To say it would take more than one film to fully tell the story of Brian Wilson is an understatement. For director Bill Pohlad, the only choice was to hone in on two specific threads in the immense fabric of Wilson’s life. His new film Love & Mercy follows Wilson through the process of recording his masterpiece Pet Sounds in 1965 and simultaneously tells the story of how he met his current wife, Melinda Ledbetter, while under the “care” of the ethically corrupt Dr. Eugene Landy in the 1980s.
Paul Dano plays the Wilson of the ’60s, while John Cusack is his ’80s counterpart. Pohlad weaves a gorgeously intricate narrative that takes viewers from playful Beach Boys photo shoots to morbidly dark bedrooms without ever losing its focus. Most importantly, Pohlad’s film is informed by Melinda and Brian themselves, who were both integral participants in Love & Mercy’s creation. The result is precisely what fans of Wilson’s music have long been craving: the chance to see inside the mind of a notoriously private musical genius whose story is secondary only to the incredible music he’s given to the world.
Consequence of Sound spoke with Pohlad by phone to ask about how he chose what parts of Wilson’s story to tell, how it felt to work with such a legendary figure, the difficulties in portraying auditory hallucinations on the big screen, and whether or not he got to hear any of Wilson’s much-discussed Bedroom Tapes.
Love & Mercy eschews the traditional biopic narrative and instead chooses to focus on two important periods in Brian Wilson’s life. Is that how the script was always written?
Well, it’s how this script was always written. At River Road, we were brought a script called “Heroes and Villains” about Brian, and I read it and actually didn’t like it. I told John Wells, who I partnered with on this project — he had overseen the development on that script– that I didn’t like it, but if this doesn’t work out for you guys, come back and we’ll start over. And thankfully, they did. So we started from scratch. I think biopics are fine for what they are, but it wasn’t really what I was interested in here.
I think the problem with biopics is that often they are trying to hit so many different beats in a person’s life. In a true story, they’re required to do that, it seems like, and it distances you from the character. I was more interested in getting a deeper look at Brian, a more intimate look at Brian, and trying to connect with how he was feeling and what he went through. It’s just harder to do that when you’re forced to hit all those beats in somebody’s life. So, I definitely didn’t want to do that.
I started working with Oren Moverman, the writer we had brought on, and he and I started talking about it. One of the two things that sparked me was certainly my appreciation for Pet Sounds and how I’d spontaneously gotten into Pet Sounds about 15 years earlier, a little later in life, but to a point where I truly appreciated it for the depth that it had. I felt I was in a good position to move in the direction of exploring that part of his life. That really was the pinnacle of his creative powers, so to speak, and it’s also the moment he started to crumble, so it really seemed like you couldn’t tell the Brian Wilson story without telling that part of it.
Also, at this point, I had met Melinda [Ledbetter, Wilson’s wife] and Brian and started to get to know them personally. Melinda told me about how they originally met and this whole thing about her coming upon this odd, quirky guy. You know, she thought he might’ve been homeless actually; she wasn’t sure where he was coming from, but there was something attractive and charismatic about him. It was only later that she found out he was Brian Wilson.
Beyond that, she started to find out all this other stuff about what his life had been like and what he had gone through. It seemed like that was a good way into the story, for the audience to enter into Brian’s life. So I started taking those two stories and intertwining and developing them as parallel paths.
Suffice to say, there are a lot of big Beach Boys and Brian Wilson fans out there. Was it important to you during production to adhere to some sense of objectivity in telling this story, to make sure you avoided being too reverent in portraying Brian?
Yes. Definitely. To be honest, and I’ve admitted this to him, I grew up as more of a Beatles guy than a Beach Boys guy. I really appreciated their music, but I was more of a Beatles guy. As I said, I got more into their music later in life, but I was never a Brian Wilson aficionado or anything like that. Whereas a lot of the people we talked to when we were writing the project or working on the music were really Beach Boys superfans, and it was hard for them to see the forest for the trees, so to speak — they’re so into it that it’s hard to connect to it or tell it in a way the average audience will relate to.
Now on the other hand, I really did want to try to satisfy those people. I think there are a lot of really great Beach Boys and Brian Wilson gems in the film, things that will satisfy those fans. But I also wanted to appeal to regular people, average people who don’t know that much about the Beach Boys or aren’t that big of fans. Hopefully they’ll also be engaged by the story.
There are moments in Love & Mercy, like Brian serendipitously running in front of Melinda’s car toward the movie’s end, that seem like they must be fiction, but in fact actually happened. Are you worried that people will think you added a “Hollywood touch” to this story when in actuality Brian’s life was just sometimes that surreal?
