'Green Book,' 'On the Basis of Sex' Scribes Reveal Challenges of Writing About People They Know

ON THE BASIS OF SEX Still - Publicity - H 2018
Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

Nick Vallelonga wrote a story about his dad's road trip with classical pianist Don Shirley through an intolerant South during the 1960s, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman penned the biopic about the Supreme Court Justice.

Nick Vallelonga had been thinking about making a movie about his dad, Tony Lip, since he was a teenager. He started recording interviews with his father in his 20s and mapped it all out in his 30s. But he couldn't really make the film — an odd-couple dramedy about his father's road trip with classical pianist Don Shirley through an intolerant South during the 1960s — until 2013, at the request of one of its subjects. "Dr. Shirley asked me to not make this movie until he passed away, for whatever his reasons were," says Vallelonga. "I had to respect that."

When both his father and Shirley passed away in 2013, Vallelonga set about writing the script for Green Book in earnest. He says it was difficult to write the earlier parts of his father's story, in which the Italian-American driver is more intolerant of his African-American client. "These guys, my father included, were a product of their environment," he says of his dad's Bronx working-class cohort. "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."

In Daniel Stiepleman's case, the idea to write a movie based on someone in his family didn't come to him until 2010, when he was at the funeral of his Uncle Martin, better known as Martin D. Ginsburg, the tax law expert and husband of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

He asked his "Aunt Ruth" if he could write a screenplay about her marriage and early court cases fighting for gender equality. "She said, 'Well, if that's how you think you'd like to spend your time,'" he says.

He spent his days combing through her old notes and briefs, along with her lecture notes from her teachings. At night, "we would sit together and eat dinner, and drink wine, and talk about her marriage to Marty and how they made it work and what this case meant to them and how it changed their lives."

Stiepleman reveals that he was most nervous about the reaction to the movie from his own family. "Every one in my family admires Ruth and Marty, and every one has their own version of Ruth and Marty that they admire." He says that most of his family saw it for the first time at a screening before the film was released. 

"I thought, 'They're going to know every little thing I change, or every little thing I got wrong, and it's going to keep them from enjoying the film," he says. "And I totally forgot that the opposite was also true. They're going to know every little thing we got right."

It turns out his Aunt Ruth's reaction was just as favorable. "I thought of it as a favor she had done for me," says Stiepleman. "When she saw it for the first time, she gave me a big hug and said, 'I love it and thank you.' It's the first time it ever occurred to me that this is something that we had done for each other."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.