Director of Beach Boys pic Love & Mercy talks about externalizing Brian Wilson’s musical madness and how to deal with the character of Mike Love
June 3, 2015
The story of The Beach Boys is so much more fascinating than most assume. The band behind such early 1960s hits as “Surfin’ Safari” and “I Get Around” were a family affair, made up of brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love and a friend named Al Jardine. Among them, though, was a musical genius: Brian Wilson. It was his vision in the studio — from the band’s signature harmonies to angular musical ideas to putting dogs barking on a record — that took the band from hit factory to more complex levels that would gain them critical acclaim and go on to influence many other artists for decades to come.
But the thing about Wilson is that he was also clinically crazy. From the physical and mental abuse suffered by the band members’ father/manager to the abuse of LSD, Wilson spiraled downward. He was also very sensitive and introverted. He had a fear of flying and preferred working in the studio to touring live. By the 1980s, after he legendarily retreated to bed for three years and some failed solo work, people wrote him off as helplessly crazy, not unlike Syd Barrett. But gradually questions arose about his personal psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy. Wilson’s brother Carl had to fight in court to free his brother from Landy’s obsessive care that took away the musician’s autonomy and even the rights to some of his music.
No one can point to one thing that broke this man down, but his musical highs were heavily balanced out by his personal lows. In a new biopic, Love & Mercy (Read our review: Love & Mercy harnesses the music & madness of Brian Wilson), director/producer Bill Pohlad finds a way to focus on both yet still make the music the most important element in Wilson’s life. It’s an amazing achievement by the producer of Wild (Wild features brutally honest and vulnerable performance by Witherspoon — a film Review), 12 years a Slave (The Florida Film Critics Circle announce `12 Years a Slave’ big winner for 2013… and the picks by Indie Ethos) and a personal favorite, Tree of Life (An antidote for Oscar hype: My 20 favorite films of 2011 [numbers 10 – 1]). On May 15, after watching the film twice, I spoke with Pohlad via phone. I could have easily gone on a tangent to talk about these other amazing films, if we had had the time, but amazing in its own way, is his return to directing after almost 25 years. Few know his debut feature film released in 1990, starring José Ferrer and James Whitmore called Old Explorers, which is only available on VHS on the secondary market (Support the Independent Ethos, you can try to purchase direct through Amazon via this link). Like many, I haven’t seen it, so I cannot attest to its quality. But I can only imagine Pohlad has learned a lot as a producer because Love & Mercy stands as one of this writer’s favorite movies of 2015, so far.
I’ve already written one article from our interview in the Miami New Times’ Art and Culture blog. The piece mostly covers Pohlad’s acting choices (two actors play Wilson: John Cusack and Paul Dano) and how he uses Wilson’s music in impressive sound collages based on actual music by Wilson and re-contextualized by Atticus Ross. You can read that article by jumping through the blog’s logo below:
We spoke about other topics, but I couldn’t fit it all in the article, so here’s an abridged Q&A of material missing from that article, which is still no less interesting for those who plan to see this extraordinary film about a man, his madness and his music (my glowing review, which will focus on the presence and absence of music in the film’s narrative, is coming soon).
Hans Morgenstern: I want to talk about the creative way you declare the title of the film within the narrative. There’s this scene where Brian Wilson sits at the piano playing what turns out to be the melody for “Love and Mercy” for Melinda.
Bill Pohlad: Not everybody catches that. In fact, you’re the first one that actually mentions it.
I’m big on music. So I imagine you must be very attuned to music.
I’ve always been a big music fan. I find a lot of filmmakers are frustrated musicians and a lot of musicians are frustrated filmmakers, I think, once you talk to people. But I certainly fall into that category. I love music, and I wish that maybe I’d pursued that. I’ve always loved it and followed, and I think one of the attractions to this movie was trying to capture — like the Pet Sounds era and that kind thing — what’s inside the head of an incredible, creative musician.
You certainly capture that when representing what’s going on inside his head. You capture his music as well as his sickness. How did you decided on this manner to represent that?
