Producer/director Bill Pohlad admits he was not a big Beach Boys fan growing up in Minnesota. The legendary “California sound” of the band didn’t have the same pull for him as the Beatles.
But then ten years ago he got hooked on the Boys’ seminal album, “Pet Sounds.”
“It was very spontaneous,” he tells Business Insider. “There was no reason for it that I understood at the time. It just happened. I really fully appreciated that album and everything Brian was doing with it.”
The Brian he’s referring to is Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys, along with his brothers Dennis and Carl, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine. Brian wrote most of their songs and thanks to his innovative production of "Pet Sounds," which included songs “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” the album is now regarded by many as being one of the greatest of all time.
Pohlad, an independent film producer whose titles include “Into the Wild,” “12 Years a Slave,” and “Wild,” says he’s a big believer in “things happening the way they are supposed to happen.” So when a script on Wilson’s life titled “Heroes and Villains” (the title of a Beach Boys song) was sent to him to produce a few years ago, he couldn’t help but see the signs of being handed the life story of an artist he had recently grew very fascinated by.
According to Pohlad, “Heroes and Villains,” which would later be changed to its current title, “Love & Mercy” (the title of a Wilson solo song), was a very basic, by the book biopic of Wilson’s life. But Pohlad felt to best tell the story that the script had to be more intimate. It had to escape from the grasp most stories on famous people are under of feeling required to highlight the person’s major life moments to appease the super fans.
To tell the story of Brian Wilson it would have to be done with multiple actors.
“Love & Mercy” looks at two key moments in Brian Wilson’s life. One, the musician at age 22 (played by Paul Dano) in the mid 1960s when he stopped performing live with the Beach Boys and went into the studio to begin recording “Pet Sounds.” And second as Wilson at middle age (John Cusack) in the 1980s suffering from mental illness and isolated from his family and friends while under the care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
Enlisting the help of screenwriter Oren Moverman— who knows something about making unconventional biopics as he also wrote the screenplay for Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There,” in which six actors play Bob Dylan personas — he and Pohlad created a story that gives us both the genius and madness of Brian Wilson.
“It was really clear that we had to separate those two times,” said Moverman. “It was really Bill driving the conversation in talking about the differences of Brian in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.”
In fact, Pohlad got so engrossed in the story, including spending time with Wilson (who would come on the film as a consultant), that following some convincing by Moverman Pohlad agreed to direct “Love & Mercy.” His first directing effort in over 20 years.
“It just felt natural,” said Pohlad matter-of-factly about getting back in the director’s chair. “In the process of working with Oren, at some point I just start running with it.”
And what he delivers is an intimate portrait of Wilson that brings out the nostalgia for Beach Boys fans but mainly delivers the private terror Wilson endured for decades.
In the young Wilson years, which Pohlad referred to as “Brian Past,” we see his creative mind at its zenith as he painstakingly creates the lyrics and sounds for the “Pet Sounds” album (as well as the stand-alone single “Good Vibrations”). This included creating arrangements that puzzled the session musicians that included at times bicycle bells, Coke cans, and even barking dogs. But all the while Wilson was beginning to mentally break down.
“As I got to know Brian a little I got to understand more about how his mind works,” Pohlad told BI. “He has hallucinations but they are not visual hallucinations, they are auditory. That really intrigued me. That he hears really complex arrangements and harmonies and melodies that nobody understands and don’t think would work until he executes them and they are amazing. That’s part of his genius, but he can’t turn it off.”
To express this in the film Pohlad didn’t want to do the typical camera tricks to visually express hallucinations, instead he used the film’s sound mix to explain Wilson’s pain.
In one scene, Wilson is at the dinner table with friends. Everything seems fine until we hear the clanging of the silverware build louder and louder. The audience (and Dano playing Wilson) are the only ones who hear the sounds as they get to the point where it drowns out the dinner conversation.
“I thought immediately of The Beatles’ ‘Revolution 9,’” said Pohlad referring to the sound collage track from “The White Album.” “It kind of inspired me.”
When we move to Wilson in the ’80s (“Brian Future”), we find him at the lowest point in his life. Over medicated and his mental problems diagnosed incorrectly, he had just come off a few years staying in bed following the death of his father. Dr. Landy, handlers, and security guards are the only people in his life until he meets car salesman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), and the two begin a relationship.
Looking back on the research for the film, Pohlad believes meeting Ledbetter (who is now married to Wilson), was what sealed the structure of the movie.
“Having her tell how she and Brian first met, for me that really sparked it,” he said. “I knew the ‘Pet Sounds’ era I wanted to address, but how they met was a great way to get into that part of his life. To see that part of Brian’s life through Melinda’s point of view versus Brian’s point of view in Brian Past.”
Pohlad said that Cusack spent a lot of time with Wilson but that Dano didn’t. Instead, the actor retaught himself how to play the piano and listened to a lot of the “Pet Sounds” session outtakes to hear how Wilson worked in the studio.
Cusack and Dano also didn’t talk about the character they both were playing.
“I didn’t want to say, ‘Here’s the plan and we’re going to do it like this,’” said Pohlad about working with his leads. “They both found their own way. I didn’t encourage them to meet. I felt it would be more authentic for them as actors and more exciting creatively that they didn’t.”
Wilson has seen “Love & Mercy” multiple times, and according to Pohlad, he loves it. Audiences have too. It received positive reviews following its premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. There was even talk of possible award consideration for Dano and Cusack. But it was decided to not go into last year’s award season race and instead give the film a summer release this year as counter-programming to the major studio blockbusters.
It’s a gamble when it comes to award consideration, but as Pohlad sees it, things happened the way they are supposed to happen.