Interview: Director Bill Pohlad on the Brian Wilson Film Love & Mercy

Anyone who has ever heard a Beach Boys song or listened to one of their albums knows what an impact their founding member Brian Wilson had on music during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s even thought that the Beatles masterpiece “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a direct response to the amazing production Wilson achieved on the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.”

That be as it may, Wilson suffered from personal issues, having dealt with an abusive father and taken drugs to help with the voices in his head, which led to him falling off the face of the map for decades until he resurfaced in the ‘90s. After escaping the clutches of his manipulative therapist Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson was able to return to music with a number of solo albums and finally reworking his lost classic “Smile.”

The highs and lows of Wilson’s life and career are all documented in Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, which puts Paul Dano in the shoes of the younger creative Wilson and casts John Cusack as the older, more troubled Wilson, whose life turns around after meeting the lovely Melinda, played by Elizabeth Banks.

Pohlad is best known as a producer of Oscar-worthy films like Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave, Wild and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, the latter for which Pohlad received an Oscar nomination, but with Love & Mercy, he’s successfully transitioned into a director who can hold his own with the best of them. got on the phone with Pohlad last week to discuss the ins and outs of making a film about a living legend like Wilson as well as getting a few teases about his two current productions, Sean Penn’s The Last Face and Juan Bayonna’s A Monster Calls. The movie was great. I’ve seen it a couple of times now, and while I can’t say I’m a huge Beach Boys fan, I used to be a recording engineer, and Wilson’s production, especially on “Pet Sounds,” is often discussed and cited by engineers.

Bill Pohlad: Oh really? 

CS: Yeah, yeah. Now I read a little bit about John Wells’ getting the rights to Brian’s story, so how did you become involved, especially directing?

Pohlad: It kind of progressed from there. John Wells had talked to Brian and they worked on a little project and hired Michael Lerner to write a script. They brought it to us to maybe partner and coproduce with them. It’s a good script, but it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I guess. It didn’t do much for me in that regard, so I told them, “If this didn’t work out of them trying to put it together, they should come back and maybe we’d start over.” So, they did, and that’s ultimately what we did was kind of start with a different approach to it than Michael’s script, I guess a little more aggressive in the way we approached the story and a little less biopic-ish, and a little more, I guess, intimate was the goal. I had this rough idea of how I thought it should go. It involved them doing something that’s kind of more intimate, and in that process, we got it back out with Oren Moverman, who we ultimately hired to write it. We really clicked on it right away, the idea of kind of doing this two-strand approach, and it was during that part as we worked together on the script that I guess my vision of it crystallized, and it was really Oren who kind of came up with the idea and said, “You should really direct this. You’ve got a clear vision of it.” He thought it would be great, so I kind of used that as my tip to go for it and do it.

65th BIFF - 'Love and Mercy' - PhotocallCS: You’ve directed before though. It’s been a while, as you’ve mainly been producing others. Was there any reason why you hadn’t directed anything else and then why you decided to go back to directing?

Pohlad: I started off as a director/writer, and that’s certainly my first love, but you know, after we did a feature when I first got started in the last ’80s, I ended up doing a lot of commercials and documentary films but wasn’t able to get another feature going. After ten years of doing a lot of that other kind of directing, I decided to shift back to producing and really concentrate on that in an effort to get back into the feature side, and come out to Los Angeles and kind of engage with the industry a bit more. That’s where all the producing stuff started happening, and it went pretty well, but I never liked the idea of the producer who always wants to be the director and is going around trying to work that gig. So I just really stuck to producing for, whatever, 10, 15 years, and it kind of went pretty well. But then, ultimately, I felt comfortable coming out a little bit in my desire to direct again. I was actually working on another project in that regard, a project to direct, when we were working on Brian Wilson. That’s why it kind of worked together so perfectly.

CS: As far as making a movie about a person that’s still alive–both Brian and his wife Melinda are still with us—so at what point did you want to meet with them and talk? Was that before Oren started the second script?

