Q&A/Review: John Cusack, Brain Wilson & Director Bill Pohlad On ‘LOVE & MERCY’


Preston Barta // Features Editor

Brian Wilson’s fame is a complicated one. He will always be known as the driving force behind the Beach Boys, but, like many geniuses of the time, he fell prey to the pitfalls of drugs and success.

The new film LOVE & MERCY delves into Wilson’s life during the 1960s and 1980s– and John Cusack and Paul Dano are the note-perfect duo that tackles the role of Wilson. They each bring their own unique style and approach to the character and wear the icon like a suit. They don’t do impressions or rub your eyes in disbelief, but channel the man so distinct in appearance and voice to a level beyond praise.

Biopics often run into the problem of trying to fit too much into a two-hour run-time. We have seen this before in such films as 2004’s RAY, where the story never let itself settle with a coherent mood and narrative. LOVE & MERCY, however, impeccably blends two timelines in Wilson’s life: his life in the ’60s where he fell into the deep abyss of drugs and created the music that made him legend, and the later part of his life when he meets his Cadillac saleswoman and future wife Melinda (Elizabeth Banks) while under the thumb of controlling psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy (a devilishly good Paul Giammati).

LOVE & MERCY showcases the tragic but great life that Wilson led and continues to lead. While we may not all know Wilson’s pain, we can resonate with his fire and passion, and admire his genius. It’s a story that is both raw and honest, and you will soon not forget.

Fresh Fiction recently sat down with Brian Wilson, John Cusack and director Bill Pohlad in Austin, TX. We talked about Wilson’s life, the preparation, and his music that inspired millions.

Director Bill Pohlad, John Cusack and Brian Wilson at the SXSW world premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Director Bill Pohlad, John Cusack and Brian Wilson at the SXSW world premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Bill, you haven’t directed a film in over 25 years. Why did you pick this to be the first film in a while?

Bill Pohlad: “I’d been looking for the opportunity to do it for a while. I wanted to concentrate on producing for a long time, and I never liked the idea of the producer who is also the director, so I kept it very quiet. When Love & Mercy came around I was going to produce that and get someone else to direct, but as I worked with Oren Moverman, the writer, we developed the project, the vision crystallized, and he said ‘you know, you should just do this.’ And it sounded like a good idea to me, so I used that as the opportunity.”

What went into your decision to pair Paul Dano and John Cusack?

Pohlad: “It was definitely a conscious decision. When we took a fresh look at the script, the idea was to intertwine these two periods in Brian’s life: the Pet Sounds era and then the 80s, when he was under the influence of Dr. Landy. We thought that would be a good way to paint that portrait, and it seemed more natural to have two different actors playing those roles.

Everybody says ‘Paul Dano looks exactly like Brian,’ but people don’t realize that during that time period, in the 80s, there were a lot of different looks that Brian had. I keyed off a documentary, I JUST WASN’T MADE FOR THESE TIMES, and right off the bad, the first shot of Brian in that documentary, he looks exactly like John. That’s the first time I actually thought about John.”

John Cusack: “Melinda [Wilson] actually showed me a picture. She sent a picture of Brian’s face and my face back when she met him, and we actually do look a little bit alike.”

John, how much time did you and Brian Wilson spend together as you prepared for this role?

Cusack: “Melinda and Brian gave me a lot of access to them. So I got to have dinner with Brian and spend some time with him, and go to his house and go to his music room. I sort of wanted to greedily take as much time as I could – but I also didn’t want to impose on them – but they were so open with their lives. I got to spend a good deal of time with them.

The other thing I could do, which was always available to me, was the music. So I tried not to impose on Brian’s energy or time as much, but what I found so helpful was the Pet Sounds Sessions and Smile Sessions, those albums where you can hear the maestro at work. You can hear him creating those sounds that came to define pop music, that defined the next 30, 40, 50 years of music.

I just tried to tune into him as much as I could through his music. And of course, I loved spending time with him and Melinda as much as I could, but I didn’t want to be an unwanted guest in their house.”

That must have been so exciting for you. Music seems to be very important to you as an actor, especially with so many of your movies revolving around music.

Cusack: “It was a great honor for me. I was very nervous. At the end of the day I hoped everyone would like it. I had a great relationship with Bill, and I know Paul did as well. But the people I was most nervous about seeing it were Brian and Melinda, Brian’s close friends, and his band members.

