Peter Farrelly On Setting Aside Raunch-Comedy for Prestige Drama With Green Book

Viggo Mortensen (left) and Mahershala Ali in Green Book. Photo: Universal Studios.

Peter Farrelly, co-director and writer of such comedy blockbusters as Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene, and There’s Something About Mary, has spent the last quarter century mining raunchy hilarity from things like volcanic diarrhea, conjoined twindom, multiple personalities, and a penis getting horrifically entangled in a zipper. Which serves to make both the subject and reception of his latest film, Green Book, all the more shocking.

The period biopic premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where it received three standing ovations during its first public screening, bowled over critics (it’s at 93 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes now), and nabbed the Grolsch People’s Choice Award — an honor that in years past has proven a bellwether for Best Picture Oscar nominations. Starring Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali as the prim, virtuosic jazz pianist Don Shirley and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Lip, a New York nightclub bouncer hired as his driver — and de facto race-relations ambassador — on a performance tour through the deep South during the pre-civil-rights ’60s, Green Book takes its title from something flashed onscreen only a couple of times: The Negro Motorist Green Book, a Jim Crow–era guidebook for African-American road trippers advising where to stay and how best to avoid racial discrimination. And now, the fact-based, feel-good film (which hits theaters November 16) finds itself squarely within a hive of Oscar buzz, with many gurus of gold handicapping nominations for Mortensen (as lead actor) and Ali (in the supporting-actor category).

But Farrelly would like you to know that the decision to mount his first feature without Bobby Farrelly, his brother and longtime co-director, does not represent a fracture in the Farrelly brothers’ creative relationship. Nor should Pete’s choice to shift gears from raunchy comedy to prestige drama be construed as some kind of calculated career choice. The writer-director opened up to Vulture about how this “departure” came about, his admiration for Rob Reiner, the new career opportunities this debut drama has presented, and how Farrelly doesn’t “want to just go back and do Dumb and Dumber 3 right now.”

Your track record as a director of dramatic emoting is not a known commodity. I’d love to hear about your process of coming across this material, connecting with it, and deciding to make this kind of career pivot — to direct something that’s not just entertaining, but had the potential to be poignant.
People had asked me over the years, “Do you think you’ll ever do a drama?” And I always said, “Yeah, sure, when it happens.” Like, I didn’t plan these things; I just kind of did what the universe dropped into our lap next. Some project would come along, we’d get interested, and we’d do it. And then one day I ran into Brian Hayes Currie. And he’s telling me he’s writing a screenplay. I said, “What is it?” He said, “True story about this black concert pianist named Don Shirley, who in 1962, his record company sent him on a tour of the South. He was nervous about going, so he hired a bouncer from the Copacabana, like, the best bouncer down there, an Italian guy, sixth-grade education, who’s racist himself. And somehow after this trip, they became lifelong friends.”

And I was like, “You’re shitting me. That’s a fucking home run!” So I kept thinking about it, and probably a month or two later, I called him. “How’s that script coming?” And he said, “Which one?” I said, “The one you told me about. The concert pianist, you know? The Italian guy.” He said, “Oh, we haven’t started that.” So I said, “Can I write it with you? I love the idea. I would love to be part of it.” So we started the next Monday. He introduced me to Nick Vallelonga, whose father it’s based on, and we went off and wrote it. That was three years ago.

Had you ever responded that passionately to a non-comedy idea before?
I started as a novelist. I wrote a couple novels, Outside Providence and The Comedy Writer, which were definitely weightier than my movies, so it was a world that I’d been to before. It’s just when I heard this, I was like, This is just so good. I love this. And the fact that it was real, I just knew right then. I wasn’t thinking at that time, Hey, you should do a departure. By the way, I should’ve been thinking that way, but I wasn’t. I don’t know why. I was still doing the same thing until this honestly just slapped me in the face.

That’s an important distinction. It’s not like you’ve been sitting around thinking, I need to make a career left turn
Yeah, but by the way, I should’ve been thinking like that. I look at Rob Reiner’s career, and he was so smart. He started with Spinal Tap, and then he did The Sure Thing, and then he goes off and does Stand by Me and A Few Good Men. And all of sudden, in four movies, he’s shown the town he could do it all. We should’ve been thinking like that. But the reason [Bobby and I] weren’t is because we were generating all our own material. He wasn’t. He found a script and took it, and we didn’t. We weren’t looking for scripts. We were just doing what was coming along in our own brains.

