Ali "hit me up on things that were just dead wrong," said Farrelly about the process of making Green Book with the Oscar-winner.
© Patti Perret/Universal.
Before Peter Farrelly began shooting Green Book last year in New Orleans, he gathered his entire cast and crew and encouraged everyone in the production to come to him if they saw a problem with what was being shot, or if they had an idea on how to make the movie better. It's an open-door policy the veteran director of such comedy classics as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary has employed on every movie he's made, but, he says, he really needed it on this one.
Chatting with an audience of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday as part of a screening with Vanity Fair, Farrelly revealed his trepidation walking onto the set of his first dramatic film, the true story of the unlikely friendship between jazz pianist and composer Dr. Don Shirley (Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American bouncer and driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), who was hired to transport Shirley through the Jim Crow South for a concert tour in 1962.
Farrelly shared the stage with both of the film's stars, as well as co-writers Nick Vallelonga (Lip's son) and Brian Hayes Currie, and said he was quite concerned with the racially charged storylines his main characters faced, and insuring his white male privilege wouldn't hamper their telling. "I needed other people to come forward and say, 'I don't buy this,' or 'That's bullshit,'" said Farrelly. "Before we ever shot it, we opened the script page by page, line by line, to these two guys (Ali and Mortensen), and they had lots of thoughts. The stuff I got from Mahershala was about the black experience, and he hit me up on things that were just dead wrong."
As an example, Farrelly and Ali shared the story of an exchange they had about a scene in which Shirley admits his true aspiration was to become a classical pianist, which he wasn't able to because of his race. The scene as written nagged at Ali for days, he said, up until the night before he was to shoot it, when he began exchanging e-mails with Farrelly, articulating his need to stand up for his character and take ownership over the injustice Shirley experienced of not being able to become what he aspired to because "you were born wrong," said Ali. "I'm no expert in mental health, but for me, personally, when I'm told that I can't do something because of who I am, that feeling is such an awful, haunting feeling. And I wanted to make sure we paid respect to that in some way. I see Doc Shirley like so many artists of color who have had to compromise just to make a living, but are not permitted to be who they were born to be. That was my concern and I think we did a good job."
Farrelly said he was equally cognizant of the "white savior" cinematic trope that has come to characterize so many of Hollywood's movies focused on race, from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Help. "Doc Shirley didn't need a savior," said Farrelly. "He didn't have to go down to the South. He could have stayed up north, he could have gone to Europe, but he wanted to prove people wrong about his race, and he wanted to show a side that they didn't know about. Yes, Tony Lip got him out of some earthy problems, but Doc Shirley saved Tony Lip's soul. He changed him. He made him a better human being."
The entire Green Book production proved to be an exercise in thwarting expectations. Ali took on the characteristics of a classically trained pianist, while Mortensen transformed himself both physically and mentally into an unpolished Italian-American with a huge appetite. Mortensen, who is Danish-American, said he tried valiantly to turn the director down for the role.
"It was one of the best scripts I'd ever read," Mortensen said. "But I told Pete that he was already going out on a limb doing his first drama. He didn't want to handicap himself further by having me play that guy. Obviously, there are some pretty good Italian-American actors around, and there are some pretty good Italian-American characterizations that we've already seen on TV and in the movies."
In the end, though, Farrelly convinced him. "I said, 'You did Eastern Promises. This is a walk in the park. This is nothing.' It didn't even occur to me that he couldn't do it."