Director of Brian Wilson biopic ‘Love & Mercy’ talks being original, mental illness in film

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After appearances at both the Toronto International Film Festival last September and the San Francisco International Film Festival this spring, Bill Pohlad’s directorial debut “Love & Mercy” finally hits theaters this Friday. Charting the life of Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson, Pohlad’s vision is unique in that it unfolds in two distinct narrative threads. In one, Paul Dano plays a young Brian Wilson slowly being overwhelmed by the voices in his head during the recording of the monumental album Pet Sounds, and, in the other, John Cusack plays an older Wilson, caught in a fog of mental illness and in the midst of falling in love with now-wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) — all while under the thumb of tyrannical psychiatrist Eugene Landy. During a brief appearance for SFIFF this May, the Stanford Daily sat down with Pohlad to discuss the film, the decision to divide the narrative, and the process of doing justice to Brian’s ailment on-screen.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): “Love & Mercy” takes place in two different time periods with two different actors playing different versions of Brian Wilson. Did you have any reservations about splitting the narrative? Why did you think these two segments were compatible?

Bill Pohlad (BP): Well, I mean, it was just a gut reaction. There had been a script earlier that was more conventional and I really wasn’t interested in it that much. It was just too conventional. It was an interesting story but I really never wanted to do a biopic. So when we got involved we kind of said we would start over — start from scratch. And so when I met Brian [Wilson] and Melinda [Ledbetter] and got to spend a little time with them, I heard how Melinda met Brian, and it seemed like a really good way into the story for the audience– kind of meeting this guy and having no idea who he was — a quirky guy, but being charmed by him as well. And so it just attracted me as a storyline. And I had also gotten very deeply into Pet Sounds and that era of Brian’s life when he was at his most creative, but also when things started to fall apart. So I thought those two pieces, those two times in his life would be the ones to go for to paint this portrait. That was the idea of the interweaving. But I didn’t really have any reservations. Whenever you’re trying to do something different there’s always the risk that it’s not going to work.

TSD: Along those lines, why did you choose not to use make-up to alter the actors’ faces to look more similar?

BP: Again it’s, I guess I just felt like I didn’t want to do something conventional. Once we made the decision to have two different actors play two Brians at two different times in his life, I thought we needed to embrace that approach — more impressionistic, just allowing each of the actors to find their own way to Brian and not kind of putting it on them to have to act a certain way.

TSD: Reportedly Paul Dano did his own singing? Was this something that was important to you?

BP: Paul was the first one we cast, and for me it was kind of a no-brainer. The guy is a great actor and I can just picture Brian in him. And I was intrigued by having Paul, who’s a great actor but often plays dark characters, to play someone who’s not so dark and is a little more sympathetic. And I was hopeful that he could sing but I had no idea.

TSD: So it was just a pleasant surprise?

BP: It was really just a great surprise. I had a feeling but it was nice.

TSD: Did you work with Dano at all to make his voice more like that of Wilson?

BP: Well, I mean — first of all, before we knew whether he could sing but after we had cast him — we sent one of Brian’s musical consultants out there to New York to meet with Paul, so we had no idea what he was going to find. And 45 minutes later he sent us a video of the first time Paul sang “God Only Knows” spontaneously. It was amazing. It was a great thing. So we knew right off the bat that he was going to be good. But Darian [Sahanaja], worked with Paul a while, and Paul also got back into learning the piano a little better and you know gaining weight and things like that.

TSD: Actors are known for conducting extensive research for difficult roles. Did you do any studying up on Wilson? Was there anything in particular that you were trying to capture about Wilson?

BP: I didn’t grow up as a Beach Boys fanatic or a Brian Wilson fanatic for that matter. But certainly I had grown closer to the depth of his work in the last 10 or 15 years, spontaneously. So when this came along I kind of already knew some, not a lot. So certainly when Oren and I started working on realizing this vision of the script, we definitely learned a lot more. There’s so much out there written about Brian and some films and interviews and things like that. So it’s a lot to go through. And then we had the benefit of having Brian involved and we could go and say, “Is this right? Does this work?” It was really for me, it was all of that material and kind of just digesting both all the material, and then spending time with Brian and getting a sense for who he was directly.

