‘Love & Mercy’: Bill Pohlad Takes on Beach Boys Icon Brian Wilson’s Tortured Past

Brian Wilson Love and Mercy
Marco Grob for Variety

Bill Pohlad never wanted to be that cliche of the successful industry insider who goes around town lamenting, “What I really want to do is direct.”

But the Oscar-nominated producer-financier behind “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life” and “12 Years a Slave” really did want to direct — an ambition he harbored for years after a failed first attempt, and which grew even as he garnered increasing recognition as a backer of commercially risky, artistically ambitious indie films.

“I always had it in the back of my mind, and as time went on, it became more in the front of my mind,” Pohlad says over a recent breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills.

Marco Grob for Variety

Pohlad admits he wasn’t ready to call the shots when he directed the little-seen 1990 film “Old Explorers.” But now, more than two decades later, the 58-year-old sees much brighter prospects for the considerably higher-profile Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” which premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and was lauded for its sensitive, if dark, portrait of the legendary (and legendarily troubled) Beach Boys frontman. Starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, and featuring a detailed depiction of the recording sessions for the band’s seminal 1966 album, “Pet Sounds,” considered by many critics to be the greatest rock record ever produced, the film opens June 5.

“Love & Mercy” is among a growing number of independent features aimed at adult audiences disaffected by the preponderance of expensive popcorn movies that dominate the summer.

“We see a big opportunity releasing this kind of movie in the summer,” says Howard Cohen, co-president of Lions­gate’s ersatz specialty arm Roadside Attractions, which acquired Pohlad’s film in Toronto last fall. But despite the buzz, the distributor decided against rushing it into theaters for the 2014 awards season. “Pretty early on, we said, ‘Let’s put it in June; let’s give it space. Let’s let it be the movie for its audience when it comes out, as opposed to (being) one of eight.”

Encouraged by positive test screenings, Roadside also decided to debut the film on 450 screens in lieu of a platform release, a strategy that has paid off for the distributor on such titles as “Mud” ($21 million domestic gross) and “A Most Wanted Man” ($17 million).

“Love & Mercy” is a nimble, time-shifting portrait of Wilson as two very different men: the groundbreaking, ’60s-era musical savant at the peak of his powers (Dano); and the fragile, ’80s-era man-child (Cusack) addicted to drugs and alcohol, and suffering from mental illness that leaves him a prisoner in his home, under the heavily medicated care of Svengali-like psychotherapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The movie is also, by turns, a love story, about the compassionate Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who helped to extract Landy from Wilson’s life, and eventually became the singer-songwriter’s second wife.

On a recent afternoon in Hollywood, the legendary musician joins Pohlad for an interview and photo shoot at the recording studio on Sunset Boulevard where Wilson held most of the “Pet Sounds” sessions, and where Pohlad restaged them for “Love & Mercy.”

Dressed in a loose-fitting black shirt, his now-silver hair swept elegantly back, Wilson stares into the distance as he tickles the ivories of a Steinway baby grand in the room in which he recorded tracks for “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations.” Later, seated next to Pohlad in the control booth, he praises “Love & Mercy” (which he’s seen three times) as “very accurate and factual, and very well cast and very well portrayed.” This is the Wilson who emerged from the events depicted in Pohlad’s film happier and healthier, and with a loving wife at his side.

Yet as a forced smile for the photographer all too readily belies, there remains a deep-set sadness about the man that suggests he hasn’t entirely conquered the demons that dogged him for decades (including a three-year stretch in the early 1970s, referenced in “Love & Mercy,” during which he rarely left his bedroom).

“I try to chase the demons down the street,” Wilson says in his clipped, monotone patter. “And I don’t do a very good job of it.”

Marco Grob for Variety

A s befits its subject, Pohlad’s film is not your stock Hollywood music biopic. From its hypnotic pre-credits sequence, in which the camera travels the length of a human ear canal, while the soundtrack reverberates with a crescendoing abstract collage (an approximation of Wilson’s lifelong auditory hallucinations), the movie announces itself as the work of a real filmmaker.

But the annals of Hollywood are littered with the forgotten films of noted producers who tried their hand at directing only to beat a hasty retreat to the executive suite, including Bob Shaye, Joe Roth, and even Bob and Harvey Weinstein (1986’s duly forgotten “Playing for Keeps”) — precedents that have helped to create an institutional bias against other producers with similar ambitions.

