'Green Book' Director Peter Farrelly On Realizing His Movie Could Be Funny As Well As Dramatic [Interview]

The Farrelly Brothers became the kings of comedy in the '90s with Dumb and Dumber, Kingpin and There's Something About Mary. However, Green Book is Peter Farrelly's first solo film and his first drama.

Based on a true story, the film follows Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) as he gets a job as a driver for Dr. Shirley (Mahershala Ali). While Shirley tours the south with his jazz trio, he needs a savvy problem solver to bail him out of jams that may come up between gigs in racist communities. The "green book" of the title is the guide to southern hotels that accept black people.

Peter Farrelly spoke with /Film by phone about making Green Book. He elaborated on how the film consolidated the real life road trip Tony and Dr. Shirley took and shared some stories that didn't make it into the film. Green Book is now playing in select theaters and opens wide Wednesday, November 21.

I know that as a director your can do lots of different things, but Green Book is your first drama. Did you have to convince the studios you could do more than comedy?

Yeah, it was a very hard sell. We had a really good script that I wrote with Brian Hayes Currie and Nick Vallelonga and we really couldn't get it moved in any way at all because I hadn't done this type of thing and it wouldn't have gotten made if not for Viggo and Mahershala signing on. As soon as I hooked them, and I had them without a studio, then people were like, "Okay, let's take a look at this. If Viggo and Mahershala want to do it, then we're going to take a closer look." Even then, they were not looking at it as big a movie as I felt it could be. They were thinking it was sort of a genre movie and budgeted accordingly. It was tough. We had a several week shoot, it was a period piece but we only had $20 million in seven weeks, but it all worked out.

Do you go solo when you do drama, separately from Bobby?

I had no plans to go make a movie alone. I would have preferred if my brother was here but he was unavailable due to some family matters.

Was it around 2016 you were developing Green Book and seeing the rise of racism with the election, that it might be a good time to remind people how far we've come?

I knew when we were making it, as soon as I heard about this story, I knew this was going to resonate hugely today. In fact, I did hear about it before the shitstorm of the last two years. I heard about it three years ago. If you recall, we weren't exactly on an uptick with racial relations because at that point, cops had started wearing cameras on them and we were finding out that there were some bad cops out there. There are things that I think white people didn't want to admit were happening and suddenly we're seeing it projected into our living rooms every night. That changed things there. Without getting into the last two years, I think that people on both sides grabbed onto that and used it for their own purposes.

Were you still able to use humor in between the serious scenes of racism?

What we didn't want to do is make jokes, and we didn't. Any humor that came out of this came out organically, naturally because it was an odd couple story. You've got a black concert pianist with three doctorates driving around for two months with a sixth grade educated Italian American bouncer who leans towards the racist side. So you're going to have some odd couple moments in that. That's where the humor comes from. It's from the personalities, the characters and not from jokes. So honestly, I'm telling you the truth, when we wrote it, I didn't think this was a funny script at all. I thought definitely the chicken scene would probably get a laugh here and there and there were a lot of smiley moments, but it wasn't until I got two of the great actors alive today to play the roles that I realized there's a lot of humor in this. While we were shooting it I started recognizing how funny it was but I wasn't going for laughs. If ever there was a movie that had organic laughs, this was it.

In your comedies you've said you're a big fan of the test screening process to see people react to the jokes. Was it any different testing Green Book with audiences?

I had concerns. Yeah, I was very nervous about doing it, starting with the fact that our hero drops those two glasses in the trash can at the beginning of the movie. We were in an audience who was half black, half white and I was expecting black people to just get up and say, "Fuck this shit, I'm outta here, I don't need to watch this." And they didn't. At the end of the movie, I talked to them and said, "Hey, how did you feel when you saw that?" I couldn't believe the reaction. It was happy. "I felt happy because you were showing the truth and they never show that." I was like oh, okay, great. Those were the things I was nervous about. What I did also find out in that screening was that people were amused. I didn't expect those laughs and when we played it and there were so many laughs throughout the whole thing, we really were shocked. I did not expect that. I knew that there were little chuckles but it kinda surprised us how quickly the audience got past Tony Lip's racism and started enjoying his personality and his relationship with Dr. Shirley.

