When he began collaborating on the script that would become his movie Green Book, director Peter Farrelly had never heard of the Negro Motorist Green Book, a late–Jim Crow–era guide informing black travelers which U.S. gas stations, restaurants, and hotels would welcome their business. Farrelly's cowriter, Nick Vallelonga, had long wanted to make a film about the cross-country concert tour that forged a brotherhood between his father, Anthony "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a racist nightclub bouncer turned chauffeur with a sixth-grade education, and Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a gay African-American piano virtuoso who lived atop Carnegie Hall, but Shirley requested that a film not be made during his lifetime. The unlikely friends died only months apart in 2013, around the 50th anniversary of their trip; the elder Vallelonga had left behind hours of audio and videotapes recounting the journey.
"[Vallelonga's] talking about, 'Yeah, the record company gave me the book where the blacks can stay,'" Farrelly told Vogue last week at the London West Hollywood hotel. "And I said, 'What the fuck? What is he saying?'" A Google search eventually solved the mystery. "I asked white people, none had heard of it; and [of the] black people I asked, eight out of 10 hadn't heard of it."
Farrelly, famous for comedies like the Dumb and Dumber films, Shallow Hal, and the 20-year-old There's Something About Mary (still among the 10 top-earning R-rated comedies) that he codirected with his brother, Bobby Farrelly, was excited to be known for something more than blue humor. ("I hated the 'gross out' term," says Farrelly, who says he considers his prior work more in the spirit of classic comedies like Airplane!: "There's twists and turns in [There's] Something About Mary . . . and it's not just the hair gel.") Before Green Book, Farrelly had never released a project independent of his brother (Bobby "adores this movie," said Peter), let alone a festival-worthy—and festival-winning drama that's steered most of the early award season chatter.
"Basically, this town is run by What'd you do last? and Why would we think this would work?" said Farrelly. "There was total pushback by everybody," except ex–Focus Features production president Jim Burke — a fan of Farrelly's two novels — who sold the script to his former employer's parent company, Universal Pictures. "I had to have the two best actors going, and even then, the studio was like, 'I don't know, man. You've never done this thing,' and I was like, 'I know. But I'm going to do it now.' "
Farrelly first approached Mortensen — his favorite screen star of the past 15 years — with a letter ("Dear Viggo, this script is a departure for me,") that told the actor to feel free to forget it if Mortensen didn't see himself in the role by page 30. The screenplay impressed Mortensen, who cited the dialogue and the historical period (the eve of the Civil Rights Act), among the project's draws, though it was ultimately how the two leads foiled each other that drew him in. "I've never seen a character quite like [Shirley], certainly from that period, someone who is that well-educated — has three doctorates, speaks eight languages, is so elegant, and so accomplished as an artist," said Mortensen of Mahershala Ali's character. "He lives in that sort of splendid isolation, and maybe not so splendid . . . he's like a monk." But Mortensen, who like Lip is a native New Yorker, but unlike him has a Danish father and was also raised in Venezuela, Denmark, and Argentina, felt like he was a less-than-obvious choice to play an Italian hustler. He was "really aware that there's some really good Italian-American actors out there," he says. He told Farrelly: "Pete, you're crazy. I mean you're already doing a left turn by doing this kind of story, why do you want to have me play that guy?"
Says Farrelly, "He called me two days later, he had read it, and he loved the script but he's like, 'I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if it's me' . . . I said, 'Dude, you did Eastern Promises. This is like a walk in the park — nothing — for you.'"
Mortensen put on 40 pounds for the role. His director had a much easier time lining up the two-time Oscar nominee's costars. Ali and Mortensen became cordial as awards season cohorts early last year, when Moonlight made Ali the first Muslim Academy Award victor (Mortensen was nominated in another category for Captain Fantastic). "He's just so honest and vulnerable and open," Ali said of his costar.
Ali "started getting excited" as soon as he sat down with Farrelly, before he'd even accepted the part. "I felt like I was working with a first-time filmmaker who had 25 years of experience," said Ali. "I wasn't really at all worried" about the director's genre switch, and "if anything I felt really confident, because Pete was doing something new, and something fresh, so I felt like his energy would be right for it."
The director's patience on set was a pleasant surprise for both actors, says Ali: "God bless Peter Farrelly, 'cause he had to put up with both of us, from like, 'Can I get another take? I didn't like [how] my hand wasn't in my pocket,' or whatever — the stuff we were picking apart and finding."
