The pizza scene is drawn from real life: Nick Vallelonga said Tony Lip used to order a whole, unsliced pizza pie, fold it and eat it. Upon hearing the anecdote, Viggo Mortensen insisted they try to fit it into the movie. Peter Farrelly protested, saying there were enough funny eating scenes, but agreed to try it. When the crew burst out laughing, he agreed to leave the scene in.
Upon the film's release, the Shirley family objected to the truthfulness of the film, claiming that Tony and Doc were not friends; that there "was an employer-employee relationship". In January, 2019, audio recordings of an interview with Don Shirley emerged, in which he stated, "I trusted him implicitly... You see... not only was [Tony] my driver, we never had an employer/employee relationship. You don't have time for that bullshit. My life is in this man's hands!... So you've got to be friendly with one another."
Prior to filming, Viggo Mortensen was invited to meet Nick Vallelonga's family over a six-hour dinner. He said, "It almost destroyed me because I hadn't gained the weight yet - I hadn't expanded my stomach... It was almost lethal..." When the family assumed he was declining more helpings was because he didn't like the food, he felt compelled to finish his plate. But every time he finished a plate, they brought another one. "I said goodbye. We did a picture together. I limped to my rental car and I made a big show of 'oh, I'm driving back to Manhattan!' And I drove around the corner, parked the car, leaned my seat back, undid my belt and lay there for an hour, just groaning."
Mahershala Ali responded with an apology to Shirley's nephew, Edwin Shirley III, saying that "I did the best I could with the material I had" and that he was not aware that there were "close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character." Writer-director Peter Farrelly said he was under the impression there "weren't a lot of family members" still alive, that they did not take major liberties with the story, and that relatives he was aware of had been invited to a private screening for friends and family. Jazz artist Quincy Jones said to a crowd after a screening: "I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the '50s, and he was without question one of America's greatest pianists ... as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn ... So it is wonderful that his story is finally being told and celebrated. Mahershala, you did an absolutely fantastic job playing him, and I think yours and Viggo's performances will go down as one of the great friendships captured on film." On January 14, 2019, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar published a piece in The Hollywood Reporter defending Green Book despite its alleged historical inaccuracies. Abdul-Jabbar argued that "(w)hile such discrepancies (about the historicity of some of the depicted events) may irk family members, they don't really matter because those plot details are about getting to a greater truth than whatever the mundane facts are."
Nick Vallelonga pulled a fast one in hiring his real life family members to play the onscreen family members. He let Viggo Mortensen believe Peter Farrelly had cast them, but suggested to Farrelly that Viggo had vouched for them as actors. The two only figured out the truth a month into the press tour.
Viggo Mortensen revealed that Louis Venere, one of Nick Vallelonga's real-life relatives, caused continuity problems in the family dinner scenes. He kept eating the food after the director had yelled cut, saying, "what props? This is good fish, c'mon!"
The title and subject matter are a reference to "The Negro Motorist Green Book," also known as "The Negro Travelers' Green Book." Published from 1936-1966, the guide helped African-American travelers find lodging, restaurants, and other businesses that would serve them. It eventually covered most of North America, plus Bermuda and the Caribbean.
Costume designer Betsy Heimann fitted Viggo Mortensen's clothing quite tightly; implying Tony bought his suits many years and folded pizzas earlier, and his finances were too constrained to buy new ones. She also explained that the fashion at the time was for trousers to be worn up around the waist, not below the belly. She noticed that Viggo incorporated this into his performance, as Tony regularly pulls his pants up when he walks around, and thought, "He's doing that for me!"
Viggo Mortensen really ate the hot dogs in the Gorman's scene. The production crew provided him with a bucket to spit out the chewed bits between takes, but he found that even less appealing than just swallowing the hot dogs. He ended up eating 15.
Asked about his go-to meal to gain weight, Viggo Mortensen said, "It was Italian food. It was a lot of pizza, a lot of pasta. But it was mainly never saying no to a second or a third helping. Never not trying ALL the desserts. And preferably eating the biggest meal - with a full complement of desserts and appetizers - just before lying down to go to sleep."
Dimiter D. Marinov was cast for the role of Oleg only at a second round. First time Marinov had been rejected due to the fact that while being a skilled violinist he did not play cello at all. Marinov took cello tutors for 5 days, attended a casting again and this time was chosen for the role.
According to Peter Farrelly, Viggo Mortensen was surprisingly insecure playing an Italian-American, despite being conversational in Italian. Mortensen insisted on gaining the weight to better get in character, even though Farrelly told him it was unnecessary since Mortensen looked nothing like the real Tony Lip anyway.
Viggo Mortensen did so much on-camera eating he claims not to have eaten any of the catered food on set, and would retreat to his trailer during lunch to lie down and undo his belt. "I couldn't tell you what the catering was. I heard the catering was great!"
Despite being filmed in Louisiana, the winter storm scenes were real. Viggo Mortensen convinced Peter Farrelly and the crew to put in some overtime on the hunch that there was snow in the air. To their surprise, it kept falling and accumulated. They put in a lot of overtime, and were able to cancel a later shoot planned to capture snow scenes in Minnesota.
