Green Book – A Movie 50 Years in the Making

Inspired by a true friendship that transcended race, class and societal constraints of the early 1960s.

Nick Vallelonga, the oldest son of Tony Lip, grew up hearing about his father’s journey with Don Shirley.  “This was a story I had on my mind basically my whole life from the time I was a young kid,” says Vallelonga, an actor, writer, producer, and director whose filmmaking credits include Deadfall, Stiletto, and the award-winning indie Western Yellow Rock and Unorganized Crime.

Vallelong’s story is now immortalised on film. Vallelonga crafted the screenplay for Green Book with Brian Currie and director Peter Farrelly, and the characters that lives in his mind are brought to life through powerhouse performances from Academy Award nominee Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy) and Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight, Hidden Figures).

When Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip (Mortensen), a New York City bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in The Bronx, is hired to drive and protect Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on The Green Book — a travel guide to safe lodging, dining and business options for African Americans during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws — to steer them to places where Shirley will not be refused service, humiliated, or threatened with violence.

Set against the backdrop of a country grappling with the valor and volatility of the Civil Rights Movement, two men will be confronted with racism and danger, and be comforted by generosity, kindness and humor.  Together, they will challenge long-held assumptions, push past their seemingly insurmountable differences, and embrace their shared humanity. What begins as two-month journey of necessity will establish a friendship that will endure for the rest of their lives.

Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Donald Shirley in Green Book

Viggo Mortensen, who plays Tony Vallelonga, says the power of Green Book comes not just from the fact that it’s a true story, but from Farrelly’s strengths as a writer-director, which are grounded in sensitivity and realism.

“You have to see these characters as real people, in real settings and Pete managed to do that,” Mortensen says.  “The period details, the dramatic aspects of the story are so well handled.  There are funny bits, but it’s not funny in the way his other movies are.  The humor comes more out of situations and the contrasts between the characters.  There’s a lot of attention to detail, an authenticity that helps you to believe.”

“This is a movie about a relationship between a black man and a white man before the Civil Rights Act, and the backdrop is one of obvious socio-economic and racial tension,” Mortensen says.  “In many ways, we’re facing the same problems today that are depicted in the film.  There are a lot of mirror images and mirror concepts that our story deals with, between 1962 and now, and I think people will find that enlightening as well as entertaining.”

Mahershala Ali, who portrays Dr. Don Shirley, says it’s the balance of humor and real drama that makes Green Book powerfully authentic.  “It rings true because it is a mix,” Ali says.  “The way Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie, and Nick Vallelonga sculpted this script, it pulls you to the heights of laughter and plunges you to the depths of struggle and pain.”

Nor are those lessons limited to race.  “Don Shirley happened to be gay at a time when it was particularly difficult,” Farrelly says.  “That’s something that will resonate today with people throughout the world.  This story took place in 1962, but these are the same issues we’re talking about now.”

The way these two characters –– two opposite men who seem to have no shared experiences on which to build a friendship –– eventually come together is what gives Green Book its power and its relevance, believes Ali.

Mahershala Ali

“This is a perfect film for audiences around the world because it’s about people who are different and who are able to discover their similarities and teach each other things about their differences,” Ali says.  “They’re able to accept each other. These men come from very, very different worlds and they become allies.”

Tony Vallelonga had grown up in The Bronx and had landed a job at the Copacabana night club, where he worked for 12 years, rubbing elbows with mob honchos and celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bobby Darin.  Although he stopped going to school after the seventh grade, he was garrulous and charismatic, and earned his nickname for his reputation of being able to persuade anybody of just about anything.

Tony Vallelonga

“I could make 50 movies about my dad,” Vallelonga says.  “He was one of those larger-than-life, Damon Runyon-esque characters.  When he walked into a room, you knew he was there.”  That made a big impact on his son – as did Tony’s friendship with Dr. Shirley and the tale of how they met.

“As I grew up, I wanted to be a filmmaker and tell stories, and this was a big story that my father told me,” Vallelonga says.  “It was part of the family lore, but I also knew it was an important story about two very different people coming together and changing each other’s lives and changing how they look at other people.  It’s an uplifting story that’s as important and powerful today as it ever was.”

The Real Tony Lip and Don Shirley

For Tony, that trip with Shirley in 1962 had opened his eyes for the first time to the plight of African Americans in the South, and the barrage of humiliations –– and very real dangers –– visited upon Black people by racist laws and white privilege.  Jim Crow laws restricted where Black people could eat, sleep, sit, shop, and walk.  They determined which drinking fountains and bathrooms African Americans could use.  Indeed, they circumscribed almost every aspect of daily life.  Certain Southern towns even instituted “sundown” laws that made it illegal for Black people to be outside after dark.  Arrest was the least-terrible thing that could happen to you if you were caught.

“What my father experienced with Dr. Shirley on that trip changed the way he looked at the world because he saw things that he didn’t realize were happening, and had never seen before,” Vallelonga says.  “Ultimately, I think the same was true for Dr.  Shirley.”

