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.”

Peter Landesman Tells the Truth in Concussion Interview – by Scott Essman

Peter Landesman Tells the Truth in Concussion
Interview by Scott Essman

In crafting the film Concussion, concerning National Football League players who have contracted permanent brain damage, technically called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), writer-director Peter Landesman aimed the project at a mainstream theatrical release, one which was advertised during major sporting events. That audacious move against one of America’s most prominent institutions might have raised eyebrows in both NFL and Hollywood circles, but not Landesman’s as he unveiled in an exclusive interview.

“I made the movie for everybody, including football fans,” he related by phone after the film’s initial wide theatrical run, an exhibition pattern suited to a project such as Dead Pool more obviously than a film about an actual African neuropathologist named Bennet Omalu (boldly played Will Smith) who discovers in several autopsies the similar strains of brain damage attained by a group of former NFL players. “I never felt the footsteps of anybody behind me. The best defense is the truth. We were making an honest feature film. I was never worried about anybody else.”

Based on a Gentleman’s Quarterly magazine article entitled “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion’s screenplay was developed after Landesman’s own meticulous pre-production research commenced. “The article was a jumping-off point,” Landesman explained, noting that he utilized almost all of the article’s findings but delved further into his own findings. “I wanted to be very careful—I knew it would be gone through with a fine-tooth comb. I’m an ex-journalist.”

As with any feature film, 100% accuracy is a near impossibility, and Landesman related how Concussion was ultimately delivered in a dramatically liberal context, though it sticks to real people, events, and situations. “It’s a movie with characters, dialogue, emotion; it’s not a documentary,” he said. “It’s not a Wikipedia entry—it’s a movie. This one was very accurate.”
Though the implications of a large measure of NFL players suffering from CTE could result in a dethroning of the NFL’s longtime dominance, the people close to the matter who Landesman approached were open with information. “People wanted to talk about this,” Landesman noted. “They knew that it was a serious issue.”


Naturally, Landesman contacted Bennet Omalu, whose medical discoveries caused expected controversy in pro football circles. “I met the real guy,” Landesman revealed. “I spent a lot of time with him, researching him, [learning] a lot about his spirituality, real motivations. What is was like to become a pariah? How did he handle that?”

After Landesman’s screenplay was locked, he engaged Smith and the other lead actors in extensive rehearsals. “We worked for months on his accent and on his reading,” Landesman said of Smith. “ We both believe in over-preparedness.”

On set in Pittsburgh for 56 days, Landesman recalled that Concussion was not a technically complex shoot though his results were finally magnetic and powerful. “I love actors and getting in the trenches with them,” he said. “Being in the mud with them; a situation in which they feel safe to take chances.”

In addition the honesty communicated in Smith’s performance, so rich a dramatization that an Oscar nomination seemed a shoe-in—though it did not happen—Concussion features strong outings by Alec Baldwin as a NFL team doctor and a mesmerizing David Morse as Pittsburgh Steelers’ famous center Mike Webster who died at a young age and was found to have CTE. “Morse is enormously well-prepared,” said Landesman. “We had many conversations on and off set: how to find a man who is heroic and strong, coming apart at the seams at the same.”

Interacting with all of his actors, Landesman noted that his goals were simple and straightforward. “Just trying to find the most raw honest performance,” he said. “This was not complicated logistically; getting to the most honest, powerful, consistent performance we could find.”

As Landesman’s final film reads as some manner of indictment of regular NFL practices, one might have expected that director would have had his reputation and credentials questioned, just as the Omalu character is smeared by the powers-that-be in the film, but Landesman asserted that no interference was present during filming or post-production. “I never felt any concerns,” he detailed. “I don’t think it’s possible to go too far. The truth is the only thing that matters. The consequences are the consequences.”

Director Peter Landesman, left, and Will Smith on set of Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Director Peter Landesman, left, and Will Smith on set of Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”


With Concussion wrapped and in general release, Landesman noted that he was next preparing a film called Self with Liam Neeson. “I think that Concussion provided a stage and I’m going to exploit that moving forward,” he concluded. “Tell the stories that matter the most to me.”

