Biopics are a double-edged sword. On one hand, carving out a larger-than-life persona on the big screen drives iconography and extends a legacy. On the other, the inherent trap of the “greatest hits” approach, a structure often leaned on just because of the sheer amount of information you can carry across, can lead to a lack of dimension, sapping the humanity out of a subject. Bill Pohlad was aware of those pitfalls when he set out to make “Love & Mercy,” a cinematic portrait of Beach Boys legend Brian Wilson, and he avoided them expertly.
The film tells Wilson's story in two eras. Paul Dano plays the younger, his musical brilliance on display as he puts together landmark albums like “Pet Sounds” and feverishly pushes the boundaries of popular music. John Cusack plays the older, trapped in an emotional cage, over-medicated and with seemingly no one truly looking after his best interests. The result is a dissection of genius and an attempt to understand how it ticks.
I talked to Pohlad recently about all of that, about construction a sonic environment with a sound mix that puts you in Wilson's head, about what the music legend has in common with another genius Pohlad has collaborated with (Terrence Malick) and a whole lot more. Read through the back and forth below.
“Love & Mercy” opens June 5.
HitFix: It's nice to see a non-traditional approach to a biopic, but I'll get to that in a moment. I just wanted to start by asking about “The Pet Sounds Sessions,” because I understand that had a lot to do with driving your interest in making the film. What did you discover in that that lit the spark?
Bill Pohlad: Well first of all, I try to make this admission early on that I didn't grow up as a Beach Boy guy or Brian Wilson guy at all. I was a big music fan but I was kind of more of a Beatles guy back then. I always appreciated their music for what it was and Brian's music for what it was, but I never got fully into it until later in life. And then about 10 or 15 years ago I spontaneously got deeply into “Pet Sounds” for no apparent reasons. Just kind of a spontaneous thing, and really fell in love with it and appreciated it for all that it is and was back at that time.
So that kind of set me up perfectly for when this story came along and when we started really talking about doing the Brian Wilson project. I started kind of getting involved in the material and certainly “The Pet Sound Sessions” boxed set was one of those things that I fell in love with immediately. It's one of these things you can just listen to and just be amazed by it. I guess at times I was listening to it for research, so to speak, to get a sense of how Brian worked in the studio and how he interacted with The Wrecking Crew and how he built things and just, you know, the sound of his voice, really. But on a larger scale and on a more personal scale just simply listening to that, I mean, I think it's just beautiful music all the way through, including Brian's direction and the starts and the stops and all the other things. It's just so beautiful and impactful for me to listen to that. So the idea of trying to capture that on film was certainly a big part of my interest in making the movie.
What do you think not growing up as one of the devoted, if you will, did to help you? Does it give you an objective perspective rather than if you had grown up with more devotion?
To be honest, I mean we talked to a lot of people, as we were starting to develop the project. A lot of people wanted to be involved. I mean some pretty big people in all parts of the business wanted to be involved just because of the Brian Wilson thing. And some great writers and things like that. But a lot of them honestly were such Beach Boys fans that they almost were too close to it. They couldn't see the forest for the trees. They were just so into the world and all the minutiae and all that, which is great, but it was never our intention to make a film just for Beach Boys fans or Brian Wilson fans. It was wanting to make a film that would satisfy that group and go deeply into his music and that part of his life. But more so I wanted it to be about a human being, somebody that we could really care for and that you wouldn't have to be a Beach Boys or a Brian Wilson fan to appreciate it. So that drove a lot of it.
You hadn't directed a film since 1990. So two questions: Why did you stay away from the director's chair for so long and why was this the material that got you back there?
After I did my first film I actually didn't want to move to Los Angeles and I kind of wanted to stay in Minneapolis. And, you know, the film had done OK. I mean whenever people saw it and all that but, you know, it wasn't a great testament of my abilities or anything. So I kind of stayed back in Minneapolis and I directed documentaries and commercials and all sorts of things, just kind of to keep me in the business and to keep the bills paid, so to speak. So I did that for like 10 years and I did a fair amount but it really wasn't getting me any closer back to the feature side. So I decided after that to focus more on producing. And at the same time I didn't like the idea of the producer who wanted to be the director, so I just totally didn't say anything about that. I didn't acknowledge, you know, whatever – my desire certainly was to get back to it but I really wanted to be low key about it and very few people knew about it. As time went on and the producing thing got further along, I gained more experience and it felt like I could start loosening up a little bit and start thinking about finding something.
