinely interested in the people around him, in you. He's the easiest, most pleasant man, always in a good mood, always professional."
Like his co-star Mortensen, Ali's level of commitment to playing his character was impressive to both filmmakers and co-stars. To prepare for the film's many piano playing and concert scenes, Ali met with the film's composer Kris Bowers, one of the music industry's most respected and talented young pianists. "I wanted to see what it felt like to sit on the piano bench and try to have the dexterity the character obviously has to have, although I knew I wasn't going to get close to that," Ali says. "I wanted to be around the music, around the piano and pick up on things."
Bowers booked an hour of time at a Steinway showroom for their introductory meeting, which turned into a three-hour session. "Mahershala is pretty awesome," Bowers says. "He has a laser focus when he's trying to do these things."
Ali says that another challenge in preparing to play Dr. Shirley was the absence of archival footage of him. Although he did glean some insights from talking to Vallelonga and Currie, and watching a documentary on Carnegie Hall where Shirley was a composer-in-residence at the Carnegie Artist Studios. (He even lived in a loft above the famous venue along with some 60 other artists.)
"I was able to take the footage in this documentary and metabolise it as best I could, capture the essence of who I saw he was in that footage," Ali says. "It was helpful in terms of getting to see him physically and listening to him talk and seeing how he carried his body – to get a real sense of who he was. But the best way to get to know him was to listen to the music. In the music I hear his sense of excellence. I can hear a perfectionist and I hear compromise, which was the result of the time."
Shirley, who made his professional concert debut at age 18 playing Tchaikovsky with the Boston Pops, was discouraged from pursuing a career in classical music by record executives who told him to focus on popular music because white audiences would not accept a Black man playing classical music. "He brought classical elements to what was considered 'Black music' at the time, which is awesome," Ali says. "But it was also something that I think caused him a great deal of pain."
Ali says that it was that "compromise" in Shirley's musical style that was most revelatory to him, the key that helped him unlock a private, reserved man.
"Dr. Shirley had a capacity to achieve great things, but because of the times, he had to endure living a life of compromise," Ali says. "As a Black musician trained in and wanting to play classical music, but not being able to, I don't think he ever really reached his potential. Perceptions that limit people have always been part of our culture and are still relevant, still resonate today."
The Heart of Home: Linda Cardellini Becomes Dolores Vallelonga
When it came time to cast the role of Tony's wife, Dolores, the filmmakers considered a lot of great actresses, but finding the right person proved challenging. They wanted someone who physically resembled the petite and feminine Dolores, yet someone who could hold her own against the big presence of Mortensen as Tony. Most of all, they were looking for that indefinable it-factor: chemistry.
They found all of that – and more – in Linda Cardellini. "Linda's known for mostly comedies, a lot of broad comedies, but I've always liked her and thought she was a fantastic actress," Farrelly says. "Once you get Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in a movie, basically every actress in the world wants to work with them, and initially we were thinking of a more serious dramatic actress. But I've always believed a great comedic actress can do serious drama, and when Linda came in, she just knocked it out of the park. What set her apart was the chemistry with Viggo. They seemed like a married couple, finishing each other's sentences, like they'd known each other since they were teenagers, which Tony and Dolores had. You could feel it and we knew she was the one."
For Cardellini, Mortensen's immersion in the character made her work a lot easier. "I remember coming in and reading with Viggo, and I couldn't see the acting at all," Cardellini says. "It's completely seamless, so it's just about being there with him. It's just fun from there on, because you feel like you're in the character and in the story."
Just as important, Currie says, Cardellini had done some serious homework. "Linda studied Dolores," Currie says. "While other actresses came in and did a big, thick New York accent, Linda had listened to her and knew Dolores didn't have one. And once you saw her and Viggo together, they fit. Viggo put on 30 pounds for the movie, and Linda's a tiny woman, and you could see how he was protective of her even in the reading. It was beautiful, and we knew."
The most remarkable thing about Cardellini, Currie says, is how she "actually looks and sounds like Nick's mother," he says. "I knew Dolores, and Linda looks so much like her – same size, facial expressions, hair." For Vallelonga, seeing Cardellini as his mother, who died in 1999, was uncanny and emotional for him. "Having Linda Cardellini playing my mom was a blessing, just amazing," Vallelonga says. "She looks so much like my mother and has the same birthday as my mother. When we found that out, on top of everything else she brings, that made it perfect."
Dolores, Cardellini says, "truly knows Tony's heart." She's also a force to be reckoned with, Burke says. "Linda brings a sort of tenderness to the role, and yet she's not a pushover," Burke says. "You need to be strong if you're going to be married to Tony. You also have to be somebody who Tony doesn't want to let down, a woman who makes him want to live up to the man that she thinks he is."
