Pet Project: Bill Pohlad’s ‘Love & Mercy’ examines the turbulent life of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson

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Don’t call it a biopic. With Love & Mercy, director Bill Pohlad has thrown off the trappings of tradition to tell the story of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson in an innovative fashion—much the same way Wilson went new and bold for The Beach Boys’ 1966 magnum opus, Pet Sounds. That LP was met with a lukewarm reception in the U.S. before eventually coming to be regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. There’s no telling whether Love & Mercy will have ascended to quite those heights 50 years from now, but its festival run—which started out in Toronto in 2014 and made subsequent stops at Berlin and South by Southwest—has seen the film met with overwhelmingly positive reviews, both for Pohlad and the film’s two leads, Paul Dano and John Cusack.

Love & Mercy’s main departure from the norm is what Pohlad refers to as a “two-strand” approach that has Dano and Cusack both playing Wilson at different times of his life. Dano is Wilson in the Pet Sounds era, when he was at a creative peak but beginning to suffer from mental issues looming on the horizon. Cusack picks up several decades later, when Wilson was under the thumb of the despotic psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who overmedicated Wilson and tried to control every aspect of his life. Here, Wilson meets Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), whom he would later go on to marry. The two strands are woven together, Pohlad explains, in such a way that “one story is helping the other story, and they’re working off each other from a narrative point of view.”

The casting of younger Wilson, says Pohlad, was painless: “When you think of [1960s Brian Wilson] and his whole demeanor, Paul Dano was the first guy I thought of. We’d had other people on the list, but he was always at the top, and he was the first one we went to. And he said yes, so that one was fairly straightforward and exciting and easy.” Older Wilson was tougher, “because you look at Brian during that period, and he is all over the board, physically. The bearded, scraggly, overweight Brian, and the thin, trim Brian, and all sorts of different variations on those two… Most of all, of course, you need a great actor, someone who could actually pull this kind of thing off.”

It was a particular image in Don Was’ 1995 documentary Brian Wilson: I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times—“He’s more trim, he’s wearing a leather jacket, he’s slouched there with his hair a certain way”—that gave Pohlad his lightning-bolt moment. “It really did pop out to me at that point. I was like: ‘John Cusack.’ That was exciting to make that connection in my mind, because obviously I think John’s a great actor. He hasn’t necessarily always either gotten or taken the greatest roles, but I thought this one would be a good one that would really allow him to shine, and he’s truly delivered on that. A lot of people still come up and say, ‘Oh, that Paul Dano looks exactly like Brian, but why’d you pick John Cusack? He doesn’t look at all like Brian.’ Actually, he does, if you look back at that one era.”

Once he had his actors, Pohlad made the conscious choice to not have them work together, encouraging them instead to “find their own Brian Wilson” using archival material and, in the case of Cusack, by speaking to Wilson himself. “There was not any coordination between them, on purpose… [An independent approach] is more natural than the three of us getting together and saying, ‘Walk like this’ or ‘Move like that.’” Further, Pohlad wanted to avoid presenting an “impression or an imitation” of Wilson, instructing Dano and Cusack instead to “get a sense of his character, who he is as a person. Certainly, the physical attributes and music are part of that, but you don’t want that to be the whole thing. It needs to come from inside, the organic part, first.”

Telling a compelling story with compelling performances, then, was more important to Pohlad than the minutia that fact-based films can often get hung up on (or get criticized for not getting hung up on: See the recent controversy over Lyndon B. Johnson’s portrayal in Selma). The director made it clear to Brian and Melinda that his film wasn’t going to file away the rough edges of Brian’s life in favor of a glossy, more “Hollywood” approach. And while Pohlad is quick to shoot down the notion that they were hesitant to be involved in Love & Mercy, he does admit that—for anyone—seeing a film about one’s life come out of the realm of theory and into actual existence can be unsettling.

In navigating this delicate filmmaking diplomacy, Pohlad drew upon prior experience: as an Oscar-nominated producer who counts Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Steve McQueen’s12 Years a Slave among his credits. “As a producer, I’ve been involved in a lot of films about real people, and living people”—most recently, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed—“and you try to make it clear [to the subject that] if you’re going to do this, you’ve really got to hand that trust over to a filmmaker. And if you’re not ready to do that, you shouldn’t [do the film]. But it can’t be something where you’re making the movie. We’re not always going to agree on specific things…but you’re placing your trust in that filmmaker to treat the subject and your life fairly and as we discussed it and not go off on some weird path. But if we stay on the path we’re talking about, then you have to let it go a little bit.”

Brian and Melinda “did that very well,” Pohlad continues. “It’s not easy. Melinda was the first one to see the first, rougher cut of it, before Brian did. It’s as much about her as it is about Brian. I was curious to see what her reaction would be, and she was definitely shaken. She wouldn’t admit it, but she had to drive around for a couple of hours afterwards. You think, ‘Oh, I didn’t say that,’ or ‘It was better than that’ or worse than that. It’s a tough thing, so you need some time to let it sink in. I know that Brian believes in many cases in the movie that we were, let’s say, fairer to certain people than they actually deserved, maybe. Without getting into details. As harsh as it might be, he thinks that there was some reality that was even harsher than that.”

Love & Mercy’s avoidance of the typical linear biopic structure isn’t the only thing that separates it from other movies about famous musicians. In some other films, the music is important, of course, but more in a general sense—what we’re really here for is the drama of the subject’s life, so the creation of their music might get shunted aside to a montage or two. Love & Mercy goes in the opposite direction, including extended sequences of Dano-as-Wilson creating Pet Sounds—in the studio where the album was originally recorded and using real musicians instead of actors, no less.

“It was a real session,” Pohlad notes. “[Dano] knew how Brian worked, and his tone. We had some script at the time, but mostly we just let him go and really direct these musicians, who were just playing music… We had two Super 16 handheld cameras going, and for most of that we were just able to grab shots as we would if we were shooting a documentary.”

This faux-documentary approach to Wilson’s music is somewhat “self-serving,” Pohlad admits. A lifelong music lover (though he admits he “grew up as more of a Beatles fan than a Beach Boys fan… I can’t say that I was ever a huge [Beach Boys] groupie or aficionado”), Pohlad “suck[ed] up” any material that would give him an inside look at the creation of some of his favorite music—like The Beatles’ Let It Be or the 1997 box set “The Pet Sounds Sessions,” which featured recordings of the original Pet Sounds sessions, complete with Wilson directing the musicians. “Back then they didn’t have ‘Behind the Music’ or that kind of thing, so you would be hungry to get a documentary look at what was going on behind the scenes in the studio,” he explains. Providing such a glimpse, even an oblique one, of Pet Sounds—with its unusual slate of instruments (bicycle bells, Theremins, barking dogs) and multi-layered harmonies—was a natural decision: “I love it, and I thought other people would be intrigued by it, too. I really wanted to capture that doc-style feel, so you really felt like you were there.”

Love & Mercy is actually Pohlad’s second feature film as a director. The first, a little-seen 1990 drama with José Ferrer and James Whitmore called Old Explorers, suffered from its crew being “all kids way over our heads…trying to bite too much off and all that. I would almost prefer to think of Love & Mercy as [my] first [film].”

Movie gods willing, it won’t be his last. “I like producing, too, and [I] really enjoyed my time as a producer, and I continue to”—he’s still working on several upcoming films, including Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time, an incredibly modest documentary about, oh, the existence of the universe—“but definitely my first love is directing,” he explains. “You know the famous line: I will if they’ll let me!”