One of the films that has already made a big play this season is “Green Book” starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. Ali gives a lights-out performance and Mortensen has received acclaim for his work. The film, directed by Peter Farrelly, follows a New York Italian man and the acclaimed concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley. Shirley books a tour through the deep south in the early 1960s, at the height of Jim Crow. Despite the seemingly heavy subject matter, “Green Book” takes a lighter tone to the buddy trip through the South. A big reason why the film works is due to its editing, which keeps the pace moving and balances the drama with comedic moments. Thanks go to Patrick J. Don Vito, who sat down with me to discuss that tricky balance and the amazing abilities of Ali and Mortensen.
Alan French/AwardsCircuit: I always find the journey to becoming an editor very interesting. How did you start on the path?
Patrick J. Don Vito: I went to film school and I tried everything. I directed, I worked as a cameraman. When I got to editing, I felt at home. It was like a puzzle, but the puzzle pieces could be arranged in many different ways. By my senior year I was doing a lot of editing, and my senior year I did an internship at a TV show. That next year, their runner had gone on to an assistant editing job, and I jumped right in.
AF: How did that help the transition to working on movies and film?
PDV: I began working my way up slowly. I was an assistant editor with Debra Neil-Fisher for many years and then I left and started cutting with Donald Petrie. I kind of just went out on my on, and I ran into Pete [Farrelly] on the set of “Movie 43.”On that movie, I was cutting for Stephen Brill, but I stayed on and cut all the shorts of all the directors. Then Pete directed a reshoot of a sequence, and I cut that, and then I got to do a TV pilot with him later. When this came up, I wanted to jump all over it. I had read the script and thought it was fantastic. He didn’t have an editor in place yet, so I threw my name in the hat.
AF: I noticed most of your background had been in comedy, and I think that really helps with “Green Book” as a lighthearted drama. How did that background help with “Green Book?”
PDV: That was really the toughest part about “Green Book,” mixing the comedy and drama. With this movie, the comedy has to come out of the reality of the situation. Pete would let the guys ad lib, but then we would get back to the cutting room and question whether it was the right kind of funny for this movie. Sometimes we would pull that stuff out. If anything is too jokey, it had to come from the natural scene.
AF: Viggo [Mortensen] shoulders most of the comedy in the film. It could border on caricature if he goes too far, but it never quite gets there. How do you bring that side out of the performance in the editing room without crossing the line?
PDV: He did an amazing job and listened to a lot of tapes of the real Tony Lip. He got it down without ever being a caricature style performance. When the dailies would come in, he would give a range of performances. He would sometimes do things a little bigger, or a little smaller. It was about picking the best scenes for each sequence. From there, it is about shaping it and making it real. Actually, what helped Viggo’s performance was the interplay with Mahershala [Ali]. He makes the movie so much more funny when he reacts to whatever Tony is saying.
AF: What impressed me most about Mahershala’s performance is that he pulls in natural gestures and ticks to make the character real. All of that feels like it is not coming from the page, but from his ability. How hard is it to construct organic moments when the performance feels so natural?
PDV: It was always all there. We always had everything we needed to keep cutting, but we could then use the extra stuff to make sure we had a strong structure. With Mahershala, he added so much to the movie. It was not just from the performance, but it was occasionally in dialogue too.
There’s a scene in the movie where they’re in a hotel, and Don Shirley is talking about how he started playing music. At the end of all that, Viggo says to Mahershala, ‘What you do, that’s great,’ and Mahershala says ‘Thank you Tony.’ What Mahershala did was an ad lib right after that, which was ‘But not everybody can play Chopin like I can.’ Don Shirley was this classical musician who was frustrated because he was not always allowed to play. Mahershala wanted to add that line at the end, and it made that scene so much better.
AF: You already kind of mentioned that Peter let the cast ad lib or improv on set. How much of that made it into the movie?
PDV: There’s little bits here and there. Sometimes we would have some happy accidents. One time Viggo was eating chicken while driving and he bites down. However, he bit into the grizzly part, but Viggo stayed in character and spit it out when he could. Then there’s some things that didn’t make. There are always things you try, but they don’t quite work at the end of the day. During the scene at the end at the Orange Bird, Mahershala plays piano for a crowd. When he gets challenged to play, Viggo says “well, it’s not a Steinway” and it was a kind of funny line. It just sounded a little too jokey in the final cut so it had to go.
AF: How do you go about editing a two-hander like “Green Book,” but keep the point-of-view from the perspective of one of the characters?