Dolores also has to be stable, strong and resilient enough that she can hold the family, the household, and their marriage together when a stroke of bad financial luck forces Tony to have to go on the road for two months. "Tony really needs a job and Dolores needs for him to work," Cardellini says. "They have two kids, are not well off, and with the Copa closed for repairs, he really needs to find work. He has a few choices, but the other choices are mostly side jobs with mob-type people." Tony rejects those to drive Dr. Shirley instead – with Dolores' blessing, of course.
"I think Dolores is happy to see him do some real upstanding work," Cardellini says. "I'm sure it was hard for her to say goodbye to him. It would have been very difficult for her to be at home alone with the two boys and worrying about him on the road. They relied on each other very, very much. I don't think they ever spent that much time apart and by all accounts, they were very much in love and loved each other until they died."
While Dolores isn't on screen for large sections of the film, she's often on Tony's mind, and she becomes central to the bond between the two men. Before Shirley hires Tony, he calls and asks to speak to Dolores, to make sure she's ok with Tony taking this job. As Tony leaves, Dolores makes Tony promise to write her whenever he can, but writing is not exactly his strong suit.
"There's a beautiful moment in the film when Tony is writing Dolores a letter," Wessler says. "Don Shirley takes the letter and starts reading it, and it reads like a 14-year-old wrote it: 'I had a really good hamburger. We are driving on a pretty road.' And Shirley just throws the letter down and says, 'You can do better,' and he starts to teach Tony how to write. Later, toward the end of the film and six letters on, there's a moment when Tony is writing another letter and Shirley says, 'Let me help you,' and Tony says, 'No, no you taught me well.' It's a real moment of love and appreciation."
Cardellini says reading the actual letters gave her important insight into her character. "Seeing how much they loved and missed each other told me a lot about her and the relationship they had," she says. And she believes Shirley helped bring Dolores and Tony closer together. "Dr. Shirley sort of reinvigorated Dolores' life with Tony," Cardellini says. "On the trip, he helps Tony honour his relationship with Dolores by helping him right those beautiful letters, which Dolores was truly moved by."
That emotional truth is reflected in a graceful, poignant moment in the film, when Dolores meets Dr. Shirley in person for the first time. "When she gets to see Dr. Shirley walk through the door," Cardellini says, "here is the person who took her husband on the trip of a lifetime and changed him in many ways – the man who also kept her husband involved with her and kept him close to her."
Three's Company: Casting the Don Shirley Trio
While the focus of the story is on Dr. Shirley and Tony, there were two other men along for the ride on Green Book – the bassist, George, and cellist, Oleg, who together with pianist Shirley comprised The Don Shirley Trio. "The two other musicians on this trip were a big part of the story," Farrelly says. "They followed in another car. In casting the roles, I needed to find musicians who could act or actors who could play instruments."
Farrelly first tried looking at musicians who were also actors, but he wasn't confident he could get the performance out of them he needed. So he decided to look at actors who could play instruments because it would be easier "to fake the instruments than the acting."
In the end, he found experienced actors who could both play instruments. "We got Mike Hatton on bass, stand-up bass, who's a phenomenal actor and he's a really decent bass player," Farrelly says. "And then we found Dimiter Marinov who was trained in Russia. He's actually a violinist, but he does play the cello. He's a quick study. These guys are seamless on stage. They're really fantastic, but also great actors. They blew us away."
Hatton, who was friends with Vallelonga and Currie, had grown up playing the bass in a band with his twin brother. As the start of production neared, Hatton reached out to Vallelonga asking him if there was anything he could possibly do – and that's when Vallelonga remembered, "Hey, wait a minute – you play the bass, right?"
"I said yeah I did," Hatton recalls. "And Nick told me to clean up, shave my beard, and to meet him the next day at the music store on Ventura Boulevard in L.A." Hatton met Vallelonga at the music store the next day. They took a photo of Hatton holding an upright bass, converted it into black and white and sent it to Farrelly. And when Farrelly saw it, he told them to bring Hatton in the next day for a meeting and audition. Hatton played the electric bass, not an upright acoustic bass as George does, but after Farrelly talked to him and watched him perform a scene, he knew he'd finally found the actor to play George. "Mike Hatton was excellent and also very funny," Farrelly says.
"He's an actor and a former stand-up comedian, Second City-trained, a really funny guy. He's sort of the comic relief besides being a great actor and a nice bass player." For the role of the cellist, Oleg, Farrelly felt he struck gold when Bulgarian-born actor and classical violinist Marinov came in to audition. "Dimiter Marinov – remember that name," Farrelly says. "He's excellent. Dimiter hadn't played the cello before, but he had played the violin like 15 or 20 years ago. The others who came in were decent, but all of a sudden this guy comes in. I was like, 'Who is this guy?' I'd never heard of him, never seen him, although he had been acting for a while."
