“The one thing I did is I believed in myself. I felt if I had the right opportunities, I could make something good. Hanging in there and fighting for what you believe in means a lot.” – Nick Vallelonga
The racial divide has long been an issue in the United States. A recent film which tackles this controversial issue is “Green Book.” Joining us in this pilot episode is the film’s two-time Oscar-winning producer and writer Nick Vallelonga. The critically-acclaimed film won three Oscars and three Golden Globes and is based on the true story of Nick’s father, Tony Vallelonga, who, in 1962, went on a tour in the Deep South with pianist Dr. Donald Shirley. Nick always knew he would tell his father’s important story about overcoming racism. Honoring Dr. Shirley’s wishes, he waited until the brilliant composer passed away to make the film. Its themes of friendship, breaking the racial divide, and how people can change have impacted the globe. Nick discusses how he assembled his brilliant team and compiled the perfect cast, and the rest is cinematic history.
Listen to the podcast here:
TUNE-IN TO HEAR:
- Why failing is important and why Nick didn’t quit when the going got tough
- Nick’s story and how he got the film made
- The advice he would give to his younger self
- The ups and downs of bringing a project close to your heart into the world
- The important messages about race and class that Nick is putting into the world
Nick Vallelonga: “Green Book,” The Oscars & Breaking The Racial Divide
Heather Burgett: I have such an incredible guest for you. I know a lot of you are big fans of his work. Many of you have seen the wonderfully beautiful film, Green Book. We have Nick Vallelonga who is the man behind the story. In fact, Nick won two Oscars in 2019 for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. Nick is here to share with us some behind the scenes of what it took to get this film made and out into the world to possibly one of the biggest platforms that’s out there in the world, the Oscars. Nick, welcome.
Nick Vallelonga: How are you?
Heather Burgett: Thank you so much for being here.
Nick Vallelonga: Thank you for having me.
Heather Burgett: Your story is incredible and we had the good fortune of being able to meet at the Beverly Hills Film Festival where you had another film screening, Unorganized Crime, which you directed. I want to start by first going back to because it’s such an incredible experience that you had that night that you won those two Oscars. The first question it seems that everyone asks is, “How does it feel?” Truly, that is such an incredible question because few people get to experience what you’ve experienced. Can you take us back to that night and let us know how it felt to have this accomplishment and win those two Oscars?'Filmmaking can touch people in amazing ways, that's why it's such an interesting and important art form.' - Nick Vallelonga #theshinestrategy Click To Tweet
I’ve said this also the night we won the Golden Globes. It was surreal and not that I didn’t think we would win or you’re nominated. They want you there, you want to win. It was never the most important thing to me. I never thought of winning awards when we were first doing the movie. I just wanted to make as good a film as we could make. I was a little shocked with both when they said our name for Best Screenplay and won Best Picture because it’s a big deal. It’s a long road to get there. 2019 in particular was pretty tough. There were a lot of good films in there. I was a little bit dazed in a way. It’s a surreal feeling experience because you watched your whole life on TV. It’s one of those things and to be there. It was weird. People have asked me that. I felt like I was still watching it on television when I was in there. I didn’t feel that I was there until I was up on the stage going, “I’m up on the stage.”
It’s like being in your own movie. That’s incredible. You had won the Golden Globe, but there was some stiff competition and it did surprise a lot of people. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the film and I had not seen it yet before the Oscars, which is rare. I usually try to see as many films as possible. I’m such a film buff. When I watched it, I was moved in the way that you told the story. For anyone that hasn’t seen it yet, it’s based on the story of your father, Frank Anthony Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen, who struck up a friendship with pianist, Dr. Don Shirley, played by Oscar-winner, Mahershala Ali. They went on a trip through the segregated Deep South in 1962. You managed to capture this incredible story between these two men dealing with race issues, class issues and so much that was seen through a different lens than I’ve seen it before. I’d love to hear a little bit about what your mission was within telling this story and how that happened. Was it a calling that you felt at some point like, “I have to tell my dad’s story?”
I always felt that when I was young when I first heard this story, I thought it was a special story. As I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, I always wanted to make this movie. I interviewed my dad. I taped him back then, cassette tape recording. I got his whole side of it and then I spoke to Dr. Shirley many times and got his blessing and his side of it. He told me what I could and could not put in. One of the things he said was, “I don’t want you to make this until I pass away, whenever that may be.” I respected his wishes and luckily, he lived a nice long life. He was in his 80s and he passed in 2013, the same year as my dad passed coincidentally.