Pohlad: When we got involved and when I had this kind of other idea for it, I certainly wanted to meet with Brian. Obviously, I was looking forward to meeting him just in general as a fan and because I respected his work so much, but I certainly wanted him to understand that what I had in mind was a little different from the Michael Lerner script, and my version of it was a little more, I guess, intimate, and thereby, probably would make him a little more vulnerable because I wanted it to be a closer look as opposed to f a very surfacey look at his life. I met him early on in the process, and he was great about it. I mean, as producers with River Road, we’ve done a lot of true stories with the actual people alive and that whole dynamic. And it is tricky. You know that you’re making a movie and you have a responsibility to the true event, and you want it to be as true as possible, but you also know that when you’re making a movie like that, it’s not like the subject is always going to agree with you about how it goes. There can be times when as a more objective filmmaker, I’m going to make different decisions. Brian and I and Melinda talked about that. It really takes some kind of level of trust for them to find a level of trust with me or whoever. Even though we might not agree all the time, he trusts in the general direction that we’re going and the general sphere of the project. He did that. They both did that instantly.

CS: Since Dr. Landy is dead, for a lot of the scenes depicted, only Brian and Melinda would have been there and know exactly what happened, so was it important to get those stories and anecdotes directly from them?

Pohlad: For sure. I mean, Brian’s life, first of all, was one of those where a lot has been written about it, certainly his music particularly, and also in those times when he was in bed, there was a lot of things written about him, a lot of people speculating. So certainly Oren and I were able to put the script together in some form without consulting Brian at the beginning. Then, it’s easier then, to kind of go to Brian and say, “This is what we’re thinking,” then let him react to it as opposed to starting from square one. It was really beneficial to have kind of a base of knowledge of him and his life, that then we could kind of use Brian and Melinda to both backtrack and to give us real insight into what really happened when they met. How did it go and what did it feel like and all that kind of thing. There were great in kind of giving that insight into it, but certainly, there’s a lot of different people in the film and a lot of different points of view. At the end of the day, my choice was to have it be a film that takes the perspective of Brian and Melinda. It’s not trying to be super objective about everybody involved. It really is a story about the two of them, and Brian, in particular, certainly in the early days. We did talk to people and we certainly did our homework, so to speak, beyond just talking to Brian, but at the end of the day, I’m not claiming that it’s the definitive Brian Wilson film or the definitive Beach Boys film by any means. It’s really kind of my personal portrait of Brian, which has input with him as the subject and Melinda.

Interview: Director Bill Pohlad on the Brian Wilson Film Love & Mercy

CS: Can you talk about casting Paul and John as Brian? Neither of them looks like Brian, maybe Paul a little more, especially in the scenes where you’re recreating the better known Beach Boys promotional videos. It took me a couple seconds to realize that was Paul. But you didn’t use makeup and other stuff to make them look more like Brian so can you talk about casting two actors to play the same person?

Pohlad: Yeah, I think it comes from the same spirit, the idea of not wanting to do a biopic, like a straight ahead soup-to-nuts kind of a look at Brian Wilson, and instead, trying to do something more intimate. That’s what set the tone for the approach to the film. Then that kind of progressed into picking these two eras from his life and intertwining those to paint this portrait of him. So that’s kind of an unusual approach. The next step in the progression creatively, I think was discussing the idea of having two different actors play Brian Wilson as opposed to aging one actor up or down. It just felt more creatively interesting to me to have it be two actors as opposed to one. For me, casting Paul Dano was pretty straight-forward. When you look at actors of that age range, he was at the top of the list in my mind, as far as great actors. He did have a physical resemblance, somewhat. Admittedly, doing the other role, as we called it, “the Brian future role,” the role John ultimately played, it was a little more challenging because you see pictures of Brian from the ‘80s, and he’s all over the board. Sometimes he’s very heavy, he has a scraggly beard and hair. Sometimes, he’s very trim, almost emaciated looking and very thin face and all that. So I was kind of wrestling with which Brian we wanted to portray physically, as it relates to which actor might work.