Well, I think it comes from learning about Brian and talking to him and [his wife] Melinda [played by Elizabeth Banks] a little bit and trying to get a sense of what he actually experienced. As I got to know the story better, and I got to spend a little more time with him — both of them — you get a sense of what goes on in his head. He’s admitted, of course, and it’s very well known that he hears voices and things like that, but there’s also the musical element.
I think you do something great with the editing: you let the actors perform. A lot of times you see actors’ performances chopped up in the editing, but you had some longish takes.
Yeah, I believe in actors’ performances, and certainly the other directors that I worked with as a producer in some of the other films, that I admired have kind of allowed me to push more in that direction and have more confidence about that.
Speaking of some of the people you admire, there’s a sequence at the end of the movie [that we see in the trailer] in Brian’s bed that reminded me of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Yeah. You don’t necessarily want to do those things blatantly. I was afraid, I’m going back and forth thinking that people would think that was a total rip-off. But to me because of the role that that bed played in Brian’s life … where that sequence at the end came from was the fact that we’re trying to create a film here that’s true and kind of authentic … When I first started talking to John Cusack about the role, he was like, ‘Well, you know, but at the end, isn’t there a time when Brian could, you know, like get up and leave and walk out … on Landy or something like that?’ As a filmmaker or a storyteller you’re always looking for those ways to end the movie or something like that, but the problem is that never actually happened. Brian never did walk out. There wasn’t any dramatic storming away from Landy, so I wanted to find a way to end the film that was more true to what actually happened and true to life. Our lives just don’t go that way: clean and neat, so the idea of like having this period where you’re able to like see Brian struggling within himself, with who he is and where he’s been and coming from some kind of peace, that felt more authentic than trying to force some kind of ending, so that’s where that sequence came from. Then, when you’re visualizing it with the bed and all, yeah, someone can think of Kubrick and all that, but hopefully it’s organic to the movie as well.
Mike Love [played by Jake Abel] comes across a little, I would say acerbic in the film. Have you had any reaction from him about the movie?
I don’t know. We haven’t heard yet. The whole Mike Love thing is tricky in the sense that certainly he has a reputation, either fairly or unfairly, of being a tough guy or whatever, and not a particularly pleasant guy. I mean, the first thing I wanted to do is deal with that in the storytelling sense. I don’t like the idea of creating arch villains or one-dimensional guys, and Mike was a great example of that. I didn’t really want him to be seen in that way, as the bad guy. It’s too easy, and I wanted to relate to him and tried to. I hope it comes through a little bit. He’s just a guy. He’s a human being. He’s different than Brian. That doesn’t make him bad. You just know that Brian’s a creative genius, and we’re telling this story about this extraordinary, creative artist, but the guy next to him is just a regular guy. He’s got talents of his own, but he’s not that kind of guy. That does not make him bad. I wanted to portray it in that way, saying, Hey, maybe you can relate to this guy. He’s got a good gig going, and all of a sudden his cousin starts going off, and starts doing these really weird things. It’s like, ‘Hey, c’mon what are you doing?’ As opposed to making him like that bad guy, so hopefully there’s some balance there.
I’ll leave you with a featurette with more information by the actors and Pohlad:
Update Love & Mercy is coming the the Bill Cosford Cinema for a weekend run this Friday, July 31. Click here for the schedule.
Love & Mercy opens in limited release this Friday, June 5, across the nation. In our South Florida area, the venues are as follows:
- Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Aventura Mall 24 Theatres and Regal South Beach 18
- Keys: Tropic Cinema Key West
- Broward County: Cinemark Paradise 24, The Classic Gateway Theatre
- Boca/Palm Beach counties: Living Room Theaters/Boca, Regal Shadowood 16/Boca, Cinemark Palace 20/Boca, Muvico Parisian 20, Movies of Delray 5, Delray Marketplace 12, Cinemark Boynton Beach 14
For other theaters across the U.S., visit the film’s website and put in your zip code in the box in the upper left corner via this link. All images courtesy of Roadside Attractions, who also hosted a preview screening for the purpose of this interview.