You took the words right out of my mouth. We really did wrestle with that. There are so many things that went on in his life that were like, you’ve got to be kidding. It’s something that seems like a screenwriter made up just to take the easy way out. When we came to things that, we were like, “What are we going to do here?” That’s the perfect example: Brian jumping out in front of Melinda’s car. Nobody’s ever going to believe that, but with a lot of things in the movie, we didn’t want to back away from it or create something that was false. It’s almost a double reverse, where you’re trying to not do something because it’s too weird or hard to believe. So we tried to make it as genuine as we could and to be straightforward about it and not back away.
Certainly with [Dr. Carl] Landy, I thought about that, or the way Brian is portrayed, the way John Cusack and Paul Giamatti play their parts. People could look at those performances in a different light and say they’re really grandstanding when in reality Brian really does act like that. If you don’t know him, you might think, “Oh, that’s weird,” but he does really act like that. The same with Landy. He was kind of an outlandish person, and when you look at the film, you go, “That’s unbelievable.” So I was worried about that in both of those cases and in many more that people would go, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Speaking of Paul Giamatti’s performance, while Paul Dano and John Cusack both had Brian and his prolific output of music to draw on, Giamatti didn’t have that option available in his portrayal of Dr. Landy. What did he use to help inform his performance?
He did have some films of Landy. He did an interview with Diane Sawyer on 20/20 or 60 Minutes [Ed note: it was Primetime Live] that we looked at, and there were other clips of him doing various things with Brian — weird little films that they had made or people had made of them walking on the beach and stuff like that. We also had some tapes of Eugene Landy talking and philosophizing about things. I’m not even sure what the tapes were made for, but it was a lot him talking. I think Paul talks about that and points to that as a really good reference for him, not only to get the feel of Landy and the way he spoke and his energy, but to get a sense of who the man was.
Your film handles Brian’s auditory hallucinations in a really incredible way. Was the idea to stitch together bits and pieces of Wilson’s music into a sort of haunting dissonance something you and [composer] Atticus Ross came up with together?
Yes. That was one of the exciting things for me as a filmmaker. Brian suffers from hallucinations, but they’re not visual hallucinations, which would be the normal thing. When you’re making a film, you can go to all those tried-and-true visual references to try and express those hallucinations, but this is auditory. I would talk to Brian and read things about those types of hallucinations and what they’re like, and I was really intrigued by the notion of trying to represent those.
The overall understanding I got from Brian and Melinda is that Brian hears these really complex melodies and arrangements in his head, and it’s part of his genius, but he also can’t turn them off. They became part of his madness as well. In trying to express all that, one thing that popped into my mind was “Revolution #9” off the Beatles’ White Album. That was something I was focusing on. When I was meeting sound people, Atticus was one of the first guys I talked to about that notion, and he picked up on it immediately. His experience, the things he’s done in the past as a producer and a composer, really lent itself to that kind of thing. He definitely took it and ran with it. That was really exciting.
Please tell me you’re going to release a soundtrack of that score.
We are. We’re working on it now. Unfortunately, these things get complicated when you’ve got a lot of bits from different songs and different eras, but we’re working through it, and it should be out soon after the film.
You can almost feel the joy and insanity seeping through the sequences where Brian records the music that will become Pet Sounds. What was it like filming those scenes?
It was fantastic. It really was like a dream come true. First of all, we got to shoot in the actual studio that Brian and the Wrecking Crew had used to record the music for Pet Sounds, so that was special in its own regard — to have those ghosts in the room. I wanted it to be very spontaneous, to be like you were really there. We hired real musicians as opposed to actors. Paul had been studying a lot, both the Pet Sounds sessions and Smile session tapes where you can hear Brian working with the Wrecking Crew, working on the music, and it really infused in him that style or pattern that Brian uses. So we actually just brought the musicians in, dressed them up in period clothes, handed them the music — we didn’t do any rehearsals — and Paul just started working with them as Brian would’ve worked with them. We shot it spontaneously, much like a documentary. I think that’s what gives it its quality.
There’s a scene towards the climax of Love & Mercy that immediately recalls 2001: A Space Odyssey. Was that an homage you wanted to fit into Brian’s narrative early on in the process or something that came together in post?
It definitely came during the writing. That whole sequence came about because you don’t want to fall back on the traditional cinematic “trips” or things you would do just to get through a tough spot. In this case, there’s something you want to see happen. Even John Cusack asked why there wasn’t a scene of Brian slamming the door on Landy and walking away or something like it. The fact of the matter is that never happened. We didn’t have that available to us, and we didn’t want to cheat. It really did happen through a series of lawsuits and things that Brian was dragged away from Landy, and for his own good, but it didn’t happen as neatly as you would’ve liked it to. It felt truer to the process, to Brian’s story, to go with Brian.
