The cast and crew of “Love & Mercy” on gleaning inspiration from Brian Wilson’s genius

Actors Paul Dano, John Cusack & Elizabeth Banks, director Bill Pohland, and subject Brian Wilson on "Love & Mercy"

Jun 08, 2015 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


In some version or another, a film adaptation of Brian Wilson’s life has been kicking around Hollywood for a while. Luckily, it eventually fell into producer Claire Rudnik Polstein’s lap. Along with director Bill Pohland (producer of Twelve Years a Slave) and writer Oren Moverman (I’m Not There), they have created Love & Mercy, a fun yet unconventional biopic that truly honors Brian Wilson’s enormous musical and cultural legacy without falling into the trap of overt glamorization. With the primary goal of evoking Brian Wilson’s spirit and honestly retelling his life story, the filmmakers and the actors were able to work closely with Brian and his wife Melinda Ledbetter throughout.

It was this collaboration and unprecedented access to the film’s subjects that served as a major inspiration. John Cusack, who plays Brian in the recent past as he struggles to break out of his life in seclusion, describes the importance of this resource in achieving an honest portrayal, “Brian and Melinda were nice enough to talk to me and let me ask questions because they wanted it to be factual and accurate. So I met with Brian and I saw how he intuits and feels people and gets the vibes on people so that was very helpful.”

This gratitude is echoed from all the cast members. “The generosity that it takes to give your life over to a bunch of yahoos to put on screen is so intense. I felt mostly gratitude that I had this amazing resource to work with,” says Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda. After meeting the real Melinda, she was particularly impressed. “I wasn’t hooked into the movie until I met Melinda. When I met Melinda I felt, thank God, very connected to her. It was a great relief I think for both of us... She’s very fierce, she’s very loyal, very devoted to Brian.”

Paul Dano, who plays young Brian Wilson on the verge of losing control but in the midst of creating his masterpieces Pet Sounds and Smile, had a different challenge. Because he portrays Brian a lifetime ago, he relied more heavily on video recordings, but, as he put it, “to go for any sort of mimicry felt like the opposite of what we all wanted.” Instead, both Dano and Cusack immersed themselves in Brian’s music as the root of their inspiration. Dano: “We both found that Brian is his music and that that’s where that spirit comes from. And that’s where a lot of his light is. So it all seems to keep circling back to the music.” Cusack agrees, “You can hear everything about Brian in his music if you just listen carefully, it’s all there.”

Pohland and Moverman also relied on the iconic music of The Beach Boys as structural inspiration while mapping out the film, which strays from the usual clichéd biopic narrative arc and instead focuses on two very distinct time periods in Brian Wilson’s life. “If you listen to the music and you realize the genius of what’s going on with the music, it’s these very unusual, very inventive, very original chord changes,” Moverman says, “So we were going to make a movie that had these weird chord changes, these weird juxtapositions. These weird shifts and structure and storytelling and narratives.” As Pohland explains, ““We knew we didn’t want to do a biopic that was very structured, we wanted to evoke the spirit of Brian more so than all of the facts in a row.”

So what does Brian Wilson himself think of all this? “Bill [Pohland] and John and Paul are geniuses, absolute geniuses, and I’ve been called a genius myself. It was a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun.”

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Love & Mercy is now playing in theaters. For more information about the film, head to its website



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