Marinov was a violinist, not a cellist, but he didn't have to play until his second audition. The problem, he says, is that "the cello's quite different than a violin; every musician knows that." So with only five days to prepare, he rented a cello, hired a teacher, and practiced night and day.
"At the audition," Marinov says, "Peter said, 'Just show us how you hold it and look professional.' And I said, 'No, actually I'm going to play.' He said, 'You're going to play?' And I said, 'Yes, I'm going to play the theme song of the film, 'Water Boy' and I did." After he was cast, the production rented a cello for him and paid for his continuing lessons. In a month, he had learned to play all six of the songs that are performed in the film.
Family Matters: The Vallelongas Play the Vallelongas
When it came to deciding who would play Vallelonga family members for several scenes set in Tony and Dolores's apartment, Farrelly decided to cast the actual Vallelongas – and Dolores's relatives, the Veneres – in many of those roles. Most of the relatives had little to no acting experience.
"It was a really interesting dynamic," Cardellini says. "The first scene that we shot was us saying goodbye to Tony, and there's the real Nick and Frank on set, and there are the little kid actors who are playing young Nick and Frank. And there's the real Frankie with his uncle and his other uncle both playing the grandfathers." Nick Vallelonga plays a mob boss named Augie, and also introduced Farrelly to old acquaintances and friends of Tony's. Farrelly cast some of them in scenes at the Copacabana, adding depth to the film's authenticity. Mortensen gives Farrelly kudos for that decision.
"Pete took chances having a lot of the family members – non-actors in many cases – play the relatives in the film," Mortensen says. "Both of Tony's sons are in the movie, and while they're actors, Tony's real-life brother, who is not an actor, plays Tony's dad. Dolores' reallife brother plays her dad in the movie. There's a mix of seasoned actors and people that no one's ever seen on film before, and there's an authenticity to that which helps everyone. It helped me. And it helps to make you believe Tony and his world."
For Cardellini, portraying Dolores was made easier by having the Vallelonga family on set and by being able to wear Dolores' actual accessories.
"I'm wearing her real bracelet, her real ring, and her family is on set; I'm doing family scenes with her real family," Cardellini says. "The beautiful part about my preparation to play Dolores was that I got to speak to the family – her brother, her brother-in-law, her children, of course. And it's so fun that then later, we're all doing the scene together. It's wonderful, and as an Italian American, I am very familiar with the family dynamic so it feels very comfortable to me."
Vallelonga says he was thrilled to see the script "jump off the page and on to the screen," but for him, Farrelly's willingness to have Vallelonga's family portray relatives in the film "took the movie to another place."
"I'm seeing my father and my mother, my uncles, aunts, cousins, and brother in this movie," Vallelonga says. "My father's brother, Rudy, is playing his father, my [paternal] grandfather, Nicola Vallelonga. My mother's brother, Lou Venere, is playing his father and my [maternal] grandfather, Anthony Venere. So, it's a movie and I'm watching the movie, but then it becomes altogether something else. I'm seeing memories. It's a magnificent tribute to my family."
To Look for America: Finding a Whole Country in the Big Easy
When it came time to find a location to shoot Green Book, the filmmakers wanted a place where they could replicate most, if not all, of the journey from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then down the eastern seaboard of the United States through the Carolinas, and into the Deep South.
Wessler and Farrelly first considered Atlanta, because several of their previous films were shot in and around that city, but they couldn't find the variety of period buildings and landscapes they needed. So after scouting Atlanta, Wessler, who enjoys driving as much as Farrelly does, got in his car and drove seven hours south to New Orleans, Louisiana.
"I got there and had a scout waiting for me," Wessler says. "We went everywhere. We went to mansions, plantations, hotels, apartments, at least 50 clubs that could work as venues for Dr. Shirley to play at. We didn't want to have to build too much. We found little towns about an hour outside New Orleans that looked pretty much as they did fifty, sixty years ago. We needed to recreate a time and places and we found almost everything we needed in and around New Orleans. And the food in that town is maybe the best in the country, so a nice plus."
Filmed over 35 days – from November 2017 through January 2018 – the production found almost every location it needed in and around The Big Easy. Aside from a day of exteriors in New York City with Mortensen and a couple of days of second unit work in the northeast and near Shreveport, Louisiana, all of the filming for Green Book took place on locations in the greater New Orleans area.
Come Rain or Come Shine: How Bad Weather Made Good Days
The filmmakers found every type of weather they needed in and around New Orleans, often exactly when it was needed. "We had one night when we were filming about an hour-and-ahalf north of New Orleans where we had a big rain machine and it ended up actually raining," Burke says. "The next night we had a snow machine for a driving sequence and it snowed, and they said they hadn't seen snow in the New Orleans area in nine years."
