Green Book was such a rousing success when the Middleburg Film Festival added it as their closing film, it sold out so swiftly that the organizers added a second screening and that one filled up too.
Peter Farrelly, Viggo Mortensen and composer Kris Bowers were there in Middleburg to present the film and do a quick Q&A. The film would end up winning the audience award!!
I sat down with Farrelly and Mortensen and was surprised to learn that Mortensen said no to the film the first time until Farrelly convinced him to re-read it. Farrelly also talks about how they had suggested John Travolta to play the role Tony Lip.
We also talk about how a freak snow blizzard worked out to be a blessing for some of their scenes.
There are spoilers in this chat… so be warned.
How did this fall into your lap?
Peter: There was an attempt on my part to do something different. I should have made the attempt to do something different, but I never do. I always did what came along. Things were there and I do them. Brian Currie one of the writers told me he was writing a screenplay based on his friend's father. I asked about the story and he said, "Black concert pianist, 1962, lived above Carnegie Hall. His record company was sending him on a tour of the South. He was afraid to go so he hired the toughest bouncer in New York City with a 6th-grade education and who was also rather racist himself to go with him. I thought it was fucking home run. I thought it was a huge home run. I kept thinking about it for about two months. Brian will tell you a different story that I committed that day, but he never asked if I wanted to do it.
I called him a month later asking about the script and he had no idea what we were talking about because he's working on nine scripts at a time. Brian said he hadn't started working on it, so I offered to work on it with him. We started the Monday after that chat.
And here's Viggo and we have Mahershala. What a pairing. You can't get better than that.
Peter: There is no better pairing in the country, in the world. No matter what you think of the movie, no movie has two better actors than this.
I agree. Absolutely.
Peter: To me it feels like Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid.
Viggo: We had a great time.
Peter: He's a great actor.
Viggo: I was nervous at first. I said to him, "Do you think you should cast a different actor?"
You turned it down?
Viggo: Not really.
Peter: You did turn it down.
Viggo: He said, "Read it again and let's talk in the morning." I read it a few more times.
Peter: I talked to you at least three times.
Viggo: I told you the first time I read it that it accomplished something that was so hard to do. When it's done right, it seems simple. It's very hard to make a story that is engaging and entertaining. The great dialogue was just crackling off the page. It's just a story that is structured so well and keeps going on an upward path to the end. You're waiting for it to have a sloppy ending, but it doesn't. It's totally original and totally entertaining.
I said to him, it's an amazing character, but I wasn't sure type-wise. I told him, "You're directing a drama which is something different to what you've been doing." It's kind of insulting, right? [laughs] I didn't mean it that way. I just wasn't sure.
I thought to myself, he doesn't want to miscast his movie. I thought he was crazy. But here we are and I'm really glad I did it.
Peter: He just becomes who he's playing. He really does. From the beginning, watch him in Witness. You'd think he's an Amish guy. I remember that movie. He stood out and he looked like he was Amish. The same with Eastern Promises, you forget.
You do. He just disappears into the role.
Viggo: Once I said yes to it and met Nick Vallelonga and his family, they were telling me things about him and they were encouraging too. They were probably looking at me wondering what the hell I was doing.
Peter: Nick had talked about getting an Italian guy to play it. We talked about Travolta. I brought up Viggo and he said he liked him. That was the only guy that came up who wasn't Italian. Also, he doesn't do a lot of movies.
I know. They're few and far between.
Peter: He reminds me of De Niro in his early career when he'd do a movie every three years or so. You couldn't wait and it was going to be an event. We were worried he was not going to do this movie. Our agents and everyone said we were going down a dead end. They said, "He's a picky guy" and I didn't care. Did I want to go to someone who wasn't picky? I want the picky guy. The only reason the film got made was because we got him.
