It took an unlikely trio to drive Green Book to the big screen: the protagonist’s filmmaker son, his actor/screenwriter friend and one half of the Farrelly brothers.
Nick Vallelonga, whose writing, directing and producing credits for US indie movies date back to 1993, always knew he had one powerful story yet to tell. He was just three years old when his nightclub bouncer father, Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, embarked on a life-changing road trip.
Temporarily laid off while New York’s Copacabana nightclub was closed for renovations, he accepted a gig driving African-American pianist Dr Don Shirley on a tour of the Deep South in the autumn of 1962. A traditional Italian-American Bronx family man was about to have his world view — and prejudices — shaken.
Growing up, Vallelonga heard all about his father’s adventures on the road with Shirley — which were significantly longer than the timespan depicted in the resulting film, Green Book. Having recorded hours of audio and videotape with his father telling the story, the filmmaker and actor — whose first screen appearance, aged 12, was as an extra in 1972’s The Godfather — also spoke to Shirley about his own reminiscences.
“But one thing he had said to me was, ‘I don’t want you to tell the story until after I’m gone,’” says Vallelonga. “So I respected that.” Both Shirley and Tony Lip died in 2013.
Vallelonga had known actor Brian Hayes Currie for decades, and the latter played a small role in Vallelonga’s 2008 film Stiletto. Currie was also an aspiring screenwriter. “I thought I was going to have this illustrious writing career,” he says. “I actually sold the first seven things I wrote. The problem is, none of them were made.”
“Brian was writing with big guys,” Vallelonga chips in. “Scott Rosenberg, huge producers. So we’ve read each other’s scripts over the years. I did a lot of indie things. We talked about doing something together.”
That moment of collaboration came when Vallelonga told his friend about his father’s story. Currie’s reaction: “Are you crazy? We have to do this.”
A meeting of minds
Currie first met Peter Farrelly at the book launch for Farrelly’s 1998 semi-autobiographical novel The Comedy Writer. He went on to score small roles in three films by brothers Peter and Bobby Farrelly, starting with Me, Myself & Irene in 2000. Despite the filmmaker not being the obvious choice for a period true story, Currie pitched Green Book — the film named after guides for hotels and restaurants that accepted black customers in the era’s racially prejudiced American South — to Peter.
From the get-go Farrelly had a clear view on the project: “I know this movie will be made,” he told his two collaborators.
Neither Currie nor Vallelonga were fazed by the mismatch between the material and Farrelly’s previous credits. “All of his movies have incredible heart,” says Currie. “To me, it’s a no-brainer as far as Pete and something like this.”
Next came the writing of the actual screenplay, which is credited to all three men. Farrelly picks up the story: “We got together and worked out the beats, how it was going to go. It took about a week. We had so much material to work with. And then they wrote a draft. Then I rewrote their draft for a month or six weeks. And then we got together and pounded it out.”
Green Book ends on Christmas Day 1962, as Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) and Dr Shirley (Mahershala Ali) race back through bad weather to the Bronx so that Tony can be with his family. Initially, the screenplay also included all the events of 1963, as the pair continued together on the road — with the tour coming to an abrupt end with the assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963. Shirley, who was a friend of both Kennedy and his brother Bobby (who places a decisive phone call in the film when the men land in trouble with some Southern redneck police), attended the president’s funeral in Washington DC, accompanied by Tony.
“We had that in the first draft,” says Farrelly. “I remember thinking, ‘This is a mistake, it’s making it too Kennedy.’ It changes the tone of the movie. It’s more of a Kennedy story because you have RFK [Robert F Kennedy] earlier, and then this happens.”
Vallelonga adds: “What Pete did was hone it. When he did his pass, he moved things, combined things. Slowly, we started chipping away and eliminating stuff. He said, ‘Let’s keep it small between these two guys.’ He had the film in his head.”
Casting the leads
It was watching Captain Fantastic at the cinema with his wife that prompted Farrelly to think about Viggo Mortensen for the role of Tony. The actor is not obvious casting: he is of Danish — rather than Italian — extraction, and, already aged 58 when Captain Fantastic came out, he was significantly older than Tony was in 1962.