Mahershala Ali claims that, in their first production dinner to go over the script, Viggo Mortensen excitedly presented a selection of crucifixes and jade rocks to Peter Farrelly. ("Pete, I found a perfect jade rock!") Farrelly used that stone in the movie.
The Italian-language scenes in the script simply read, "They speak Italian." Viggo Mortensen queried Peter Farrelly about it, and Farrelly encouraged him to construct the Italian dialogue himself. Drawing on Viggo's own experiences from overhearing Italian in Buenos Aires, the result is a combination of Calabrian and the "cobbled together" Italian that forms in diaspora communities where people of different regions converge. He also made an effort to make the language old-fashioned, as the slang and vocabulary the family spoke would have dated from the time of the Vallelonga and Venere fathers' immigration. Viggo experienced this himself after spending his childhood in Argentina and returning as an adult to find all his slang was out of date.
Composer and pianist Kris Bowers doubles for Mahershala Ali and plays the on-screen pieces of Don Shirley in the film. A musician since he was four, Bowers has been composing film music for some time, though Green Book is his first major studio production. Like Shirley, Bowers plays exclusively on Steinway pianos, all made by hand, because "they project the sound like no other instrument".
Peter Farrelly said he tried to play down the laughs, conscious of his background as a comedic filmmaker. According to him, the interplay of Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen elevated the conversations as written in the script. He cited the "Orpheus" dialogue as an example where the actors' reactions really made the scene.
Little information circulates about Don Shirley, the only documents available being the booklets of his albums he wrote himself. While some details of his journey are contradictory, he would have joined the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory of St. Petersburg at the age of 9 and gave his first concert with the Boston Pops Orchestra at age 18 before obtaining several doctorates and degrees. He also learned to speak several languages. His first album, Tonal Expressions, was released in 1955 and Stravinsky, a contemporary legendary pianist, said of him that "his virtuosity is worthy of the gods". Though he was destined for a career in the classical, Don Shirley was dissuaded at the time by the leaders of the record company, who thought it would be difficult for him to be accepted by the white public.
Peter Farrelly claimed that despite signing on Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali (fresh off an Oscar win) to the project, it was very difficult to find a studio that would finance the film for $20 million dollars. He was usually offered budgets of $5 million, which he considered too low for a period piece.
Knowing that he would one day make a film of the story that links Don Shirley and his father, Nick Vallelonga asked the latter to tell him again what had happened during filmed interviews. He also had a long talk with Shirley. His notes but also the memories of his father such as photographs, brochures, postcards and even the road map used during their journey nourished the writing of the scenario.
Director of Photography, Sean Porter, found the on-location car work challenging. "Mahershala and Viggo have very different skin tones so I had to create a base ambiance that wouldn't change all that much even as they drove in and out of sunlight on tree-lined rural roads." He used SkyPanels wired to a dimmer board to be able to change the exposure and color temperature on the fly. He and gaffer, Scott R. Todd, hid some LED fixtures in key places in the car, including one under the dash for Viggo Mortensen and some in the back to light Mahershala Ali.
Viggo Mortensen put on 20 pounds for the role of Tony Lip. He fed on Italian cuisine, mostly pizza and pasta. His technique, which he does not recommend because it is bad for your health, consisted of rich dinners followed by at least one dessert, just before going to bed. He admits that losing those pounds was much more difficult and less fun than gaining them.
In the shared hotel room scene, some graffiti appears on the wall to the right of Tony's head: "CASL de A", clearly written by Viggo Mortensen, whose favorite soccer team is Club Atletico San Lorenzo de Almagro.
In the scene where Don first gets into the car, there is a poster advertising the November 10, 1962 folk-music Hootenanny. Headlined by Pete Seeger, this was Bob Dylan's first Carnegie Hall appearance.
To interpret the members of the Vallelonga family, Peter Farrelly appealed to the Vallelonga themselves. Nick Vallelonga, who plays a mafia godfather in the film, also introduced the director to his father's friends. These add a touch of authenticity to the scenes of Copacabana, although many of them had never played comedy. Linda Cardellini also wore the bracelet and the ring that belonged to her character.
One of the songs played by the Don Shirley trio during a montage is "Happy Talk" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific", which, like "Green Book", also deals with the issue of racism. It is unclear, however, if the song was intentionally chosen because of this.
The cars the group drives are 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVilles. The production used three, two for driving and one for static filming. The "hero car" was so loaded down with filming equipment the coil springs collapsed and the roof caved in.
Viggo Mortensen was Peter Farrelly's first choice for the role of Tony Lip. The director sent him the script without really believing, the actor being rare in the cinema. The latter was seduced immediately by the role and the project and accepted after a few weeks of hesitation, afraid of not being up to it. He then left Spain where he lives to go to New York where he met the Vallelonga family. He also listened to and watched Tony's recordings made by his son, toured the Bronx and New Jersey, and even watched the entire Sopranos series.
