Oscars: 10 Things to Know About Best Picture Nominee 'Green Book'

1:00 PM 2/19/2019

by Alexandra Del Rosario

A shelved TV series, a 9/11 close call and how Mahershala Ali embodied Dr. Don Shirley.

PATTI PERRET/UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

At the 2019 Oscars, Green Book is set to compete against more of the year's top films centering on musicians, including A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, for the night's most coveted awards. Set in the Jim Crow-era South of the late 1960s, Green Book follows the unlikely friendship that manifests between piano genius Dr. Don Shirley and his driver, Tony "Lip" Vallelonga.

The film, directed by Peter Farrelly, received five noms from the Academy in categories including best picture and best original screenplay.

From hands-and-feet doubles to in-depth research, to scandals and controversies, here are 10 things to know about Green Book.

  • Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen Started Bonding Before "Green Book"

    The dynamic between the film's Oscar-nominated duo started with a chance moment nearly two years ago. 

    During The Hollywood Reporter's Actor Roundtable, Ali described the first time he and his Green Book co-star met. The Oscar winner recalled that he and Mortensen found themselves isolated during a "big luncheon with a bunch of amazing actors around." 

    He further explained that it was this first meeting nearly two years ago that "peppered the moment" for them to cross paths later on and eventually work on Peter Farrelly's film. 

  • Nick Vallelonga Wrote the Film About His Father

    Lars Niki/Getty Images for The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

    Vallelonga, one of the film's writers, brought his father's story about driving and building a relationship with classical pianist Don Shirley to the big screen.

    Though he had thought about turning his father's narrative into a film since he was a teenager, Vallelonga only started writing the story after both his father and Shirley died in 2013. 

    But even before then, Vallelonga had started recording interviews with his father and had constructed the narrative by the time he was in his 30s. 

    When he was writing the movie, Vallelonga said he had some difficulty with the early parts of his father's story, where he was more intolerant of Shirley.

    "That part of it was hard for me, but I had to show that in order to show the major transformation my father made, and how he taught us to live our lives," he said. 

  • Viggo Mortensen Rejected His Role Multiple Times

    Courtesy of TIFF

    Mortensen may be up for the best actor Oscar at the Academy Awards this year, but it took quite a bit for him to take up the role of Tony Lip. 

    During a Q&A with THR, Green Brook producer Jim Burke spoke about the actor's initial feelings about taking on the role and how the film's director went about persuading him. 

    "I felt like his no was always a soft no. It wasn't a 'Hell, no,'" the producer said.

    Burke said that Mortensen though he might be too old to play the part. Additionally, the actor had reservations about portraying a hefty Italian-American, since he is not as hefty as the character nor of Italian descent. 

    "Eventually, he was willing to go through all of that, to put on 50 to 60 pounds, because that's the way Viggo approaches it," Burke said. "He is a perfectionist."

  • Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen Conducted Deep Research for Their Characters

    Patti Perret/Universal Studios

    In portraying Tony Lip and Dr. Don Shirley, both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali made sure to learn as much as they could about their respective characters. 

    For Mortensen, research meant immersing himself in anything having to do with the character, he told THR. He said he incorporated anything said, written or documented about Vallelonga. Mortensen said he even made efforts to listen to the kind of music the film's protagonist would listen to. 

    The film's leading actor also consulted his character's son, screenwriter Nick Valleonga, for any advice on how to accurately portray his father. 

    "He was there on set and I would check with him: 'Would your dad do this? If he's eating and he's smoking ... in which hand or how does he hold his cigarette?'" Mortensen said. 

    Ali went beyond learning the basics of piano and shadowed composer Kris Bowers to perfect his performance. For the minute details like Shirley's mannerisms, postures and more, Ali watched Little Bohemia, a documentary about Carnegie Hall and the artists who made the venue their home. 

    "From there I was able to pick up little bits and clues of information about his life and how he talked about certain things," Ali said. "I just pulled and gathered whatever I could, and also, as always with any role, have to lean on my instincts and intuition in terms of locking down the intention behind certain things." 

  • Composer Kris Bowers Played Mahershala Ali's Piano Double and Created the Score for the Film

    Bowers, who has worked with big names in the music industry like Kanye West, Jay-Z and Pharrell, had the responsibility of being Ali's feet and hands double when it came to playing the ivory keys. 

    Bowers also took on the role of learning and recording all of Shirley's music for the film. The pianist and composer spoke to THR about the processes behind his many duties. 

    "I wanted to make sure I got everything as specific as possible, just to be as representative of Donald Shirley as I could be," he said. 

    Since Shirley's works had no sheet music, Bowers listened to the numbers, transcribed it all by ear and wrote it out for the other instruments involved in the movie, all within a span of three weeks, he said. 

    In addition to those duties, Bowers also trained Ali in the basics of piano. 