It’s like a structure in act three that’s suddenly Brian Future’s point of view, rather than John Cusack, and we get to hear his voices and experience this kind of catharsis where he comes to terms with who he is and what he’s been through, as echoed in the song, “These things I’ll be until I die” [from The Beach Boys song “‘Til I Die”]. It’s an acceptance of who he is and coming to peace with it. Certainly the bed played a big part in Brian’s life, and it just started coming together that the bed was going to be a part of it. It was definitely a homage to 2001. I can’t say I didn’t have that in mind, but it also played in really naturally with the actual story.
Speaking of Brian’s bed, I have to ask: In the course of making this movie and working with Brian, were you given the opportunity to listen to any of his mythical Bedroom Tapes [Ed note: The Bedroom Tapes is the name associated with the large quantity of music Wilson recorded during the early 1970s when he was supposedly bedridden for several years]?
In the process of making the film, I got to listen to a lot of things, both from Brian and things other people sent me. I have heard a lot of stuff and been privy to a lot of things. It’s not a secret that there is a lot of great Brian Wilson music out there that is not generally available yet. Hopefully someday more of that will come out.
There are a couple of montages in Love & Mercy where you recreate famous bits of footage, like the photo shoot for Surfin’ Safari. What made you decide to incorporate these brief moments into the film?
Again, it’s one of those things that is a touchstone for people, not just hardcore fans, but something a wider array of fans can relate to. We wanted to touch on that, some of the other less known things like the black-and-white footage of them running around the pool during the “Sloop John B” cover shoot. Those are all just little things that are fun for me, not only to shoot them but to reference back to that era. Those scenes are a good counterpoint to the other things that were going on in his life at the time that weren’t so great.
Will you elaborate a little on the recurring theme of water in Love & Mercy? Water is everywhere in this movie, like when Brian and Melinda jump overboard and swim back to Brian’s house to escape the watch of one of Landy’s assistants, or the many moments where Dano’s Brian is staring at swimming pools or submerged underwater. Aside from the obvious importance water plays in the surf music The Beach Boys were originally known for, I’m wondering how intentional the abundance of water in the movie is.
It was both conscious and unconscious. Actually, water played an even stronger role in some of the scenes we shot that didn’t make it into the film. Water was a recurring theme in all of the bedrooms, basically, in the so-called Malibu bedroom, the Beverley Hills bedroom with Paul Dano, and ultimately the Bel Air bedroom with the bed [from the film’s climax]. There was a water theme going on in all of those scenes. The reflection of water would appear on the ceiling as one of the triggers for some of Brian’s trips. There was a lot stuff going on, and sometimes the best ideas like that get left behind in trying to keep the story cohesive.
Is Love & Mercy a film you could have made without the input of Brian Wilson and his wife Melinda Ledbetter?
It definitely wouldn’t have been the same. What made it so special, and one of the big things that attracted me to it, was Brian and Melinda and getting their personal take on the story. Again, Brian is a human being, and whenever you do a movie about a real person, you have to recognize that this is not the definitive Brian Wilson — it’s my take on it. There are a lot of other aspects to his life and a lot of perspectives that his story can be looked at from. In our case, this is my version, this is our take on it, and thankfully it comes from the view of Brian and Melinda. Hopefully it adds up to something.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
Were you there the first time Brian sat down and watched this film in its entirety?
I was not. The first one who saw it was Melinda. I sat with her when she watched it, and honestly, she was stunned, I think. Whenever you see your life suddenly put up on the big screen with actors acting both for you and people you love, it’s got to be a bit shocking. She admitted she was stunned by it and wasn’t sure how to react and ended up driving around for a few hours afterwards and letting it sink in. Ultimately, she feels great about the film, but for a little while there, she wasn’t sure. Brian, on the other hand, I was not there with. He wanted to watch it by himself because he felt too self-conscious about it. I heard from the projectionist that Brian thought it was great, which was good enough for me. He gave us notes on it, a couple of good notes — just little editing things that we could fix to make it more accurate. I finally got to see it with him in Toronto, got to really sit down with him and hear what he had to say, and got the feeling that he really liked it.
When the press cycle for this film eventually subsides, do you expect to stay in touch with Brian and Melinda? Is the friendship you’ve formed something you expect to outlast the experience of making this movie?
I certainly hope so. Brian is a very private person, and I think this experience has definitely brought us closer. I honestly spent more time with Melinda because she would come to the set more often. She is there to protect Brian in a lot of ways, so we’ve spent a lot of time and had many, many conversations and really gotten to know each other quite well. I think they’re both amazing people, and I really do intend to keep that relationship going. They’re really extraordinary people.
Love & Mercy is out in theaters nationwide on June 5.