Universal has prided itself on building a diverse slate, not just across different genres, but reflecting the make-up of the globe on screen, from the multi-cultural cast of its Fast and Furious films to making the African American horror Blumhouse title Get Out a marquee and awards season event last year.
At Deadline’s Contenders London, the studio presented two of its awards contenders, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and Illumination’s The Grinch, both keeping within their mission of diversity.
Green Book tells the true story about American jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) who is chauffeured throughout the 1960s deep South for his concert tour by former Copacabana Italian American bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen). The two couldn’t be more different: Don refined and educated, and Tony working-class, who is not afraid to solve a situation with his fists if needed. However, on a two-month tour prior to Christmas, Don and Tony form a close bond, learning from each other’s attributes and looking out for each other during an intense time. The story was co-written and produced by Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga.
In prepping for the role of Shirley, Ali listened to tapes from Tony Lip about his friendship Shirley but also watched a doc about the pianist who lived above Carnegie Hall with other musicians who were evicted. Through these materials, Ali came to grasp the pianist’s articulation and gestures. For Mortensen, “I had to stretch my stomach lining” he says about adapting to Tony’s appetite. “I had to eat quite a bit of food and there were many angles and takes; it’s more than what is in the movie.”
Critics have called Green Book a reverse Driving Miss Daisy. “Before 1975, Black characters in films were essentially saved by the white character, that was par for the course. What I loved about Shirley was that he was so empowered. He could at any moment have returned to New York, but for him going down South; he wasn’t in it for the financial aspects. He could have toured above the Mason Dixon line.”
“He was trying to push boundaries by his sheer presence,” said Ali about Shirley’s attempts to change the point of views of white Southerners’ attitudes toward African Americans. Green Book opens Nov. 21 in the pre-Thanksgiving corridor. The pic took the top audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and has surprised many since.
Illumination Entertainment has brought Dr. Seuss to the screen before with 2012’s The Lorax, and when it came to The Grinch, due out on Nov. 9 “we thought we could make it make it modern and accessible to audiences now” said producer Janet Healy appearing onstage with the pic’s director Yarrow Cheney and art director Colin Stimpson.
While the film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the big green monster who loots the Christmas gifts from the residents of Whoville, there was a striking takeaway for Healy.
“There’s a power of inclusion and diversity,” says Healy, “and the importance of community and tradition. Even more so there’s the redemptive power of forgiveness. It really speaks to what kindness means and how joy and love and compassion are so important. And at Christmas, for all of us, it’s a time to make the world a better place.”