Those things from your brains are some of the funniest comedies that have ever been made. But I remember, heading into Toronto, that there was almost a kind of disbelief that the guy responsible — co-responsible — for Kingpin and Stuck on You was doing a prestige drama. So I have a two-part question: Do you find that level of surprise that you would have the capacity to direct a film like this insulting? And how surprised should audiences be that you pulled it off?
I honestly don’t find it insulting. I have a lot of gratitude for what’s happened to me in my career, and I don’t dwell on the Oh, why didn’t I get this? Or, Why didn’t they think of me for that? Or, How come they look at it this way? I’m just tickled that my brother and I had 25 years of making movies that we wanted to make and have made movies that we’re proud of. So, no, it doesn’t bother me. It would bother me, by the way, if it kept me from making a movie like this. Then I’d be pissed! If I was held back by that, but I wasn’t. Viggo was the first one to the party; he signed on and said, “Yeah, I trust this guy.” He was interested to see what I would do with this even though it was a departure. And then a big factor for Mahershala was that Viggo had signed on — and anybody wants to work with Viggo.

Once they were attached, how did you go about getting a budget and a distribution deal through Universal?
You would think then it would be an open-and-shut case. I got Viggo. I got Mahershala. We got a really good script. But it was still tricky. It was still tricky because of the race elements, and we went through a couple of places where they didn’t think they could sell it overseas. I thought that was just nuts. So I was like, “What? Are you crazy? This is a buddy movie.” They’re like, “Yeah, race movies don’t do well overseas.” I said, “Well, certain race movies, and this breaks the mold because it’s a buddy film, and a good buddy film.”

And by the way, it was at Focus [Features] at one point, and they didn’t think they could sell it, so they gave it back to us — thank God — which was nice of them, because they didn’t have to. They could’ve held on to it like a lot of places do. They don’t want to give you your movie back because if you turn around and turn it into something great, they don’t look good. But they didn’t think they could sell it foreign. But then when it went to the Berlin market — where all the foreign films, where the foreign markets are — it sold out in like 10 minutes.

We’d been shooting about a week and they saw a one-minute clip. So it’s what William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.” They really don’t. And this bears that out here; nobody knew what they had. And by the way, why would they? It’s an unusual movie.

You’ve been co-directing and writing with Bobby for a quarter century. Tell me about the decision to go it alone this time. Was there ever a thought to include him on this production?
Bob’s been dealing with a personal tragedy. He’s looking inward and trying to get his shit together. So at that time, I ran into these guys about this movie, and I wasn’t looking to do a movie alone. But he wasn’t in any shape to do a movie, so I went off and did it. He’ll be back, but it wasn’t a conscious effort to work without him.

He’s my biggest fan on this movie. He’s been to all the screenings, every premiere. He’s coming out for the L.A. premiere, going to two New York premieres. He’s digging it. He’s just such a fan of it, so he’s really coming out of the woods.

There are so many ways that a film like this can go wrong, and it certainly could’ve been a showcase for “white savior complex,” to name just one pitfall. What steps did you take to avoid racial insensitivities? 
I opened this movie up to everybody, specifically Mahershala Ali and Octavia Spencer and the whole crew for that matter; we had a very diverse crew. The first day of the shoot, I just said, “Hey, if anybody sees anything that can improve this, or something that’s not ringing true, or something that’s bullshit, or something that’s not right, just let me know.” And people did come forward.

Like, there’s the scene where the main characters finally become friends, when Tony Lip has surprised Don Shirley, and he proves to be more dimensional than Shirley thought he was up to that point. They sit there and have a drink in the lobby, and Don Shirley talks about how he was trained to be a classical musician, but the record company wouldn’t let him.

And Tony Lip says, “What do you mean trained?” He goes, “What are you, a seal?” He goes, “Anybody could train to do that, but what you do, nobody could do, and personally, I like it better.” As written, Don Shirley said, “Well, thank you, Tony.” And that was the end of the scene. But Mahershala read it and said, “No, Pete, this is bullshit.” He goes, “You think because some sixth-grade-educated bouncer likes his music he’s gonna just say, ‘Okay, that’s fine. I don’t care that I couldn’t do what I’ve always been trained to do and wanted to do’?”

So in the scene we shot, he added, “Well, thank you, Tony. But not everybody could play Chopin, not the way I can.” And it’s an important point because it’s like the Nina Simone story. As good as Nina Simone was at what she did, that’s not what she wanted to do. She wanted to do a different form of music that she couldn’t do in the States, and she was forced into that just to work. And yet, you can’t say, “Well, it’s a good thing she was forced into that.” Because racism is never good, and she should’ve been able to do whatever the hell she wanted to do, as should have Don Shirley.

As far as the white-savior thing, we were very, very aware of that because Tony Lip’s hired to help this guy, so right away you’re setting yourself up for that. He’s the guy who’s protecting Don. As we always saw it, yes, Tony Lip gets him out of some earthly jams, but Don Shirley saves Tony Lip’s soul. He makes him better. He’s a racist in the beginning, and he opens his heart up to him; they both change. We also didn’t want the black savior, the black guy saving the white guy. It was two guys who find common ground, and they go into the middle.

Tell me more about Octavia’s participation. She’s an executive producer, which is a new career direction for her. So what influence did she exert on the production?
Well, we brought her in specifically for what you said. Once I had the script, and I had Mahershala and a lot of other people looking at it, crew members and producers of color, but I had no black women. So I thought, We need a perspective from there. So we sent it to her and asked her if she wanted to be involved. She loved it and came in. And she basically backed me a lot of times when I was questioning whether we were doing the right thing.