I said I want to try to get this done finally. I was originally going to do it myself and do it on a small scale because I had done some independent films that I directed and produced. My friend, Brian Currie, was talking and we were talking about possibly writing together and I thought, “Maybe I’ll write this with him.” He spoke to Peter Farrelly, director and writer that everyone would know from doing Dumb and Dumber, Something about Mary, all those great comedies. I met with Pete. He loved the story and I made a decision to put my ego aside. It was very close to me, this film, it was about my father. I loved Pete when I met him and I trusted him. We decided we’d all write together and produce together. Pete was very gracious in having me be a big part of it and participant in a lot of the creative decisions. It worked out. I made the right decision. It was a beautiful job of directing the film.
It’s critically-acclaimed and received many accolades. Everyone that I’ve talked to that I’ve ever mentioned it to says they loved the film. People that I’ve told that I was going to talk to you for the show, they were excited. You have a lot of fans out there that love this work that you’ve created. You said you started recording. What was the first time you did that? How old were you when you started getting those interviews down on tape?
I was five. I lived the story when I was around five. I went to Dr. Shirley’s apartment above Carnegie Hall and that’s where I saw the grand piano, the chandelier, the throne and him and his beautiful African robes. That memory was always in my head. Around 1989 to 1991, those were the years I started the recording with dad and talking with Dr. Shirley about it. It was a long time ago. For my own self, I had all my notes. I started writing out some treatments in my own head and in my own notes blocking out ideas. I had the gist of the beginning, middle and end. We honed that and worked it. The three of us sat and wrote the script together.
I find it interesting in this story we see your dad’s experience and working in clubs and then being a driver. He got into acting himself and became well-known being in major films from The Godfather, Goodfellas, and then probably most famously known for playing crime boss, Carmine Lupertazzi, in the HBO series, The Sopranos. You also got into acting as well as a young man, is that correct?
Yes. I started out as an actor. I always was writing though. I wrote some stories and little books and then I started writing some screenplays in my early twenties and acting. It’s a lot of theater in New York, a lot of training in New York and still doing bit parts and things. I was pursuing writing. The first script I got made was a film called Deadfall with Nicolas Cage. I did a lot of little independent ones, some bad ones and some okay ones, small indie things. Throughout that, I started producing myself and directing and acting. I was one of those guys that were knocking around the Minor Leagues for a long time. I always believed in this story and believed it should be told. It fell together, the right combination of people. It turned out better than I imagined because I believed it was going to be really good, especially when I was working with Pete and we got the actors that we got and the level of care that everyone put into making the film.
You knew it was going to be a great film. I felt it on the set. Even the crew people were very respectful and they were like, “We have something special here.” As far as winning awards though, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I don’t think any of us were. We thought, “We have a great story with some special actors bringing it to life, a great director. This is going to be something good.” We started testing it with audiences and you see the response of people and how emotional they got at the end of the film and saying, “This is an important movie. It should be seen.” It turned out well and I’m thrilled and proud of it.
It’s like an emotional impact that sneaks up on you and by the end, you feel this warmth and this love. What was in the story itself to you? What was the most important thing that you wanted audiences to come away with?'Failing is important because you learn, you grow, and hopefully you pick yourself up and move forward.' - Nick Vallelonga #theshinestrategy Click To Tweet
Pete always said it’s about hope in the end and I believe that too. There’s a lot of controversy about the movie that we took racism lightly. I don’t think we took it lightly at all. What happened to Don Shirley and what my father learned about racism changed his entire life. It’s a lot of humor in the film because the humor comes out of the character that my father was, the situations and him and Don Shirley’s banter between themselves. Don Shirley had a great sense of humor and was an intelligent, amazing man he was. There is some lightheartedness to it, but not lightheartedness surrounding the issue of race. It’s our take, it was our tone. People are shocked at some of the things that Don Shirley went through.
