david j. moore reports from the Love and Mercy press conference…
Love and Mercy, the new film from Lionsgate, tells the story of two separate eras of the life of Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys. One period is set during Brian’s creative strides in the 1960’s as he creates the albums Pet Sounds and Smile, and Brian (played in that era by Paul Dano) is struggling with the onsets of psychosis. Years later, Brian (played in the 1980’s by John Cusack) is under the overbearing care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who interferes with Brian’s burgeoning romantic relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), the only hope Brian has of breaking free of Dr. Landy’s prison-like care. Directed by Bill Pohland (a producer of 12 Years a Slave and Into the Wild), written by Oren Moverman (Rampart), and produced by Claire Rudnick Polstein (August: Osage County), Love and Mercy is a cinematic journey that matches Brian Wilson’s own musical journey.
Interview subjects: Brian Wilson, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Pohland, Oren Moverman, and Claire Rudnick Polstein.
The following is a transcript of the Love and Mercy press conference that took place on Tuesday, June 2nd in Beverly Hills:
The first question is for Claire Rudnick Polstein: I know there was a backstory behind this project before it came into your hands. How did this come to you, and how did the team of Oren and Bill come together, and what gave them the confidence to put themselves in your hands?
CRP: Good questions. This came together as a project with Warner Independent. The option was lapsing, and the executive producer was Jim Lefkowitz, and it was a project with the Wilson’s attached. There were meetings where we talked about the movie and what to do with the film, and they trusted [me] to actually work with them and realize what they wanted to do with the film. We developed it for awhile, but we couldn’t get the pieces together. We found Bill [Pohland] who saw in it what we saw in it, and from there we developed it. We said, “This is really terrific.” Throughout the whole process we worked with the Wilson’s. Bill had a really clear way in how he wanted to present the film.
The film really captures what it must be like to be in Brian Wilson’s head. Brian, does the film capture the way you think musically?
BW: It did capture it very well. I made a lot of music with The Beach Boys. I’m sorry they couldn’t all be in the movie.
BP: That was certainly the goal to try to show how Brian thought things through his music. All of us are complicated when it comes down to what goes on in our heads. It’s not easy to encapsulate, and particularly with someone like Brian who’s done so much with music and broke so much ground. To try to get that across is not easy. Hopefully we somewhat reflected that. Only Brian knows for sure. He’s not saying.
JC: The period that I played Brian’s life was much less public than the period Paul played. He sort of removed himself from public life, and there wasn’t much information or knowledge of him in that era. There are a lot of legends and superstitions about it. It was more lore than fact. Brian and [his wife] Melinda were nice enough to talk to me and I asked questions. I hung out with Brian and saw how he sort of deals with people and how he gets the vibes from people. It was very helpful. I hope I wasn’t an unwelcome houseguest. They were very kind to let me talk to them. Paul, I think, just dug into Pet Sounds and Smile, which is where in the movie this version of Brian has reached his creative apex. He looses himself and sort of struggles to put his life back together, and falls in love with Melinda. Those two albums is where I went into to hear everything about Brain’s music. I listened carefully. It’s all there. I was very obsessed with Smile when I was making this to feel what he must have been feeling. When Brian played it in front of an audience, Paul McCartney was weeping in the front row.
BW: Right, I remember that.
JC: It was extraordinary. That was my way, but I listened to everything. I’m in the total immersion school. If you make Amadeus you’ve got a great soundtrack, but when you make Love and Mercy, you’ve got the Mozart of rock and roll. It’s amazing what Bill did to give the movie its sonic texture. The acting part of it, I just wanted to hang out as much as I could with Brian and Melinda and listen to the music. I dove in.
PD: I remember talking to Bill and Oren when I started to prepare. Someone in our conversation said, “Hopefully we can get a little bit of Brian’s spirit. If we do, we’re going to be okay.” I spent my time searching for whatever that was and how to find that. To go for some mimicry felt like the opposite of what he wanted. I tried to get that open spirit as much as I could, to touch base with the music. I think to get to that point … we both found that Brian is his music. That’s where his spirit comes from.
How much consideration did you have, Bill, in telling the story to a completely new audience that wasn’t familiar with the story as a historical piece?
BP: I think certainly – like most people – I knew some of it going in. I didn’t know all of it. We talked to a few people who were Brian Wilson fanatics. In some ways, they were kind of too close to see the trees, so to speak. It helped to see the things that would appeal to Beach Boy fanatics. It also helped to have some things in there to appeal to those who didn’t know the whole story.
How important was it that this story, which takes place in California, to actually be filmed in California, rather than taking the cheaper option and filming it in Louisiana?