Dan Kramer on Edge of Tomorrow’s Visual Effects – By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

Dan Kramer on Edge of Tomorrow’s Visual Effects
July 15, 2014 | By Scott Essman and Osahon Irabor

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise has been facilitating starring vehicles for himself seemingly once a year now for the better part of the past decade. This year, he has embraced a much darker, grittier movie. Edge of Tomorrow, the film adaptation of author Hiroshi Sakurazaka‘s novel All You Need Is Kill, directed by Doug Liman and starring Cruise and Emily Blunt, portrays the recurring struggles Cruise’s character must face in order to fend off an invasion from an alien race known as the “Mimics.” The film employs elements of suspense present in previous Liman films, mated with a sci-fi “time-loop” plot sure to remind audiences of Groundhog Day. To bring this concept to life, Liman needed to entrust much of his film’s visual fate to the able hands of a renowned staff. Enter Daniel Kramer, VFX supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks. Kramer, a veteran visual effects artist, has been hailed for his past work on films such as Independence Day, Watchmen, and Spider-Man. With Kramer at the helm, Sony Pictures Imageworks would be tasked with bringing the majority of Edge of Tomorrow‘s visual effects sequences to life. With help from supervisor Nick Davis (The Dark Night), Kramer began immediate work on creating the conceptual art for the film.

LR-2-rub2610_comp_v45_2kun_qt8.1017“When I came on, quite a bit of work had already been done to figure out what the opening landing shot would look like,” Kramer said. “We were brought on right at the time when they first started shooting. I had finished Hotel Transylvania and found out that we landed the job. I had to get on set really quick, because they had a lot of the previews and concept designs done already. We had seen this when it was proposed to us.”

For Kramer, the challenge would be to develop graphics for art director, Neil Lamont, while Liman was still working through the script.“The script was ever-evolving,” Kramer recalled. “Doug Liman was finding his way through the script and story. The third act was not fleshed out when we started working on it. We didn’t know what the alien looked like. It ended up being different while we were shooting.”

Building a memorable action sequence is no easy task, and Kramer and his Imageworks team needed to create a variety of items that would be appropriate for the opening action sequence in the hopes that there would be an organic sense of continuity throughout the film.“We worked closely on the layout and littered the beach with dead bodies, planes being hit, and spaceships falling from the sky,” Kramer described. “They didn’t know the tone of the movie at that time. I worked on location with Nick for a couple of months. Imageworks was responsible for the main two acts – the Heathrow work and extension as well as the beach shots, trailer park and helicopter in the barn. That was all done at Leavesden Studios in London. Then, we embarked on assets [including] semi-automated guns that come off of his back as he gets a little bit better. We got designs for the ships, huge landing vehicles, boats and aircraft carriers. We got a list of everything we needed to build. We modeled those when I was on location. The DFX [supervisor, Ken Hahn] helped out organizing the efforts in Culver City.”

LR-1-rub2160_comp_v26_2kun_qt8.1031During the asset building process, Kramer and his team were able to create the appearance of a convincing war without tailoring scenes to any one specific shot. It was a technique that proved efficient. “It’s a very long process to build the assets to get to the point of rendering a shot,” Kramer explained. “We made a lo-res proxy version of each of them. We got a scan of the beach and built an environment. We gave versions to the art department. We got plates from production, got those 3D match-moved and loaded into our layout. The action was so disorienting that we could get away with murder as far as continuity goes. We had tons of boats landing on the beach as they dropped off troops and left, as well as crowds of troops running up the beach. The layout department built up a general war action sequence.”

