At today’s The Contenders LA event, Universal Pictures took the audience rocketing back to the 1960s by presenting panels on two very different historical films: First Man and Green Book.
First Man tells the well-known story of Neil Armstrong’s journey to becoming the first man to walk on the moon, in 1969. The other, Green Book, makes a different sort of voyage to another planet, when real-life concert pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be black, makes an early-1960s concert tour of the Deep South with working-class Italian bouncer Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen) acting as his bodyguard.
Deadline co-executive editor Mike Fleming Jr. moderated the First Man panel that included director-producer Damien Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross and composer Justin Hurwitz. The group talked about how they pooled their talents to perhaps create a darker, more melancholy view of the first moon landing than was presented in the rah-rah 1983 hit The Right Stuff.
Chazelle said he was informed by a little-known tragedy in Armstrong’s life — the death of his young daughter eight years before he walked on the moon. “[He] lost her on the eve of becoming an astronaut,” Chazelle said. “It opened a different side to that icon who [before] had felt distant, like a marble statue.”
Editor Cross said Chazelle wanted to bring two different types of realism, contrasting the warmth of Armstrong’s home life with the claustrophobic, often terrifying life within the space capsule. “Damien always wanted this to be, talked about the balance between the moon and the kitchen sink,” Cross said.
Composer Hurwitz said he tried to bridge “the home stuff with the space stuff,” favoring light and delicate music and the harp for home scenes, bringing out the brass for Apollo 11 and learning to play the eerie theremin to conjure outer space. “I learned to play it completely wrong,” he joked. “That’s not how to play it.”
While director Peter Farrelly’s Green Book explores the racism of the period, stars Ali and Mortensen both said on the panel moderated by Deadline’s Pete Hammond that they enjoyed playing the humor of the relationship between their characters. Since so much of the action takes place on the road, with Mortensen’s character in the front seat and Ali’s in the back, both could tap into the comedy of facial reactions the other character could not see.
When they finally had scenes together and Mortensen could see the well-educated Ali character’s appalled reactions to his unsophisticated one, “I had a hard time not laughing out loud.”
At the end of the conversation, Farrelly — who is known for his broad comedies — deadpanned that Green Book represents a departure to say the least. And he’s reveling in a new kind of acclaim.
“Believe it or not, Dumb and Dumber didn’t get to Cannes,” he said, to laughter. “The best thing [it got was] Hustler magazine gave us a full erection,” Farrelly added, referring to the magazine’s unique standard for rating movies.
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