Interview: Bill Pohlad, director of ‘Love & Mercy’


Love & Mercy tells the life story of reclusive Beach Boys songwriter and musician Brian Wilson – from his successes with highly-influential orchestral pop albums to his nervous breakdown and subsequent encounter with controversial therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.

Director Bill Pohlad gave us some good vibrations.


What was the initial attraction in wanting to tell Brian Wilson’s story on the big screen?

I’m a big music fan and I grew up always being intrigued by the music scene. Over the years, gradually and in different increments, I’ve gotten closer and closer to Brian Wilson, listening to ‘Pet Sounds and The Pet Sounds Sessions’ – the box set – which gives you a great insight into the creative process. That really did it for me. Producers, Claire Rudnick Polstein and John Wells had been working on a Beach Boys project, which we had talked about a little. In our conversations, I asked if they would be willing to start over with something fresh, something that had this two-story approach. They agreed to it and that’s how Love & Mercy came to be. We then brought Oren Moverman to write with who I worked quite closely with.


Wasn’t it Oren who first suggested the idea of you directing Love & Mercy?

Yes. I was trying to be very democratic about it: “Well, we don’t know who’s going to direct it.” Oren was a candidate himself. But he said, “You should direct this film.” I didn’t take too much convincing.


Surprisingly, Love & Mercy is only the second feature you’ve directed, after Old Explorers in 1990.

I had been developing other projects to direct. I had a couple of other projects in the works. But Oren kind of flipped the switch. I was like, “That makes sense.”


You’ve produced films for some great directors such as Steve McQueen [12 Years a Slave], Ang Lee [Brokeback Mountain] and Terrence Malick [The Tree of Life]. How has that influenced you?

People used to say to me, “What filmmakers do you want to work with?” But I’m not driven by that, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’ve been driven by my connection to the material and I’ve been lucky enough that the material I’ve been interested in has attracted great directors. And of course I learned a lot from them. You learn a lot but it also challenges you to find your own style. To have the mindset to be a director, you have to have a bit of an ego so you start thinking, “I would do it this way”.


Why did you decide to have Brian played by two different actors?

I’m not a huge fan of biopics because they’re forced to cover too much ground in too short a time and therefore you can’t get as deeply into the characters as you’d like. I never wanted to make that kind of film. With Brian’s life, we tried to figure out a way to paint a portrait that allowed us to be more intimate. I went with my gut. I’d been intrigued by the Pet Sounds era and The Pet Sounds Sessions so the idea of portraying this guy at the most creative time in his life, which also turn out to be some of the most difficult times for him, seemed an obvious first part of the story. Then when I first met Melinda and she told me how they’d met, that was another connecting moment for me: the idea that she’d met this guy and he was quirky, could have been a homeless guy, but there was something intriguing and charming about him. And then he turns out to be Brian Wilson… I liked that as a way in for the audience. It allowed us to illustrate what had happened to him since we saw him as this other character.


How would you describe your relationship with Brian and Melinda during the development process?

They were involved from the beginning. It’s a tricky balance with situations like that. They have to understand that when they’re allowing somebody to make a movie about their lives, it’s not going to be exactly like they might have thought it would be. There’s got to be some distance and, above all, a level of trust. Otherwise it becomes too dictatorial and subjective. We talked about that from the very first meeting and we did develop that trust. They were great about it. They were there when we needed them and Melinda would come to the set often – Brian came sometimes too – but fortunately they never said, “No, don’t do that.”


Is what you’re portraying in the film accurate, particularly in reference to Brian’s abusive relationship with Dr. Landy?

Oh yes. We were definitely striving to be accurate about everything. We checked along the way with Brian. He came to the script reading and he had great comments about it, as well as some of the early cuts of the film.


The film shows Brian at his creative-genius apex during the Pet Sounds sessions and meticulously recreates those extraordinary soundscapes. The composer Atticus Ross, who is known for his collaborations with Trent Reznor, was a key part of this process. can you describe your collaboration with him?

It was incredible. The whole process has been amazing. There were so many great people involved in the film and Atticus would be one of the big ones. From the beginning, I wanted to explore what goes on in Brian’s mind. He experiences auditory hallucinations, basically, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in a film before. He hears beautiful, complex musical arrangements and compositions in his head, which is his genius, but he can’t always turn them off. Plus he’s hearing a lot of other things that aren’t so nice: voices and all that. It intrigued me to try to figure out a way to depict that in the film and nobody was more excited than Atticus about exploring that soundscape/sound design. Not only did he deliver on what we called Brian’s “mind trips” but he took it the extra mile with the actual score of the film by taking Brian’s music and kind of rearranging it to create new compositions. Everything you hear in the movie is Brian’s music but some of it has been rearranged.