Viggo: Once I said yes to it, I wanted to know who my dance partner was going to be. Peter said, "I hope we get Mahershala Ali, he's the one I want. I'm meeting with him in a few days." I thought that was amazing and we'd be in great hands with him playing that character. He's so meticulous with the way he works and so once we had him, we knew we had a team.
Peter: He came on easily once he learned Viggo was on board.
You take us through America and the road trip. The relationship is building as we travel with them. Talk about filming that trip?
Peter: It was tricky because we didn't have a huge budget. We shot it for around $20 million dollars which isn't very much. There was some CGI because we had to get rid of signs.
We actually shot the film in Louisiana except for one day which we shot in New York/Jersey. We had to get the Fall colors. Viggo came even though he had no dialogue in that scene. We had to find all different parts of Louisiana. We were planning to shoot the winter stuff later which would have added more to the budget.
Viggo: We actually got lucky with the snow because there was a snow storm on the day we were going to do that shoot. We were going to shoot a scene and I asked what time it is. I also asked what the temperature was and he said, "It's 36 degrees." It was getting colder and I thought it was going to start snowing. I thought we could actually all do some overtime and sure enough within an hour, there was a blizzard and that's what you end up seeing.
Peter: We were meant to be done at 2 or 3 in the morning, but we went past noon because there was this crazy snow storm. It was actually the first time that snow had accumulated there in 25 years. We had over three inches.
Viggo: It was crazy. Everyone was freaking out.
Peter: If anyone did get hurt they would have sued our asses. But we were never going to get those shots, if we didn't get it, we'd be chasing snow. Even going to Minnesota you are not guaranteed snow.
Viggo: What's great was we had the same roads. We didn't have to make it match somewhere else.
Kris Bowers performed the other day. He's a genius. He composed the score.
Peter: He composed the score and he worked with Mahershala for a few months beforehand to get him going. When the shit hit the fan, we went to Kris. It was a combination of the two of them.
I knew we needed a world-class pianist and Kris' name kept coming up. He was 27 at the time, but he was the guy. We went to him and asked if he could do it. He looked at me about playing a double and said how he played concerts and was really busy. I offered him the score and he said yes.
It's such a beautiful score.
Viggo: It is. I just wanted to say that everywhere we've gone, every audience has had a really positive reaction to it. Whether it's movie people, press, or just audiences. There's this pleasant surprise. I don't know if it's an expectation. The word is, I hear it's entertaining, moving and people definitely want to see it. But I hear, "I just didn't expect that." I think they expected it to be emotionally moving, maybe a little bit thought-provoking.
Peter: Painful? I think they were afraid of the pain.
Viggo: People are saying it's not what they expected. It's a feel-good movie. You walk out feeling good. To me, I was thinking about it. It's a bit like saying, "Preston Sturges was entertaining." It's very difficult to do. What I read in the script, is what this film has become. It doesn't always happen that way. It's really hard to do what Peter did and to take people on this ride. Like with Preston Sturges, people went to see his movies in small towns theaters and they thought about social situations that were serious. This movie is the same way. If you have a movie that people hear, "It's fun but it's about racism and class differences" mainly they'll hear racism. People in a small town or middle America might not make it their first choice. If they hear, "It's a road trip or buddy thing," you're not preaching to the converted. This movie is something everyone will go and see, and they'll get something where their kids might ask, "Is that how it was in 1962?" Or the parents will think about it and go out of their way to consider. It's amazing.
Peter: The other thing I think is people go in - because of the racial stuff – it starts with a guy dropping glasses into a garbage can from the black workers. People think there's going to be some truly ugly moments, but he's more complicated than that. He's not a homophobe, not in the traditional sense. He's open about other things. He's not completely closed minded.
Viggo: It's a movie about first impressions. Doc thinks he's this guy who is crude. My first impression of Doc is he's no fun, he's boring. And like all first impressions, they are always wrong.
And they change.
Viggo: They do change. Doc realizes that Tony does have a code of ethics and the ability to learn and the modesty to learn. It's a film about first impressions and how to cure ignorance.