There’s no denying that Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson is one of the most talented and influential musicians of the 20th century, and it’s a bit surprising that it’s taken this long for Hollywood to give his story the feature film treatment.
Love & Mercy focuses on two distinct periods in Wilson’s life, with Paul Dano portraying the musician in the 1960s during the recording of Pet Sounds, and John Cusack stepping into the role for the 1980s version of Brian Wilson, during the time he was being controlled and manipulated by his therapist and business partner, Eugene Landy.
The film had its US premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, and a few hours before showtime we took part in a press conference with director Bill Pohlad, as well as John Cusack and the man of the hour himself, Brian Wilson.
Why did you pick this to be the first film you’ve directed in 25 years?
Bill Pohlad: I’d been looking for the opportunity to do it for a while. I wanted to concentrate on producing for a long timr, and I never liked the idea of the producer who is also the director, so I kept it very quiet. When Love & Mercy came around I was going to produce that and get someone else to direct, but as I worked with Oren Moverman, the writer, we developed the project, the vision crystallized, and he said “you know, you should just do this.” And it sounded like a good idea to me, so I used that as the opportunity.
What went into your decision to pair Paul Dano and John Cusack?
Bill Pohlad: It was definitely a conscious decision. When we took a fresh look at the script, the idea was to intertwine these two periods in Brian’s life: the Pet Sounds era and then the 80s, when he was under the influence of Dr. Landy. We thought that would be a good way to paint that portrait, and it seemed more natural to have two different actors playing those roles.
Everybody says “Paul Dano looks exactly like Brian,” but people don’t realize that during that time period, in the 80s, there were a lot of different looks that Brian had. I keyed off a documentary, I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, and right off the bad, the first shot of Brian in that documentary, he looks exactly like John. That’s the first time I actually thought about John.
John Cusack: Melinda [Wilson] actually showed me a picture. She sent a picture of Brian’s face and my face back when she met him, and we actually do look a little bit alike.
John, how much time did you and Brian Wilson spend together as you prepared for this role?
John Cusack: Melinda and Brian gave me a lot of access to them. So I got to have dinner with Brian and spend some time with him, and go to his house and go to his music room. I sort of wanted to greedily take as much time as I could – but I also didn’t want to impose on them – but they were so open with their lives. I got to spend a good deal of time with them.
The other thing I could do, which was always available to me, was the music. So I tried not to impose on Brian’s energy or time as much, but what I found so helpful was the Pet Sounds Sessions and Smile Sessions, those albums where you can hear the maestro at work. You can hear him creating those sounds that came to define pop music, that defined the next 30, 40, 50 years of music.
I just tried to tune into him as much as I could through his music. And of course, I loved spending time with him and Melinda as much as I could, but I didn’t want to be an unwanted guest in their house.
That must have been so exciting for you. Music seems to be very important to you as an actor, especially with so many of your movies revolving around music.
John Cusack: It was a great honor for me. I was very nervous. At the end of the day I hoped everyone would like it. I had a great relationship with Bill, and I know Paul did as well. But the people I was most nervous about seeing it were Brian and Melinda, Brian’s close friends, and his band members.
What I think is brilliant about what Bill did… no one actor’s role can encompass a whole man’s life. By having two actors play the role, we’re admitting the fact that this is just a part of Brian’s life. I played a part of his life where he’s coming out of a dark period, but he’s had a huge life. So we’re admitting that we can’t get the whole story, but if we can get the feeling of what he went through and what he meant to a lot of people, I would be very pleased. So I was most concerned with what they thought, because if they thought “they got it wrong” then we would be in trouble.
Brian, how did you feel when you first saw the movie?
Brian Wilson: I was scared as hell to see myself as a drug addict, and my doctor… Dr. Landy was like hell to be with. That’s all I can tell you.
Bill Pohlad: Brian’s gone through so much, and so many great things and so many things that aren’t so great. If you really wanted to approach it as a traditional biopic, it would be too long to even imagine. So that’s why we chose this approach: it’s our portrait of Brian, versus the definitive photograph of him.