    "[Bowers] and I worked together," Ali told THR. "I would follow him as best I could and ... we worked our movie magic."

    Farrelly also noted that Ali wanted to understand even the minute details of being a pianist — from how they sit down on the piano bench to how they place their arms. 

    "I wanted to sit down and have lessons and just see how that affected my posture and how I carried myself," Ali said.

  • The Film's Screenwriter Nearly Boarded One of the 9/11 Flights

    Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD

    If screenwriter Brian Currie had boarded his scheduled flight on time back in 2001, it's possible that Green Book would have never been made. 

    At the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, where Green Book won The Grolsch People's Choice Award, director Peter Farrelly revealed that the film's screenwriter nearly boarded American Airlines Flight 11, which was one of the passenger flights that crashed into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. 

    "This film almost didn't happen, because Brian was supposed to be on Flight 11 on 9/11, and he showed up at the airport in Boston and was late, and they didn't let him on the plane," Farrelly said.

  • The Film Derailed an In-the-Works 'Green Book' TV Show

    Stan Brooks and Chandus Jackson
    Stan Brooks and Chandus Jackson
    Amy Tierney/WireImage; Courtesy of Subject

    After learning about the release of Universal's film, the series' producer Stan Brooks and filmmaker Chandus Jackson shelved their program that would also bear the title Green Book.

    Instead of focusing on the relationship between Don and Tony, the TV series was set to explore the meaning behind the physical green book, also known as The Negro Motorist Green Book. The guide, written by Victor Hugo Green, sought to help African-American motorists avoid racist encounters as much as possible, by highlighting black-owned businesses and shops that catered to the African-American community. 

    The series aimed to "focus on these true stories of people who navigated the highways and byways" of the Jim Crow South, Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter. Jackson also said he was disappointed by Peter Farrelly's film because it failed to explain the need and the importance of the 1936 guide.

    Though they shelved the potential series, after learning that the movie had "virtually nothing to do (with the actual green book)," Brooks and Jackson have said they will continue with their initial plans. 

  • The Academy Deemed the Film's Music Ineligible for an Oscar Nod

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    Despite Kris Bowers' work on the film's score, the Academy found the music for Green Book ineligible for a best original score nomination. 

    The score subcommittee for the Academy's music branch, which reviews cue-sheets of submitted music, determined that the film's compositions did not meet the requirements of Rule 15, Section II-E. The rule states, "A score shall not be eligible if: 1. It has been diluted by the use of pre-existing music, or 2. It has been diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or any music not composed specifically for the film by the submitting composer." 

    Original music, sources told THR, accounts for only about 25 minutes of the film, while the rest of it takes cues from pre-existing songs.

  • Filmmakers Cut a Scene Set at a Plantation House

    Speaking with THR, producer Jim Burke said a number of scenes were removed from the final cut of Green Book, including one shot at a big North Carolina plantation house. 

    In the scene, Tony and Dr. Shirley go to the house to eat dinner. They feast on food like fried chicken and corn on the cob. Apparently, everyone at the table goes about eating the meal with silverware, but Tony picks up the chicken and corn with his hands. Everyone else follows, and Tony says to Dr. Shirley, "See, this is the way people do it."

    "We wound up cutting that scene because it was a long way around for a laugh," said Burke. 

  • The Film's Key Players Have Been the Subjects of Controversy

    Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for National Board of Review

    During awards season, Green Book has found itself in the throes of controversy and scandal. Apart from claims dismissing the film as "inauthentic," some of the Oscar contender's key figures have had to apologize for past actions.

    Screenwriter Nick Vallelonga apologized when he was criticized for a 2015 tweet that resurfaced. In the tweet, viewed as anti-Muslim, he agreed with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's unfounded claim that "when the World Trade Center came tumbling down...thousands and thousands of people [in Jersey City, N.J.] were cheering as that building was coming down."

    In a tweet addressed to Trump, Vallelonga wrote, "100%. Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news."

    Vallelonga issued a statement, deleting the tweet and his Twitter account. In his statement, he said, "I want to apologize. I spent my life trying to bring this story of overcoming differences and finding common ground to the screen, and I am incredibly sorry to everyone associated with Green Book."

    Meanwhile, Viggo Mortensen issues his own apology, for saying the N-word during a Q&A for the film. 

    "For instance, no one says n– anymore," the actor said during a discussion about race in America. 

    In his statement to THR regarding the incident, Mortensen said, "Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing the word in any context, especially from a white man."

    In addition, director Peter Farrelly had to apologize for his past actions, including flashing colleagues like Cameron Diaz and film executive Tom Rothman. The Cut uncovered a 20-year-old story in which Farrelly's colleagues said the director liked to flash his genitals as a joke. 

    In a statement to THR, Farrelly confirmed the stories and said they are true. "I was an idiot. I did this decades ago, and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I'm embarrassed, and it makes me cringe now. I'm deeply sorry."