BP: We did go through that whole process and we all worked together where we wanted to shoot it. The opportunity to be able to shoot in California … we were actually able to shoot in the actual studios where Brian made his music. It was a huge thing. It was a California story. It had the whole vibe of The Beach Boys. It’s not really what the story is about, but it still lingers there. We actually did look at Louisiana. It would have been a leap to get in the whole mindset there. It managed to come together so that we could do it in Los Angeles.
Brian, what were your thoughts when John and Paul were cast to play you?
BW: It was a very good idea. I thought it was a good decision. First of all, Bill and Paul, and John are geniuses. Absolute geniuses. I’ve been called a genius myself. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun. I was very glad to meet these guys.
Oren, Love and Mercy has such an unconventional narrative structure. Different styles of filmmaking are used to tell the story. Tell me about getting there. It’s such a complicated soufflé of a film.
OM: The movie was going to be a cinematic translation of the music. What’s going on with the music are these very unusual, very inventive, very original chord changes. It’s what Brian is hearing in his head, and how he translates that to music. We were going to make a movie that had these weird chord changes. These weird juxtapositions, these weird shifts. The structure, the storytelling … it really came from conversations about how we tell the story, but keeping it sensible and linear. The original thought was to make it a tribute to Brian’s originality.
BP: We knew we didn’t want to make a biopic that was very structured. We wanted to evoke the spirit of Brian.
Did you start out with the premise that there would be two actors playing Brian? Or did you arrive at that as the narrative structure came together?
BP: It was a progression. We knew we didn’t want to make a biopic about him. We wanted to take two eras of his life and weave them together. The next thought is How about we go further? I give a lot of credit to Paul, who was able to take the Pet Sounds sessions and feeling how Brian worked in the studio. We had real musicians in the studio and dressed them up and he went in there and channeled Brian. It was designed to be shot like a documentary film. We had 16mm cameras. It wasn’t like “Cut! Let’s do that over again.” We just shot it as we went.
PD: For Bill to let this happen … things were complicated, things were tight. To bring in live musicians, and to stick to that plan … it was complicated, but Bill just went for it. It felt so alive.
Elizabeth, how much work did you do to prepare for playing Melinda Ledbetter?
EB: I did all the work with her. I was seduced by the ambition of the script. What you’re seeing here is really unique with how they approach the movie. I didn’t know the story. I was totally new to the second chapter – the chapter with Melinda. I wasn’t hooked into the movie until I met Melinda. I felt very connected to her. It was a great relief for both of us. We developed a trust very quickly. She’s very loyal and very devoted to Brian. They have created an amazing and beautiful life together. They didn’t just survive – they thrived. That was so encouraging to me. It gave me the long view of the whole story. They got through all the shit and they made it to the other side.
John, you’ve been doing some really interesting roles lately. You were great in The Frozen Ground and The Paperboy, but this is the role of your career. Talk a little bit about taking on this role and being offered this role. It’s so different from what anyone has seen you in.
JC: Thank you. I knew about Brian’s musical legacy. I know what he means to music and culture, American culture. When I heard that Bill was making this, I called him up and I asked him if I could read for it because I wanted to get my foot in the door. I don’t know if he was thinking of anyone else, but he was gracious enough to meet with me. It’s a great gift to be able to play someone like Brian. He’s such a survivor, and he’s changed music and culture. He’s a great human being. Anyone who’s in the movie business wants to be able to play such a creative, pure person. It’s why I’m still in the business, and it’s why I want to remain making films – to do things like this.
John, Elizabeth, and Paul: You’ve all played characters based on real people who’ve been deceased for a long time, so how did you prepare in playing characters who are still very much here and part of the project?
PD: I think you have to turn fear into healthy fear pretty quick. Somehow, because otherwise … I think the only way to do it is to find a way to do it for yourself for that person. Or something like that. Sometimes you move with some kind of animal instinct and some chemical kicks in.
EB: The generosity that it takes to give your life over to a bunch of yahoos to make a film is so intense. I felt mostly gratitude that I had this amazing resource to work with. The best day I had on this movie was getting an email from Melissa that she liked the movie. Everything up to that moment was just anxiety.
Brian, did you ever get the horse in the studio?
BW: No, we actually didn’t get to that point. It was just a thought. Somebody said, “Let’s get a horse in here!” You know? But I didn’t say that, someone else said that.
Brian, I know you just released a new album. Is your process of creating a new album the same as it used to be?
BW: It’s changed. It’s radically changed. Radical changes.
Love & Mercy is released in UK cinemas on July 10th.
david j. moore is a contributing writer to Fangoria, FilmFax, Lunchmeat and VideoScope Magazines. His book WORLD GONE WILD: A SURVIVOR’S GUIDE TO POST-APOCALYPTIC MOVIES was published last year.