Peter Farrelly’s Green Book triumphed at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, taking home Best Picture despite several weeks of controversy and criticism.
Backstage after the show, reporters asked the film’s producers about the reception to Green Book, which tells the real-life story of black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian-American driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who accompanied Shirley on a concert tour of the American South in the 1960s.
“Yes, it was discouraging, but we always went back to the film,” producer Jim Burke said. “When we had a bad day, we’d pop in the movie, and we were reminded that we’re all proud of this film — all of us and all of the over 500 people who helped make it.”
Writer-producer Nick Vallelonga also addressed the Shirley family’s comments rejecting the film and Shirley’s characterization in it, after they came forward to say they were never consulted on the script. Vallelonga (the son of the real Tony Lip) told reporters that not contacting Shirley’s family “falls on me,” but that Shirley himself told him not to contact them.
“Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone,” Vallelonga said. “He told me the story that he wanted to tell. He protected his private life and all the other things about him — miraculous things about him. He was an amazing man. He told me, ‘If you’re gonna tell this story, you tell it from your father, me, [and] no one else. Don’t speak to anyone else. That’s how you have to make it.’ And also he told me, ‘Don’t make it ’til after I pass away.’ So I just kept my word to that man. 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. We contacted his estate for music, and then the filmmakers, we invited them all to screenings and discussion. But I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes.”
Green Book became a surprise Oscar contender last fall after winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film has since been dogged by controversy: Farrelly apologized after a 1998 story recirculated about his penchant for flashing his genitals as a joke, and Vallelonga issued an apology for a 2015 tweet reiterating Donald Trump’s debunked claim that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks. Green Book also faced criticism for perpetuating a “white savior” stereotype (a concept Seth Meyers recently spoofed with a Late Night sketch).
But ultimately, the controversy didn’t seem to affect Green Book’s Oscar success. In all, the film was up for five Oscars and won three: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Ali, and Best Original Screenplay.
“Don Shirley and my father together had an amazing story together and went on the road and changed each other, and I think that comes out,” Vallelonga told reporters. “That’s why the film is what it is. It’s because of the both of them.”