On the other hand, I didn’t want to be too much a slave to that. It wasn’t like I wanted to find somebody who looked exactly like Brian, or we wanted to do prosthetics or something to make him look like Brian I didn’t think that was in the spirit of it. I encouraged both Paul and John to find their own Brian organically, you know what I mean? That was part of it, to not necessarily have it be like an imitation, where you walk exactly like him or you scratch your nose exactly like him. I thought it’d get a little more interesting that it be more freeform. So in some ways, I could argue that it wasn’t important that they look exactly like Brian to me. On the other hand, when I went to cast Brian future, and I was trying to make that decision, we looked at that Don Was documentary about Brian that was made in the early ‘90s. It just wasn’t made for these times. There’s a shock early on where Brian’s sitting there and the camera’s kind of close on him and he’s sitting there with a leather jacket on, just kind of looking down. It struck me that that Brian really does look like John Cusack, and John Cusack just jumped at me as being, “John could do that. John could do this.” I see him there. It worked out. So yeah, a lot of people say, “Well, he doesn’t look like Brian,” and he doesn’t look like the classic Brian Wilson from the ‘60s, but he does kind of look like the Brian from that one era. But anyway, it was more in the spirit of wanting to find the right Brian as opposed to creating that caricature of him.

CS: Did John and Paul spend any time together? Did you want them to meet and work on the character together or was it better to keep them apart so that Brian could be dramatically different in those two eras?

Pohlad: In that same spirit, it’s just kind of a continuation of the same idea, which is like, let’s find this. Let’s not do it the obvious way. Let’s not get Paul and John together and have them walk the same way or form their noses in the same way with prosthetics or any of that stuff. It felt like there was a lot of material to draw on. Paul had different kinds of materials than John did, but I thought it was better that they found it, without sounding corny, from within themselves as opposed to trying to force it through some artificial things on the outside. Likewise, having them meeting and coordinating didn’t seem like the right thing either. I didn’t want them sto say, “How about we both do this?” That didn’t seem like in the spirit of a slightly more free form, organic finding of Brian.

Interview: Director Bill Pohlad on the Brian Wilson Film Love & Mercy

CS: I really liked Paul’s segments because we see him in the studio but you also recreated some of the classic live performances and the promotional films, which were almost early music videos.

Pohlad: Yeah, we put it to “Sloop John B” with them at Brian’s house and walking through the door and carrying the raft and all that, that’s kind of a recreation of that, as you say, an early music video that they did. That was really fun to do that kind of stuff, as well as trying to recreate the early Beach Boys album covers. Then the sequence of Paul singing “Surf’s Up,” is kind of a shot for shot recreation of the documentary that Brian performed the song on for ABC TV. All those things were, I thought, important to kind of studying the time, kind of placing it in the period, and I guess giving a little shoutout to a lot of the Beach Boys fans who love that stuff. I think it works for the movie, hopefully in general, but also works to help warm the hearts of the Beach Boys fans out there.

CS: You have some really interesting movies coming up as a producer including Sean Penn’s latest and the new one from Juan Bayona, an amazing filmmaker. Are those almost ready to go and might they be at Toronto?

Pohlad: No, I mean, both of them are still definitely in process, we’re in post on both. They’re going great and I’m thrilled about both of them really and have high expectations and excitement for both of them. But “Monster” in particular, has a long post-production schedule because there’s a lot of VFX to work on, so it’s going to be a while on that one as well. Hopefully, “The Last Face,” we’re shooting for the end of the year, so that’s a little more aggressive, but it’s in great shape and we’re very excited about it.

CS: Having worked with all these great directors over the last few years, is there any one director or one thing you learned from that you took away when you directed this movie, having worked with so many other filmmakers since directing your first movie?

Pohlad: Absolutely. It’s a great gift, certainly, to be able to have worked with these guys, but I’m also not that kind of guy. I don’t think it’s good for me as a director or as an artist or whatever, to just try to imitate somebody in that way. I think there’s a lot I’ve learned from all those guys, but I like the idea of just trying to take it in and then it just comes out somehow in its own form through whoever’s doing it, for me, in this case, as opposed to being kind of very logical about it. Or “I want to do it like Terry does it or I want to do it like Sean does it,” I don’t relate to that, I feel like. As much as I respect those guys and have learned a lot from them, I think it’s good for the individual, any of us, to kind of take those things in and have them count out in our own way.

Love & Mercy is now playing in select cities. You can check out video interviews with the cast right here.