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“It was honestly a daunting prospect,” Bill Pohlad, the director of Love & Mercy, says of making a film about Brian Wilson as we sat down to record the “Awards Chatter” podcast (which will now post twice a week).
Seated beside two of the stars of his unconventional drama about the Beach Boys frontman — Paul Dano, who plays Brian as a young man, and Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda Wilson, the woman who later married him — Pohlad emphasizes, “He’s had a very big life.”
(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Danny Boyle, Eddie Redmayne, Jason Segel, Ramin Bahrani, Michael Shannon, Ridley Scott, F. Gary Gray, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Ian McKellen, Brie Larson, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore and Amy Schumer — on iTunes.)
For the River Road Entertainment producer (Brokeback Mountain, 12 Years a Slave), Love & Mercy marks a return to directing for the first time in a quarter-century — and he decidedly was “not interested in doing a biopic. “I would rather get to know a person more intimately and what that person is dealing with,” he told me. So he hired the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (The Messenger, I’m Not There) to find a less conventional way of telling Brian’s story.
The result is a film that focuses on two very different periods in the 73-year-old’s life: the first being in and around 1966, when he was at his most creative (working on the now iconic Pet Sounds album), and the second being in the 1980s, when he was suffering from mental illness and being taken advantage of by associates — until Melinda entered the picture.
Love & Mercy premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival — where, with the Wilsons on hand, it was greeted with a standing ovation — and was released stateside in June. It is one of the better reviewed films of this year (it currently has a 90 percent favorable rating at RottenTomatoes.com) and performed rather impressively at the box-office (more than doubling its U.S. take of $13 million at theaters abroad) for a film made on a “modest” budget.
But the film’s success was anything but preordained. In fact, neither Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood), 31, nor Banks (Seabiscuit, The 40-Year-Old Virgin), 41, were sure they wanted to be a part of it at all. “It took me a minute to get truly excited,” Dano confesses, while Banks adds, “I wasn’t convinced it would work.”
That quickly changed. As Dano started to rehearse Brian’s songs for scenes, in which his own voice would be used, he became hooked. (“I found singing every day for six months reminded me of being a kid,” he says. “I think it’s the way in to Brian: he is his music.”) And Banks was on-board after figuring out how to play the crucial scene in a Cadillac dealership when Brian and Melinda first meet. (“I don’t need to sell their entire relationship in that dealership. I just need to take the first step so that you believe she goes on the next step.”)
Pohlad, meanwhile, decided early on that he would shoot the scenes of young Brian before shooting the scenes of older Brian (played by John Cusack) — and to keep the two actors playing Brian from discussing their performances in any way. “It just seemed more exciting, more interesting to have these two actors not coordinate, have them find their own Brian more organically,” he explains.
The Wilsons were supportive partners on the film — “They never asked us to leave this out or cut that out or something,” Pohlad notes — but Dano, for his part, decided not to reach out to Wilson prior to completing his performance, since “the Brian of the sixties is very different from the Brian of today.”
In the editing room with cutter Dino Jonsater, Pohlad made some interesting decisions. Many meaningful silences were left in, and added was a “soundscape,” created by two-time Oscar winner Atticus Ross, that enables moviegoers to hear voices and sounds like Brian does. “He’ll have auditory hallucinations,” Pohlad explains. “He hears these incredible harmonies and orchestrations and things in his head, and that’s his genius, but he can’t really turn them off all the time, so it’s part of the madness, as well. So I wanted to somehow get into his head.”
The feedback that the trio of collaborators have received about Love & Mercy is different, in nature, from the sort they’ve received from other projects, they all agree. Audiences have been moved by Brian’s perseverance in the face of mental illness and cruelty, Melinda’s tenacity on his behalf (see: her scene with Paul Giamatti in the Cadillac dealership) and the Wilsons’ love story overall. Banks, however, thinks the root of people’s connection to the story is even more straightforward than that: “[Brian, after years of being metaphorically caged and treated like an animal] is set free by the end of the movie… We all want to live free.”
Pohlad says he tremendously enjoyed his return to directing, calling it “a super high-point for me,” and wants very much to do it again. His ardor can’t have been hurt by the Wilsons’ response to his film. As described by Banks: “Thankfully, [Melinda] loves it; Brian was a little more straightforward about it — he was like, ‘That’s a great movie!’” Dano adds, “That’s all I needed to hear.”
Love & Mercy, a Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release, is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture, Pohlad for best director, Cusack for best actor, Dano for best supporting actor and Banks for best supporting actress.
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