I also think it shows hope at the end, it shows change, of people can change. Some people criticize, “All of a sudden he changed.” It’s a movie. You only get two hours to show the change. My father’s life did change and how he thought of racism and realized how horrible it is and some of the things that he had done in his past. He had to show some of those things at the beginning about him. Otherwise, you’d never see the change. He was adamant and said, “You’ve got to put this in and put this in, because you have to show it in order to see how horrible it was and then see how I was changed by the experience of spending all the time with Dr. Shirley in the South.” That was our take. People responded to it. It’s only one story about a heavy and important subject. There should be lots of stories told about it. This was one in particular. A little slice of life movie is what we’ve called it. It’s about two people. It’s about two human beings, two guys in a car and how they got to know each other and come to respect each other. It was two opposites who became friends.
Truly it’s so much about friendship and breaking the racial divides. It’s happening these days and the current state of our world and our country. It’s sad to think that it is still such an important message. This was back in 1962 when these things were happening. How do you feel that impacts people nowadays? Do you feel that the message is as important for nowadays’ audience?
The message is always important to tell. It is odd that it’s still that important, but it goes on. I do think that things are much better. Nothing is perfect. We have to keep working at relationships and working on how we treat each other and how human beings react to each other. It’s an important topic. It’s not an answer other than communicating. We need to communicate and talk to each other. When you get into someone else’s head and you see how they are, you realize everyone sounds such a cliché. We all have the same problems, but we have different cultures. We’re brought up differently and sometimes those things clash, but when we learn about each other, that’s the first step to understanding and appreciating each other.
The movie is for everyone. There was a comment made that this was made for older white people. I don’t agree. I never thought that. I thought everyone should see the movie. Young people are shocked by what they see. I’ve had many kids, teenagers love the film saying, “I didn’t know that. I can’t believe that happened, somewhat that is still going on,” that type of stuff. It’s a learning experience. It’s a topic of conversation. It did what it was supposed to do, it touched people. It made people talk. It made people communicate. Black and white audiences seem to respond to it, for the most part. There are always going to be people that don’t like it or have issues, but you can’t please everyone. I certainly think the message that we tried to put out was done with love and respect. We all knew that while we were making the film, from the writing to the producing to directing the actors. We’re very much aware of this is important. We have to tell this the right way. We have to show respect to the characters and what happened. For the most part, people responded to it. It won Best Picture. It can’t be that bad.
That’s a bit of affirmation for you there. I couldn’t agree more. It’s such a powerful message and when things are divided, especially in our country, it’s one example of a solution that can work on a much larger scale. You specifically addressed it through this relationship where they get to know each other, learn about each other and start to see each other as human beings. It seems when people have differences, no matter what they are, race, class, politics, whatever the divide is. That when we stop, listen and get to know someone, that can cross such huge boundaries and bring people together. Thank you for putting that message out into the world. It’s such a great example to help people in this challenging time that we’re going through. If you could go back and tell a younger version of yourself one thing, give yourself one bit of advice, what would that be?
Become a doctor and not get into the filming.
I believe you. I know how challenging the film business can be.
The one thing I would say to everyone is you’ve got to believe in yourself and you can’t give up. Several times I wanted to give up. Several times I thought, “I’m not making the type of films I want to make. I don’t have success.” I don’t mean it by success in terms of notoriety or stuff. I struggled. I was up, down. I did well sometimes. I didn’t do well sometimes. For me, it’s a bit of a roller coaster. It wasn’t a consistent thing. You sacrifice certain things in life and you fight for something. Sometimes you wonder, “Am I making a mistake?” The one thing I did do was I believed in myself. I felt if I had the right opportunities, I could make something good.
The Green Book success is important on many levels for me. It’s finally breaking out into the type of film I want to make because it had a good message, that’s what was important to me. Hanging in there and fighting for what you believe in means a lot. I thought, “What else can I do? This is what I know. This is what I love to do. I like telling stories.” I want to tell stories that meant something. I fell into a bit of a trap. To work, you start doing anything. That would be the thing I’d probably tell myself, don’t just do anything. Keep on trying to do things that mean something. That could be just to entertain, laughter or whatever. Entertainment is great too. Mindless entertainment is fun. We like those types of movies and stories, but it says something that even though it took me such a long time, that the one thing that finally broke out for me was something that was important to people and touched people. I would say persevere, hang in there, but keep trying to do the right thing. If you keep trying to do the right thing, eventually it will happen.'There's nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you learn by them and strive to do better.' - Nick Vallelonga #theshinestrategy Click To Tweet
I feel like that is something we talk a lot about in my community is that when you’re truly pursuing something that your heart is in, that you’re passionate about, that those are the times that things line up for you. You get into this flow and it feels meant to be sometimes when you’re in that pure place of following your heart and your passion. Would you agree with that?
