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As the former president of production at Focus Features, Jim Burke was the first — but not the last — Hollywood executive to hear the Green Book pitch. During a tear-filled meeting in 2016 with the film’s director, Peter Farrelly, and writers Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie, he bought the script on the spot. But the following year, Burke left Focus to pursue producing, and the new team in charge at Focus passed on the drama that revolves around a black concert pianist — the late Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) — and his Italian-American driver (Viggo Mortensen).
Burke, the longtime producing partner of Alexander Payne, wasn’t done with the story, though, and joined Farrelly, Vallelonga and Currie as part of the Green Book producing team. Eventually, executive producer Octavia Spencer got the script into the hands of Universal chief Donna Langley, who committed to releasing the film. Since its Nov. 16 bow, the period pic about an unlikely friendship spawned during a road trip in the Jim Crow South has earned $106.1 million worldwide and five Oscar nominations, including best picture.
As Burke reflects on arguably the most bare-knuckled Oscar campaign season ever, he tells THR that he longs for the days when “people acted like ladies and gentlemen. Even Harvey.”
Green Book has faced the most heat during this awards season and, perhaps, any awards season. What do you attribute that to?
I think it’s because it’s so good. That’s not a joke. I’ve made plenty of movies, and they all don’t turn out as well as you’d hope, but this one did. People, when watching the movie, really like it. That does not go unnoticed by others.
What’s the biggest difference between this year’s awards season circuit and when you were doing The Descendants in 2012?
My daughter told me, “Dad, you might lose to another black-and-white movie.” [The Descendants lost to The Artist.] The Twittersphere is a big player now. I don’t know how it got this way, but it did. There are dirty tricks. It’s a bummer, man. Descendants was a tough campaign, but people acted like ladies and gentlemen. Even Harvey [Weinstein] — at least, he wasn’t obvious about it.
This film has been gestating for decades. When did you get involved?
I’ve known Peter Farrelly for 25 years and have known him as a comedy writer, as a novelist and as a friend. I knew that he was funny, but there was a lot more to him than that. Over the years, I tried to encourage him to do something more tonally complex. I’d send him books, and he would pass because he was riding high, making $100 million comedies. But I persisted, and then finally he said to me, “I think I have the idea. I just heard the idea from a friend of mine. Can we come over and pitch it to you?” I was ready to go before they walked in the room, just because I believed Peter, like Adam McKay, could transition from a straight comedy director into making movies that were funny but also were more tonally complex. [During the pitch], Nick started to cry. And then I started to cry. And Nick’s a big guy, you know, about 300 pounds. And he’s got tears rolling down his cheeks. It just touched me so much, so I said, “Let’s do this,” and off we went.
Viggo Mortensen turned down the role of Tony multiple times. How did you convince him?
I felt like his no was always a soft no. It wasn’t a “Hell, no.” Peter Farrelly is one of the world’s all-time great persuaders, and he was dogged in his letter-writing and phone-calling with Viggo. It’s obvious why Viggo thought he wasn’t the right person for the part. He’s not Italian-American. He thought he might be too old. He certainly didn’t have the heft that Tony Lip did. 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. He is a perfectionist.
What was the biggest draw for Mahershala Ali?
It was both the script and working with Viggo. But it also was this opportunity to play an artist of the highest order who was somewhat overlooked or underappreciated. That’s kind of neat.
What was the mind-set behind including just one scene alluding to a character’s sexual orientation — the film suggests that Shirley was gay — versus making it a bigger part of the story or excluding it?
We wanted to be accurate to the events as we knew them, but we didn’t want to make it entirely about that. Dr. Shirley is a complex person and somewhat lonely, and the fact that he’s carrying around this secret explains a little bit about that. It’s a really important part of the film.
What ended up on the cutting-room floor with Green Book?
Frankly not a lot, but there was a long scene when Dr. Shirley goes to a big plantation house in North Carolina, and everybody’s seated for dinner and there is fried chicken, corn on the cob. Everybody is trying to eat that chicken with a knife and a fork. And, finally, Tony picks it up and eats it with his hands, and everybody else does. He looks over at Dr. Shirley and says, “See, this is the way people do it.” We wound up cutting that scene because it was a long way around for a laugh.
This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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