By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Beach Boys founding member Brian Wilson’s life has been so complex, so unbelievable and so rich in drama and art that it took not just one but two talented actors—John Cusack (“Say Anything”) and Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”)—to play him in a new film called “Love & Mercy.”
The pop music legend, of course, co-wrote such enduring pop songs including “Surfer Girl” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” as well as the game-changing masterpieces “Good Vibrations” and “God Only Knows,” before disappearing from the public eye for several years.
“Love & Mercy,” directed by Bill Pohlad from a screenplay by Oren Moverman, toggles back and forth between Wilson’s prolific songwriting years when he performed with his brothers and friends in the band, and his later years, when he was under the “care” of a controversial therapist called Eugene Landy (played by Paul Giamatti), who controlled Wilson’s every move as well as overprescribed medication that worsened—not helped—the music artist’s mental health condition.
It was only when Melinda Ledbetter (played in the film by “Pitch Perfect 2’s” director-actress Elizabeth Banks), a gorgeous car saleswoman who entered his life and helped him extricate himself from Landy’s control that Wilson was able to get his life back on track and start composing, recording and performing again.
Wilson and the two actors who portray him were recently on hand to talk about the film, which isn’t so much a biopic as it is an exploration of an artist’s rocky emotional journey and struggle with mental illness and the ultimate salvation of a cultural icon whose success came at extraordinary personal cost.
At 72, Wilson is no longer as physically robust as he was as the cherub-faced musical protégé in the 1960s. His answers are brief and to the point. Yet, he continues to record new music as well as perform. “No Pier Pressure,” his 11th studio album as a solo artist, was released in April to solid reviews, and he is touring the U.S. this summer and the U.K. in September.
Q: The film seems to capture what it’s like to be in Brian Wilson’s head. Does the film capture the way you think and hear things musically?
Wilson: It did capture it very well. I made a lot of music with the Beach Boys. Sorry it couldn’t all be in the movie, but some of it was.
Q: John and Paul, can you talk about portraying Brian? And did you talk to him beforehand, or did you just go by old footage?
Cusack: The period that I played in Brian’s life was much less public than the period Paul played. He had sort of removed himself from public life, and so there wasn’t as much information or knowledge of him in that era. And it was a lot of legends and a lot of superstitions about it. And it was more lore than fact.
So Brian and Melinda were nice enough to talk to me and let me sort of ask questions because they wanted it to be factual and accurate. So I sort of met with Brian, and I saw how he sort of intuits and feels people and sort of gets the vibes of people. And so that was very helpful. And then I hope I wasn’t an unwelcome houseguest, but they were very kind to let me talk to them. And then I was always, I think Paul and I both, just dug into “Smile” and “Pet Sounds” sessions because that was sort of where the movie, where Brian in this version of Brian, this movie where he reaches his creative sort of apex, and he removes himself.
As he struggles to sort of put his life back together, and he falls in love with Melinda. Those two, “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” sessions records were sort of where I went in because my own opinion is you can hear everything about Brian in his music. And if you just listen carefully, it’s all there.
Q: Do you have a favorite Brian Wilson or Beach Boys song?
Cusack: I was really obsessed with “Smile,” the “Smile” sessions record when I was making the film to try to feel what he must have been feeling because then when you see him playing in the Royal Albert Hall, when he finally played “Smile,” it was so beautiful. To see Paul McCartney weeping in the front row was just fantastic.
Wilson: Right, right, I remember that.
Cusack: It was extraordinary, so that was my way of getting into it, but I listened to everything. I was in total immersion school. So usually, if you make Amadeus, you know you’ve got a really good soundtrack. This is going to be Mozart. When you’re making “Love & Mercy,” you have to the Mozart of rock and roll. So I mean, it’s amazing what Bill and Atticus, what they did to create a sonic texture in the film. But the acting part of it, I was wanting to hang out with Brian as much as I could and Melinda, but I just went to his music and just dove in.
Dano: I remember talking to Bill (Pohlad, the director) and Oren (Moverman, the screenwriter), sort of what I started to prepare, and somebody in one of our conversations said, “If we can kind of just get even just a little bit of Brian’s spirit, we’re going to be okay.” Like that’s sort of the thing to go after.