Because Green Book is a road trip that takes place over two and a half months and many states, the weather and landscape changes made the story more real.
"When you're shooting a movie, weather happens," Farrelly says. "It's supposed to be a sunny day, but it pours, or it's supposed to rain and it's sunny. I try to embrace weather, unless it's going to be a plot buster. In a movie like this, I love weather because when you're travelling you're going to run into weather. Unless you go in September, by the way, then you hardly ever get any weather. My first assistant director was saying, 'Oh geez, it's gonna rain.' And I said, 'Let's enjoy it. Let it happen.'"
Mortensen shares Farrelly's embrace of the weather. One night, they were on a road outside Amite, Louisiana, filming a couple of driving scenes. One was set on a Southern highway in the rain; the other was set on a Maryland Highway in falling snow. But a different snow scene – a driving sequence in a major blizzard – was scheduled to be shot elsewhere in January. At least, that was the plan.
"We'd been shooting in the rain for a few hours when the temperature started dropping," Mortensen says. "I asked Pete how much time we had left. He said, 'We're supposed to wrap in an hour.' I asked, 'What's the temperature?' He looks down at his phone, 'It's like 34 degrees.' I said, 'That's dropping. We're going to have snow in an hour. Can we shoot a little more?' And he said, 'Yeah, I think we can, let's take advantage.' And then we have this massive snowstorm – a blizzard – and it was really coming down."
Mortensen remembers there was talk about wrapping for the night, but he wanted to keep shooting. "So I said, 'No, let's drive, I can drive in the snow. I learned to drive in the North,'"
Mortensen says. "So Pete says, 'Okay, we'll just follow you with a camera, we'll put a camera on the car and we'll follow you.' And we started driving. We got a lot of great footage we would have never gotten unless we went north later. We saved time and, I guess, some money that way, but more than anything, it was fun. It was also beautiful, all that snow! We got lucky with the weather, unusually cold for Louisiana, and made the most of it."
The Joy of Sets: Peter Farrelly's On-Set Ethos
"The making of a movie is always a dream for me," Farrelly says. "It's just kind of a pleasure to watch it all unfold in front of your eyes, to put the actors in the right spots and move them around. I've never been on a movie set, including this one, where I wasn't kind of pinching myself – like I can't believe I'm making a movie."
On set, Farrelly sets an inclusive tone that encourages collaboration and fun. "Pete has one of the more perfect styles as a director," Burke says. "He's both collaborative and he has a point of view, and those two things don't interfere with each other. He knows what he wants to do, but he's open to other ideas."
So open, in fact, that Ali calls him, "by far the most collaborative director I've ever worked with." And then some. "The first day on set, Peter announced to cast and crew: 'If anyone has any ideas, anything that can be better, just pull me aside and tell me, pitch me your idea,'" Ali says. "In 20 years I've never, ever seen a director do that. What a joy to work with a really intelligent director this open. That encourages other people to be open in their work in the same way."
And Farrelly's actions on set matched his words, Vallelonga says. "Peter includes us in everything, and he doesn't have to do that," Vallelonga says. "After a take, he'll always turn to myself or Brian [Currie] and ask if there's anything we see or want to add or change. Ultimately, it's his vision that's up there. He knows what this movie has to be and I feel blessed to have him doing it."
Farrelly's working philosophy matches his personality. "Pete's the most laid-back great guy," Currie says. "He doesn't get mad. His personality and style of directing creates an atmosphere of calm on the set, and a lot of jokes and laughter. There are times when you have to buckle down, but there's always that feeling of 'Hey, we're making movies and doing something we love to do, so let's enjoy ourselves,' and that's because of Pete." For his part, Farrelly insists that he can be that way only because of the high calibre of talent he works with. "If my touch is considered light it's because you don't have to have a heavy hand when you're dealing with the great talent I've had in my movies," he says.
"It's a luxury of having really, really good talent around you." He never tells an actor how to do the first take of scene, for instance. "I tell them, 'Just go. Do it.' And then I look and think, 'okay, great. Now let's try this and try that.' When you're working with a Jim Carey or Jeff Daniels – anybody like those guys, the people I've worked with – I'm just tweaking. On Green Book – with Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and Linda Cardellini – it's like an embarrassment of riches."
The Dynamic Duo: An Extraordinary Collaboration between Two Stars
The connection between Mortensen and Ali began before either of them knew anything about Green Book. Both men had been nominated for Oscars® in January 2017 – Mortensen for his leading role in Captain Fantastic, Ali for his supporting role in Moonlight – and they often ran into each other at industry events during that Awards season.
