Q&A: Claire Rudnick Polstein Talks Her Career As A Producer & Making ‘LOVE & MERCY’, the story of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys


Love-MercyPreston Barta // Features Editor

Yesterday, we posted our review for LOVE & MERCY where we talked about the troubled life of The Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson. Most of the time when it comes to films about creative geniuses, rarely do they ever capture what makes them so great and worthy of sharing their story. LOVE & MERCY, however, impeccably blends two timelines in Wilson’s life: his life in the ’60s where he (Paul Dano) fell into the deep abyss of drugs and created the music that made him legend, and the later part of his life when he (John Cusack) meets his Cadillac saleswoman and future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) while under the thumb of controlling psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giammati).

We sat down with producer Claire Rudnick Polstein to discuss Wilson’s incredible story, what sets LOVE & MERCY apart from other biopics, and her career as a producer, working on such films as THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer) and AUSTIN POWERS.

Producer Claire Rudnick Polstein attends the premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Producer Claire Rudnick Polstein attends the premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

So, when I looked over your filmography–

Claire Rudnick Polstein: “You saw a lot of crazy things!”

[Laughs] Well, not to me, because I think this is the first time where I have seen everything someone has done.

Polstein: “Oh, you’re kidding?!”

I’ve seen every one of the films you’ve produced. I grew up on a lot of them. And I wanted to begin by asking about one of the films I used to watch with my father all the time as a kid, which was THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1996).

Polstein: “[Laughs] What was wrong with you guys?”

[Laughs] I totally enjoyed it as a kid. And then I saw LOST SOUL at Fantastic Fest just last year and it blew my mind at how many complications you guys had on the set of that film. So having that be your first feature, was it just a nightmare for you?

Polstein: “Yeah. It’s funny. We we’re just talking about it last night. [David Gregory], the director of LOST SOUL had reached out to me to see if I wanted to take part in his documentary, but I didn’t want to partake in it. I just saw the trailer for it, and some of it looks a little tweaked [Laughs]. But it’s so funny because when I met Ben Affleck for the first time – we did BOILER ROOM (2000) together – and he said, ‘Claire Rudnick Polstein, I know that name.’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ I couldn’t figure out how he knew me, but then about two days later he said, ‘You did THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU.’ I was like, ‘Oh, crap! Now what?’ He said, ‘No. No. I love it. I’ve watched it over and over’ [Laughs].

But yeah, it was pretty crazy. Richard [Stanley] (the original director of DR. MOREAU before he left the project during production) really did come back as– they were called ‘Feral People’ who lived in the jungle outside of where we were shooting. He snuck on set after he left.”

That’s just so crazy to me, especially when he went to witchcraft.

Polstein: “He put curses on people.”

Wow. So, how has your experience as a producer changed since then? Probably a lot better [Both laugh]. But has your approach, or do you feel like the role of a producer has changed for you?

Polstein: “It’s still the same job: finding material, packaging, and putting it together. I think when I started out at New Line as a executive, it was a lot easier, honestly, to get films made. I felt that if you had a great idea and you were incredibly passionate about it, as a producer and executive it’s a little easier I felt to work the system and actually get movies made. So if you look at the movies I’ve made, they’re all over the place. I was so fortunate to make all kinds of movies. I just think it’s a little more difficult now and you have to be more creative in terms of your financing and more willing to make creative compromises to get your movie made, whether it’s in casting, storytelling, budget, or location. I think you have to be more fluid about things. You don’t, obviously, want to compromise your integrity and ultimate creative vision, but if there are compromises you can make that aren’t going to hurt the story you want to tell and vision– I think we are much more able to do that now.”

We you familiar with Brian Wilson’s story before you received the script?

Polstein: “You know, I love music. I knew those iconic images of him: in the sandbox, being really heavy and lying in bed. But, I didn’t know anything about his relationship with Eugene Landy (Giamatti), the doctor who took care of him and took advantage of his condition. Once I did become interested in the project– my father is actually a doctor in Los Angeles and was practicing during that time, so a lot of his patients saw Eugene Landy, which is kind of crazy.”

That’s pretty wild. That’s probably about the same amount I knew.

Paul Dano portrays Brian Wilson's life in the 60s in LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Paul Dano portrays Brian Wilson’s life in the 60s in LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

My grandfather loved The Beach Boys, so I would listen to them all the time on cassette. However, I never really looked much into Brian’s personal life. So seeing the troubled life he led–

Polstein: “Yeah. He was with Eugene Landy for nine years. That could never happen today, you know, with social media. That would never happen.”

That’s interesting but quite true. As you know, there are plenty of biopics out there that have covered the life of musicians, but they all tend to have the same structure: the beginning of his/her life, the rise to fame, and fall, whether it is drugs or alcohol. But the writers and director took a very different approach with LOVE & MERCY. Everything is kind of mixed in a blender and works so well. How did you feel about the way director Bill Pohlad approached this film?

Polstein: “I loved it. He really wanted it to have a doc feel for the part in the ’60s, to really get into Brian’s head, understand his music, and how he was feeling about everything. I loved the way Bill shot it. His vision was something that we talked about and really developed. It was kind of a long process, but the short version is once we ended up going with River Road Entertainment and developed it with them, Bill was always so passionate, thoughtful, caring and really involved with the script, that when he decided that it was something he’d be interested in directing– he brought it to us and we were all so supportive, because he had such fire and creative vision for the material that made it more interesting than we originally thought. We didn’t want to make a straight biopic, like you mentioned. We thought that wouldn’t be very interesting. Brian deserved more than that.”

How did you go about acquiring this dream-team cast?

Polstein: “Once we had the script we liked, there were two different Brians. At one point, it almost was three different Brians until we scaled it back. We couldn’t come up with one actor that could play both roles of Brian without a lot of makeup and prosthetics. Bill thought if we did that, it would take you out of the movie.”

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks are Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter in LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks are Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter in LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

Yeah. That and I feel like there is just some things that kind of come with age, and I think John Cusack plays that well.

Polstein: “He does! If you know Brian, John nailed playing him. Everyone who knows Brian, from Melinda (played by Elizabeth Banks) on down, who had seen it, definitely thought Paul Dano nailed the younger Brian– there’s no doubt about that. But the older Brian is much trickier, and everyone thought John did an incredible job.”

Absolutely. I really love that the story alternates between the two timelines. I guess you could say Paul Dano’s bits are flashbacks in a way. Of all the characters in all of the movies you’ve produced, if you could have flashbacks for any character, who would you be most interested in seeing the backstory to?

Polstein: “Wow! That’s interesting. I would have to say Austin Powers, but that would be cheating to say that. I think I would be most interested in Sean Penn’s character in I AM SAM (2001), because you meet him as an adult and you wonder what happened to him as a child.”

I did wonder that as well. I also wondered about Christopher Walken’s character in BLAST FROM THE PAST (1999).

Polstein: “Oh yeah, well, that was a cooky movie [Laughs].”

LOVE & MERCY is playing in theaters today.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.