What were you looking to convey in choosing two actors to portray Brian?

The decision to cast two actors came from this two-strand approach and the idea that you would meet the young Brian Wilson, who may be more recognisable to you, and then you would meet this other guy, who is not immediately recognisable to you. You’re not sure who the guy is. In order to pull that off you had to have two different actors play that – and not even necessarily have them look alike. The idea was to let each actor have their own way into finding Brian. It allows more freedom and I find it more reflective, too, of Brian in his personality. He obviously has, in some ways, multiple personalities. Sometimes you can look at the young Brian and look at the old Brian and not even know they’re the same guy. That’s what it’s like with the real Brian. We wanted to depict that.


Who came on board first: John Cusack or Paul Dano?

It started with Paul because Brian ‘past’ is the more iconic Brian. He’s got that ‘60s look and, with Paul, it was an immediate, “Yes, that’s him.” Whereas there are a lot of different looks that Brian had in the ‘80s. Sometimes he was really overweight and bearded and scraggly; sometimes he was really fit and trim. I rewatched the Don Was’ documentary about Brian Wilson, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, and some of the images that popped up reminded me so much of John. So we talked to John and thankfully he agreed to do it. I love the way they work together but are also different at the same time. We didn’t have them imitate each other. You could argue that they don’t look alike but, for me, it doesn’t matter as long as they evoke the spirit. Also, John looks more like Brian at that time than people give him credit for.


Did you take different approaches in directing your two Brians?

They bring their own styles and different personalities to it. We shot all of Paul’s stuff first followed by John’s and that was good because it did separate it in a way that’s healthy.


What about Elizabeth Banks for the role of Melinda? She’s the emotional linchpin for the narrative journey and Brian’s salvation.

First of all, Melinda is our point of view for the second part of the story. She’s the one who meets Brian and allows us to go in, plus she’s the one who saves him, saves his life. We wanted to be true to that part of the story. If you meet the real Melinda and you talk to Elizabeth, there’s a spark in Elizabeth, a fire, that reminds you of Melinda. It was great to find her.


The way you depict the two eras visually, the 1960s and 1980s, is striking and makes great use of Californian locations. How important was it for you to shoot the film in the state that defines The Beach Boys?

Movies set in the ‘60s tend to have a very stereotypical look to them and you don’t want to rely on that too much. But it was great fun to be able to explore that in a real way and try to stay away from the stereotypes while still making use of the styles. Shooting in California was mostly about the vibe. That’s where it happened and there’s a certain vibe, even though there’s not much surfing and not much Malibu per se in the film. I know we wouldn’t have been able to make the same movie if we had shot it somewhere else.


What has The Beach Boys music meant to you?

I love music, it inspires me, and I think Brian’s music is among the best; I feel it’s really important in my own personal playlist. I have never considered myself a Brian Wilson aficionado or groupie or anything like that and I think that’s good. Sometimes you can get too close to something and not feel or see the story because you’re too caught up in the detail, or the things that really amuse you or entertain you because you’ve been studying it intently. You want it to be accessible and interesting to a wider audience, not just the fans of Brian Wilson. That was the trick, to do that in a way that satisfied both groups.


Is there a Beach Boys’ track that’s particularly meaningful to you?

It is one of those rotating things. Obviously ‘God Only Knows’, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and ‘Surf’s Up’ are all big ones. The clean version of ‘Surf’s Up’ that we used in the film, or at least that Paul recreates but Brian sings it himself… ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is another one.


It’s music that makes you smile, even if Brian’s story is filled with heartwrenching events.

That’s art, too. We make it our own. When we hear it, it becomes a part of our lives. Yes, Brian Wilson wrote it and it’s cool – what a talented guy Brian Wilson is. But there’s a lot of other songs that are part of me or part of my make-up where I don’t know who the people are who created them. Maybe I wouldn’t even like them but I love the songs.


Did you speak to any of the other surviving Beach Boys for the film?

We spoke to Al Jardine, later in the process. We didn’t ever talk to Mike Love, although not necessarily by design. We’re telling Brian’s story. It’s not Brian and Mike’s story, or their competing perspectives. It’s Brian’s story from Brian’s point of view but I don’t think it takes unfair shots at Mike. I feel good about the way Mike has been portrayed. I can relate to where Mike was coming from. He was just a guy who had a job and it was going well and then it got messed up through no fault of his own.
Love & Mercy is released in Irish cinemas on 10th July 2015


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