Nick Vallelonga Interview: Green Book

Green Book is a film about black pianist Dr. Don Shirley’s tour of the Deep South in the 1960’s escorted by New York bouncer Tony Vallelonga, who acted as his driver and security, and the unlikely friendship that formed.  The screenplay was co-written by Vallelonga’s son Nick Vallelonga, who is also a producer on the film.

Screen Rant: So first of all, congratulations are in order because it's killing at the festival circuit. It is doing so well. So much, that Universal moved up the film's release date. How rewarding has it been? And how much of a relief and positive response are you and your family enjoying from this?

Nick Vallelonga: Obviously for me it's more emotional.  It’s not like I did a movie about robots or something. It's amazing. It's quite-- But I always believed in it. And I always-- my journey of eventually making this movie, thought I would have something. But you can never-- I never thought of this type of stuff.  I was going to make it a little indie, myself. I joke, where I would've made it with an iPhone and a couple of meatball sandwiches if I could have. So, the fact that I got involved with [Peter Farrelly] and then just the whole journey of getting these amazing actors and getting it to this level. But I knew what we were making. And we had something special. But who can ever-- I'm not thinking about awards and that stuff. I think if you think about that or if you go, “I'm going to make a movie that we're going to make some points here and tax some political issues and social issues.” I never thought that either.

The story itself lent itself to that. So, it was about two people.  So, those issues are there. Obviously, we deal with them in the way we deal with them. And issues like that can be dealt with in many ways. There's a lot of stories about racism that have been told, are being told, and should still be told. This one was true. It happened to my father the way it happened. So, I said I don't want to manipulate that. I don't want to do anything but the truth. Pete was on board with that. So, we tried to be as truthful as we could. And, here we are, the audiences are really responding to it. It's a very emotional for me.

Screen Rant: It's so good. I mean, this is the first time I went to my friends and I said, “You guys have to watch this movie. I promise you it won't let you down. It's amazing.”

Nick Vallelonga: Thank you.

Screen Rant: So, this is a true story, or at least based on actual events. Now [Viggo Mortensen’s] character, your father Tony Lip, is based on your father. Writing his voice, is it more or less challenging than you thought it was going to be?

Nick Vallelonga: Oh, it was easy.

Screen Rant: Oh, it was just flowed?

Nick Vallelonga: Yeah. I mean was my father was a gigantic character.  The fact that a movie was made about him. If my father was here, he’d say, “Of course they made a movie about me, they should’ve made a movie about me a long time ago. No wonder it's great.” So, he was a special guy. So, a lot of the dialogue from him, I remember.  I have tapes of him telling me the story. The fried chicken scene, exactly as he told me was what we wrote there. I mean, you don't have to embellish it, or change it, or make that stuff up. That's why I always knew this would be great. I had all these vignettes of stories. And it was a matter of getting them all out.  And then when I got with Pete and moving them around, taking some stuff. They actually traveled for another year.

So, there were stories that happened later that we moved around because they were good stories. We combine things. A lot of the things that happened, the racial stuff, being stopped, being arrested, not being able to eat somewhere, or use the restroom happened multiple times. So, it was a matter of picking the right ones and putting a them in. But my father's voice, to get back to you— for this answer to this, I always knew it and I took a lot of his dialogue. And then, when the stuff that we had to take creative license to combine scenes, I know my father. So, a lot of that would, [Brian Hayes Currie] and Pete would be going, “Oh, we'll do this. And they were getting funny and crazy and I go, my father wouldn’t say that. This is what he would say.” They go, “Oh, okay.” So, it was like that.

Screen Rant: I love it. Because you just answered my next question too with that answer. So that's great. I read something, and I don't know if it's true or not, but I read that when you saw [Linda Cardellini] as your mom, because she was so accurate to your mother, you actually started crying. Is that true?

Nick Vallelonga: I still cry when I see her. It was so emotional. I tell her, “Get away from me. I can't even look at you.”  Looks like my mother, young. Sounds just like my mother. Because she was concerned about her accent and what she should do. And she did a touch of the Bronx, but she almost didn't have to. And oddly, when we met, and she was doing her research, one of the questions she asked me was, “What's your mother's birthday?” I said, “June 25th.” She said, “Come on, don't mess with me. You know when my birthday is. So, what's your mother’s?” I'm like, “No. June 25th.” She goes that's my birthday. So, that freaked her out. Blew her mind. I gave Linda all my mother's jewelry. Everything she wears in the movie’s my mom’s stuff. Her real wedding band. Viggo’s chain that he wears the whole movie, with the Virgin Mary medallion, that was my father's. So, we did things like that to-- whether you see it or not, but it helps them.  And I have real family members in the scenes. My brother. My Uncle Rudy, my father's brother. My Uncle Rudy, my father’s brother plays their father. You're also in it. I’m in it. I play Augie a mob guy. I actually said to Pete, “Would you rather me play one of my family members? I should play an uncle or something.” He said, “No, the family members, we have to like them. They have to be lovable.  You, you play the mean, angry mob boss.”

