Green Book’s extraordinary true story of Italian American bouncer Tony Lip driving African American pianist Dr Don Shirley across segregated America in the early 1960s almost feels too inherent cinematic to be true.
Funny and heartfelt, as well as powerful and relevant, audiences are likely to question just much of the Viggo Mortenson and Mahersala Ali drama actually occurred.
I recently had the chance to speak to co-writer Nick Vallelonga about “Green Book,” and he was eager to insist that the film is almost completely true. Something that he should know because Tony Lip was his father and he had the great honor of seeing his friendship with Dr Shirley unfold.
“I lived it! I was there when it happened. I met Don Shirley at the time of the movie. I went up to his apartment above Carnegie Hall.”
“Everything is true. But we moved things around. There was obviously some creative license because we had to connect the dots.”
“But the most important thing was to fill the film with social issues that are important to people and the humor. But the humor comes out of the characters. So we had to be truthful to the story and the characters.”
“We couldn’t make something up. Because if we made something up then it would be false and the film would feel manipulative. The story was so interesting and diverse and funny on its own, we didn’t have to do that.”
“So we stayed true to it. We moved things around, combined some stuff, but we stayed true to it. That’s why people are getting emotional when they see it because it is not false.”
Vallelonga had always known that Tony and Don’s friendship was ripe for a movie.
“I had always been into movies as a kid. I was in ‘The Godfather’ as a kid. But even as a teenager I knew that this was going to be my movie. The story was unbelievable.”
“I started tape recording my father telling it to me. Then in my 20s I got more serious about it. He was like, ‘Right you have to speak to Dr Shirley and get his side of the story and his permission.’ I did all that.”
However, Vallelonga had to bide his time before starting work on “Green Book,” though.
“Dr Shirley didn’t want this movie made until after he was gone. He had his reasons. So I had to respect that. Both he and my father passed in 2013 and so I went out to make it.”
“I actually spoke to James Gandolfini about it. But then he passed away, too. Then 2015 was when I spoke to Brian Currie. Brought him in to write with me, who brought it to Pete Farrelly.”
“Which is when I decided to let it go, give it to Pete to direct, and just write it with him and produce it. Because I believed that he was the right guy to get this story out there.”
“I knew what it could be. It was hard for me to give up. Because I wanted to direct it myself. I even directed some short films myself to get ready for it.”
“I was waiting, waiting, waiting. But then it hit me that this story was more important than me. So I put my ego aside and did everything I could to get the story out there.”
“And I am so happy I did, because it is a beautiful tribute to my father, Dr Shirley and my family.”
But how involved were his father and Dr Shirley in helping to build the story?
“They just provided the vignettes. ‘We did this, we did that, this is what happened and that happened on the trip. You father was an amazing guy. But when I met him he couldn’t talk. So I had to teach him.’ Things like that.”
“My mother kept all the letters. That was sort of the thing that really pushed me forward because there was so much information in those letters. Where they were, because they were postmarked.”
“You could see my father change in the letters, too. Talking about Dr Shirley’s playing, saying how beautiful his music was, how he was a genius, how much he trust him and didn’t want to let him down.”
“You could see the change in my dad and the friendship grow. Combined with all the stories of my childhood. The fact it was a movie became obvious.”
“Green Book” is now in cinemas.