Indeed, Shirley had lived a life apart from most other African Americans, both geographically and culturally.  He had studied classical music overseas and, in the States, had performed primarily in the Northeast.  When Tony met him, Shirley was living in a lavish apartment above Carnegie Hall.  “It was just a two-month journey, but it was a big change for my father, and it changed how he taught us to treat people and respect people.”

Vallelonga knew that one day he hoped to make a movie about this pivotal chapter in his father’s life, so as Tony and Dr. Shirley entered the last years of their lives, Vallelonga recorded hours of audio and videotape with his father telling the story.

He also reached out to Shirley, whom he’d known as a family friend, and spent hours interviewing him.  “I met Dr. Shirley when I was five-years-old,” Vallelonga says.  “He was a meticulous, well-dressed, well-spoken, highly educated man.  He was very, interested in my father’s family, that my father was a family man.  And he was so nice to myself and my brother.  He gave us gifts.  I remember he gave me ice skates when I was small.  He was a really special human being, a very special person.”

While Vallelonga sees Green Book as a testament to his father’s character and legacy, he’s especially proud that the film will showcase the musical talent of Dr. Donald Walbridge Shirley, the virtuoso pianist, composer, arranger, and performer.

Dr. Shirley was a deeply private man, and most of the information known about him is found only in the liner notes for his albums, which he wrote himself, or in stories he told about himself to other people, including the Vallelongas.  Details about his history can sometimes be contradictory.  But according to the lore around him, Shirley became a student at the Leningrad Conservatory at the age of 9, made his concert debut with the Boston Pops symphony at 18, and would go on to earn multiple doctorate degrees and to speak multiple languages.  In 1955, at the time of his first album for Cadence Records, Tonal Expressions, Shirley was described by Esquire magazine as “probably the most gifted pianist in the business…so good that comparisons are absurd.”  Legendary pianist and composer Igor Stravinsky, who was a contemporary of Shirley’s, said of him, “His virtuosity is worthy of Gods.”

“Dr. Shirley was a genius, an amazing, amazing man,” Vallelonga says.  “His talent was beyond belief.  I’m glad that his name and his work and talent are going to get out there in the world through this movie.”

Vallelonga says his father’s work at the Copacabana gave him a real appreciation for music and musicians, so when he heard Shirley play, he knew the man had extraordinary talent.  “My father always talked about him and played his music in our home and made us listen to it,” Vallelonga says. “That music opened up my world.  I was listening to The Beatles, Jimmy Rosselli and Italian music, and Dr. Don Shirley.  It was a great cultural mix for me.”

In 2013, after more than 50 years of friendship, Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley both died almost three months to the date of one another — Tony died January 4, 2013 at age 82 and Shirley died April 6, 2013 at age 86.  After a period of grieving, Vallelonga returned to their story and started to think: Now is the time to do it.

Viggo Mortensen stars as “Tony Lip” and Mahershala Ali as “Don Shirley” in Green Book

Forged in Friendship: A Partnership Begins

This tale of enduring friendship ultimately became a movie because of an enduring friendship.  Vallelonga had known actor Brian Hayes Currie (Armageddon, Con Air) for decades, and Currie had known Vallelonga’s father well and had even appeared in Vallelonga’s 2008 film, Stiletto.

So Currie was shocked when, a few years ago, at a coffee shop in Studio City, CA, Vallelonga told him this story about Tony that Currie had never heard.

“Brian said, ‘Are you crazy?!  You’ve got to make this movie!’” Vallelonga recalls.  Currie’s enthusiasm gave Vallelonga the final push he needed.  “I told him I felt that I was finally ready to make it, and he agreed to write it with me.”

From Currie’s perspective, the story resonated with rare emotional depth and insight.  “This movie is about seeing the world through another person’s eyes or learning to live in the other guy’s shoes,” Currie says.  “In many ways, both men are fish-out-of-water.  At the beginning of this story, these two people have nothing in common, they should never have met, shouldn’t even be together.  But their story proves that very different people can understand and respect one another.”

After the script was completed, Farrelly sent it to his longtime producing partner Charles Wessler.  He told Wessler almost nothing about it.  “He just said, ‘read it and tell me what you think,’” Wessler recalls.  “As I started reading it I thought, ‘This is different from anything we’ve done.’  By page 22 I thought, ‘This is perfect for Pete.’  I loved it and told Pete I wanted to be part of it.”

There’s Something about Pete – A Writer-Director Arrives

Enter Peter Farrelly, who along with his brother Bobby, are the writing, producing, and directing duo behind nearly a dozen blockbusters including There’s Something About Mary, Shallow Hal, The Heartbreak Kid, and the modern classic, Dumb and Dumber.  Together, they had forged a brand of comedy all their own—broad, boundary-pushing, riotously funny movies that often showcased the hidden comedic talents of well-known dramatic actors such as Jeff Daniels, Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Peter Farrelly

Wessler, who has worked with Farrelly for nearly 30 years, says most people don’t realize that the filmmaker famed for his comedies holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and has written two novels.