I actually had found something that we were developing when the Brian Wilson project came along. And so I was working on the Brian Wilson thing more as a producer for sure, you know? There was a script that was floating around called “Heroes and Villains” that John Wells and Claire Rudnick Polstein had put together and were kind of shepherding. They came to us to see if we wanted to partner with them on it. I read it and I didn't really like it at all, unfortunately. But I said, you know, “If this doesn't work, out come back and we'll start over. And they did come back. So I started looking at it and getting into it more closely. And then I started working with Oren Moverman on finding the way in and developing the script. And Oren was on the list of possible directors, but as we were working together one day he turned to me and said, you know, “You should direct this. You've got a very clear vision of it and you clearly know what you want it to be. You should direct it.” So I was like, “OK.” It was like somebody giving you permission to do it and it was something that I clearly was very into at that point, even though maybe I hadn't even realized it. And so it just kind of started flowing pretty easily.
I love Oren. He's such a great voice out there, you know.
Yeah, an amazing guy. A great talent.
What you hear in this movie is nearly as important as what you see, I think. The sound mix is so immersive and interesting and I just wanted to get your philosophy behind that.
That was certainly part of it. Obviously there's the music and you want as much of it as you can. On the other hand, this isn't “Mama Mia!” We never wanted it to be a movie where it just hung itself on the music. I love the music for what it is but I've never – like I didn't want to make a “biopic.” I didn't really want to make a movie that was just about the music. At the core I wanted it to be some kind of and intimate portrait of somebody that we could really relate to, that at the end of the day it wasn't just about “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Surf's Up” or anything like that. I wanted it to be about him as a person. So that's what drove that part.
And Atticus's score is so organic it kind of bleeds in and out of the Beach Boys material and creates this – along with the mix – this whole little sonic universe. What was your direction to him?
Part of Brian is the challenges. I mean one of the first things I think [his wife] Melinda said when I first started to get to know them both a little better was this notion that Brian hears these amazing orchestrations and harmonies and arrangements in his head that are so complex, nobody else can understand them until he actually executes them. They're these amazingly, you know, layered things. The problem is he hears them all the time and he can't turn them off necessarily. That ocean of kind of being the genius as well as the madness really intrigued me, and going into someone's mind who is super creative and also somewhat troubled is exciting to me. But you're making a movie, so the normal way in would be some visual representation of some kind of thing, you know, that he's going through. But obviously that's not what Brian suffers from. He suffers from an illness that has him hearing, you know – he doesn't see visual hallucinations. He hears them. It's like he has auditory hallucinations, and so I really wanted to be able to try to get to that and to try to represent that in some way.
So when I started to visualize that I thought of “Revolution 9” on the Beatles' “White Album.” I was like, “We should do something like that.” And in talking about that we started talking again to people, musicians and composers and producers and all that. And Atticus was one of the first people that I sat down and talked about it. And he immediately took it and ran with it. He knew exactly what I was talking about and we kind of totally connected on it. A big part, too, was the discussion about what kind of score this was going to be, and there were a lot of people that wanted to do it. But a lot of them, again, as I explained before, were such big Brian Wilson fans. What were they going to do, write some tribute to Brian or something like that? It just didn't feel right. Atticus got that right away. You're not going to try to compete with Brian Wilson. So he had the idea – because we had access to all of Brian's original music and the original tapes and stems and tracks from these recordings. So we started talking about rearranging those. He would take them and combine them in different ways and we'd mix them and things to create new music that essentially was Brian's music.
Yeah, kind of disassemble it. That's interesting. And Atticus such an inspired pick for something like that. He's so good at building aural environments, you know?
As I said it's very encouraging to see someone take a unique approach to the biopic format. I think that it's interesting because it's not by any means a traditional biopic, but it definitely gets across the information that you would receive in a traditional biopic. But it does it in organic ways. So with that in mind, how did the way you decided to tell this story play into the themes that you wanted to explore?