As most big action films shoot against green, SPI has a pipeline in place for adding background elements to live-action plates with greenscreen backgrounds. “We populated our CG world where the set stopped and the greenscreen started,” Kramer stated. “By doing that, we could then load in the match-move cameras for a sequence. We had a convincing war without tailoring anything for any one specific shot. We can stick a dead body in the plate or a hole in the plate where we can put in some CG guys or have a tank drive through. That was choreographed and puzzled for each shot. We had assets, pre-canned clips we could drop in. A lot of it was big gas explosions, giant plumes of smoke rising, javelins rising through the air, matching live-action reference on set, making little clips of animation and rendering them from different angles.”

LR-3-crm0710_comp_v93_2kun_qt8.1056By merging live-action effects with CGI rendered visuals, Kramer and his team were able to combine the two elements seamlessly into the film. “By combining live-action, pyro, and digital versions of pyro, we could generate more views of the different explosions,” he said. “They could start layering them in and matting them into each scene. In addition to the live-action pyro and generated pyro that we created, we had destruction clips. A CG Jeep ramming into a wall as we rendered it from many different angles. A compositor would pick the appropriate clip and track it into a shot. By reusing the clips over and over again in 2D, we could fill them up with assets.”

For Kramer, being able to meet industry standards under strict deadlines, while collaborating with two other CG supervisors across the pond, would prove testing. “We had a year from the time I showed up at Leavesden to the time we wrapped things up,” Kramer recollected. “The actual time working on shots was much more compressed as we spent a lot of time building up assets. We had 130 [crew] credits, including production people and support staff in addition to artists and compositors. We had two different CG supervisors each with a team of 15 doing all of the beach shots. We only had one unit responsible for lighting and composition even though we needed three.”

LR-h-hpa0360_comp_v172_2kun_qt8.1074A common misconception about Hollywood is that special talent gets discovered and foisted into prominence overnight. For Kramer, becoming a visual effects supervisor in the movie industry was all about the steep and steady climb.

“I’ve been here since 2000,” he said. “I was a generalist at VisionArt in Santa Monica [for] eight years where I started as an intern. We worked on Independence Day, Godzilla and Deep Space Nine. We were doing a lot of commercial work, TV and eventually getting into movies. At SPI, I was a Houdini animator. I came up through the ranks.”

As a result of his 22-year tenure in Hollywood, Kramer knew the necessary expectations of going into Edge of Tomorrow. “You want to give each supervisor a sequence that stands out on its own,” Kramer noted. “The beach was such a huge component, because we had to split it across two [supervised] teams. We pulled the lighting team that fed the compositing team. Now we had compositors taking all the elements and putting them together. It’s not that big of a task considering other projects that they’ve been doing.”

Using iTView software, a digital sharing tool, Kramer established a streamlined approach that benefited the editorial process. “Nick Davis, the overall supervisor, was in London with Doug Liman doing editorial and posts,” Kramer explained. “Using our own viewing software, iTView, we remotely loaded up shots in full 2K resolution so he could see what we were doing in a controlled environment. Going through shots and getting feedback from Nick was key even though we were spread out among two different locations. The compositing team or lighting team would come in and show work that was rendered overnight – modeling, texturing, animation and lighting, compositing. We spent 8 to 12 hours in a dark room looking at images and giving feedback to teams. Most of the artists are in that room, or we are doing it through iTView synced into the same session. Artists at their desks can dial-in and be a part of the rounds. Sometimes you are talking to hundreds of artists in a remotely-detached sensory-deprived environment all day long.”

LR-T-cat0960_comp_v15_2kun_qt8.1042Along with using iTView as a collaborative tool, Kramer found editorial meetings amongst supervisors as the most effective way to flush out excess material. “We worked with Nick Davis in London as we presented to Doug who came to L.A. and sat in on reviews,” stated Kramer. “At one point, they get off the beach and get into a trailer park area. As they are driving through that trailer park sequence, there’s a hint that there’s some Mimics around. We built CG trailer homes to be destroyed with mimics ripping through those homes. All of that, at some point, got scrapped as they realized the movie was going [fast] the whole time. From the time they arrived on the beach to the time they got off the beach, there was relentless action which was taken out. One supervisor did the Heathrow sequence, another did the trailer park and barn sequence, and one other took over the lighting and look development. A lot of moving parts; you need superstar supervisors who can work autonomously.”

