Good Vibrations

Bill Pohlad offers Love & Mercy

Bill Pohlad
Bill Pohlad (Courtesy of Roadside Attractions)

A musical genius and social enigma, Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys and solo fame, could present a daunting figure for a movie to wrap itself around. There's so much history and legend that comes with the territory; so many songs, albums, and periods of silence to incorporate; so many characters and cultural touchstones that need mentioning, that it's a wonder that Love & Mercy, which opens nationwide on Friday, June 5, not only scores, but knocks it out of the park.

The film is far from a standard biopic that hits all the key events in the subject's life and career. In fact, Love & Mercy focuses on just two periods of Wilson's life: the creation of the album Pet Sounds, a game-changing work in which Wilson moved the Beach Boys from California pop to something much more complex, and the beginning of his relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (played by Elizabeth Banks), whom he would later marry, beginning the process of weaning himself from the influence of the controversial Eugene Landy and starting a new solo career. Moreover, the film employs two actors – Paul Dano and John Cusack – each one playing Wilson at these two different periods of his life.

The strategy of using two Brian Wilsons was the idea of director Bill Pohlad. Although Pohlad is one of the Oscar-winning producers of 12 Years a Slave, he had only directed one feature film before – and that was nearly 25 years ago. Instead, Pohlad is known as a film producer of exceptional taste; as the head of River Road Entertainment, Pohlad has produced such films as Brokeback Mountain, Sean Penn's Into the Wild, The Runaways, and The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. When asked about his criteria for selecting projects, Pohlad easily replied: "I want something to be proud of, something that hasn't been done before, but more importantly, something that will stand the test of time." Pohlad spoke with the Chronicle during SXSW, where Love & Mercy made its U.S. premiere.

Pohlad's first introduction to the project was a script called Heroes & Villains, which others had brought to him at River Road. Although he loved the idea of a Brian Wilson movie, Pohlad didn't like the script and sent them away, telling them to come back and they'd start over if nothing else worked out.

"I never like to do anything that feels like it's been done before," says Pohlad. "And biopics just didn't really interest me because you're always having to capture every beat. If you're going to try to tell Brian Wilson's story, you have to be rocketing through all of these things, so I figured it was better to try to get some portrait of him that was made up of something more contained. The Pet Sounds era always seemed like a good era to focus on. Then I met Melinda and she told me this story of how they met. So I thought that was a good way into the story. Then it became these two strands and weaving them together. From that, the idea of having two different actors germinated, and that's when I went to Oren Moverman [The Messenger]. He had done I'm Not There, so he kind of knew that structure and got what I was talking about right away. We started working together very closely on it. I was thinking that maybe he would direct it, but as we started, he said, 'You know, you should really direct this.' That gave me the opportunity or excuse to say yes, okay."

That jibed with something Pohlad said earlier in our conversation, about waiting to launch his producing career in earnest with Brokeback Mountain. "I wanted to wait for something I really believed in," he reflected. "Pick things that I loved, and not just because the numbers worked out." Love & Mercy may open a new chapter of Pohlad's filmmaking career, but that core philosophy of his hasn't changed a bit.

Love & Mercy opens Friday, June 5. See Film Listings for review and showtimes.

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Love & Mercy, Bill Pohlad, Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, Elizabeth Banks, John Cusack, Paul Dano

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