“Over the years Pete has shared hundreds of fantastic stories with myself and friends,” Wessler says. “They span from childhood to college and moving to L.A. after graduating university.  He has such a vivid eye for all human details.  He has always had a knack for mixing the ‘funny,’ the ‘tragic’ and ‘humanity.’  What makes Pete such a wonderful director is his honesty.  He is an amazing observer of life and people and translates that to his screenplays and films.  Doesn’t hurt that he is hilarious and fun to work with.”

As Vallelonga and Currie began exploring script ideas, Farrelly, who was developing the DirectTV comedy series Loudermilk with Colbert Report alum Bobby Mort at the time, ran into Currie.

“I asked him, ‘What’s going on?’” Farrelly says.  “He told me about this story based on his friend’s father, the toughest bouncer in New York City, who took a job driving a Black concert pianist named Don Shirley to tour the South in 1962.  I thought it was a home run.  I said, ‘Good for you.  Go do it.’”

In the weeks that followed, Farrelly found he couldn’t get what Currie had told him out of his head.  “I just kept thinking about it,” he says.  “I’d be lying in bed thinking, ‘God, that’s a good story.’  I’d be driving along thinking, ‘Man, that guy’s got a great story.’  So finally I called Brian and asked, ‘Hey, what’s going on with that story about the Black pianist and the Italian driver?’  When he told me, ‘we haven’t begun writing that,’ I asked, ‘can I write it with you?’  He said, ‘Really?’  And I said, ‘I’d love to come on board.  I love that story.’”

If a period drama laced with complex racial conflict seemed like a sharp creative turn for Farrelly, it was, but not entirely.  “This movie is a departure for me,” Farrelly says.  “But this story is actually taking me back to what I have always wanted to do.  Over the years, when people asked if I’d ever do a drama, my answer was always, ‘Yes, when it comes along.’  It’s the universe that brings it to you.  It’s like asking, ‘When are you going to fall in love?’  It comes when it comes.”

Not long after Farrelly came onboard the project, he, Currie and Vallelonga met at a diner.  “Pete was great,” Currie recalls.  “He said, ‘we’re absolutely making a movie of this.  I promise you right now.  I have an inclination when movies are going to be made and this story is going to be made.’  Pete was busy with Loudermilk, so Nick and I went off to hammer out the first draft.”

Vallelonga and Currie had a rich trove of material to work with: Vallelonga’s taped interviews with Tony, the notes from his interviews with Shirley, plus photographs, brochures, postcards, even the map showing the route of the trip, all of which Tony had kept.  After Tony and Dr. Shirley’s initial two-month trip, they quickly did another tour that lasted for about a year –– Shirley then asked Tony to join him on his tour of Europe, but Tony declined because he didn’t want to be away from his family any longer –– so Vallelonga and Currie had access to the stacks of letters that Tony and his wife Dolores had sent to one another while Tony was on the road, which captured the emotions and experiences each was going through.

“There was so much information, so many great stories,” Vallelonga says.   “Some of them so fantastic that no one would believe them.  We spent three, four weeks outlining the beats and then creating the scenes.”  When they’d finished, they presented their draft to Farrelly.  “He was genius at knowing how to fine-tune it,” Vallelonga says.  “The three of us honed it, honed it, and honed it, starting all over from the beginning with Peter’s input.”

Although the screenplay is based on true events, so the general narrative arc of the script was set, Farrelly’s gift for storytelling and character, and his precision as a writer, made it all come together.

“Pete knows what works and what doesn’t, what’s important and what’s excessive,” Currie says.  “He loves to tell stories, and he captivates an audience when he speaks because he knows what makes a story work.”

Jim Burke produced the The Descendants and co-produced Farrelly’s second film, Kingpin.  He has known Farrelly for many years and has long wanted to see Farrelly expand into other genres.  “Pete’s comedies are great, but I know there’s more to him than that, and I wanted to see that on film,” Burke says.   “When he came to me with this idea I thought it was terrific.  I believed that this story could have some sharp edges on it with both these characters and that Pete would handle it tenderly.”

Burke also believes that Farrelly’s comedy work has prepared him well for a transition to drama, crystallizing his skills as a writer.  “With comedy, you have to work a joke and use just the exact right sequence of words, or the whole joke sort of topples,” Burke says.  “Peter’s used to that, and he applies that in dramatic screenwriting as well. His finest quality as a writer is his doggedness because what writers do is re-write.  If you’re lucky, your first draft is pretty good, but the hardest part of writing is going from pretty good to very good to excellent, and to hang in there, do the work, and be open.   That’s what Pete does.”

Director Peter Farrelly discusses a scene with actors Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali

Green Book is a drama, of course, but there are moments of levity that are organic to the story, and cemented in character.  “I told everyone I was writing my first drama,” Farrelly says.  “But as you go on into the characters and their story, you realize it’s a real odd couple.”  The refined, elegant artist and the rough-around-the-edges tough guy.  “To put these two guys in a car together, it’s just The Odd Couple on a road trip.  There are things Dr. Shirley talks about and Tony has no idea what he’s saying.   They are quite opposite, and that’s where most of the comedy humor comes from.”