So, it was a quite a family affair. And I think those scenes with the family made it resonate more. And Linda, so much like my mom, is just, it’s amazing. And I think those scenes, that's why they put emotion. You feel something when you watch.

Screen Rant: 100 percent. That's what I said when I walked out. I tweeted it, I actually said that, this is exactly what a movie's supposed to do. It's supposed to make you feel. And it's cinematic arts at its best. Acting, writing, directing, amazing.

Nick Vallelonga: Oh, thank you.  And just to finish.  The trio. Viggo, the transformation and what he did. My father, and in studying films, and I brought him in to my family, and he hung out with us. He was eating, and my brother has a Tony Lips, restaurant in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. We ate there. We ate at my brother's house. We ate at my uncle's house. His transformation, unbelievable.  But he had the audio tapes of my father, video of my father, my father was an actor later in life, so he had all that. So, his transformation is just complete and that is my father. She's my mother. And I can go on and on about that. [Mahershala Ali] did not have that type of material to work with. We found a documentary that was made about Carnegie Hall, about taking down those lofts. There's about 12 minutes of Dr. Shirley in there, but at 80 years old. But it was, that's what all Mahershala had, on top of what I told him, and described to him, and whatever material was out there in the world. But him, like I say, it's a genius, is playing a genius.  What a performance. He's such a beautiful human being, but what he did with that role it-- listen, the two of them together, the unlikely odd couple of what they are, I think you see it. It comes across. It's almost, you can't put a word to it with the magic that’s there.

Screen Rant: I like, I knew it was Mahershala and Viggo and Linda, and I still forgot I was watching it.

Nick Vallelonga: You didn't see them at all.

Screen Rant: They were great. So, I want to talk about Peter actually, for a second.

Nick Vallelonga: Yeah, I was going to say that lends itself to Pete's direction, obviously.

Screen Rant: Exactly. So, he's been listed as a co-writer as well as the director for the Green Book. However, him and his brother made their name off of comedies. How did he get involved? Because it's interesting, because he's directed these road trip stories even though they were comedies, but this is also a road trip story. So, why was he also the right choice?

Nick Vallelonga: Well, Brian Curry, a friend of mine, we've been banging around together for years, worked together in night clubs, did everything we had to do to get going. And he had his own writing thing. He wrote stuff for studios. I was writing and directing independent films. And I'd put him in some movies and he was acting, I'm an actor, and he was acting in some of Pete’s films. So, when I decided to finally do this, because I had waited a long time because Dr. Shirley asked me to not make it until he was gone. So, I respected that. And my father said, “You got to respect it.” He goes, “Whether I’m here, we're all gone. You do not make this film until he goes, that's what he wants.” So, I did wait.

So, around 2015, they both passed in 2013, I spoke to Brian about it, thinking maybe I should have been grinding. Maybe I should have been-- If it’s all me. I'm writing, directing, producing, maybe it's too much. And I want to maybe hear his take on it. And he flipped. It was Brian that brought it to Pete.  So, Pete was looking for a drama. And Brian said, “You got to meet Pete.” I'm like, “Brian, I want to direct this. It's my father. I got to-- This is what I've been waiting for. I’ve made enough crap. This is the one.” But I said, “I’ll go and meet Pete.” And when I met Pete, I fell in love with him. I thought he got the story. He said I'd be part of every aspect of it. It wasn’t like they were taking my story and going off and writing it. I was going to write it and produce it.  But the part about, why him, because first you think, the films he made are nothing like that. But being that I like to write, act, direct. I like musicals, I like Disney movies, I like mafia movies, I like action movies, sci-fi. I don’t want to put anyone in a box and what they can and cannot do. Look at Jordan Peele, you think he’s this comedian--

Screen Rant: He’s my doppelganger.

Nick Vallelonga: He is. That’s what made me just think of this. But it's a great example. Talented people are talented people. And I said Pete’s a genius. His comedies have made over a billion dollars. I think it's harder to do comedy than anything else. So, comedy is difficult. To get people to laugh, that’s not easy. So, I just thought, it sort of clicked in me, I went, I was in—Pete says, “Go off, think about this. I know it's an important decision. Come back to me.”  But right there and then, I'm like, “No, let’s do. Let’s do it. You direct it. We'll all write it together, the three of us. And then we'll produce it. Let's get it done.”

Screen Rant: That's amazing. Now, the key to any film is casting.  You have cast two of the most talented actors in Hollywood. What qualities did each have that made them great representatives of your father and Dr. Don Shirley?

Nick Vallelonga: Well, first of all, in real life, they're both remarkable men and great guys and just a pleasure to work with.  And Viggo’s a real man's man. He just connected with me. And I think he had had wanted to do that. He's basically, he's like a father figure—we’re the same age, but he's a father figure to me.  Because he became that. And I think he relied on me a lot for that. Checking with me-- obviously Pete, everything was what Pete wanted, but when it came to certain things it was, “Okay. Would your father do it this way?” He needed that part from me.