You can’t achieve everything. The fact that this film took on a life of its own and won the awards as it did is the cliché saying, “It’s the cherry on the cake.” The rewards with something, with the reward of making it and seeing the reaction of people and then having people come over and saying how important it was and what it meant to them. That is a blessing and you can’t manufacture that. That is more important than anything. Doing something from the heart and making people feel good, that was a wonderful experience for me.
You arguably got to one of the largest possible stages on the planet to share your story and have the world know about it and see it. What would you say that platform or visibility, how has that changed your life?
For me, there were a lot of controversies involved with the film and a lot of stuff being said. Most of it not true. It tainted it a little bit for me because I didn’t even think of it as a competition. What a brutal competition if people want that statue, which is understandable. Winning awards like this is money. It raises the Box Office. Everyone wants to win once you’re in it. The film was different to me. When I was an athlete in the sense of a regular kid playing eight-ball and stuff, I was always taught you respect the other team, win or lose. When we won, we’d shake hands. When we lost, we’d shake hands and you move on. Losing teaches you a lot about when you get the chance to win also. Respect everyone else. I was thrilled to be in this world, on that level with many talented people and many great films and talented films. As much as it is a competition, when it comes into the award stuff, I didn’t think of it as a competition. I wasn’t angry if we didn’t win something. I was happy, “Look at all these great movies,” but it got a little dark there for a while.
I totally can see how that would happen, as they call it the business and how people get competitive. It’s true. I love what you said about that win or lose attitude that you had personally going into it is because you are happy to get this story that your heart had been in for many years and to get it out into the world was the biggest accomplishment for you. That and of course, it’s like awards, “That’s gravy on top.” For you, the real win was getting the film made and knowing the audiences were able to see it.
I’m working with some great people. Octavia Spencer was involved in this. Mahershala Ali won practically every award you could, Best Supporting Actor. Every time he is nominated, he’s an amazing person and actor. Viggo Mortensen, a wonderful human being. What an incredible job he did. He uplifted this production, how much he cared and how much he put into it. For me, it’s an emotional, tremendous job. He did play my father. Linda Cardellini played my mom. All the cast members, the producers and Brian Currie, the other writer, with Pete Farrelly and I who directed it. Pete did a beautiful job. It was important to him this film. It was a wonderful thing all the way down the line. It’s the best film experience I’ve ever had. I’m glad that worldwide Box Office had been over $320 million, something like that.
People like it. The awards, we got those too. If we didn’t, to me it was more important that it got out in the world. The people liked it and at least some critics and other naysayers. You can’t please everybody. I love the film. I loved all the other films that were nominated. I think Viggo should have won Best Actor because I’m prejudiced, but I love Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody. All the movies and all the filmmakers I thought were excellent and it was an honor to be in that world. I’m happy that we came out with a couple of them.
All around it was beautifully done. For anyone out there that hasn’t seen it, I hope that you run out and I think it’s on all the streaming platforms now. I keep seeing it popping up on demands, Amazon and all these other places. Do not miss this film. It is beautifully done. I know you have some exciting things coming up for yourself with projects. What are you most excited about that’s coming up for you?
I have a little role and I can’t talk too much about it because I’m not allowed to talk about it, but in the upcoming Sopranos prequel, The Many Saints of Newark.
That’s going to be a good one.'If you feel that you have a story to tell, just go for it and do the best you can to make it as excellent as it could be.' - Nick Vallelonga #theshinestrategy Click To Tweet
That was a great honor for me to be in. That is a legacy to my dad because my dad was in the original series. That was nice. They asked me to play a role in that. That was exciting. I already filmed my scenes in that. I’m looking forward to seeing that. James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, is playing young Tony Soprano. It’s a great cast. Alessandro Nivola, Jon Bernthal, Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll, it’s a lot of great actors. People are going to swear on that one because people are waiting to see that. That was fun. I’m doing a small action movie that I had written. It’s been on and off for a while, well-before Green Book, called 10 Double Zero. It’s an action cop thriller with Nicolas Cage.
You said small action thriller starring Nicolas Cage. I don’t believe it’s small.