"The first time we met, we hit it off," Mortensen says. "It was a one of those cocktail party situations with a lot of press and I looked at him and he looked at me, and there was this connection right away. In those situations you usually don't talk to anyone for too long, but we talked for at least a half-hour. It's rare when that happens in any profound way, and we both kind of said the same thing, 'It would be great to work together, to do something together one day.' And we laughed because we were saying the same thing at the same time. After that, we'd see each other in passing, but never had another conversation. Then Pete says, 'Mahershala's playing Doc Shirley,' and I thought, 'Oh, there it is!' It's what we both wanted."
Ali remembered that conversation, too. When he and Mortensen started emailing each other after Ali signed on, Mortensen recalls, "Mahershala said, 'Well, here we are. Be careful what you wish for,'" He laughs: "One of the best things about working with Mahershala is not only the fact that I like him and that we get along so well, but that as a person and as an actor he's elegant, very refined and has great instincts. He wanted to collaborate, to really work together, which is how I like to work. Sometimes there's a distracting, competitive vibe from certain actors you end up working with, which gets in the way of doing good work. There was none of that with Mahershala."
Ali was just as impressed with his co-star. "I don't know if we have enough time to talk about working with the brilliant Viggo," Ali says. "You would be hard-pressed to find another actor who pays the type of attention to detail and borderline obsesses about the character. I don't mean that in a negative way at all, but he's in on every part of the journey. I think it's his joy. He passionately loves and connects to – I imagine – whoever he's playing, and I know that he had a great time working on Tony Lip. He just immersed himself in the character."
Their collaboration was an active one, not just during pre-production but in almost every one of their shared scenes. "Viggo pitches ideas and bounces things off you, which is unique," Ali says. "I've learned a lot from how he approaches the character, how he lives in the character. I've always been that actor who will say, 'Can I get one more take?' And Viggo will always ask for one more than I do." He laughs. "He's very much a perfectionist and it really has been a clinic working with him, and a real joy. He's been a wonderful ally."
The filmmakers knew these two professionals respected each other, but were impressed by how deeply the two collaborated, and how real the connection between them was. "Viggo and Mahershala have phenomenal chemistry," Farrelly says. "I was expecting that on screen because they're both the highest level of actors, but off-screen they have it, too. Viggo has an amazing attention to detail and he's always thinking. And Mahershala is very composed, more of a Zen master, who just kind of lays back and comes in and does his thing and then steps away."
Almost everyone on set could see the strength of their partnership. "It's wonderful to see them on the set together because you could observe them helping each other," Wessler says. "They'd even make suggestions to one another. One rarely sees that kind of open-minded teamwork. While doing a scene, one would say, 'Try this, try the thing with that,' and the other would say, 'Oh yeah, that's good.' It was just great balance and focus."
Behind The Lens
Music: Capturing Dr. Shirley's Sound
To re-create the unique sound of Dr. Shirley, the filmmakers wanted to get the finest music supervisor, composer, and pianist they could find.
"We brought in some superstars on this one," Farrelly says. "We have Tom Wolfe and Manish Raval. Tom is one of the greatest superstar music supervisors in the last 20 years. He's done almost every show or movie that has great music. And we have Kris Bowers, one of the greatest young pianists in the country. We did a search of who the best young pianists in the country were and his name kept coming up."
Wessler recalls that their first meeting with Bowers was quick because they had already heard his music and loved it. "We met in Pete's office and we said to Kris, 'It's really simple: Can you play the music? Do you like the script? If so, here's what we want you to do: We want you to compose for the movie, which means composing music that has nothing to do with Don Shirley, and we want you to play Don Shirley's songs, which we're then going to play back in the movie.'"
Bowers remembers it much the same. "When they called me in to meet for the first time, it kind of seemed like I already had the job," he says. "It was a pretty easy process compared to what I'm used to."
"We love this kid," Wessler says. "He's 28 and he is brilliant. His fingers are brilliant. His music is so much fun to listen to. Talent doesn't even begin to address this kid's skill. Pete said to him, 'So you like the script?' Kris says yes. 'Ok, then, the job is yours.' Quick and easy. This young man is insanely gifted. Dr. Shirley would be so pleased to know that Kris Bowers was bringing his music to a whole new world of listeners." Bowers began playing piano at age four, and was accepted into Juilliard at age 17 where he earned his BFA and MFA degrees. Although he has been doing film scores for about five years, Green Book is a big leap for him.
"This is my first studio film doing something that's on this level," Bowers says. "It's pretty awesome to be asked to come in and to be given the autonomy to not only create the music or arrange the music the way I felt best to do, but to have people asking my opinion and asking me to step in, and to make sure that the music is accurate and as good as it should be, which has been incredible."
Like Shirley, Bowers plays exclusively on Steinway pianos, each of which are handmade, and according to Bowers "project sound like no other instrument." As a Steinway artist, Bowers understands why Dr. Shirley required a Steinway piano in his contract whenever he performed. "It's simply the best," he says.
