STACK caught up with director Peter Farrelly and stars Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali to discuss this year’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, Green Book.
Director Peter Farrelly is as surprised as anyone that he’s pulled off the feat of both entertaining audiences and sending a message of love and inclusivity – but also not offending anyone in the process.
“It feels good to be at the helm of a film with such an important message, but gets it across without hammering you over the head with it,” says the director who, together with brother Bobby, is best known for raunchy comedies There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber.
Not that Peter Farrelly intended to go it alone. “I would have loved Bobby to make Green Book with me but he was going through personal family issues at the time,” he says. “But Bobby has been my greatest supporter, attending all the festival premieres and really so happy for me.”
A period drama set in 1962, Green Book is akin to Driving Miss Daisy in reverse; a road-trip drama based on a true story about famed black pianist Don Shirley [Mahershala Ali), who hires Italian American bouncer Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) to drive him on a concert tour through the Deep South.
Things go awry fast, even with the aid of the titular guidebook – used by black travellers to navigate the dangers of pre-civil-rights-era segregation.
What begins as a rocky relationship between Mortensen’s louche Lip and Ali’s grandiose pianist soon becomes a genuine friendship.
The friendship between the two actors was also genuine – the pair having met over the course of the 2016-2017 awards season, where both were feted for their performances in Captain Fantastic and Moonlight, respectively.
Mortensen wasn’t keen on the idea at first, having turned down roles for Farrelly in the past. But after co-screenwriter Nick Vallelonga – who wrote the story based on his late father’s family stories – pressed the actor to an eight-hour lunch at the family’s Italian restaurant, he came around.
Packing on 45 pounds for the role, Mortensen tells STACK, “Its not something I want to dwell upon because its only a part of what the characterisation is about. Eating was definitely the easiest part.”
For Mahershala Ali, the most daunting aspect was tackling the piano to convey Don Shirley’s mastery.
“That’s what terrified me about this project,” says Ali, who rehearsed with pianist Kris Bowers. “We were really focused on making sure that I was in the right place and in the right rhythm, because the left hand is always doing something different from the right hand, and it was important to me that they could use me as much as possible.
“But when it comes down to specifics, Keanu Reeves is not doing kung fu in The Matrix and Geoffrey Rush is not playing the piano in Shine. In Green Book, the music is extraordinarily complicated, playing Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky, so I learned as much as I could so that it didn’t hinder Pete in the edit.”
Mortensen hopes that Green Book carries a message of hope for a new generation of audiences.
“I think that each new generation of children tends to play together without a thought to the colour of someone’s skin, or whether they have all their limbs, or whether they can see or speak or hear; whether they speak a language different than your own, kids just play. They don’t even think about it.
“But then somehow, from their families, from their environment, from society, they learn to differentiate, to exclude, to feel superiority or inferiority, to make a big deal of differences that they previously didn’t give any thought to. And each generation has the possibility, if they’re fortunate, if they work at it, to unlearn that and learn to play nice again.
“So stories like Green Book are always going to be timely, especially when they’re well-told, and in the case of Green Book, when they’re extremely entertaining, well-structured, well-written and well-directed. And while you’re laughing, you’re moved, you’re invited to think and feel, not told to, just invited by virtue of the quality of the storytelling. It does so much for you.”