It’s an indie. It’s going to be a cool, little, indie, gritty thing directed by Christian Sesma, producing works with Paul Sloan. We’re doing that in summer, but I have a novel based on a Christian bestseller, The Reunion, that I’m adapting for screenplay and I’m hoping to do that right after 10 Double Zero in the fall. I have an actor attached to that. I can’t mention it yet officially, but he was the nominee for something in 2019. I’m looking forward to that. That’s a beautiful life. It’s a Wonderful Life type of story. I’ll be directing that. I have a romantic comedy, which I’ll probably do after The Reunion. Hopefully, I’ll be pretty busy for a little while. It’s some nice opportunities, which is wonderful. I’ll probably be directing most of these from this point forward.
Will you still be doing some writing, but moving more into the directing?
Yeah. Most of the things I have are more personal to me. I’ll probably direct most of the things I write unless it’s an outside writing assignment. I’m looking to direct some of the things I’ve written and moved forward in that direction.
It’s exciting. I can’t wait to see what other stories you bring to us because you have a knack for definitely telling a story in a unique way that does impact people and gets an emotional response, which it is an art to do that. Thank you for your beautiful work. I’d love to find out if you have any last thoughts or inspiration for our readers.
Thanks for having me here. Stories that touch people and move people, are uplifting, can make people laugh and/or cry in a good way and touch them emotionally. Those are the ones that we remember. Those are the ones that I remember growing up going back to It’s a Wonderful Life.
That’s one of my all-time favorites.
I was influenced by films like that by Frank Capra. My favorite stuff is not far removed from what everyone liked. I love Frank Capra films. I love Orson Welles, for his artistic excellence, directors like that, Vittorio De Sica. I studied filming. Walt Disney movies, films that you left the theater feeling good, and then right on through to the classic guys that I grew up loving, the Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg. They all made films that stayed with you. I think and hope Green Book is one of those. Hopefully, I can pull off another one or two like that in the near future.
I have no doubt that you can and you’ve mentioned many of the greats. What do you think the secret is, the thread that ties all of those filmmakers together in terms of how they impact people?
It’s their heart and emotion. They’re able to prove their skill and artistry, make you feel something. They know how to touch you. That comes from a sense of truth. There’s got to be some truth there. That also comes from love. It doesn’t matter if it’s a violent film or if it’s a family film, if you’re telling the truth, people are affected. That’s what we try to do with Green Book. We tried to stick to the truth as much as possible and convey a message. Those are the most important type of films. Filmmaking can touch people in amazing ways. That’s why it’s such an interesting, important art form. For me, the film has been everything. I grew up fascinated by movies and I remember the ones that resonated and touched me. It could be a Coppola movie, it could be a Walt Disney movie, Frank Capra, Spielberg. These guys are the classic guys that know how to get emotion out of people and that’s what I’m trying to do as well.
You are doing a good job. These are masters of storytelling and I see you as a master of storytelling as well. You have a heart of gold and you’re putting it out there for people to receive and learn from. It’s beautiful what you’re doing. I can’t wait to see the next projects to come from you.
I appreciate that. It’s kind of you to say that. Thank you.
I know you’re busy and you’ve given us a lot of your time and we’re grateful for that. I’m sure you’re going to be inspiring lots of the audience. You read it here. Don’t stop, don’t give up. I often say don’t quit before the miracle and stick with it. That’s one of the secrets. Don’t give up.
Failing is important. You learn, you grow, you teach yourself, you hopefully pick yourself up. It’s that whole thing about falling down and then picking yourself up and moving forward. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes as long as you learn by them and you strive to do better. Filmmaking is like that. Some people are gifted and get it right the first time. Others, you’ve got to keep working at it. Whatever your situation and you love it and you feel that you have a story to tell, go for it, do the best you can and keep fighting to make it as excellent as it could be.
There’s a concept I heard and I forget. I’m not going to be able to credit it properly because I forget who said it, but someone out there is talking about failing forward. I love that concept because often we look at failure as something that stops you or ruins things, but it is the best thing that can happen to a lot of people. A lot of us as we’re growing and developing our visions, our business, our project, whatever it is because it brings you closer to where you’re supposed to be and whatever path that is that you’re supposed to be on. It’s a great point. Thank you so much for being here. Hopefully, we can have you back again soon.
I would love to and I appreciate you asking me great questions. I would love to do it again sometime, any time.
Best of luck with the upcoming projects. We will see you soon.