"Kris is a sensational virtuoso," Burke says. "He took a lot of the Don Shirley recordings, rerecorded them with a little updating, and that little bit of updating made the biggest difference. He made the music more accessible to a 2018 audience." It was also important to Farrelly and the filmmakers to stay true to the times and Shirley's legacy. They decided early on that they wanted to include Shirley's favourite songs in the movie, and stay away from any music that wasn't from that era. The film shows Shirley performing in more than a dozen venues, and the filmmakers did research to find out what songs the virtuoso most enjoyed playing.
"The music is what Dr. Shirley played in life – stuff that he loved to hear and loved to play," Wessler says. "Some of the music he wrote and some of the music he borrowed – like Gershwin or Rogers and Hart – but he brought his own total and absolute style to it, and it's really cool. Don Shirley was one of the inventors of a trio consisting of piano, bass and cello."
"All of the pieces we're playing in the film are direct transcriptions from Donald Shirley's recordings," Bowers says. "Some of the recordings are a bit older, so they're harder to hear, but for the most part, all the notes are exactly what he played, as close to the original as possible because he had such a unique way of arranging and playing."
According to Bowers, Shirley would "fuse into his compositions, pieces from the classical repertoire," using the piano as a stringed instrument rather than as a percussive instrument. This gave his music the pliable, lush tone that came to define his style. Legendary singer Sarah Vaughn is said to have described Shirley's playing as "the most glorious sense of shading, phrasing and balance I've ever heard."
When Shirley first began performing at nightclubs he was part of a duo with a bassist and later, he led The Don Shirley Trio, which featured a bassist and cellist. That was considered unusual instrumentation, and underscored Shirley's inventive style.
"The beginning of 'Lullaby Berlin' might have a Bach fugue in the middle of it, or it might have something that sounds like 'Clair de Lune'," Bowers says. "He would do these really intricate arrangements and then improvise on top of that. With the Green Book score, we wanted to re-create the sound world that Don Shirley was inspired by – a score that has Ravel and Gershwin, but also Negro spirituals and gospel music, which he also was superinfluenced by."
Like Ali, Bowers believes this synthesis of musical styles revealed a compromise between what the gifted pianist, arranger and composer wanted to play versus what he was told to play.
"He wanted to be a classical pianist, and I think that's why he wanted to incorporate these classical pieces into the pieces he was playing, so that he could feel, at least, like he was honouring the music that he loved," Bowers says. "But it seemed to be difficult for him that he had to play this music that everybody was excited for him to play, but that he himself never really connected to in the way everybody thought he did."
Production Design: Authenticity, Accuracy and Style
As with the script, performances, and music, Farrelly emphasised reality and authenticity in designing the look of Green Book. He brought in production designer, Tim Galvin, whose credits include such films as The Spanish Prisoner, Philadelphia, and Lee Daniels' The Butler. Galvin's research and attention to detail was exactly what Farrelly was looking for.
"Tim is spectacular and I loved the work he did on The Butler," Farrelly says. "He was probably my first hire on the film. I had by far the biggest pre-production I've ever had – five, six months of really thinking through everything: the clothes, cars, signage, architecture, furniture. It was a million things to think about."
And a few of those millions of things were the musical instruments The Don Shirley Trio played in the film. Galvin and his team went out and found instruments from the era, including a Steinway piano with Tony Bennett's signature inside of it.
"I think I would need to take out a mortgage to buy the bass I play in the film," Hatton says.
"It was that expensive. The Steinway pianos, the violin – those instruments are the same type of instruments that these guys played years ago. They're top-of-the-line, the very best, and it's been really cool to get a chance to play them."
For Vallelonga, who had shared his detailed memories of many of the film's New York locations with Galvin, the film's production design was so authentic it was like stepping back in time. "I remember walking into Dr. Shirley's studio apartment over Carnegie Hall when I was a young boy," Vallelonga says. "My father took me there. It was like – you know when the doors open in The Wizard of Oz and you go from black-and-white to colour? That's what it was like. As a kid, I couldn't even believe it. Dr. Shirley had a throne, these floor-to-ceiling windows. He had a grand piano in the middle of the room with chandeliers. It was like Liberace-meets-Beethoven. Tim Galvin did a fantastic job of re-creating and capturing all of that."
Vallelonga was especially moved by the re-creation of family scenes in Tony's Bronx apartment, especially the Christmas Eve scene. "The production design is off-the-charts," he says. "It's so real, I got choked up every time I was looking at the monitor. It looks like my home when I was little. It's absolutely beautiful."