Did you make it a point to show Dr. Shirley's ivory collection, which is something we might frown upon today?

We honestly put it there because it was described. We had audio tapes of Tony Lip telling about everything in that room and one of them was he said elephant tusks. I wasn't doing it like, "Can you believe people used to have that?" We tried to keep to the truth. By the way, we told this story in an order apart from how it happened. The actual story took place over a year. They went on the road a year and the first leg of the journey was the first two months up to Christmas Eve, but we took parts from all these stories: RFK, the chicken scene believe it or not, YMCA, the bar where he gets beat up. All these things were stories that were spread out over that year and we found the order for it. [The ivory] was just a detail that Tony Lip had mentioned. We tried to keep those in, like when he bribes the cops, when he bails Dr. Shirley out of the YMCA situation. He bribes them with two suits. He says, "Here, go buy yourself some suits." We did that because that's what he did. He actually gave them money and said, "Why don't you guys go buy yourselves a couple suits?" We tried to stick to the facts as much as possible but that was not a commentary.

The chicken scene that was real, was it the KFC in the backseat or Orange Bird's?

There were actually three and all of them were real. Orange Bird was a real thing they did because Dr. Shirley was learning more and more, he was aware of other forms of music but he didn't like it the way Tony Lip did. Tony Lip worked in nightclubs and he had had a lot of these bands come through the Copacabana. So Tony Lip knew popular music way more than Dr. Shirley. They did eventually go to a club. It was actually a little different than that. There was somebody playing there who was very popular at the time and Dr. Shirley ended up playing with them. The Kentucky Fried Chicken scene is described in detail by Tony Lip in these audio tapes. He said, "Yeah, I got a bucket of chicken. He was like, 'I don't want it.' What are you talking about? You people love fried chicken. He was offended by it. He said, 'You know, Tony, not everybody eats the same stuff.'" So we put that in but there was also the scene where they eat at a place where they serve them chicken. That happened too and that was actually a much longer scene that we ended up trimming. It went on where everyone was eating with a fork and knife and finally Tony picks up this chicken and starts munching on it and the whole place goes nuts and starts doing it. It was just one too many chicken scenes so we ended up trimming it.

Now the Kentucky Fried Chicken scene really plays on the racial stereotypes. Was it as big a stereotype when Tony told it?

Well, it's 25 years ago, the audio tape. Yeah, of course it was a stereotype. He didn't recognize that I don't think but I was very uncomfortable with that scene when we wrote it but again, it was something he told us. I ran this stuff by Mahershala because I wanted his input and he helped me a lot. He made some changes. He's like, "I would never do this, this, that." The chicken thing he really liked because first, he said, "I get that. I will never eat fried chicken in public. I will never pick up a piece of watermelon in public. If I'm at a picnic, I'm not eating a piece of watermelon. I won't do it because I don't want to be that stereotype and I fight it. Even though it's annoying because I would love to have that piece. It sucks because you have to think like that but I understand why Dr. Shirley would not eat that chicken because he sees himself as above it, above the stereotype." It was really interesting how he saw the scene and how he embraced it. By the way, the reason that scene works is really because Tony Lip cuts the bullshit out of it and says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, if you said Guineas only like pizza, spaghetti and meatballs, I wouldn't get insulted." He cuts it out by throwing it at himself and he does this throughout by being equal opportunity offender.

Green Book Trailer

Were there any great Tony Lip stories you had to leave out, besides the third chicken scene?

