Director Bill Pohlad on His Brian Wilson Biopic, Love & Mercy

The irony behind the innocence of much of the Beach Boys music is that the band’s main songwriter, Brian Wilson, was in fact insane. He has long admitted that voices inside his head inspired his music, and he was driven by a perfectionist’s OCD to do those voices justice. So think about that when you hear those beautiful harmonies on songs like Good Vibrations and God Only Knows.

This collision of madness and music is what drove filmmaker Bill Pohlad to tell Wilson’s story. In Love & Mercy, director/producer Pohlad alternates between two periods in Wilson’s life: The immensely creative era of the late ‘60s, when Wilson recorded the music for Pet Sounds and Smile, and a period in the 1980s when he became a recluse, practically imprisoned by his psychiatrist, Dr. Eugene Landy.

Most biopics follow a straight-forward chronology, trying to cram the complexities of someone’s life into two hours. They also feature the same actor aided by makeup for aging purposes. But Love & Mercy only shows us what Wilson’s life was like with the Beach Boys in the ‘60s, and alone, in “treatment.” Two different actors play Wilson. Paul Dano is the younger version while John Cusack brings to life the older version.

During a recent visit to Miami to present a preview screening of Love & Mercy, Pohlad sat down for a talk about his unusual biopic. He says it took a while for him to be assured that he'd made the right decision to cast two actors in the same role:

“It's funny, as we were going through the process of editing, I would occasionally show it to either a couple of friends or we did kind of a very small screening with strangers, just to see if they were getting it. It definitely wasn't unanimous at that point. I got, ‘What are you doing?’ or ‘Who's that guy?’ So, I don't know, it's probably just me fearing the worst of the comments from the screenings — typical director's paranoia.”

But after the entire two-hour movie came together, a sort of synergy became apparent. Alternating between the two eras with patient pacing, supported by strong performances that also feature Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's future wife and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy, the movie came together. With proper context, he says the audience responded to the casting of the two Wilsons. “It's amazing that people really have responded to it,” says Pohlad, “and it never seems to bother people.”

Just as central as the performances is how Pohlad handled the music. The film opens in pure darkness featuring a sound collage of familiar bits of Beach Boys songs, overlapping and swelling to an overwhelming din before cutting to silence. Pohlad notes it was important to find a way to represent the interior world of Wilson.

Pohlad had to find a way to represent both the creative and mad side of Wilson. The scenes in the studio with a menagerie of musicians, from French horn players and percussionists on timpani, to experiments with a bicycle horn and dogs make for easy visuals, but the key is finding a way to represent the source. Pohlad turned to music producer Atticus Ross, who first made a name for himself collaborating with Trent Reznor on several Nine Inch Nails albums before the pair would go on to win an Oscar for composing the Social Network soundtrack.

“I was limited through film,” notes Pohlad, “so your tendency is think about all the trippy kind of hallucination that we've seen in film, but that's not what it was. That's not what [Brian] experiences, so I didn't want to fall back on that and use that as an easy way out. I really did like the idea of trying to figure out some way to represent and portray what Brian hears in his head.”

Pohlad said the idea of the sound collages, which not only work as sonic representations of Wilson's mind but also provide the score of the film, came from The Beatles and their famous song, "Revolution 9." He explains, “That came to me as a kind of template to build off of. We started talking to musicians and composers we were talking to about the score. As important as the score itself was how to portray these mind trips, as we ended up calling them, and Atticus Ross — he was one of the first people I sat down with — got that right away.”

Pohlad says because of Ross’ experience behind the soundboard as a producer, he was the perfect arranger of the film’s score and sonic mind trips, whose source were actual master tapes of sessions that Wilson himself shared with the production. “We had access through Brian to his music and more than his music, but to all the elements that made up all those great albums, the original stems and tracks from those recordings that were kind of ours to play with. It was quite amazing, and what Atticus did with them was just so exciting and such a great part of the film for me.”

Since Wilson and his wife Melinda granted Pohlad full access as well as archival recordings, the director got to know Wilson well. His personal relationship with the musician also assured him that he was on the right path, and the sense of a man haunted by music became very real to him.

“There's the melodies, arrangements, and harmonies and all sorts of things in his head all the time,” notes Pohlad, “but, you know, he probably can't turn them off, so it's kind of a blessing and a curse, where he gets those things happening and sometimes they're part of the dream and sometimes it's more of a nightmare.”

Love & Mercy opens in limited release in the Miami area this Friday, June 5, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Aventura Mall 24 Theatres and Regal South Beach 18.
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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.