PETER FARRELLY has had a career that many would envy, and likely have envied, over the last several decades. Along with his brother Bobby, he’s responsible for classic comedies like There’s Something About Mary, Me, Myself & Irene, Dumb and Dumber, and Shallow Hal - among numerous others. The brothers' brand of comedy is so ingrained in our culture that the idea of either one stepping outside of that box might feel a bit like culture shock.
Peter has done just that, however, with Green Book - a movie that tells the fascinating story of Sopranos actor Tony Lip Vallelonga and jazz musician Don Shirley, who forged a special friendship after the former was hired to be the latter’s chauffeur and bouncer during a tour of the South in the 60s. It’s a film that deals with the issues of race that were plaguing the country at the time, and examines how the two became friends despite the tension that existed in the region. The title refers to a book from that era known as the Negro Motorist Green Book, which is a travel guidebook that helped African-Americans navigate the region amid segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Farrelly’s film stars Viggo Mortensen as Lip and Mahershala Ali as Shirley, and it’s become one of the most buzzed about movies this year. It’s screening at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival, and will be followed by a Q&A with writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Hayes Currie. Farrelly, the film’s director, talked with us about its origins, the timeliness of such a unique story, and how he ended up working with the likes of Ali and Mortensen.
How did you get involved in this? Were you aware of the story?
Peter: No! I was just kind of lucky. I ran into Brian Hayes Currie – I wrote it with him and Nick Vallelonga – about three years ago. He's an actor who's been in a few of my movies in small parts. He told me he was writing a screenplay, and he explained it. [He said it was about] a black concert pianist in 1962 who lived about Carnegie Hall, and his record company was sending him on a tour of the deep South. He was afraid to go, so he hired this bouncer - an Italian guy who was racist himself – to drive him.
I said, “You’re fucking kidding me! That’s a home run.” It’s a great story. So I kept thinking about it for a month or two, and finally I called him back and said, “Hey, how’s that script coming?” He said, “What script?” I said, “The fucking concert pianist and the bouncer!” He goes, “Oh, we haven’t even begun that.” I asked if I could write it with him because I loved the story, so we all got together and did it.
As far as getting Viggo and Mahershala involved, did you sort of know right away that those were the guys?
I never know that kind of thing. Usually I don’t think of people while I’m writing. We write the script as best we can, and then we say, “Who is the best guy for this?” Viggo doesn’t work a lot. He’s very picky. He does a movie when he wants to do a movie – he’s not in, like, three movies a year like most actors. So it was kind of a long shot. Everybody discouraged us and said, “Don’t go to him. You’re going to waste your time, he’s never going to do it.” But I just saw him in it.
I wrote him a long letter and said, “Listen, this is different for me. It’s a departure. Please read it.” He did and really liked it, but even then he was reluctant because it was a different role for him. But with a little arm twisting we finally got him to commit, and then once we had Viggo we had the pick of the litter because anyone wants to work with him. So we said, “Who do we want? How about that guy Mahershala Ali? He was good in Moonlight.” Boom.
Wow. Well, it’s an amazing cast. The thing that strikes me most is the fact that something like The Green Book even existed. Given the climate we’re living in, we’re not that far off from that level of segregation and discrimination with certain groups of people. So the movie seems sort of timely, in some way.
Yeah. We started writing this before the shit storm happened two years ago, but it was still bad before that. One of the big things that happened was that they put cameras on cops and we found out that there are some bad cops. By the way, not all cops. Most cops are great. But there are some bad ones, and that opened up people’s eyes. I think black people knew that all along, but white people were suddenly confronted with a reality that they didn’t want to admit existed.
So there was a lot of that at the time, but The Green Book we stumbled on in the telling of it. Luckily, Nick Vallelonga – who we wrote this with – audiotaped his father for an hour and a half telling the entire story in detail. We used to listen to it over and over with all these things that happened, and along the way he’d keep mentioning, “The record company gave us the book where black people could stay.”
I let that slide by a couple of times but then I was like, “What the hell is he saying here?” Then we googled it and found out about the Negro Motorist Green Book – which I was not aware of. Not many people knew about it.
Was there a specific part of this story that moved you or affected you? Does anything stand out in particular?
The thing that I loved about it the most is that they were complete opposites. One guy has three doctorates and is a concert pianist. The other guy has a sixth grade education but didn’t really pay much attention after third grade. And he was racist. And yet, they became lifelong friends. I just loved that they would go through this and end up friends, and I wanted to study how that happened.
That’s what I really liked about this – the upside. My feeling is, anybody can change. They both changed. They both had to change to grow towards each other. This isn’t a one guy saved the other guy story. This is, each guy saved the other guy. Tony Lip saved Don Shirley from some earthly perils and got him out of some pickles, but Dr. Shirley saved Lip’s soul.