Yeah, there were a ton of them because it took place over a year. One of the big ones, and we had it in the script early on, was that this trip went all the way up to when JFK got assassinated the following year. He told the story about how they were sitting at a bar somewhere and they saw everybody in the lobby looking at a TV. Dr. Shirley said, "What's going on over there?" Tony Lip went over to check it out and he sits back down, this is Tony Lip telling the story by the way, "I said, 'I don't know. Some president got shot.'" That's his reaction to it. He's not even getting what's going on over there. We actually had that in there and the truth is they ended up going to JFK's funeral. Ultimately it felt like that's another movie and it really throws the balance off of what we're telling here. This is a story about these two guys. By putting that in, it became way too Kennedy centric.

Was there more than one gig he refused to play because of the poor treatment he was receiving?

I think there were. I think there were a couple. I can't remember offhand. I do believe there were a couple.

Did they have other adventures together after this year on the road?

They went for a year and three months. Then a year or two later, Dr. Shirley invited Tony to go to Europe with him. He was doing a European trip but Dolores put her foot down and said, "No, you're not going to Europe." That was the end of it but they stayed friends. Occasionally, when Nick was a kid, he would go to Dr. Shirley's apartment with Tony. He said always when they went over there, Dr. Shirley would call him up and say, "Hey, Tony, come over here." They'd go over, he'd bring the kids and he'd say, "Listen, I need you to do something for me." It was basically get me out of this ticket or do this or that. He knew Tony had connections.

Did Tony say much on those tapes about Dolores?

Well, he talked about her. In fact, on the tapes, she's in the background. We hear her talking. He's telling the stories and she's like, "Tony, tell him about the so and so. Tony, tell him about this, tell him about that." What we really knew about Dolores, besides the fact that it was Nick's mother and he knows everything about her, is that we had 67 letters from that trip. They were long letters. They were detailed letters, so we learned a lot about how Tony felt for her, but also how he felt for Doc Shirley and what he felt for him was something akin to love. Respect. He loved that guy and respected him. He would say things in these audio tapes, he goes, "I really like Dr. Shirley. He was a great man to me because he was always trying to make me smart. He was just always trying to make me smart and I appreciated that so much." He would tell stories about him teaching him manners. He said, "One time we pulled up and I asked this guy, I said, 'Pittsburgh?' He goes, 'Five miles, get off at the exit.' Dr. Shirley said, 'Don't say Pittsburgh. Say, "Excuse me. Could you please tell us how to get to Pittsburgh?"' I go, 'Why? The guy knew what I was talking about? Why am I gonna waste words?'" There were tons of things like that that we didn't use but could have that were really interesting. Then we also had tapes of Dr. Shirley, by the way, talking about Lip and how much he needed him and depended on him. He said, "Look, my life was in this guy's hands. I had to put up with him and I had to learn to get along with him because I needed him."

Was Dolores more tolerant than Tony?

Yes, yes, she was. Tony was, like a lot of guys from that era in New York and all over the place, in an Italian community, he would drop N bombs and F bombs and stuff like that. She frowned upon that. She was religious and she didn't like using that kind of language. She would never let her kids use that language but Tony came from the hood and that's what he did, so yes, she was definitely aware and conscious of not wanting her kids to be that way.

Did you have any of the letters that Dr. Shirley helped him write to her?

We have all the letters. We have 67 letters and you can see them evolve. They started off like "Hi. How are you? I'm good. Bye." Basically like cave man to something that got pretty damn good. It's not quite as elegant as we put in the [movie] but he pointed out in his audio tapes where we was learning. You could see him get better. Shirley was smart enough not to make it too obvious but he definitely helped him. Even with punctuation and stuff like that, you could just see it improve, and spelling and all those things as it goes on.

What's next for you, back to comedy or more drama?

Honestly, I'm not even sure. I try to be true to what is in my heart. I have some ideas but I'm not exactly sure. What I don't want to do is just jump into something because it seems like a good thing. I'm getting a lot of offers and there's a lot of things that seem appealing and then I think, "Really, what do I bring to that? What can I possibly bring to that?" I've been passing on a lot of stuff so I'm not exactly sure what I'm going to do next.