“It’s not that I always wanted to do a drama, but I thought that it might happen,” Peter Farrelly says. “I wasn’t planning it. I just figured that when it happened, it would happen, and it finally happened. I heard this story and I was like, ‘Alright!’ I loved it, so I jumped in.”
The pre-Civil Rights era drama, Green Book, is indeed a major career detour for writer/director, Peter Farrelly. In The Comedy Hall Of Fame, Peter and his brother and regular collaborator, Bobby, have earned their rightful place. The siblings behind such side-splitters as Dumb And Dumber, There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, Me, Myself & Irene, Shallow Hal and Stuck On You hang right between The Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrahams, the team behind Flying High, and Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s current king of comedy. If they were inspired by the Zuckers and co., there’s no doubt that the Farrellys’ blend of heart-warming comedy and gross-out gags has rubbed off on Apatow, the man behind Knocked Up, Trainwreck, This Is 40, and Funny People. Despite a few mishits, Peter and Bobby Farrelly are top-tier comedy specialists.
All of which makes Green Book such a big-swinging surprise. Apart from its move into far more dramatic territory, the film also marks Peter Farrelly’s first big screen solo directorial effort. “Bobby loved it,” Farrelly says. “He was at the very first screening, and he was the first guy that said, ‘Alright, this is unbelievable.’ By the way, the only reason that Bobby didn’t do it is because his son passed away. His son died of a drug overdose. Just so you know, he didn’t want to work. He had bigger issues to deal with, and at that time, I found this project and went on. But he’ll be back. He’s my biggest fan. He’s been to the various premieres. He’s really enjoying it.” So the brothers would have done Green Book together if Bobby wasn’t dealing with his son’s passing? “Without question,” Farrelly replies. “I was not looking to go off alone.”
Peter Farrelly’s surprise solo debut has been justifiably garlanded with praise from all comers. Co-scripted by Farrelly, Brian Currie and Nicky Vallelonga, the little known true story is that of the latter’s real life father, Tony Lip. A rough-and-tumble working class Italian-American from The Bronx with a skill for throwing people out of nightclubs, Lip was employed in the 1960s by Dr. Don Shirley, a gifted African-American jazz pianist and composer. Undertaking a dangerous tour of The Deep South, Shirley needed not only a driver but also protection, and Tony Lip was it. Throughout the course of the film, these two disparate figures – one black, one white, one cultured, the other uncouth – form a very, very unlikely friendship.
Playing the duo is a truly fine pair of actors: Oscar nominee, Viggo Mortensen (A History Of Violence, Eastern Promises), and Oscar winner, Mahershala Ali (Moonlight). “It’s crazy,” Farrelly laughs of his casting coup. “No matter what you say about the movie, I don’t think there’s a movie with two better actors in it than this movie, this year. They’re unbelievable.”
Surprisingly, considering Farrelly’s gut-busting oeuvre, this isn’t the first time that he’s made an approach to the not-exactly-known-for-his-comedic-chops Viggo Mortensen. “I’ve asked Viggo to be in a bunch of movies, and he always says no…his agents say no,” Farrelly laughs. “I asked him to be in Hall Pass…a couple of different movies. I love him, but I always got a pass, you know? But with this one, I really wanted him, so I wrote him a long letter. I sent it through his agent, and just said, ‘Please, just read thirty pages, it’s a departure.’ He got back to me two days later and said, ‘This is fantastic, but I don’t know if it’s me. I don’t know if I could do it.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, you can’t do it? You did Eastern Promises! This is a walk in the park! This is absolutely nothing. You lived in New York. You know these people.’ Anyway, then he said, ‘What’s the guy look like?’ I sent him a picture. He goes, ‘I don’t look like that.’ I said, ‘Nobody knows what he looks like!’ But he ended up gaining weight to look like him. He gained 45 pounds for the role.”
Mortensen was then the key that could unlock the rest of the cast. “Once I had Viggo, I knew that I could have whoever I wanted,” Farrelly says candidly. “Every actor wants to work with Viggo. And so I was thinking, ‘I wonder about that guy who just won the Oscar for Moonlight, Mahershala Ali.’ So we looked at him, and luckily those two had been talking about doing something together. At the awards shows, they’d run into each other. So it really worked out for us.”
As he usually does, Mortensen dug well and truly into the script, though wholesale changes were kept to a minimum. “Well, it was a pretty good script,” Farrelly smiles. “He, of course, weighed in. He tweaked it, but he didn’t take over the writing. I opened the script up and I said, ‘Let’s go through every line’, and he would move things around or try things…like I do with every actor. But those guys – particularly Mahershala – had input that was important. He made a couple of changes that were really quite significant.”