John, when you’re portraying someone that’s a real person and who has a real life, is there added pressure to make sure you got everything right?
John Cusack: Yeah, but I think what I take away from Brian’s work and knowing him is that the specifics are important, but it’s the feeling and sensitivity – if you can capture that feeling that’s the key. But there’s a pressure, too – the worst thing in the world would be if Melinda and Brian thought “these guys didn’t get any part of me at all.”
So I stayed up night and day, immersing myself in his music. I feel like I’ve listened to this music now probably more than any other music.
Did you, Paul, and Bill talk and hash things out before the film started?
John Cusack: No, because we knew that no one film can capture the entire life of a human being, and especially not an artist of this magnitude. So we actually wanted our perspectives to go purely from instinct. So whatever Paul’s instinct was, that’s one portrait of Brian in the early Beach Boys period.
My approach toward his life, which was a more difficult period in his life with Dr. Landy, trying to come out of it. We didn’t really want to compare notes. We actually wanted two different perspectives.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Brian?
John Cusack: I think it was more remembering what I knew, because I was a great fan of his. I think he’s a real survivor – in a way that people don’t understand – to go through some of the things that he went through. I think it’s very hard to underestimate his genius as a musician and an artist.
If you have a chance to listen to the Smile Sessions and the Pet Sounds sessions and all of his work… to hear him creating those sounds and having 50 musicians come in, and to hear the sounds before they happen… it’s mind blowing. I knew he was a genius, but to re-experience that again was mind blowing.
Bill, can you talk about the look of the film? The 60s have a very different look than the 80s.
Bill Pohlad: That was by design. We wanted to give the two periods a different look without going overboard, we didn’t want to do something really dramatic where it called attention to itself. The 60s are shot in a warmer, more nostalgic way – we actually shot all the stuff in the studio on Super 16, and it really gave a texture there that we were looking for, versus every time they stepped out of the studio, it’s 35mm, and it has a different quality to it.
In the 80s, it really was by design to have a colder look, because of where Brian had been brought to at that point in his life. Then Melinda comes in, and it works well with the 80s period and the colors of that era. It helped with telling that part of the story.
Can you talk about Paul Dano’s preparation for the music scenes in the film?
Bill Pohlad: Paul was the first guy on the list for me, as far as who would play Brian during that period. I had this feeling that maybe he could sing, but we weren’t sure. Brian and Melinda suggested we have an associate of Brian’s go and meet with Paul. [He] gave us this call a half hour after the meeting, and he was so excited, he said “you’ve gotta hear this.”
And he played us Paul singing God Only Knows the first time through, with no coaching, and it was fantastic. Everyone was thrilled that it would be that way. He continued to work on the music and on the feeling. He gained weight as well, to replicate what was going on in Brian’s life at that time.
Brian Wilson: I was a little scared to see how much energy I had when I was 24. It surprised me to see Paul in action. It really did, I was very proud of him. I thought he handled his part very well.
Brian, you’ve got a new album coming out and a tour coming up. Is music still as exciting to you as it was back then, or more exciting?
Brian Wilson: About the same. We’re gonna do something in June to promote the album and the movie. We’ll be talking about the movie to the audiences. Hopefully people will turn out one by one to a very spectacular concert trip. It’s gonna be a good one.
Do you think premiering in the US at SXSW, with this particular audience, is a good fit for the film?
Bill Pohlad: Absolutely. I think all of us thought right away of SXSW in Austin. I’ve spent a lot of time down here on other films, and I’ve always loved the city. The reputation for the festival and the city speaks for itself. When we thought about rolling this out, one way or another, SXSW always played into it, just because of the appreciation for the music and the films.
John Cusack: Yeah, you can’t really separate music from this film, and I don’t know a better festival that combines the two. So this is a great one for it.
Are you guys looking forward to see any bands here at SXSW?
John Cusack: Well, Brian played the wrap party for Love & Mercy, and Paul and I got up and sang with him. If Brian Wilson’s playing in Austin, I’ll be ready to go.
Love & Mercy opens in theaters on June 5.