“I love Viggo, and have always loved Viggo. But at first, you know, the Italian thing,” says Vallelonga of his very early reservations. “ I thought, and I spoke to Brian about it, and I said, ‘To me the most iconic Italian-American character is the Godfather, Marlon Brando, who is not Italian.’”
Mortensen was reluctant, so Farrelly and Currie drove out to Idaho, where the actor has a woodlands home. “He has a cabin that looks like it’s out of Lord Of The Rings,” says Currie. “It literally has a tree growing up in the middle of the living room. We had a lot of pizza and watched a lot of Argentinian soccer, drank a few rum and Cokes, and saw a pile of grizzly bears. He signed on.”
At that point, casting Shirley would be a cinch, says Farrelly: “Once we had Viggo, I knew we could get anybody, because every actor in the world wants to work with Viggo.” Vallelonga pushed for Mahershala Ali, who had already bonded with Mortensen on the 2016-17 awards circuit, when they were nominated for Moonlight and Captain Fantastic respectively.
“They’re very similar in a lot of ways, and they’re very different,” says Farrelly. “They’re both shy. They’re not the life of the party. They’re the guys in the corner. That’s how they met, hanging in the corner. But they work completely different. Viggo is ‘Type A’ — attention to detail beyond everything I’ve ever seen, but in a good way, because he’s so smart. And Mahershala, he’s that way when you go through the script, and we went through it line-by-line for two weeks, but then it’s all trust, and he’s just doing his thing.”
To get the film financed, one of Currie’s former college classmates, hedge fund manager Ted Virtue, was the unsung hero. He offered $10m, which was enough to get the project rolling forward. “That allowed us to make the offers to Viggo and Mahershala, lock them in,” says Farrelly. “We had told [Virtue], if you give us $20m you can finance and own the whole thing. He said, ‘I’ll give 10.’ I said, ‘Yeah but, someone might come in and say they don’t want to share it. You might get bumped.’ He said, ‘I’ll take my chances.’ And that’s what happened. When the studio came in, they said, ‘Great, we love it, but we don’t need this guy.’”
Virtue graciously stood aside. Currie recounts his response: “‘You guys are thinking bigger and better? I understand. Happy to help.’” Virtue receives a co-producer credit, adds Farrelly, “but he didn’t make a dime on the movie”.
The studio in question is Participant Media. Farrelly’s long-time producer Charles Wessler of Wessler Entertainment brought the project to Cinetic Media partners John Sloss and Steven Farneth, who in turn shopped it to Participant. Farrelly, Vallelonga, Currie, Wessler and Innisfree Pictures’ Jim Burke (The Descendants) are all credited as producers on the film; Farneth, Sloss, Participant’s Jonathan King, Kwame Parker and Octavia Spencer are executive producers.
Green Book, eventually made for $23m, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival in September where it took the People’s Choice award — an accolade previously won by Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years A Slave, which all went on to pick up the best picture Oscar. The National Board of Review awarded it best film and best actor (for Mortensen) and it has also been nominated for five Golden Globes and seven Critics Choice awards. Both Mortensen and Ali are nominated in the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Universal Pictures bought Green Book for North America — reportedly after Spencer assiduously wooed chairman Donna Langley. As for the studio’s decision to put the film out through its main arm rather than its specialist division Focus Features, Farrelly credits Steven Spielberg, with whom he shares an agent.
“The movie was supposed to be Focus,” says Farrelly. “I said to my agent, ‘Is there any way you can get Spielberg to see it? I think he’s going to love it.’ He watched it by himself at home. He called me up, and flipped, and said, ‘Is there any way we can get it to Universal?’ I said, ‘That’s why I’m sending it to you!’”
Following a US platform release on November 16, Green Book quickly expanded to more than 1,000 screens, and had reached $20m by mid-December, when it was grossing around $5m-$6m per week.