The role of Bobby Rydell, opening act of the film, was originally pushed by producers to be played by Drew Taggart, lead singer of the Chainsmokers, but when he was asked to send in an audition of the song he declined. His contract was pulled and auditions were opened. Peter Farrelly and Charles Wessler found actor/singer Von Lewis to fill the part.
With his Academy Award win for Best Supporting Actor, Mahershala Ali becomes the first black actor (male or female) to win twice in the supporting category. He is also the second black person (male or female) to win two competitive Oscars for acting-- the first being Denzel Washington who won in both the lead and supporting categories. Ali is also the first and as of 2019 the only Muslim (male or female) to win in an acting category and the first to win twice.
One of only 5 films to win the Academy Award for 'Best Picture' without being nominated for 'Best Director'. The other films are Argo (2012), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Grand Hotel (1932) and Wings (1927).
While Green Book focuses on Tony Lip and Don Shirley, we should not forget the two other members of the Don Shirley Trio, George, the double bassist, and Oleg, the cellist. Peter Farrelly has sought out both musicians who knew how to play comedy and actors capable of playing instruments. He finally chose veteran actors, musicians in their spare time: Mike Hatton plays the double bass while Dimiter D. Marinov plays the violin for fifteen years. Though he had not played a cello before, he worked day and night with a teacher, with only five days of preparation. Once engaged, production paid for his lessons. In the space of a month he mastered the six pieces played in the film.
Out of the eight Best Picture nominees, the film tied with Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) for the least amount of Academy Award nominations, each at five. However, Bohemian Rhapsody won the most Oscars of all the nominees, winning four, while Green Book took Best Picture.
The film is based on interviews with his father and Shirley, as well as letters his father wrote to his mother. The film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American travelers written by Victor Hugo Green, to help them find motels and restaurants that would accept them.
Director of Photography, Sean Porter, based the lighting on period colors and spectral responses: "Tungsten, fluorescents, sodium halide, neon, and mercury... It was an excuse to put on some really heavy creative constraints that typically might feel forced... If I did a movie that was set now and gave myself that sort of restricted palette it might come off as stylized and not very natural, but because it was all rooted in the realism of the period I could use those colors in Green Book and not have it feel affected."
On November 7, 2018, during a promotional panel discussion, Mortensen said the word "nigger". He prefaced the sentence with, "I don't like saying this word", and went on to compare dialogue "that's no longer common in conversation" to the period in which the film is set. Mortensen apologized the next day, saying that "my intention was to speak strongly against racism" and that he was "very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again."
It won the National Board of Review Award for Best Film of 2018, and was also chosen as one of the Top 10 by the American Film Institute, and also received numerous award nominations, including winning the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture and the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy. The film also received five nominations at the 91st Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Mortensen), Best Supporting Actor (Ali), Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing.
This motion picture won the "Best Picture" Oscar the night before the hour-long documentary film The Green Book: Guide to Freedom (2019) premiered on television. This coincidence helped boost the publicity for the documentary.
Mahershala Ali won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Moonlight (2016), in which he plays father figure to a gay, black man. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar again for his role as a pianist in this movie .
The scene where Tony Lip is drinking milk could be a reference to the movie Rebel without a cause, in the scene where Jim Stark (played by James Dean) is drinking milk and rubs his head with the bottle. Both scenes are exactly the same.
Shirley's relatives condemned the film, stating they were not contacted by studio representatives until after development, and that it misrepresented Shirley's relationship with his family. Don's brother, Maurice Shirley, said "My brother never considered Tony to be his 'friend'; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do Black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation."
When Driving Miss Daisy (1989) won the 'Best Picture' Academy Award, the film explored the relationship between a black chauffeur and his white employer. In this 'Best Picture' winner the roles are reversed.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The piano piece with which Doc wows the crowd at the bar is Frédéric Chopin's Etude Op. 25 No. 11 "Winter Wind". It is considered one of the most difficult pieces to play, earning a 9 (highest) rating on the Henle Levels of Difficulty scale.
Tony Lip did actually punch the police officer and consequently end up in jail with Dr. Shirley, however in real life, the incident happened a year later, in the fall of 1963. This was during a separate road trip that occurred after the Christmas break featured at the end of the film. Shirley did call then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who helped get them out of jail; the call being made only a few days before Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated.
The friendship between Don Shirley and Tony Lip lasted more than 50 years. After the initial two-month trip, the duo ended up on a tour of about a year. The musician then asked Tony Lip to become his driver and bodyguard during his European tour, but he refused because he did not want to be separated from his family any longer. Both men died in 2013, 3 months apart. For Nick Vallelonga, Don Shirley was a friend of the family.
To prepare to play Don Shirley, Mahershala Ali worked with the film's composer, Kris Bowers. The absence of archive footage of Don Shirley, however, made his work difficult. Nevertheless, he managed to glean some information from Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie, as well as a documentary about Carnegie Hall, the New York concert hall above which Shirley lived in a loft with sixty other artists.