'Green Book' Screenwriters on Weathering Bad Press, Constant Controversy
February 25, 2019
At the 91st annual Academy Awards® on Sunday, Green Book screenwriters Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly took home the award for best original screenplay. Mahershala Ali won for best supporting actor, and the film also secured the most coveted award of the night for best picture. While there is now no denying the film’s success, the road to receiving such honors was paved with much controversy.
Based on a true story, Green Book takes place in 1962 and follows Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a world-class pianist about to set off on a concert tour in the Deep South. He hires an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), and despite their seemingly many differences, the men develop a bond that challenges their own prejudices and the racism they encounter along the way.
While the script was recognized with the biggest award Hollywood has to offer, there was speculation that the film would get overlooked by the academy due to bad press and its rocky standing amongst film critics. Some critics claimed the film was an unfair and largely white view of racism in the 1960s in America. Viggo Mortensen said the N-word during a post-screening Q&A, and co-writer Nick Vallelonga (whose father the film is based upon) supported an unpopular opinion of Donald Trump’s on Twitter. The film, it seemed, could easily have been doomed.
But yet, the script somehow persevered. Backstage after the show, producer Jim Burke addressed the controversy surrounding the movie.
“It was discouraging, but we always went back to the film. And when we had a bad day, we’d pop in the movie, and we were reminded that we’re all really proud of this film; all of us and all of the over 500 people who helped make it.”
Vallelonga, who co-wrote the script based on his father’s life, spoke to another point of controversy: his lack of communication with Donald Shirley’s family when penning the script.
“Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell,” he said.
“He protected his private life. He told me, ‘If you're going to tell the story, you tell it from your father, no one else. Don't speak to anyone else.’”
According to the screenwriter, Shirley also asked him not to make the film until after he had passed away.
“I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family. I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film, and we contacted his estate for music; and then the filmmakers, we invited them all to screenings and discussions. But I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes. I’m an Italian from New York. They call that a standup guy. I kept my word to the man.”
For Vallelonga, this was a story he was anxious to tell for many years before he actually sat down to write the script. He remembers meeting the famed Dr. Shirley as a kid.
“I went to his home. I went to Carnegie Hall. I sat on the throne. I saw his beautiful African robes, and I saw the man that he was. And I saw the change in my father when he came home and over the years how he brought us up,” he said.
Much like the script and film express, the writer attributes his father’s change in attitude — from someone with racist biases to someone far more accepting — to his road trip with Shirley.
“He was so angry when he went on this trip with Dr. Shirley of what he saw and witnessed. That’s what changed him,” he said.
“I always knew I wanted to tell the story, and I spoke to my father about it. I taped him. I spoke to Dr. Shirley hours and hours and hours getting his blessing and telling me what I could put in and what I couldn’t; and I always knew I was going to do it.”
From there, Vallelonga courted Peter Farrelly to help him write the script and now, many years later, the man who was awestruck by Shirley as a kid has an Oscar® for his screenplay.
Though Green Book has weathered much criticism (and continues to), it certainly resonated with enough audiences and Oscar voters to be worthy of Hollywood’s highest honor.
Written by: Anna KlassenAnna Klassen is a screenwriter and journalist living in Los Angeles. She can be found on twitter and Instagram at @annajklassen.