Ali's fellow Hidden Figures costar Octavia Spencer joined the project as a producer. The cast includes Linda Cardellini as Lip's taken-for-granted wife, Dolores, and several members of the actual Vallelonga family (all nonactors). "It was noisy and crazy and they would say, 'Cut!' and these guys would keep eating, and they'd go, 'Stop eating! The plate's gotta look the same,'" Mortensen laughs. "And they go, 'Same, schlame, get out of here.'"
Mortensen, who spends much of the film in the driver's seat of a vintage Cadillac Coupe DeVille that had been set up with a camera in place of a rearview mirror, had to get used to acting (and steering) without seeing his costar in the backseat. "I'm just going by the sound of his voice" during those shots, Mortensen said. "So when he's doing these disapproving smirks and all that stuff, I'm just like, there's silence, what's he doing now?" At a rest stop, they got to work eye-to-eye for the first time. "His reactions are priceless," says Mortensen.
Lip and Shirley's drive together lasted a year, and the first draft of the screenplay ended with the two attending President John F. Kennedy's funeral in Washington, D.C. (Shirley was friendly with the first family), a true moment from Shirley's history, but one that Farrelly felt ultimately made the project "into something else." Green Book "isn't about that," Farrelly said, choosing instead to focus on the "love story between these two guys."
The finished product condenses the year-long trip into two months, ending at Christmas time, with a quiet, polished climax in a hotel restaurant, one that, in the age of galactic chases and superhero skirmishes, is staggering for its simplicity. Certain events were ultimately told out of order. Throughout, Lip introduces Shirley to modern music and cuisine, while Shirley helps Lip become a better husband (during the tour, Shirley ghostwrote many of the 67 letters Lip sent Dolores, another set of source material for the filmmakers) and a more evolved human being: Early in the film, Lip's character throws away a glass used by black home repairmen; later in the film he handles the sight of Shirley and another man showering together with complete grace.
"I love the way — and this is true — how Tony Lip dealt with homosexuality was despite the fact that he was racist at heart at that time," said Farrelly. "He was open-minded about it. He worked at nightclubs, he knew a lot of gay people, and he was accepting, which is shocking, and which is what starts to turn their relationship, when Dr. Shirley realized Tony Lip isn't one-dimensional."
Instead of once again showing audiences segregated lunch counters and bathrooms, Farrelly wanted to unearth other racial discrepancies found across the States mid-century. For instance, his characters drive through Southern "sundown towns," where black people weren't allowed to be in public at night. "You pull over, you sleep in the field, and you wait until morning," said Farrelly. A memorable scene takes place inside a clothing store, where Shirley is prevented from putting on a blazer. "You could buy it, and take it [home], but you couldn't try it on because they didn't want it if you didn't buy it, and that kind of shit. It was just infuriating."
Even in 2018, Ali has said that he is being openly discriminated against for the color of his skin. About three weeks ago, he recounted, he ate at a private club in London with the film's three writers and Farrelly's wife. "The waiter went around and took everybody's order," said Ali. "When he got around to me, he whispered and started asking for my membership card, asked for proof that I belonged there, and — put it this way — the gentleman got fired, but my point is that it still happens. And I won an Oscar, have a college education, a master's degree, and so, it still happens, and it's still jarring."
Green Book had the warmest possible reception at September's Toronto International Film Festival. "It was the greatest screening of all time," said Farrelly, who premiered the movie in front of a sold-out crowd. "Fifteen hundred people just going nuts . . . it was like a rock concert." Despite competing against recent Oscar winners like Damien Chazelle (First Man), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Steve McQueen (Widows), plus Venice-lauded The Favourite and Roma, not to mention A Star Is Born — Green Book took home the coveted audience award. That win generated enthusiastic awards speculation for both of the leads and the film itself. "I think people [in Hollywood] are still reeling," says Mortensen. "They're still saying, 'How did Pete Farrelly do this?'"
Given our present political climate, there's a significance to the story of a pair of starkly dissimilar men who come to find common ground. Ali believes that Green Book's relevance is timeless, although he admits that maybe in the previous administration "the spirit in which it was received would have been more of an addition to the hopefulness that already existed," whereas now, "I think the water's pretty low in the well in terms of the well of hope." He added, "We've been taking a beating, I guess."
Since Toronto, Farrelly said he has gotten "nice offers, great offers, and lots of money promised, but it's like, I don't know if that's me, those things." Unsure whether his next project will be a comedy or a drama, he adds, "I just want to be true to myself." His sense of humor sure hasn't gone anywhere: "Hopefully, this awards talk is going to make sure Green Book finds a crowd, 'cause I think it's an important movie, and I've never said that about any of my movies, believe me."