Bill Pohlad Presents Two Sides of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy Interview by Scott Essman

Bill Pohlad Presents Two Sides of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy Interview by Scott Essman

Bill Pohlad Presents Two Sides of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy
Interview by Scott Essman
With as enigmatic a figure as there is in the rock music landscape in the Beach Boys’ founder and key songwriter, Brian Wilson, any film concerning the man’s creative genius and personal tribulations was bound to be unconventional.  In Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad intercuts throughout the film to two wholly different periods in Wilson’s life: his mid-1960s heyday as a writer and producer, crafting the Beach Boys’ groundbreaking Pet Sounds album, and the mid-1980s where Wilson was under the dominating guardianship of controversial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

“It was something I’ve always had a dream to do,” Pohlad stated of Love & Mercy, a project which attracted actor Paul Dano as the younger Wilson, John Cusack as the older Wilson, Paul Giamatti as Landy, and Elizabeth Banks as the older Wilson’s love interest, Melinda Ledbetter, who went on to become Wilson’s wife.

Surely, by casting the movie with two different actors playing Wilson, neither of whom is wearing transforming makeup to resemble the real man, on top of the intercutting between the two storylines, Pohlad is making a pure artistic statement more so than a commercial biopic, a bold move for a first-time director.  “I think I’ve somewhat tried to do that throughout my career,” said Pohlad, who had previously produced 12 Years a Slave, The Master, and The Tree of Life among recent work.  “This business is so risky and difficult; I figured, starting out, if I was only going to have one opportunity to make a movie, I wasn’t going to do something that was already done.  I would rather go down with something that I readily believed in or was excited about.  With somebody like Brian, you can’t play it safe—it didn’t feel right.  I wanted to get more intimate with the character.  That motivated me to push the envelope.”

Foremost, Pohlad utilized key portions of the Beach Boys’ catalogue of hit songs, mandating that he acquire important Wilson compositions and classic recordings by the Beach Boys from their most fertile period.  “I don’t think it’s ever easy,” Pohlad said of obtaining music for films.  “It was going to involve a lot of music with a lot of people holding the rights to that music.  There are major hurdles you have to go through.  Relative to other projects, this wasn’t that bad.”

Also crucial to the production of Love & Mercy was Pohlad’s gaining of the acceptance and blessings of both Wilson and Ledbetter.  “Brian and Melinda were involved from the beginning, finding a common ground,” the director said.  “They trusted that I was going to do it in a good way.  Getting to know them and talking to them; keeping them apprised of script development, listening to any concerns that they had.”
Due to the subject matter, with Wilson being a beloved figure in the entertainment industry at large, Love & Mercy drew many talented figures who wished to get the stories rendered correctly on film and on the soundtrack.  “There was a very positive vibe about people who were getting involved,” Pohlad related.  “You start to develop this team who work together well and have a positive vibe.  For me, it was holding up to some certain standard that I had in my mind.”
In point, being a major Wilson fan himself, Pohlad endeavored to strike a chord amongst all Beach Boys fans with the film, especially the noteworthy scenes where Wilson orchestrates Pet Sounds in the studio with his famed “wrecking crew” of session musicians.  “Back in the 1960s, you didn’t get that many opportunities to see inside the creative process,” noted Pohlad.  “There are a lot more glimpses into that today; back then, it was very rare – Let it Be; Sympathy for the Devil did it a little bit.  I loved those and tried to emulate that.  It felt like it was right out of that playbook with the recording of Pet Sounds.”

To recreate the Pet Sounds sessions, Pohlad brought in real musicians in favor of hiring actors to play those musicians.  “We didn’t rehearse with them,” Pohlad confessed.  “Thanks to Brian, he put us onto people who he works with all the time.  We dressed them up in period costumes.  We didn’t tell them that much about what they’d be doing; they were coming into a session like a normal recording session.”
As Dano needed to portray Wilson as the master genius who formulated Pet Sounds—inarguably one of rock music’s greatest albums—the actor steeped himself into musical recording culture.  “We brought the guys in and had them literally live it,” Pohlad said of those revelatory scenes.  “Paul would come in and start directing these guys as Brian.  He channeled Brian and the method he would use, and his approach.  It was very spontaneous.  We were literally shooting it like a documentary film.”

During the filming of the Pet Sounds sessions, Pohlad adopted a unique approach to getting the momentous events immortalized.  “In addition to shooting these real musicians playing, we wanted to be able to record them and use that sound,” he stated.  “The sound team and the lighting crew figuring out how to do it so that you can shoot it like the real thing.  Once we got rolling, it was very natural and easy: let’s start working on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”  Bob [cinematographer Robert Yeoman] and Casey [Hotchkiss, b-camera operator] would go around and pick shots like you would in a documentary film.  You’re sitting in a studio where Brian recorded Pet Sounds with all of these musicians, [with a] sound engineer to keep us on track.  It felt like we were back in the 1960s.  It was a special moment.”

To create the onscreen Wilsons in each time period, Pohlad allowed his actors due freedom.  “John did spend a lot of time with the real Brian, but Paul didn’t,” Pohlad unveiled.  “The three of us didn’t coordinate how to walk or talk; they found it independently.  It was important to me not to dictate.  You want it to be natural.”

While Dano had to work through learning how to play and arrange the music, Cusack was not playing Brian Wilson during a musically active period in the songwriter’s life.  “John was going for a different Brian,” Pohlad remarked.  “Spending time with the real Brian helped him find that part of his life.  It wasn’t super formal; I wanted it to be more loose – channeling Brian rather than follow a pattern.”
For Banks, lobbying to play Ledbetter, the actress quickly convinced the director that she was right for the role.  “Casting is a key part of how the movie is going to work out,” said Pohlad.  “In the first five minutes, I could tell that Elizabeth was cut from the same cloth of Melinda – a no-nonsense kind of person; a lot of energy.  That helped a lot in making the decision.  She executed the role – spent a lot of time with Melinda through the shoot.”

Surely, as endearing as the 1960s scenes are in Love & Mercy, the 1980s material is equally dynamic—though largely heartbreaking given Landy’s dominance over Wilson at the time.  Nevertheless, Pohlad stated that he and Giamatti did not want to create a screen monster.  “You never want to do a movie or tell a story with a one-dimensional character,” Pohlad described.  “You want to try to [show] the human side.  We couldn’t find people with much good to say about [Landy].  He had Brian under his thumb and [tried to] get some of that magic for himself instead.  You try to make him human instead of this arch villain.  Having Paul Giamatti was invaluable.”

In the end, Love & Mercy is mandatory for any potential viewers intrigued by Wilson’s creative machinations plus his bizarre overall life arc which took him from the top shelf of the music business to the bottom rung of torment before Ledbetter helped him climb out of Landy’s control.  In realizing his vision, Pohlad noted his many critical collaborators.  “I do think we had a great group of people,” Pohlad said about his key team.  “My cohort was [executive producer] Oren Moverman; Oren was on set much of the time—that was a great important relationship.  [DP] Bob Yeoman, Ed Tise, the sound guy, Atticus Ross [on] the music side, Danny Glicker on the wardrobe.  It really is true: a great group of people; I had so many great collaborators on set throughout the process.  It was instrumental to get where we ended up being—it was such a great experience.  It’s the film that is going to last.”

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