TSD: Earlier you mentioned you wanted different approaches to the two versions of Wilson. When you say that are you referring to the to acting?

BP: I mean, actually, I encouraged [Paul Dano and John Cusack] not to meet. Because I didn’t want them thinking that they had to coordinate something or do little affections or things like that. So you know, we also talked about whether they should meet Brian or not. Because you know sometimes it could be good sometimes it could be bad. You know, the character that Paul Dano is playing you know, its very different. Whereas John, it was very helpful for him to spend time with Brian. So Paul didn’t meet John, or didn’t spend any significant time with John, and he didn’t spend any significant time with Brian.

TSD: Was Wilson at all worried about his representation on screen?

BP: Nothing significant in the sense that Brian is a very cool guy, very amazing guy, and very pure — and quite child-like still. You know he just sees the world in a different way, in a really great way. So he doesn’t get hung up on it. The first time I met him he said, “So, who’s going to be playing me?” It was a classic line. But he didn’t really care about any of that stuff. Melinda, his wife, is, you know, kind of his protector in a lot of ways, and you know she wanted to make sure that everything was on track. But we never had any disagreements about that. I kind of made it clear from the beginning that it has to be my vision of it. That it can’t be them dictating how it’s going to be. You know, if you were making a film about you it wouldn’t be very engaging. So they were very great about it.

TSD: There are a number of authority figures in the script — Mike Love, Wilson’s father, Eugene Landy — were you at all concerned about reducing these people to caricatures?

BP: Yeah, I just don’t think it’s very interesting. It makes the whole situation less complicated and life is complicated. Everybodies got their own viewpoints. I think Mike [Love] is a perfect example, I think over the years maybe partially by his own behavior but also other people assuming things, he always gets painted as the villain. The guy that never allowed Brian to blah blah blah. But to me its a very human thing. They had something going, they had a band going with their family and were very successful. And suddenly this guy is going off in a weird direction and its like, “Hey, come on, you’re messing it up.” And it’s fine. Anyone would do that. And in a story like this when you’re telling a story about the creative one, it’s always easy to give the creative one all of the kudos and all of the glory.

TSD: It’s very hard to depict mental illness in film. How did you ensure that you were doing Wilson’s illness justice?

BP: I don’t know; it’s one of those things that evolves in the execution. It’s hard to know. You don’t specifically say you’re going to do this or that. It’s like the arch-villain thing. Things that troubled [him], issues he had, you don’t want to turn them into one-dimensional things. Like, “Oh, he has hallucinations or something,” and then you don’t go any deeper with it. You want to be able to connect with the guy that’s there. The full person– the human being that’s there. He just happens to have these issues. So I don’t know how you do it. You just try to make sense of it, and certainly talking to John and Paul about keeping it in that realm and not going off and being very one-dimensional.

TSD: To conclude, I was wondering if you might talk about the music a little bit. How did you decide which songs to include and where?

BP: Well, it was tought too because you’ve got so many songs to work with, to draw from. The catalogue is so great.  But we also knew this wasn’t going to be “Mamma Mia.” That’s not the movie we were going for. So we tried to keep it within the realm of the narrative, the story we were trying to tell. Granted, we were really helped by the fact that we chose to tell this one strand of the story which is Pet Sounds — which naturally allows you to keep a lot of Pet Sounds songs. But obviously we don’t have, like, “California Girls” or “Help Me Rhonda.”

Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Will Ferrer is a junior at Stanford, a current member of The Editorial Board, and a former Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Arts & Life, and Film/TV Desk Editor at The Stanford Daily. Will is double-majoring in Film and Media Studies and English Literature. After a childhood spent nabbing R-rated movies from his brother’s collection, Will is annoyingly passionate about all things entertainment. Heralding from Northern Virginia, Will abhors Maryland drivers and enjoys saying he is “essentially from Washington DC.” Contact him at [email protected]