Cinematography: A Warm, Burnished Light
For Green Book, Farrelly wanted his period drama to have a look unlike any of his previous films. "I watched a lot of movies in the last couple of years purely to see how they looked," he says. "I saw movies that I didn't like, but looked phenomenal. There were some that I loved and looked great. And the guy who had done the ones that I loved and that looked great was [director of photography] Sean Porter. He's a young guy from Oregon, and we reached out and pulled him in."
"Sean is a great director of photography," Burke says. "Being a young DP, he brings a different sensibility. We felt it was important to bring in diverse points of view to give the film influences from different vantage points. I met Sean a few years ago on a very low-budget movie, and all I'll say about it is I wish the movie was as good as the photography, because the photography was amazing."
Porter, whose credits include 20th Century Women and Green Room, used a tobacco-filter lens in most of the scenes to give the film a warm, burnished tone across a palette that ranged from cool monochromatics to spring-hued pastels.
Costume Design: From New York Golds to Southern Greens
Costume designer Betsy Heimann, who has more than 50 films and television series to her credit, had heard about Green Book and sought out Farrelly, looking for an opportunity to work with him. "I had wanted to work with Peter in the past, but the timing was off," Heimann says. "I thought this film had a great story and great cast, so I basically pursued the job and I got it."
Farrelly was delighted. "Betsy Heimann has done many of Quentin Tarantino's movies and has a great eye. We are so lucky to have her. This is a smaller budget movie, and I wondered how we were going to get people like Betsy because they usually work on the higher-budget things. But when they read the script, they came on board. This is a labour of love for them, too."
"Besides being super talented, Betsy has a go-get-'em attitude and she's an artist of the highest magnitude," says Burke, who worked previously with Heimann on Two Days in the Valley. "I'm a picky guy and the littlest thing will take me out of a movie, so I believe you need to sweat the small stuff. And Betsy's like that."
With hundreds of extras and a limited budget, Burke says he was concerned about giving Heimann the resources she needed. "Forget about the main actors, just all of the extras and how you marshal that army to find and get all the period wardrobe, and then dress everybody. It's a lot."
Heimann worked closely with cinematographer Sean Porter, and production designer Tim Galvin, and the art department, developing a wardrobe look that changes over the course of Tony and Dr. Shirley's road trip. "We decided it's festive in the beginning and as we get more into winter, it gets bleaker and more monochromatic," Heimann says. "Each venue, each set, was a world we were trying to create."
As the film unfolds, the first of these worlds is the Copacabana, which is filled with integrated black and cream and gold. The Bronx neighborhood where Tony and his family live was another world: bright, tight, and full of movement.
"It was a completely different look," Heimann says. "Knit three-button polos with stripes down the front, working class people. Then you go from this very real look into a world where people are dancing around in pink gowns, subdued tones, pastels."
As Tony and Dr. Shirley travel further into the South, the colour palette turns to pastels, with yellows and greens as the dominant tones. For the scenes that take place at the plantation, Heimann wanted "everything very frothy, pink frothy, a lot of netting, pale browns, just sort of subdued touchy-feely colours because those are not touchy-feely folks."
Heimann also worked closely with Mortensen and Ali to develop their characters' looks and wardrobe, poring over photographs and album covers and talking about how each actor saw his character. "They're incredibly collaborative actors, I adore them," Heimann says. "They are very different and fascinating and incredibly kind, generous and prepared actors, who had each done their own research that they shared with me. It was extremely, extremely collaborative."
Vallelonga gave Heimann and Mortensen all of his family photographs, which were invaluable to capturing the look of Tony and Dolores.
"I had pictures of the entire family, so that was a great help," she says. "And if you look up the Italian neighbourhood in the Bronx, and see those photos, they had a certain look and certain traditions that I see in how Tony and Dolores dressed. Viggo and I spent like three hours together fleshing out the look, going over the costume breakdown, so he knew what he was going to wear in each scene."
Heimann says she had limited time with Cardellini, who was working on another project at the same time she was filming Green Book, and when she showed up at night after a long day on set for a preliminary fitting, Heimann couldn't believe the ease with which she became her character.
"She puts on these clothes and it's like she's Dolores and has been married to Tony for twenty years," Heimann says. "She's amazing, and the way she became the character... She was just it."
Dressing Ali as the stylish, affluent Shirley, who had different costumes for almost every scene, was a big undertaking. "The first thing I did was look up Don Shirley on iTunes to hear his music," she says. "I downloaded all the album covers and saw he was a fashionable guy who wore tuxedoes, long tailored coats, and jackets. Dr. Shirley was always very put together, even in a casual outfit. I found the picture of him in the African robe, so we were able to re-create that for a scene. Mahershala and I went to lunch together and we talked a lot and shared the research we'd both done and he was excited and I got excited, so it was a great process with him."
