Pet Sights and Sounds: Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy tells the story of Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson without falling back on the many cliches of the music biopic. Director Bill Pohlad reveals how he brought the life of this troubled genius to the screen

Article by Josh Slater-Williams | 02 Jul 2015

“I honestly grew up more as a Beatles guy than a Beach Boys guy, but I’ve admitted that to Brian, so he’s aware,” says Bill Pohlad with a little smile.

We're speaking to Pohlad ahead of the UK premiere of his gorgeous and tragic Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he begins by explaining how his musical alliances started to change. “As I got older, I think I started to appreciate The Beach Boys much more, and then, just spontaneously, about ten years ago, I got into Pet Sounds in a much deeper way. I mean, it’s something I always appreciated, but I didn’t really plumb the depths of it until more recently. And so when this project came along, I was kind of perfectly keyed up for it, I think.”

A producer on such acclaimed films as The Tree of Life and 12 Years a Slave, Pohlad’s journey to becoming its director was a circuitous one. “It came [as] a script floating around Hollywood called Heroes and Villains that dealt with [Wilson's] life. It was a good script, but it just didn’t do it the way that I thought it should. And so I said, ‘this doesn’t work for me, but if it doesn’t work out, come back and we’ll start over.’ So they did, and I started working on it as a producer and with Oren Moverman [Oscar-nominated for 2009’s The Messenger] as the writer, and we started playing with this concept of the two strands and where we would meet these two strands.”

“The things that Brian hears in his head are part of his genius. But he can’t necessarily shut them off, so that’s part of his madness too” – Bill Pohlad

In order to avoid the kind of music biopic tropes Pohlad describes as “being a slave to every beat of a person’s story,” Love & Mercy offers a more formally bold narrative than the sort of films expertly parodied in spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. One of its two interspersed strands concerns Wilson in the 1960s at the height of his powers, where he is played by Paul Dano. The other sees John Cusack play Wilson in the 1980s, post-breakdown, forming a romance that enrages his therapist, Dr Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who’s taken control of every aspect of Wilson's life.

“It was just part of that overall feeling of not being slaves to convention,” Pohlad says, “so we didn’t wanna have prosthetics or something to make them look alike, or to make them look exactly like Brian. To me, it was more exciting just to let them find this kind of inner Brian, if you will, and find it in their own way. And then, hopefully, the harmony of those two kind of separate performances is what creates the ultimate picture. Obviously it could have gone wrong, it could have been bad. But thankfully, with these two great actors, it came out like we'd hoped.”

Also key to capturing Brian’s spirit is the film’s sound and music, with Oscar-winner Atticus Ross (The Social Network) brought in to create some mesmerising soundscapes. “The things that Brian hears in his head, the harmonies and the orchestrations and the arrangements, are part of his genius. But he hears them all the time and he can’t necessarily shut them off, so that’s part of his madness too, if you will. We call them the mind trips: we had written into the script these times when you would go into Brian’s head and hear this cacophony of sounds, and when I was thinking about how we’d realise those on screen I thought about The Beatles’ Revolution 9, which seemed like the kind of thing that I could imagine: dissonant and not a continuous melody but a collage in a way.”

The end result of Pohlad’s efforts is an intimate and often astounding depiction of a genius. One hopes it kicks off a revolution of its own within biopic cinema – wouldn’t that be nice.

Lov & Mercy is released 10 Jul by Sony pictures