I basically spent my time just like searching for whatever that was and how to find that. So as much research as you can do or even watching video, for somebody as sort of honest and raw as Brian is, to go for any sort of mimicry or something felt like, sort of the opposite of what we all probably wanted and rather just try to get to whatever that open spirit is that could sort of touch base with music. That was even bigger than himself. To get to that point, which is even though John and I never talked about finding our characters, we just met on set when I was finishing and he was starting. I think we both found that Brian was his music, and that’s where that spirit comes from. That’s where a lot of his light is. So it all seems to keep circling back to music.
Q: Brian, when you first heard that John and Paul were going to play you, what did you think?
Wilson: Well, I thought it was a very good idea, very good decision that we made. First of all, Bill and Paul and John are geniuses. They are absolute geniuses. And I’ve been called a genius, myself. (He laughs.) But, no, it was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun. I was very glad to meet these guys.
Q: John, you’ve been in some really interesting roles lately, including “The Frozen Ground” and “The Paperboy.” Those were really interesting, different roles for you. And I think this is the performance of your career.
Cusack: Oh, thank you.
Q: Could you talk about getting this role?
Cusack: I’ve known about Brian’s musical legacy and I’ve known what he meant to music and culture, and American culture, and when I found out that Bill (Pohlad) was making the story, I called up and said, “Hey, can I read for it?” because I just wanted to see if I could be first in the door. So I don’t know if he was thinking of anyone else but he was gracious enough to meet me.
If I’m going to be making films that you really care about, not just to make a living, but just to make films that you care about, this is the kind of thing I want to be doing if I’m going to stay in the business, and so I would just give it everything I had. It’s great to be in the company of these people and doing this stuff and to make a film about, as Paul (Dano) aid, it’s a great gift to him and I would concur that it’s a great gift for me to be able to play someone, or try to channel the spirit of someone who has so much heart and vulnerability, but is such a survivor and has changed music and culture in such radical ways that are primarily about opening up your heart. (He holds Brian’s shoulder.) This is a great American and a great human being. I was just thrilled to be here with Bill and his crew and be a part of it.
Q: You said, “If I’m going to stay in the business.” What did you mean by that? Are you thinking of quitting?
Cusack: Oh no, what I meant was you can do movies to fund other things that you’re doing and sometimes you can take… It’s a business, right? But what’s great about this is Brian is a pure artist and any of us who are in the business want to keep the flame of that pure artist, explorer, conjuror alive. Not all of us are at Brian’s level. There are not many people on earth that are. But to be able to make a film about a full creative spirit like this was why I wanted to remain in the business, or why I want to remain making films if I can do things like this.
Q: Paul, what was the joy and challenges of recreating the “Pet Sounds” sessions for the film?
Dano: Anyone who’s been on a film set would know that for Bill to let this happen, it’s really complicated and the days are tight. The budget wasn’t huge to bring in live musicians and stick to that plan, although a lot of people want to do that kind of thing. They just don’t do it because it’s complicated. It’s bad for sound. It’s resets. It just becomes a whole big thing, but Bill went for it and it felt so alive to be in that room where Brian had recorded Pet Sounds, and with people playing that music. I think it was easy for all of us to delude ourselves and feel like we were there. So a lot of credit goes to sort of creating the atmosphere for everything to come alive.
Q: How was it portraying someone who’s still around to see how you’ve depicted them?
Dano: I think you have to turn fear into healthy fear pretty quick, somehow. You have to give yourself the chance to do that for that person. You have to find the way to do it for yourself to do it for that person or something like that. It’s like some kind of animal instinct, maybe like a chemical clicks in, and you somehow get over the fear of that task and just dig in.
Q: Paul, did you lip sync or actually sing the songs like “Caroline, No” in the film?
Dano: The wider shots are lip-synched but the close ups are me singing.
Q: One of the funny moments in the film is when, during the recording of the “Pet Sounds” album in the studio, Brian says, “Can we get a horse?” Did you ever get the horse in the studio?
Wilson: No, we actually didn’t get to that point. The horse was just a thought. Somebody said, “Let’s get a horse in here!” Somebody (else) said that; I didn’t say that.
Q: You released “ No Pier Pressure” album just a couple of months ago.
Q: Is your process of creating an album now the same as it was when you made “Pet Sounds?”
Wilson: No. It’s radically changed. Radical changes. It took me about a year to get the album cut. We worked on and off for about a year, and we have four guest artists on the album. Yeah.