That’s what I was giving on this.  And Mahershala, what can I say about him? One of the most beautiful human beings you'll ever meet. What an amazing soul that he has. And you see it in his eyes.  I mean, when you watch the film, it's like he's another person. But him as a real person, he’s so beautiful. I'm amazed at his talent and the person that he is. And those guys just clicked.  They had met on the tour that they did, when they were both up for, when he won [the Academy Award for] Moonlight and Viggo was up for Captain Fantastic.  You go on these junkets-- I'm getting pieces of it now. You meet people, you talk for a second, or you don't want to talk to people, and certain people, it's like you're rushed around. But they kept seeing each other and they kind of connected. They said, “We should do something together. How can we find something?  Well, maybe one day.” And in less than a year, we have them both attached to this movie.

Screen Rant: And they’re incredible. I love it. The interesting dynamic of this film, it subverts expected stereotypes by having Mahershala’s Shirley be cultured and refined, while Viggo’s character is more defined by his physicality and street smarts.  How did you approach the subtleties of characters, race issues, on a script level? And how hard was it to handle the more glaring elements of racism?

Nick Vallelonga: Like I said, if you set out to go, “We're going to make this point and that point,” I think it would have failed. I always thought it's there. Let's just tell the story, what happened. All those elements are there. And Pete was on top of that too.  There was a lot of other things that happened to them. It was during when Kennedy got assassinated, they were together. That Robert Kennedy phone call actually happened two days before Kennedy. That was later on. So, we took pieces. We have the whole Kennedy thing in there, at one point. But then Pete said, “You know what? Your original idea, we should keep this simple. It's about two people.” Everyone's seen the film footage of the hoses and the dogs and the horrors of what they go through. We hit the horrors.  We know what was happening during that era. And even if people that are learning about this don't, they're still going to get that. So, it's about the two human beings. So, we didn't want to hit people over the head with all that, because it's there anyway. And we wanted to tell the truth of what happened to these two guys. If it makes you research, that's where the Green Book, we're not making a documentary about the Green Book, but we want to make people aware of the Green Book. Why was there a Green Book? What is the Green Book? So, if we spent 45 minutes to the Green Book, you’re missing-- So it's in there. People have told me it made them Google it, and made them go, “Oh my God, what is this book?” So, we layered things out to have the social issues and the racism exposed.  I mean it's horrible. You say a man can’t go to the bathroom where he’s playing, the theater he’s playing. This wasn't the movie that we were going to go hammer you with all that. It's there enough and it showed how it affected him as a person, and how it affected my father seeing this happen. Because it was no longer happening to a black guy that he was working for. It was happening to his friend. And I think that's when the switch went off and changed my father's attitudes and how they both-- their friendship changed them. Because they were going through this together. They were helping each other. Shirley helped my father get out of trouble. My father helped Shirley get out of trouble. Shirley had other issues going on during that show that were not acceptable. So, the truth to me-- There's so much here with the truth. And Pete was great with the fact, let's keep the two guys in the car. It's about them and their relationship and that's what's going to shine through. That's what people are going to get an emotional resonance from this film. And I think it did.

Screen Rant: Absolutely. But it also, like you said, it made me research what the actual Green Book was. But also, Dr. Shirley's music, which I wasn’t aware of.

Nick Vallelonga: That's another thing that I'd like to come out of this film. That people know who he is.

Screen Rant: Well that’s exactly what I was going to ask you next. Is that not only you making this bio pic about these two men, one being your father, but you're also giving the audience a chance to learn who Dr Shirley is. Who for somebody like me, I didn't know that. So was that subtly in there, or did you intentionally want people to be like, “You know what? I want people to know who Dr. Shirley is?”

Nick Vallelonga: Oh, absolutely. That was part of my whole thing. I mean, what a remarkable man.  A genius and talent and he had his own issues. And I think he wasn't bigger because he was never fully happy doing what he was doing. He always wanted to do something else. So, my father used to say, “I can't even describe how good this guy was. Sometimes he’d be bored, he’d just play with one hand and the song would sound exactly the same, as if he played with two.” He was so good. So, I wanted the story of my father to come out, but I wanted Dr. Shirley to be known.  And I think this movie gives a lot on a lot of levels. And it makes people think. And yeah, if people got to go Google this stuff, “Who's my father? Who’s Tony Lip. Oh, he ended up being an actor on the Sopranos, oh.  Who’s Dr. Shirley?  And listening to his music. Beautiful, amazing genius.” So, we want to entertain, but we wanted to make a message and leave people walking out with hope.

More: Watch The Green Book Trailer

Key Release Dates
  • Green Book (2018) release date: Nov 21, 2018
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