Though there were changes made to the script, Green Book was far from the loose, improvisational vibe of Farrelly’s previous films. And though the film – which has more than its fair share of humour – was now famously included in the Comedy Or Musical category at The Golden Globe Awards, Farrelly was not playing for laughs. “I was very clear on not wanting to go for jokes,” he explains. “All the laughs are from character stuff. Those are things coming out of those guys. Nobody is cracking a joke here and there. It’s who they are. Tony Lip is a sixth-grade educated guy who says things wrong…malapropisms and so forth. Just his narrow view of the world cracks you up when he’s talking to a black concert pianist with three doctorates. A lot of it, honestly, I’m telling you the truth, on the page, the script wasn’t that funny. It wasn’t as funny as the movie. It was a few laughs and a lot of smiles. It’s the nuanced acting things. That’s what’s amazing…this script was not a comedy. But it’s in the comedy category at the Golden Globes and you can’t deny that, because it does get a lot of laughs. But it was those two guys doing their job.”
The film’s two-hand nature, its road movie structure, and its story about racial difference instantly invokes Bruce Beresford’s 1989 Oscar winner, Driving Miss Daisy. Did Farrelly look at that film as a reference point? “Of course, it occurred to us at some point, ‘Oh, this is like a reversal of Driving Miss Daisy,’” the director says, his voice starting to scratch and jag, and then falling into a cough. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “Let me grab a water. I’ll get it. I’ve been travelling too much. Planes. And I got this bug, believe it or not, but it’s gone now. This is like remnants. I’m not contagious. This is two weeks ago,” Farrelly laughs. “Anyway, it occurred to us, while we were writing, but that’s not what we were doing. We didn’t set out to do that. We were thinking more like The Odd Couple. It’s an Odd Couple thing.”
The film’s title refers to a little known relic from the pre-Civil Rights era in the USA. The Negro Motorist Green Book, popularly known as The Green Book, was a travel guide created to help African-American motorists avoid social obstacles prevalent during the period of racial segregation. The film’s “road movie” structure and themes of tolerance and understanding certainly clicked with this historical remnant, though it is far from being its driving force. “I researched it a lot, but I didn’t want this to turn into a movie about The Green Book, because it’s not that,” Farrelly says. “There is a movie out there that somebody could make about The Green Book, but that’s way different than this. We called it Green Book, because when we started writing this, I never heard of The Green Book. I couldn’t find anybody who had heard of The Green Book. Eight out of ten of my black friends had not heard of The Green Book. But their parents knew…”
Besides, it beat the shit out of the film’s original title, which was a tribute to Tony Lip’s wife, Delores (played in the film by Linda Cardellini), who is also, of course, Nick Vallelonga’s mother. “The original title was Nick’s, which was ‘Love Letters To Delores’,’” Farrelly frowns. “I said, ‘Nick, I really would like some guys to go and see this! With a gun to my head, I’m not going to see ‘Love Letters To Delores.’ Not happening! We’ve got to find a new title.’ He said, ‘Whoa, whoa, that’s my mother!’”
Farrelly, however, stood firm and resolute, with the memory of an excellent 2013 drama starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan burning brightly in his mind. “I almost missed Philomena because of that title,” the director laughs. “Philomena was the last movie I saw that year, because I was just like, ‘Really?’ But it was my favourite movie of that year, by far. It’s a classic, but ‘Love Letters To Delores?’ We were playing around with a bunch of titles, and then finally one day we were like, ‘Wait a second. The Green Book’s been looking at us the whole time. Let’s just call it Green Book.’”
Now a critical darling and Golden Globe winner, with the film picking up awards for Best Picture (Musical Or Comedy), Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, FilmInk was there at the film’s premiere at The Toronto Film Festival, where the tidal wave of appreciation began. “It was unbelievable,” Farrelly says. “I knew that the movie was playing, because we scored really well in test screenings, but I never expected that kind of reaction. We had one of those big shows where the place went nuts. They just went crazy, and it was like a rock concert. I was emotional. I started crying. It all came together at once, that it was working, and it was an amazing feeling. All the screenings have been fantastic, but nothing like that because it surprised us. That was just an amazing feeling.”
That amazing feeling is set to continue, with Green Book now garnering Oscar buzz. “I want people to see this movie, and if they didn’t have that, I don’t know if people would, because actually, it’s not tracking well,” Farrelly says candidly. “Not everybody knows about this movie. They know in New York and LA, and Toronto…major cities know about this movie. But I have a buddy up in Idaho, and I’m like, ‘Have you heard anything?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know anything about it.’ My friends in the mid-west, they don’t know about this. I want to get the word out, so I’m thrilled that they’re talking about it like that so it won’t fall through the cracks. I’ve had movies, not as good as this, that fall through the cracks, like Kingpin. I love Kingpin, but that did no business. It was a bomb. And then it didn’t have a second life, because of this type of thing. It feels good that they’re talking about Green Book. It makes me feel that, one way or another, people are going to find out about it.”
With this kind of warmth and positivity surrounding Green Book, does it make Peter Farrelly re-evaluate his past work? Is he happy with his previous films? “I’m happy with them,” he replies. “I have no regrets. I’ve been asked that a lot. There’s Something About Mary is in the 100 Funniest American Movies Of All Time, as picked by the AFI [American Film Institute]. I don’t have any like, ‘Geez, I wish I hadn’t done that.’ Of course, there’s a couple of movies where I wish things had worked out differently, but no, I have no regrets about those things. I’m proud of them. Like I’m proud of this.”
Green Book is released in cinemas on January 24. Click here for our review.