Through simple test shots and trials, Kramer worked alongside the production team to add balance to the on-screen action. In the end, he was happy with the live-action component of the production. “It was impressive to be on set,” he said. “Gas explosions, which would burn black smoke columns into the sky, mortars, air cannons filled with foam rocks and dirt. It was clear that they wanted to go over the top. When we got the first couple of shots, we tried things out and ran them by Nick Davis and Doug. We kept adding and adding. An explosion might have taken your eye away from the action, but not because it was too much destruction.”

By using his Mimic models sparingly, Kramer found that he could add a dangerous mystique, and invisible presence to the aliens while still portraying a sense of present danger in the characters. “For much of the shots, you don’t see the aliens at all,” Kramer conveyed. “The projectiles in the air were javelins shot at our soldiers – something that was unpredictable and alien. Once we came up with that look, we started littering the sky with the javelins. At any moment the guy next to you could get hit.”

When the Mimic models were in focus, bringing Sakurazaka’s aliens to life posed a unique challenge for Kramer and his team, because so many different versions of the aliens had been designed.“A lot of design work on the aliens had been done, but nothing had been settled upon,” revealed Kramer. “The early one was a quadruped with tentacles wrapped around the limbs – an alien with no solid form at all, completely made out of tentacles. This character had no specific form; there wasn’t a set number of limbs or volume for his body.”

Defying their names, Kramer designed the Mimics to be highly atypical in form, which led to some unique motion challenges. “The tentacles could reform and reconfigure into these shapes based on where it needed to go or who it needed to kill,” Kramer related “It was complicated to build and animate. Normally an alien has bones and flesh. You build that model and run it around. This wasn’t like that. We knew that the character was complicated. We had a technical animator write a plug-in to handle all of the tentacles. He devised the system which was a center curve in animation software. I wanted 20 tentacles intertwined, twisted, contracted together, to writhe against each other. The plug-in knew the radius of every tentacle. If one on the inside grew or slipped, the tentacles above it moved in reaction.”

The further implementation of project-specific software paid dividends for the project, allowing Kramer and his crew to give each graphic model a unique look.

“We gave our animator these high-level controls,” Kramer remarked. “How fast do they move? How thick are they? They couldn’t actually animate each individual tentacle. We built a body made out of tentacles and would jam these procedural limbs into the body. Each alien could be truly unique and have a different number of limbs and move independently. Along those tentacles, we would instance chains of stones or glass off of obsidian. They would look angular and sharp and use their limbs as slashing or stabbing weapons.”

Keeping the aliens faithful to the source material and Liman’s vision, Kramer sold the aliens’ remarkable speed through environmental consistency.

“Doug wanted it to really be different,” Kramer commented. “Always moving and writhing. He wanted them to move incredibly fast, subverting time and space when they move. I was worried that any time you have something moving that fast, it tends to look digital. As long as we paired it with effects animation and burst sand off of the character, it became more believable that it moved that fast and made it a little more mysterious.”

As it is no secret that visual effects outfits have to compete for projects and films, with a film the scope of Edge of Tomorrow requiring a great deal of collaboration, spreading the show amongst multiple vendors could have been tenuous. However, for Kramer, working alongside other effects companies on this film was an amicable process. “Today, more and more, vendors are rendering characters [together],” he said. “In our case, a lot of the assets that we needed were created by other vendors. We built the digital double and exo-suits for the characters. We built drop ships, Mimics, and anything that was shared. Framestore had to build a procedural system to replicate what we were doing. We sent them the digital exo-suits and [the lead characters of Cage and Rita]. We also had Cinesite who did the sparring scene shots. We shared as much as we possibly could with them and tried to be accommodating. We had a good working relationship with external vendors.”

Edge of Tomorrow is currently in general release in theaters.

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