I noted that Pohlad's marquee presentation of Love & Mercy emerged from the surf as my favorite film of the 58th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF). I watched it twice at SFIFF and anticipate catching it yet again come Friday. An ingenious revamp of the biopic genre, Love & Mercy profiles Wilson through Oren Moverman's tried-and-true narrative device of dividing representation among multiple actors; familiar to fans of his screenplay for the Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There (2007), and similarly effective in Love & Mercy. A lookalike Paul Dano (as the youthful Wilson) and John Cusack (as Wilson in his later years) embody Wilson with ranged experience; but, the real discovery here is the Oscar®-worthy supporting turn of Elizabeth Banks as Wilson's love interest who remedies the film's narrative plight with humor and a fierce heart.
Paul Giamatti). A shortlist of Love & Mercy's highlights would include the opening montage of early Beach Boys iconography, the lovingly recreated recording sessions (especially of "Good Vibrations") and the phenomenal sound design that conveys the explosion of musical ideas coursing through Wilson's overheated brain. The movie's revelation, however, is the achingly heartfelt performance by Elizabeth Banks as Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac saleswoman who selflessly comes to Wilson's emotional rescue. To my surprise, a review of her extensive IMDb credits tells me I've only seen one other Banks performance—as Laura Bush in Oliver Stone's W. (2008). You heard it here first; she's the supporting actress to beat comes 2015's year-end awards season."
During the film's Q&A session, I queried:
Bill Pohlad: Yeah, I mean it's one of my favorite parts of this project if I'm being really honest. Once I got to know Brian, and tried to understand what he'd gone through—what he goes through even now—trying to portray that and communicate that in a movie was a big challenge, but an exciting one. Part of Brian's condition is that he suffers from hallucinations, but they're not visual, they're auditory. He hears these incredibly complicated arrangements, orchestrations and harmonies that nobody else can hear and/or understand. He can't stop them or turn them off. That was always intriguing to me as both a blessing and a curse.
Cinematically, of course, you can always fall back on some visual representation of those hallucinations, but that's not what he experienced. It was a challenge to figure out how to represent what he experienced. For me, the first thing that I struck on was "Revolution No. 9" from The Beatles "White Album" as a way to figure out a dissonant soundscape and so I passed that on to Atticus Ross and he caught onto that right away and ran with it and did an amazing job bringing that to life.
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Pohlad confirmed the idea had been there from the beginning. A script had been circulating that conveyed a more conventional narrative but—once he became involved—he decided to start over. He wanted to find a more intimate way to create a portrait of Wilson where they wouldn't be tied into telling every linear beat of a conventional biopic. He wanted the narrative to be more interwoven. The progression of that idea was to have two different actors playing separate roles, which just seemed more interesting creatively but would also reflect where Brian had been, and what he had gone through, so that was how he developed the script with Moverman.
As for deciding upon the actors, Paul Dano was an easy choice and at the top of the list when they were talking about the earlier period of Brian's life. When he cast Dano, Pohlad didn't know if he could even sing or not; he just seemed so right for the role. He had a feeling that maybe he could sing but, just to be sure, they sent Brian's musical director out to New York to meet with Dano and, within 45 minutes, they received a video back from him about how excited he was that Dano could—first time through—hit all the notes and do such a fantastic job.
Was there any issue, Armstrong asked, with the music rights? Were Brian, Melinda, and the other members of the Beach Boys forthcoming?
Brian and Melinda were on board early on, Pohlad answered, and when he sat down to talk to them about the new narrative approach to the script, they grew even more enthused. They became great partners in making the movie. Whenever you make a movie about real people, Pohlad cautioned, you run the risk of having them constantly looking over your shoulder to say, "I was funnier than that." But Brian and Melinda were great about just letting them tell the story as they needed to, but would be there to draw on when required, to make sure they were being true to the story.
Asked by an audience participant if Dano and Cusack had a chance to confer about their separate portrayals to sustain a continuity of Wilson's character, Pohlad said they had the chance but he never encouraged them to do so. He directed both of them and encouraged them to find their own Brian Wilson. The continuity resided in his direction and he didn't want them to feel that they had to coordinate their portrayals through facial tics or shared movements. They both found their own independent and organic way, both inspired by Brian himself. Dano didn't even meet Brian until the first day of shooting and, even then, didn't spend much time with him, whereas Cusack did spend more time with Brian.
The Wrecking Crew and they didn't rehearse. They just had them come in, gave them the material, and they played. Paul Dano had studied the "Pet Sounds" sessions by that point so he knew Brian's cadence and how he behaved in the studio. They just let him go at it and they had two 16mm cameras shooting in the room and shot it literally like a documentary as they progressed through these songs. It was a magical time. The cast, the crew, the musicians, all of them were being able to live this for two to three weeks in that studio.
He had other patients before Brian Wilson—he had treated Alice Cooper, the actor Gig Young, and a number of other celebrity patients—but then his whole life (and practice) became wrapped up in Brian. As for Brian's final diagnosis, what the UCLA doctors finally decided was that Brian suffered from what is called schizoaffective disorder and you don't treat schizoaffective disorder like you do schizophrenia, which is what Landy was doing. All those years he was overmedicating Brian with anti-schizophrenic drugs, which did him more harm than good. Once the UCLA doctors got that reversed, Brian began to improve.
Love & Mercy opens in Boise at The Flicks Friday, June 5, 2015. In the Bay Area it opens in the East Bay at Landmark Cinema's Shattuck and Piedmont venues. Surprisingly, it's only opening at the CinéArts @ Empire in San Francisco proper. I have to trust it will roll out to other venues in the near future?