It would be almost impossible to tell Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson’s epic life story, including musical genius and bouts with psychological demons, in a two-hour movie — or even a mini-series. Filmmaker Bill Pohlad and screenwriters Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner dealt with that by narrowly focusing the new movie “Love and Mercy” on two discrete periods in Brian Wilson’s life. The first is the time in the 1960s when the Beach Boys made seminal album "Pet Sounds."
"That was kind of a given," Pohlad says. "If you were going to tell the story of Brian Wilson, you had to include that era. It just was like an artist at his creative peak. And then, obviously, that's also where he starts to fall off the edge."
The other is the era in the ‘80s when he was under the treatment of dominating therapist Eugene Landy, played by Paul Giamatti, and when Wilson met his wife Melinda, played by Elizabeth Banks. To pull this off, Pohlad cast two actors in the role of Wilson. Paul Dano plays the young Wilson, while the older version is played by John Cusack.
"As I got more involved in the project and met Melinda and Brian, and got to know them a little bit, Melinda told me the story of how they met."
That meeting initially happened in a drug store, Pohlad says, before they officially met in a car dealership.
"She saw this guy and she thought he was kind of homeless or something, some kind of quirky, odd guy, but he was somehow charming and sweet. And then when they finally met in the car dealership, she found out that it was Brian Wilson."
Wilson struggled with mental illness, while also being heavily medicated by his therapist. The movie largely skips many of what are known as Wilson's "bed years" with its more narrow focus.
"There's two reasons that I was drawn to the story in the first place. One certainly was the musical aspect. This is a great musical genius who's created some incredible, iconic songs, and things that are all part of our lives. So I wanted to tell that in some way, but not like 'Mamma Mia.'"
Pohlad avoids making it a jukebox musical by showing Wilson's creative process.
"The idea of showing the creative process was really exciting to me. But the other side of it too really was Brian Wilson as a human being, not as a celebrity, but as this guy who faces very severe mental issues. So the draw hopefully into the story is the music, but what hopefully sustains it is the more human side of it."
The movie features an incredible amount of music, drawing from the components that go into a Beach Boys song. Pohlad had the challenge of finding actors who could act while also pulling off the musical elements.
"Going in, having Brian and Melinda involved was important, and we knew that we had the music. I mean, I knew right away, we're not going to find five actors that can harmonize like the Beach Boys or sing like the Beach Boys — that wasn't going to happen."
Finding any five musicians to harmonize like the Beach Boys would likely be challenging enough.
"I knew we were going to use the original recordings, but I wanted to believe that there was a way to incorporate voices. On the other hand, when I cast Paul Dano, I didn't know that he could sing. I met with him, and we cast him, and then we sent out one of Brian's musical consultants to meet with him in New York to see how things were. And 45 minutes after the meeting started, we get this video text from the guy that's basically Paul Dano singing 'God Only Knows' first time through, without any coaching. It was like, this guy can really sing."
That allowed Pohlad to blend Dano's voice into the songs, with scenes starting off with him before transitioning into the Beach Boys and the actual Brian Wilson.
In order to give the movie a unique musical sound, Pohlad also brought in composer Atticus Ross to do the score, including reworking the Beach Boys' music.
"The most important thing was to try to figure out a way to capture what Brian hears in his head. He suffers from a form of schizophrenia, and part of his condition is that he has hallucinations, but they're not visual hallucinations — they're auditory hallucinations. So that really intrigued me. Cinematically, how do you capture that? How do you get that across? Normally, in cinema you'd want to put some weird lights up or something, but it wasn't visual, it was auditory."
Pohlad wanted to communicate Wilson's own experience in the film.
"When Brian told me or when I got the feeling of what he actually hears, these really complex harmonies and orchestrations and melodies, that he can't really relate to other people until he actually executes them. It's part of his genius, but also he can't turn it off, so it's part of his nightmare as well."
The inspiration for how to depict those hallucinations, Pohlad says: Beach Boys rivals the Beatles' "Revolution 9," which Pohlad thought might be like what Wilson heard inside his head. Pohlad went looking for a musical partner who could help bring that to life.
"Certainly, we were talking about the score too, but I led with the discussion about the 'mind trips,' I called them. And then we started talking about score, and the idea that we have the rights to all of this music. And in that discussion, he pushed it along too — the idea of using tracks and stems from Brian's original recordings and reworking them, remixing them and putting them together in different ways to create a new score, an original score that's still kind of Brian's."
The film is based on Wilson's life story, but Wilson himself admits he didn't write his own so-called autobiography, "Wouldn't It Be Nice: My Own Story." Pohlad had to deal with a man who some may question whether he's a reliable narrator of his own life.
"Are any of us? I'm not sure if any of us are. I mean, certainly there's been a lot written about Brian Wilson over the years — a lot of interviews, and a lot of takes from journalists and all that on who he is and what he's done and all that. So who knows what's real. Yes, there was an autobiography written, but I think Brian has admitted that not only did he not write it, but he probably never even read it."
With all that other information other than the bio, though, Pohlad says he had lots of information to work with and build the film around.
"But then obviously we had Brian Wilson and Melinda to be able to go to and talk to about did this really happen, and how did this happen, and how did it feel, and what was it like."
Despite moments that could be uncomfortable to be on screen, Pohlad says that Wilson didn't have any major disagreements with the film.
"To be honest, Brian is an incredibly kind of innocent, egoless, kind of almost like a child. He's got a purity. And I met him early on and I told him what we were planning on doing. I told him we weren't going to do a biopic, that it was going to be more in-depth, so to speak, which would leave him more vulnerable possibly, but that hopefully he could find a trust in us."
Pohlad says he told wife Melinda the same thing, who serves a caretaker role for Brian Wilson, but that both were incredibly trusting. Pohlad worked to make sure that Wilson was fully bought in.
"Before we started shooting the film, certainly he read the script, they both read the script, but I wanted to make sure that he really understood it. So we had a table read. I had him sit down at a table and we had actors come around and read through the script. And I thought Brian was falling asleep at various times, and it was a very nerve-wracking period, but he came back like an hour afterwards with these incredibly insightful notes. Not a lot of notes, just very pointed and really well calibrated notes."
Brian and Melinda also gave similar notes after seeing a rough cut of the film. Pohlad says that, when Melinda first saw it, she was stunned.
"If any of us sat down and watched on a big screen actors portraying our life, it'd be kind of weird. In this case, it's some pretty serious stuff going on, for her and for Brian," Pohlad says. "She didn't know what to say. She certainly didn't get up and say, 'I love that, that was great, this is going to be a great movie.'"
Pohlad says that Melinda ended up telling him that she drove around for two hours after seeing the film to settle down and come to grips with it.
"I think it took a little bit of time and other people seeing the movie to bring that kind of understanding that it was actually, maybe doing a good job."