“I think there’s a suspicion that producers can’t work effectively with all the creative people that you need to work with (as a director), that you’re more focused on the nuts and bolts of it rather than the muse and the creative juices,” says “Love & Mercy” producer John Wells, who made his own leap into feature directing with “The Company Men” (2010). And when that producer also happens to be a financier, Wells adds, “There’s a real eye roll that people do. It’s in that same ballpark as, ‘I’d love to finance this picture, but I have this girlfriend that my wife doesn’t know about who’s a really great actress.’ ”

Wells and producing partner Claire Rudnick Polstein had already been developing a Wilson project entitled “Heroes and Villains” for several years when they brought the script (by Michael Alan Lerner) to Pohlad as a potential financier. A longtime Beach Boys fan, Pohlad gravitated to Wilson as a subject, but not to Lerner’s take on the material. After shopping the project around some more, Wells and Rudnick Polstein came back to Pohlad and agreed to a screenplay overhaul.

Together, Pohlad and a new writer, Oren Moverman, began hammering out a new script that would be less “Ray,” more “Memento.” “The first thing I told Bill,” says Moverman, “was that this movie is ‘Love & Mercy’ ” — the name of the opening track from Wilson’s self-titled 1988 comeback album — “not ‘Heroes and Villains.’ (It’s not) the story of the bad guys and good guys in Brian’s life. It’s the story of the depths of his genius, and of his emotion and hurt.”

Even then, Pohlad thought he would merely produce the film, until his screenwriter convinced him otherwise. “At some point, Oren turned to me and said, ‘You should really do this. You clearly have a vision of what you think it should be,’ ” Pohlad recalls. “Maybe he was just trying to tell me I was being too dictatorial.”

That combination of deference and determination is typical of Pohlad, who grew up the youngest son of Carl Pohlad, the self-made Minneapolis billionaire, who instilled in his three boys the notion that, despite their privilege, hard work was its own reward.

Marco Grob for Variety

Bill always was — and remains — the artistically inclined rebel of the family. In the fourth grade, when a teacher asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, Bill responded, “a Hollywood playwright.”

He thought about film school; his father, loving but practical, advised against it. “He said the percentage chance of success in the film business is very low,” says Pohlad, who instead studied accounting and economics at his dad’s alma mater, Gonzaga U., and worked for a while as an advertising copywriter before joining the marketing team at Marquette Bancshares, one of Carl’s companies.

But Pohlad couldn’t shake the movie bug. After starting a production company in 1990 with a couple of other aspiring filmmakers, he made his feature-directing debut on “Old Explorers,” starring Hollywood legends Jose Ferrer and James Whitmore as a couple of retirees who fantasize about being adventurers. Plagued with production problems, the movie was, Pohlad says, a very expensive form of film school, “except I got kicked out.”

It would be 24 years until he directed his next feature. But he kept his production company going, making industrial films and commercials for clients like Northwest Airlines. By the early 2000s, he had finally resolved to follow his father’s entrepreneurial lead by sticking his toes in the turbulent waters of film financing — but always, Pohlad says, as a means of eventually finding his way back to the director’s chair. While he waited for that chance, Pohlad enjoyed an enviable apprenticeship, able to closely observe masters like Ang Lee, Terrence Malick and Robert Altman. Though the industry may have initially viewed him strictly as a money man, Pohlad quickly established himself as a creative producer who liked to talk to filmmakers about their ideas — and his own. He cheerfully admits to tussling with “12 Years a Slave” director Steve McQueen over that movie’s opening flash-forward, and to having “huge notes” for Malick on successive edits of “The Tree of Life.” And how did the famously private Malick respond? “He was great,” Pohlad chuckles. “Now, whether he actually followed them or not is another story.”

On “Love & Mercy,” Pohlad was just as happy to find himself on the receiving end of that process. “Even if an idea isn’t right or good for (the director) or good for the movie, it’s part of the process for a producer or a partner or a muse to keep after you like that,” he says.

Wilson has been Pohlad’s muse, and the director has tapped into his subject’s essence. Wilson has a new album, “No Pier Pressure,” in stores, and a concert tour on tap for this summer. “When I’m in the studio is when I’m happiest,” Wilson says, back in the control booth in Hollywood, adding that he might be working on an old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll album next.

In one song from the new album, Wilson plaintively wonders, “Whatever happened to my favorite places?” — a question Pohlad’s film goes some way toward answering. “It’s a huge leap to let somebody make a movie of your life,” Pohlad says, turning to Wilson. “You stepped in when you needed to, when you saw things that were kind of going off track, but otherwise you allowed the process to happen.” Without a moment’s hesitation, Wilson responds: “It was a godsend that I got lucky enough to have this movie made.”