his name isn’t mentioned in the trailer for his new film, Green Book, perhaps because “From one-half of the guys who brought you Dumb and Dumber comes a prestige drama about racism” might cause, at best, confusion. “People didn’t know what I would do with this kind of material,” Peter Farrelly tells Newsweek. “It was an uphill battle.” Securing his leads, Oscar-nominated Viggo Mortensen and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), greased the wheels. Ali plays African-american concert pianist Don Shirley, and Mortensen is his uneducated, racist driver, Tony Lip, on a tour of the Deep South in 1962. What might sound like a reverse Driving Miss Daisy is, in fact, a true story. (Nick Vallelonga, son of the real Lip, co-wrote the script with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie.) Farrelly says directing Green Book was no different from his comedies, but the writing was trickier. “I made the best effort not to go for jokes,” he says.“i didn’t think it was funny at all until shooting. In the hands of these two actors [both attracting Oscar buzz], little things became funny because of the way they play off each other.” Are critics treating you differently because of Green Book?
I did not know how disrespected I was until this came out. [Laughs.] Comedy doesn’t get respect from critics, but I never got into the movie business hoping to get great reviews. One of our movies [There’s Something About Mary] is on the AFI top 100 funniest of all time list, but critics act like this is the first time I’ve ever done a real movie! I probably should have done what Rob Reiner did. He started with Spinal Tap, then does Stand By Me and shows he can do it all.
How did you cast your leads?
One of the names we threw around was Jon Favreau. We thought, Big, burly guy, because Lip was a big guy. [Favreau] is a good actor, but around that time I saw Captain Fantastic—i almost missed it because I thought it was a superhero film—and I loved it. I said, What about that guy? Everyone said, “Forget it. You can’t get him.” I wrote him a letter: “Dear Viggo, please read the first three pages of this script, and if you don’t like it, cool.”
He got back to me two days later. He really liked it but didn’t know if he could do it. I said, “Are you kidding? You did Eastern Promises—this is kittens compared to that!” After several visits, we convinced him to do it, and he began pounding on the weight. He gained 45 pounds. Mahershala was a no-brainer—i love the guy. When you’re with him, it feels like you’re in the presence of an elevated soul. —Anna Menta
“I didn’t know how disrespected I was until Green Book came out.”