It's hard to go back and go, “I did this for this particular reason,” or whatever. I grew up more in a mainstream film world. In other words I wasn't at the art house all the time. But my sensibilities are also such that I don't like doing the same thing over again. I mean what's the point if you're just trying to do the same thing that somebody else has done? So here in this effort of trying to do something, you know, to represent Brian in some way, again, what I wanted was to paint a portrait that was more human. And certainly a biopic doesn't allow you to do that because you're just having to hit so many different beats along some famous person's life and get into that trap. So the idea of trying to do it as these two parts of his life intertwining and allowing that to paint the portrait was what I wanted to do and how we started talking about it. Sorry, can you repeat the question.
I was going to ask you to get into this idea of conceiving it as a diptych.
Basically you look at Brian's life and he's gone through so many different eras and so many different phases and so many different lives in a lot of ways. If you were trying to do a biopic that just hit every one of them, I mean, it would have to be some brilliant, long, you know, miniseries or something like that. But I just didn't want to do that. So originally it was actually going to be three and it kind of still is. It was more of a triptych. It was Brian past, which was the 1960s Brian. Brian present, which was the guy in bed. And Brian future, which became the John Cusack era. And kind of by interweaving those we'd show, without having to tell every beat. Obviously we don't wallow in the bed era. We could have. A lot of dramatic things happened there. But again, it just didn't seem necessary. There's a lot of different ways of painting a portrait of someone and in this case it just felt right to focus on these two or three and let them kind of speak for the other eras that we're not seeing. It just felt more intimate to me.
Something occurred to me while watching it, a bit of an odd question but – you obviously immersed yourself in the world of a genius here. And you've worked as a producer with a guy I think a lot of people would consider a genius, Terrence Malick. I'm just sort of curious if any parallels about how these two guys create art struck you.
Not literally. Not something I guess off the top of my head I could express in that way. I think there are certainly similarities in their personalities, to be honest, but I don't know how relevant. That seems more coincidental. I think the important thing is that like any artist in their great moments, they're on their personal journey, as opposed to following some convention or some rule that you have to do this and then you have to do that. They really are freeing themselves in a way to try to do it differently, so what they're doing comes from their heart. Hopefully that's what any of us who are in that realm are trying to do. Some are more successful than others and some let it take over their lives more than others, if you know what I mean. I think we all, in some ways, are on that spectrum somewhere. We learn ways of approaching life so that it's more acceptable to the wider world. And artists, on the other hand, challenge themselves in a lot of ways to go against that and be more free and more kind of able to explore areas that other people might not even think of or allow themselves to go there. So in that sense I think both Terry and Brian are examples of that in different ways, of trying to stay true to whatever that artistic journey is that they're on. And try not to get too hung up on the other side of it or trying to find a balance.
Did this feed the furnace for you as far as directing is concerned? Do you think you'll tackle something else somewhat soon or do you think it will be a little while again?
Hopefully not. I mean again to a large degree I was keeping it under wraps because, you know, it wasn't – whatever, I needed time or I didn't want… I was shy about it, I guess would be the word. Now I feel obviously a little more comfortable coming out in that regard. Definitely I want to do it more and actually Oren and I have just finished an adaptation of a book that looks like hopefully I will direct if we can get it all together. But it's, you know, one of those things you've got to take one day at a time and not get overly hung up on yourself and try to find the right way to do it again. But I definitely want to. It's my first love and something I would like to continue doing.
And then the last two things here I just wanted to ask about some peripheral stuff. How is the Sean Penn movie you produced, “The Last Face,” coming along? Can we expect to see that this year?
It's fantastic. We shot it later last year and we're just in post on it now and we're starting to show some little bits of it to people. I can only say – I don't like to over talk about these things or blow the horn before it's time – but I'm very excited. I've been excited about it from the beginning and as we go through the process and it gets closer to reality my enthusiasm continues to increase.
You'll forgive me if I also ask about the Malick movie “Voyage of Time,” then. Any update on that?
You know, Terry continues to work on it. It is one of those long processes, but he's got a lot of other things going on lately with the trilogy, or the sequence of films he's done since “Tree of Life.” But I think he's spending a little more time on “Voyage of Time” now and obviously we're all excited about it. It's certainly been in the vision and all of our heads since “Tree of Life,” and for Terry a lot longer. So it would be great to see it finally come out.
Well great work on the movie and in capturing a lion of a persona.
Thank you. Thank you very much. It's great to hear.