Green Book follows the story of American pianist Don Shirley and his music road tour in the 1960s South with his Italian-American driver and bodyguard Tony the Lip.
The real Tony went on to be a character actor in an array of movies such as The Pope of Greenwich Village. But it was his son Nick Vallelonga who would bring his father and Shirley’s emotional story to the big screen. Why did it take so long? Essentially Vallelonga was respecting the wishes of Shirley who wanted the movie to happen after his death (both Vallelonga and Shirley died in 2013). Vallelonga had interviewed both thoroughly. He told screenwriter Brian Currie about the movie, and he then pitched Green Book to his friend Peter Farrelly. But Currie didn’t hard sell Farrelly; he soft-pitched the idea and let the Dumb and Dumber director get back to him.
When it came to who would play Vallelonga’s father, there were notable Italian-American actors thrown around. As far as a non-Italian playing Tony, Vallelonga said, “I didn’t want anyone doing a bad Joe Pesci imitation.” But when Viggo Mortensen’s name was suggest by Farrelly, “It clicked in me,” said Vallelonga.
“The most iconic Italian character is The Godfather and he was played by Marlon Brando and he’s not Italian. Viggo is so amazing, I saw him doing it,” said the producer-writer. And transform, Mortensen did with the Calabrese-Bronx dialect and gaining 45 pounds.
Also appearing at today’s session was Green Book composer Kris Bowers who literally was Mahershala Ali’s hands in the film, playing all of Shirley’s music. In fact, Shirley never wrote any of his music down, so Bowers had to transcribe his jazz music to composition by ear.
First Man producer Wyck Godfrey thought he knew everything about first man on the moon Neil Armstrong, but James R. Hansen’s book made him wiser. Godfrey didn’t know that the man who traveled from a cabin in California to Houston to join the astronaut program all along carried the pain of his young daughter’s death. And such was the jumping off point for the film which was adapted by Spotlight Oscar winner Josh Singer.
Singer said it took “a hundred” drafts: “The technical stuff was hard, but the emotional stuff was harder….Neil was hard to package. He was bottled up, and how were we going to show that?”
First Man is coming soon to home video and SVOD. Green Book is currently in theaters.