How Pianist Kris Bowers Found His Inner Virtuoso For Oscar-Nominated 'Green Book'

Feb 21, 2019
Originally published on February 21, 2019 11:10 am

There are three pianists involved in making the music of the Oscar-nominated film Green Book. The first is Don Shirley, who was popular in the 1950s and 60s, both in person and on vinyl. The second is actor Mahershala Ali, who portrays Shirley in the film but does not play piano. And so, the third pianist is Kris Bowers, who does all the playing for Ali in the film.

Bowers recreated the music Don Shirley played just as Shirley, a jazz and classical virtuoso, played it. But on screen, you'd swear Ali was playing. The actor's tempo is perfect and his fingers hit all the right keys. Bowers says director Peter Farrelly insisted there be no edits the first time you see Ali at the piano in the film. On screen, the camera starts on Ali's hands and then slowly pans out to show his full body as he plays.

Before Green Book, Bowers says he had never heard of Don Shirley. Bowers immersed himself in Shirley's recordings. That made him nervous. "I was pretty scared actually once I listened to it because of how intricate it was, how difficult it was," Bowers says.

Don Shirley played jazz as if it were classical music. He played it as a fine art. There was no sheet music. But Bowers was no slouch at the piano — he trained at Julliard — so he could transcribe Shirley's performances then go over them over and over, learning as he listened.

"I probably almost broke down a few times questioning whether or not I was gonna be able to get it done," he remembers. "I was practicing eight, nine hours a day."

But why didn't the filmmakers simply lip sync, or finger sync, Ali to the original Don Shirley LP?

"Those original recordings just have a lower quality to them," Bowers says. "They're a little muddier. You would immediately recognize that this must be an old recording that we're listening to. So we wanted to re-record them so that it could just feel live."

That means Bowers had to teach Ali to actually appear to be playing. Bowers started with the basics.

"Our first lesson was only supposed to be an hour, and we spent three hours playing this major scale because he was so attentive to detail in a way that I had never really seen before. He just wanted to make sure that he got it as accurately as possible," Bowers says of Ali.

After the first lesson, the actor could play a major scale with both hands. Bowers and Ali had lessons once a week for three months. By the second month, Ali was playing Shirley's complicated arrangements. You never hear him playing in the film, but you wouldn't know that from watching on screen. Bowers says Ali was a great student.

"When he knew that he was shooting a song, the day before, a few days before, he asked me to record video of myself playing through the song so he could watch me over and over and over again," Bowers says. "After that, before we did the take, we set up a keyboard in his trailer and I would play for him over and over again just so he could sit across from me and watch. Then we were on stage when he was playing, and I was standing off in the wings doing air piano to show him where he should be."

Ali mastered the choreography of playing so it looked authentic. But when it comes to making the music, its Bowers' hands viewers see playing the keys. In the edit room, Green Book's editors made Bowers hands look darker, similar to Ali's skin tone, through color correction. Bowers contributed other body parts, too.

"They did a combination of hands," he says. "Sometimes it's my body and it's a head replacement. There are times where I actually am not sure if it's my hands or my body or his."

Being Green Book's ghost pianist has opened many doors for Bowers; lots of offers for TV and video games. At 29, he's doing exactly what he's wanted to do most of his life. In fact, Bowers was born to make music. In utero, his parents decided he would play piano, "so they started finding piano sampler CDs and started to put them on my mom's stomach and played music for me."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The film "Green Book" is up for a best picture Oscar on Sunday. It's the story of how Don Shirley, a black concert pianist, went on tour in the segregated American South driven by a white bodyguard. The movie has been controversial.

Shirley's family complained of misrepresentation, and some have dismissed the film as yet another story about a black character as told through a white lens. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on one element of the film that is undisputed, the incredible piano playing. She explains how it's done.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: There are three pianists involved in making the movie's music. The first is Don Shirley, who was popular in the 1950s and '60s, in person and on vinyl.

(SOUNDBITE OF IRVING BERLIN'S "BLUE SKIES" PERFORMED BY DON SHIRLEY TRIO)

STAMBERG: He's making a symphony out of Irving Berlin's song "Blue Skies." The second "Green Book" pianist is Mahershala Ali, who portrays Don Shirley in the film. He plays Shirley, but not the piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF IRVING BERLIN'S "BLUE SKIES" PERFORMED BY KRIS BOWERS)

STAMBERG: That music is being made by the movie's third pianist, Kris Bowers. He does all the playing in the film.