Because the film takes place over a period of time in many different locales, from a costume point-of-view, it was all about the background. "The characters are in these different venues with people with different attitudes, different racial perspectives in different parts of the country," Heimann says. "Green Book is about these two men traveling in a car, but what they're going through is reflected in the background, and that was a very interesting task."
About The Negro Motorist Green Book
Green Book takes its title from The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual travel guide that was published annually from 1936 to 1966, which listed businesses and other establishments that served Black customers. The Green Book, as it was called, was created and published by an African-American New York City mailman, Victor Hugo Green, and became an indispensable survival tool for African Americans travelling by car.
Originally it covered only the New York area, but it gradually expanded to cover most of North America, the Caribbean and Bermuda. In the U.S, it became invaluable in the South, where Jim Crow segregation laws varied by county and state, and unofficial rules in "Sundown towns" forbade Black Americans from being out after dark. The Green Book, which was sold at Esso gas stations and through subscriptions, enabled Black travellers to plan their road trips to help them avoid harassment, arrest, or violence. After President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow laws became illegal, The Green Book was no longer needed, and it slowly faded into history. Victor Hugo Green had died in 1960, and didn't live to see the end of segregation. His widow, Alma, continued to publish The Green Book until 1966.
Excerpts From Actual Letters Tony Vallelonga Wrote To His Wife Dolores, During His Tour With Dr. Shirley
Dear Dolores… All hotel rooms I stay in will have TV and Radio. I'm eating the best food, so don't worry about me. Kiss Nicky and Frankie for me. I love you very much. Tony. I told you I can't write letters. Ha. Ha...
We arrived in Ohio last night about 7pm. Got up around 10 o'clock, then had breakfast (Steak & Eggs). I have to go into town in about an hour to prepare everything for Dr. Shirley witch I find very interesting and different. I have to speak to all high class people who use all big words, but you know me, I get by, I'm a good actor…
I'll try to call you on the phone next week, I could use his (Dr. Shirley's) credit card, but I don't want to take advantage, he treats me very good, it doesn't even feel like a job, I feel like I'm on vacation and getting paid for it. Most of all I miss you and the kids very much, I think about you every day. That's all for now. Kiss the kids for me. I love you very much… Dinah Washington is appearing somewhere in Cleveland and he wants to go and see her and catch the show he knows her very well so I suppose we'll be sitting ringside, I think he said it's opening night and all the big celebrity's will be there. I don't know what else to say except I love you very very very very much. I hope you understand these letters I know I'm bad but I'm doing my best...
We did the concert yesterday afternoon and it went very well. I went back to the hotel, took a shower and laid down for awhile, then I got up and we went to eat, I had a crab cocktail and turkey with peas and mashed potatoes. Dr. Shirley went to bed he was very tired. I went to the movies, I saw the V.I.P.'s. It stinks...
After the concert last night, we were invited to the home of the man who ran the community concert for tea and crumpets, well you would have died laughing if you saw me sipping tea and eating crumpets with a dainty looking napkin on my knee, and talking to the high leading citizens of the town of Byron Ohio. I'm being introduced as Dr. Shirley's business manager and all the people ask me all kinds of questions, and I have to answer most of them, but you know me I'm a good bullshiter...
I keep forgetting to tell you that the weather absolutely beautiful since we left NYC. I never knew how beautiful this country was now that I'm seeing it…
Dr. Shirley decided to stop off in Detroit for a day to visit some people he knows, you remember I told you he knows people wherever he goes and he knows all big people (millionaires) We went over some guys house, I'm sorry I meant a mansion, it was really a castle, His name was Henry Booth, he lives in a place called Mich Hills, it's like Riverdale Yonkers, but the place makes Riverdale look like the Bowery. Dolores, I never saw such beautiful and fabulous homes in all my life. Oh I get so mad now, I had so much to say and I don't know how to write it, what I wrote so far took me about an hour and I'm still thinking...
You should see the hotel we are staying in tonight you would love it, it's real antique, as a matter of fact the whole town is, even the stores and houses, everything is homemade pies, cake's cookies, etc, etc. I hope I wrote that right, I wish I could find the words to explain it to you the right way...
Before I forget, save these letters that I am writing and number them. I want to read them when I come home. As I am writing this letter, I'm eating a bag of potato chips and I'm starting to get thirsty...
By the way it snowed today in spots and it looked beautiful along the countryside and on the Xmas trees. I saw millions of Xmas trees, and lakes and ponds, it's really a beautiful country, just like out of a fairytale book. I never really knew how beautiful nature is until now. I wish I could describe it to you, but this is the best I could do for now...
Dr. Shirley… said I'm a good worker, and I've made things a lot easier for him, the other drivers he had didn't do have as good as me, he says I handle things pretty well…
Release Date: January 24th, 2019