A lot of times, Mahershala actually turned me around and said, “Don’t do this. Don’t do that, do this.” Octavia was more like a sounding board for me. But also, I had her in the editing room early on, and I was showing her stuff, like the scenes we were worrying about. The fried-chicken-eating scene — that one had me worrying. It’s great, but I thought, Could people be bothered by that? Could it be seen as racist?

You’re talking about the scene where Viggo can’t believe that Mahershala’s character has never eaten fried chicken and basically browbeats him into trying some for the first time. It is great. But when it started, I’ll admit I got queasy, thinking the scene might go in a racist direction.
Yeah, well, the strength of it is that when [Viggo] says, “Hey, if you told me Guineas like meatballs and spaghetti, I wouldn’t get insulted.” He kind of is opening it up and saying, “This is bullshit. Don’t bring up this race shit. I know what you like.” And there’s so much humor in there with it, you know? “You have a narrow assessment of me, Tony,” Don says. And Tony Lip goes, “Yeah, I’m good, right?” It’s that kind of stuff. When she was in the editing room with me, Octavia was howling, and it just gave me such encouragement. And other things, right down to the title. Like, I didn’t know if the title Green Book was right.

I was concerned because it’s not really about the Green Book, but the Green Book’s in there throughout, and it just seemed to be the right title. But I didn’t want … I called her because people were wondering if we should call it something else, and she said, “No fucking way; do not call this something else, because we want people to know about the Green Book.”

Most of my black friends hadn’t heard of it. So she said, “It’s important to get it out there. Let people know about it.” I don’t know if I would’ve called it Green Book if Octavia wasn’t pushing for that.

The film won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto, which is widely considered an upset victory. Now we’re in the middle of awards season, and people are talking the nominations potential for Green Book. But Mahershala is in the running as a supporting actor —
Yeah, he chose to do that.

From where I sit, I think he’s a co-lead. This is a two-hander, so what informed that decision?
I always saw this as a two-hander, and in fact, when [Steven] Spielberg saw this, he called me up and said — I don’t know Spielberg by the way, but he went out of his way to call me and say — “Hey, Pete, this is the best buddy movie since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

He goes, “Those guys are both Best Actor candidates.” That’s what I felt, too. But then Mahershala said he wanted to go for Best Supporting Actor. I wrote him an email and said, “Why are you doing that? Don’t do that. You’re a Best Actor, and this is what you should be. It’s a total two-hander here. You both get nominated.” And his argument was, “Look, if we both get nominated, then it’s gonna take away from both of us.” Then Mahershala goes, “I just feel like it’s Viggo’s turn. Viggo has been around. He’s gotten nominations. I’ve won. He’s in the movie more than me. So I’m not gonna win Best Actor, so I’d rather be Best Supporting Actor because it’ll help him, and it’ll help me.”

This isn’t strictly a drama. There are lots of humor in it, too. But it’s definitely more serious in tone than the movies you’re known for. Fair to say this is a new career direction for you?
I have some ideas what I’m gonna do next. But this of course did open up my eyes to certain things. This has been a nice ride for me, and it’s been an interesting run. I don’t want to just go back and do Dumb and Dumber 3 right now, that’s for sure. But, by the way, I might someday.

I don’t know, I honestly don’t. There are a couple things I want to do, [like] a romantic comedy. They’re not doing many anymore. And I have one [project] that really is like kind of important to me, a more mature comedy. But I can’t predict what’s gonna happen. I’ll tell you one thing. People said, “Is this the hardest movie you ever made?” No, the hardest movie I ever made was Three Stooges; that was hard.

Why was it so hard?
We’re basing it on three characters, so we wanted these three actors to be exactly like those three characters, but we were writing all new material. And we wanted to capture that period. That, I’ll tell you, was a fucking hard thing to write, and a really hard thing to direct, and one of the things I’m most proud of because those three actors are unbelievable.

Whether or not that movie made a zillion dollars, to me, doesn’t matter. It’s a movie that I am proud of, and I love that kind of thing. So I don’t look down upon that. I don’t look like, Oh, I can never do that again. I’m doing highbrow movies now. I could see myself doing a comedy again if the world allows it. But it seems like there are not a lot of comedies out there.

Do you foresee yourself following the Rob Reiner template?
I don’t mean I want to have his career exactly. I like what I did. It’s not like I want to do his stuff, but … yeah, it is interesting to be seen differently because it does open doors. Listen, it gives me another ten years to make movies. Honestly, I love making movies, and I’m blessed to make movies. I say this all the time, but I’m telling you the truth: From the moment I stepped on a movie set I’ve been pinching myself; I still can’t believe I’m making movies. It’s crazy. It’s just amazing.

Peter Farrelly On Trading Comedy for Drama With Green Book