Telling Brian Wilson's Fractured Life Story On Film NPR's Melissa Block talks with Bill Pohlad, director of the film Love & Mercy, about creating an intimate portrait of Wilson — in both The Beach Boys' heyday and the troubled years that followed.

Telling Brian Wilson's Fractured Life Story On Film

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PAUL DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Remember, it's the higher octave on the upbeats and the bridge.


We're hearing The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson in a recording studio. It's the mid-'60s. The band is at the height of its popularity. Brian is busy working with studio musicians on the album that will eventually be considered one of the best ever recorded - the revolutionary "Pet Sounds."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character #1) How does that work - two bass lines in two different keys?

DANO: (As Brian Wilson) It works in my head.

BLOCK: This window into the creative genius of Brian Wilson comes from the new feature film "Love & Mercy."


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) I think it's going to work. Let's try it.


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Hal, here's how I want you to do it.

BLOCK: Here he's played by the actor Paul Dano.


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) The first beat on the last bar of the intro - bum, two, three, four.


BLOCK: This early period is interwoven with scenes of Brian Wilson's struggles with mental illness 20 years later in the '80s. The older Brian is played by John Cusack, and we see his life being controlled by a domineering psychotherapist. That changes when Brian falls in love with the woman who becomes his second wife, Melinda.

BILL POHLAD: He really has lived one of those lives if you tried to do a kind of a traditional biopic on his story, it would be like a mini-series.

BLOCK: Bill Pohlad directed "Love & Mercy."

POHLAD: We didn't really want it to be a slave to that kind of biopic thing where you're having to hit every beat in a person's life. I wanted it to be more an intimate portrait of him. And so the idea was just to take two parts of his life and intertwine them and hope that that would paint a good enough picture of him, and we could get more intimate and closer to who he is as a person.

BLOCK: The early phase - the "Pet Sounds" phase - that's in the movie, we see Brian Wilson struggling with sounds in his head - voices that he's hearing. But he's also hearing ways to create music that no one's done before. He's hearing new sounds, new harmonies; he says I'm going to make the greatest album ever made.

POHLAD: Yeah. I think it was Melinda who actually said that he hears these amazing things in his head, you know, orchestrations, arrangements, instrumentation, that - and they're so complex that nobody else can understand them until he actually executes them. But the problem is he hears these all the time but he can't ever turn them off. And so that it's kind of a blessing in a curse thing, so that really intrigued me.

BLOCK: Some of the best parts of the movie, I think, are the studio sessions where he's creating "Pet Sounds," laying down tracks.


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Can I have another bobby pin please, Hal?

BLOCK: And we see Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in a piano. He's putting bobby pins on the strings.


BLOCK: We hear a clown horn. We hear a bicycle bell, and he's very actively conducting the bark of dogs.


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Cut - I think we got it. Chuck, mix that...

POHLAD: The stories about Brian and what he did in the studio, obviously, are part of his legend. All those things actually happened. He really did get into the piano and was plucking the strings. He was always trying something different. You know, that was, again, the beauty of Brian in general, but particularly this period, was a guy just at the height of his creative powers really. You know, he's just letting it flow, and there's a lot of things he's doing that nobody's ever done before.

BLOCK: You did have to make a choice about how to portray Brian Wilson's mental illness in this film, right? And that could go in a lot of different directions.

POHLAD: Yeah, I mean, that was a big part of it too for me, I think, you know, was certainly the music, but to me, what really was interesting was Brian, and I really wanted it to be something where we could feel for this person as a real human being, not just as a celebrity. And so certainly the mental illness, or the difficulties that Brian has faced in those areas, was a big part of it and trying to figure out a way to treat it authentically and not kind of go overboard on it. So, you know, one big part of it was trying to figure out how to represent what he hears in his head. Brian doesn't really suffer from visual hallucinations. He suffers from auditory hallucinations. So we brought in Atticus Ross, who did the - not only the score, but helped with these things that I call the mind trips. And, you know, Atticus took that and ran with that and really did an amazing job.

BLOCK: Let's listen to a scene from the movie, which is at a dinner party.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character #2) Hey, Van, what do you and Brian have cooking?

BLOCK: And it starts with normal sounds - conversation, clinking of dishes and glasses. And then by the end, it's become this terrifying cacophony of sound.


DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Stop, stop, stop, stop.

BLOCK: And at the end there, Bill, we are really in Brian Wilson's head, hearing what he hears, experiencing it like he experiences it.

POHLAD: Yeah. That was the hope there was to really try to illuminate that he gets these cues that trigger some of his creativity, but, in this case, just the normal party sounds become almost maddening. And that's one of those parts where you can tell that he's really starting to have some more serious problems with it and struggling more and kind of crumbling.

BLOCK: How much did Brian Wilson collaborate on the movie or cooperate with you and give you permission to tell his story?

POHLAD: Brian was great about it for sure. Both Brian and Melinda, his wife, were great about it. I think whenever you're trying to tell that story of a living person, it's difficult for that person. They really have to find a trust level with the filmmaker. You know, it's a tough thing to let that go and to have that trust. You know, when - before we started shooting, I wanted to make sure that Brian really understood what we were doing. So we did a table read with actors kind of reading through the script, and during that read Brian was sitting there and he started what I had thought was nodding off like he just, you know, was not into it, and I thought we're in trouble here. And at the end, he was like, oh, that was great, great, but just kind of walked off and said thank you. And then an hour later he called back with these amazingly insightful notes on the script, and he was very with it and very insightful about his comments.

BLOCK: Maybe he listens best with his eyes closed.

POHLAD: Exactly.


BRIAN WILSON: (Singing) I was sitting in my room when the news came on TV.

BLOCK: It's interesting that at the end of the movie, when the credits are rolling, you have the actual Brian Wilson playing piano in a concert, recently, I guess.

POHLAD: Yeah, of him performing "Love And Mercy." I think it was, you know, after everything we've gone through in the movie at that point, to be able to see the real Brian performing and what he really looks like at this time. And then he came out of this, you know, not unscathed, but he came out of it and he's the last one standing as it turns out. Unfortunately, both of his brothers died, and he's still there, the most fragile one, for some reason, has survived all this and is still out there performing.


WILSON: (Singing) All the loneliness in this world - well, it's just not fair. Hey, love and mercy, that's what you need tonight

BLOCK: Bill Pohlad, it's good to talk to. Thanks so much.

POHLAD: Thank you.


WILSON: (Singing) So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight; love and mercy tonight.


BLOCK: Bill Pohald directed the film "Love & Mercy" about the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson.


WILSON: Goodnight, everybody, drive safely.

BLOCK: This is NPR.

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