What I think is brilliant about what Bill did… no one actor’s role can encompass a whole man’s life. By having two actors play the role, we’re admitting the fact that this is just a part of Brian’s life. I played a part of his life where he’s coming out of a dark period, but he’s had a huge life. So we’re admitting that we can’t get the whole story, but if we can get the feeling of what he went through and what he meant to a lot of people, I would be very pleased. So I was most concerned with what they thought, because if they thought “they got it wrong” then we would be in trouble.”

Brian, how did you feel when you first saw the movie?

Brian Wilson: “I was scared as hell to see myself as a drug addict, and my doctor… Dr. Landy was like hell to be with. That’s all I can tell you.”

Pohlad: “Brian’s gone through so much, and so many great things and so many things that aren’t so great. If you really wanted to approach it as a traditional biopic, it would be too long to even imagine. So that’s why we chose this approach: it’s our portrait of Brian, versus the definitive photograph of him.”

John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks play Brian Wilson and Melinda Ledbetter. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

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

John, when you’re portraying someone that’s a real person and who has a real life, is there added pressure to make sure you got everything right?

Cusack: “Yeah, but I think what I take away from Brian’s work and knowing him is that the specifics are important, but it’s the feeling and sensitivity – if you can capture that feeling that’s the key. But there’s a pressure, too – the worst thing in the world would be if Melinda and Brian thought ‘these guys didn’t get any part of me at all.’

So I stayed up night and day, immersing myself in his music. I feel like I’ve listened to this music now probably more than any other music.”

Did you, Paul, and Bill talk and hash things out before the film started?

Cusack: “No, because we knew that no one film can capture the entire life of a human being, and especially not an artist of this magnitude. So we actually wanted our perspectives to go purely from instinct. So whatever Paul’s instinct was, that’s one portrait of Brian in the early Beach Boys period.

My approach toward his life, which was a more difficult period in his life with Dr. Landy, trying to come out of it. We didn’t really want to compare notes. We actually wanted two different perspectives.”

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about Brian?

Cusack: “I think it was more remembering what I knew, because I was a great fan of his. I think he’s a real survivor – in a way that people don’t understand – to go through some of the things that he went through. I think it’s very hard to underestimate his genius as a musician and an artist.

If you have a chance to listen to the Smile Sessions and the Pet Sounds sessions and all of his work… to hear him creating those sounds and having 50 musicians come in, and to hear the sounds before they happen– it’s mind blowing. I knew he was a genius, but to re-experience that again was mind blowing.”

Bill, can you talk about the look of the film? The 60s have a very different look than the 80s.

Pohlad: “That was by design. We wanted to give the two periods a different look without going overboard, we didn’t want to do something really dramatic where it called attention to itself. The 60s are shot in a warmer, more nostalgic way – we actually shot all the stuff in the studio on Super 16, and it really gave a texture there that we were looking for, versus every time they stepped out of the studio, it’s 35mm, and it has a different quality to it.

In the 80s, it really was by design to have a colder look, because of where Brian had been brought to at that point in his life. Then Melinda comes in, and it works well with the 80s period and the colors of that era. It helped with telling that part of the story.”

John Cusack, Brian Wilson and director Bill Pohlad at the SXSW world premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

John Cusack, Brian Wilson and director Bill Pohlad at the SXSW world premiere of LOVE & MERCY. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

Can you talk about Paul Dano’s preparation for the music scenes in the film?

Pohlad: “Paul was the first guy on the list for me, as far as who would play Brian during that period. I had this feeling that maybe he could sing, but we weren’t sure. Brian and Melinda suggested we have an associate of Brian’s go and meet with Paul. [He] gave us this call a half hour after the meeting, and he was so excited, he said ‘you’ve gotta hear this.’

And he played us Paul singing ‘God Only Knows’ the first time through, with no coaching, and it was fantastic. Everyone was thrilled that it would be that way. He continued to work on the music and on the feeling. He gained weight as well, to replicate what was going on in Brian’s life at that time.”

Wilson: “I was a little scared to see how much energy I had when I was 24. It surprised me to see Paul in action. It really did, and I was very proud of him. I thought he handled his part very well.”

Brian, you’ve got a new album coming out and a tour coming up. Is music still as exciting to you as it was back then, or more exciting?

Wilson: “About the same. We’re gonna do something in June to promote the album and the movie. We’ll be talking about the movie to the audiences. Hopefully people will turn out one by one to a very spectacular concert trip. It’s gonna be a good one.”

LOVE & MERCY opens 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.