PDV: It helps that the movie opens and we spend about fifteen minutes with Viggo before we meet Mahershala. With Mahershala, what was so great about him was that you could not take your eyes off him. It’s hard…to keep people engaged when it is just a dialogue movie. Then it becomes about their interplay.
That’s the meat of the movie, and helps the movie with its friendship. He’s not really a great guy, who is kind of a racist. Tony is opinionated but finds a friendship with someone outside of his comfort zones.
AF: A lot of this had to come in the car scenes, which help the film stand out. How did you go about cutting those scenes?
PDV: Some of the car scenes were longer. There aren’t a lot of deleted scenes in this movie, but there are a lot of deleted portions of scenes. We would figure out ways to trim them down or lose dialogue if we could. For instance, in one of the car scenes, we got information that Doc Shirley knows JFK. It was great, but you find out later when you’re in jail and they get released.
At some point you find out what goes in and what goes out and that was one that we left out. The car sequences work, but there’s also only so many angles from inside the car. What I liked most were the two shots, because you watch the reaction of one while the other is talking, and Mahershala and Viggo really made those shots work.
AF: Another thing you have weaving through the story are the scenes of Linda Cardellini reading the letters back home. How did you know how to make her time on screen the most effective when she’s basically just reading letters?
PDV: Those are some of my favorite scenes because she’s the heart of the movie in a way. She really ties it all together. It’s refreshing going to her and all the scripted scenes with her are in. We never deleted any of them, although we did do some adjusting. The most interesting I’d say was when she’s reading a letter to the family and the guys are playing poker in the background.
That scene, in the cut, ends on the joke “I want a letter…as soon as you make a meal.” The joke was originally in the middle of that scene. In fact, we read the whole letter with her, then we got the joke, and went to the table with the guys, and there was another joke at the end of that. It just seemed like the second joke wasn’t as strong and we should put the better joke at the end.
AF: That’s probably my favorite of the cuts to her. How do you keep the momentum going in a road trip movie?
PDV: One of the things that Pete and I like to do is screen cuts for friends and strangers early on. Weeks into the director’s cut, we screened for fifty people. You can feel where people are losing interest, and you can feel where things are dragging. It also lets you know if something isn’t quite working or if we can trim it up. If that joke doesn’t work, we can swap it out. I know some people like to wait until the director’s cut is complete to screen it, but I like to get it out in front of people as soon as we can.
AF: How hands on was Pete in the process?
PDV: He was very hands, but he gave me space during the shoot. I would be cutting during the shoot, and he would come in one day on the weekends and we’d go over cuts. He’d give me notes, and he would tell me what works and what doesn’t. I’d then have the next week to kind of work and get any questions answered. I was in New Orleans during the shoot, so if I had any questions I could just go and talk to him. Then we were cutting near where he lives, and he was there every day for about six weeks. We came back to Santa Monica and finished it there.
AF: Which sequence do you think you’re particularly proud of cutting together?
PDV: I do like the letter scenes and the reorder, mostly because it wasn’t expected. I also enjoyed the chicken scene in the car, mostly because I would laugh every time I cut it. So many scenes were good, and another that I think stands out was meeting Don Shirley for the first time. You have to show Don in his world, but then show Tony in his world. We had a lot of footage there, and it really works.
AF: Was there anything you cut from the movie?
PDV: You never know what’s going to stay in the edit or what’s going to go. One scene we had that was longer in the director’s cut was the second fried chicken joke when they get it at dinner. Originally everyone tries to eat it with a knife and fork but Tony begins to eat with his hands even though Doc tells him not to. Then Tony convinces everyone else to eat with their hands and it went on for a while. We realized it was never really as funny as the reveal so we actually just got rid of the scene.
AF: How difficult is it to balance out the quiet moments for Mahershala versus the loud moments for Viggo?
PDV: I think that’s where Mahershala shines and really differentiates it from his other roles in “Moonlight” and other films. It’s those moments that really draws you in. You can also find out interesting things about the audience in those quiet moments. For instance, in comedy there is almost always an unexpected place where you find a laugh. In “Green Book,” that was after the YMCA. Mahershala tells us how you shouldn’t have treated them that way, or bribed them after what they did me. Then Viggo says “I thought I told you never to go anywhere without me,” and Mahershala says “I assumed you’d want this to be the exception.” It was really surprising because I thought it was such a sincere moment, but it’s one of those surprise laughs that you get in a moment.
AF: What’s up next for you?
PDV: I’ve been taking some time off and talking to people about projects, but I have nothing official lined up yet. However, my wife is pregnant with our first child, so I do have that going on (laughs).
PDV: Thank you! It will be next year, so that will be the best gift of the year.