So will you just play, like...

KRIS BOWERS: (Laughter) Yeah, for sure.

STAMBERG: OK.

BOWERS: (Playing piano).

STAMBERG: We're sitting at the Yamaha in Kris's Hollywood Hills apartment. He is recreating the music Don Shirley played just as Don Shirley, a virtuoso, played it. But on screen, you'd swear Mahershala did the playing. The actor's tempo is perfect. His fingers hit the right keys.

Kris says director Peter Farrelly insisted there be no edits the first time you see Ali at the piano. The camera starts on his hands and slowly pans out to see his full body as he plays. How'd they do that? Kris will tell in a second. But first, an amazing factoid.

Before "Green Book," had you ever heard of Don Shirley?

BOWERS: I never heard of him.

STAMBERG: To play Shirley's playing, Kris immersed himself in Shirley's recordings. That made him nervous.

BOWERS: I was pretty scared, actually, once I listened to it because of how intricate it was, how difficult it was.

STAMBERG: Don Shirley played jazz as if it were classical music - played it as a fine art. There was no sheet music. Kris was no slouch at the piano. He trained at Juilliard. So he could transcribe Shirley's performances and then go over and over them, listening to five seconds at a time, learning as he listened.

How hard was it for you to play? Because he was a virtuoso.

BOWERS: Yeah, it was pretty difficult. I was pretty nervous. I probably almost broke down a few times just questioning whether or not I was going to be able as a get it done. And I was practicing eight, nine hours a day.

STAMBERG: Why didn't they simply lip sync - finger sync - to the original Don Shirley LPs?

BOWERS: Those original recordings just have a lower quality to them, so they're a little muddier. You would immediately recognize that this must be an old recording that we're listening to. And so we wanted to re-record them so that it could just feel live.

STAMBERG: Which means Kris had to teach actor Mahershala Ali to actually appear to be playing. Kris began with the basics.

BOWERS: (Playing piano).

Our first lesson was only supposed to be an hour, and we spent three hours playing this major scale because he was so attentive to detail in a way that I had never really seen before. And he just wanted to make sure that he got it as accurately as possible.

STAMBERG: After the first lesson, the actor could play a major scale with both hands. They had lessons once a week for three months. By the second month, Ali was playing Shirley's complicated arrangements. You never hear him playing, but you wouldn't know that from seeing him.

You must be some teacher.

BOWERS: Yeah. It was more...

(LAUGHTER)

BOWERS: ...That he was a great student. I haven't that success rate with other students at all (laughter).

STAMBERG: Yeah.

Mahershala Ali was a great student.

BOWERS: When he knew that he was shooting a song, the day before or a few days before, he asked me to record video of myself playing through the song so he could watch me over and over and over again. And then after that, before we did the take we set up a keyboard in his trailer. And I would play for him over and over again just so he could watch - sit across from me. And then we were on stage - when he was playing, I was standing off in the wings doing air piano to show him where he should be.

(Playing piano).

STAMBERG: Mahershala Ali mastered the choreography of the playing so it looked authentic.

Are your hands the same size?

BOWERS: Just about, actually - he has pretty massive hands. They're a little darker than mine, but about the same size.

STAMBERG: Do we ever see your hands in the movie?

BOWERS: Yeah, a lot of the time you're seeing my hands.

STAMBERG: In the edit room, they made Kris' hands look darker through color correction. And Kris contributed other body parts.

BOWERS: They did a combination of hands. Sometimes it's my body, and it's head replacement. Like there are times where I actually am not sure if it's made my hands or my body or his.

STAMBERG: Being "Green Book's" ghost pianist has opened many doors for Kris - lots of offers for TV, video games. At 29, he's doing exactly what he's wanted to do most of his life. In fact, Kris was born to make music. When he was in utero, his parents decided he would play the piano.

BOWERS: And so they started finding, like, piano sampler CDs and started to put them on my mom's stomach and play music for me. (Laughter).

STAMBERG: It seems to have worked. Kris Bowers can be heard - but not seen - in the Oscar-nominated film, "Green Book." In Los Angeles, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON SHIRLEY'S "THE LONESOME ROAD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.