lovemercy-posterBill Pohlad’s new film, Love & Mercy, is an unconventional portrait of Brian Wilson, the enigmatic singer, songwriter, and co-founder of the Beach Boys. Set against Wilson’s groundbreaking, era-defining music, the film examines the personal voyage and ultimate salvation of a cultural icon whose success came at extraordinary personal cost. With a brilliant, non-linear script by Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, The Messenger), the film, made with the full cooperation of the musician and his wife, features actors Paul Dano and John Cusack in the role of the troubled musical virtuoso. Spanning more than three decades of Wilson’s life, Love & Mercy reveals the darker and more complex story that lies beneath the music’s sun-kissed surface, including Wilson’s battle with mental illness and drug abuse, his years under the influence of therapist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), and his redemptive relationship with Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), all in the context of his unparalleled musicianship. I sat down with screenwriter Oren Moverman to talk about this fascinating film.

Danny Miller: The unusual structure of this film is so interesting and works really well for this story. Did that take a lot of experimenting and cutting and pasting on your part until you felt you had the right balance of Brian in the 60s with Brian in the 80s?

oren1Oren Moverman: In a way, yeah, there was a whole process involved. When you make a movie, every part of it — pre-production, production, and post-production — becomes its own entity, and luckily for me our director Bill Pohlad was open to that kind of experimentation throughout the making of the film.

Did you ever write a draft that told the story of Brian’s life in a more chronological way?

Never, my mind doesn’t work that way!  I’ve written other movies like Jesus’s Son and I’m Not There that are not linear at all. What happened with this one was that originally we had three Brians in mind. Brian in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but after a while we realized that if you tell the 60s story and the 80s story, the 70s story is kind of implied so we didn’t really need it. The original draft was very long — it’s a huge story and I was grateful for Bill’s guidance to get it down to a manageable length and find the essential elements.

Did you come to the project as a Brian Wilson or Beach Boys aficionado?

I wouldn’t call myself an aficionado but I knew a fair bit. The man who produces the films that I direct, Lawrence Inglee, was involved in a different incarnation of the Brian Wilson movie — this movie has traveled a lot since it got here! He became obsessed with Brian Wilson and every time I came to L.A. he would play music for me and explain it to me and tell me the story so by the time I met Bill, I was very prepared to talk about Brian Wilson. The original project was called Heroes & Villains. The first thing I said to Bill was that I didn’t think that was the right title for Brian’s story. Heroes & Villains implies that there are good guys and bad guys but it’s so much more complicated than that and it’s more about love and compassion and other emotions. Once we got into that conversation, the movie took off.

At what point did you meet Brian Wilson?

I first met Brian backstage after a Beach Boys concert when they were doing the 50th anniversary tour and the interaction was very funny. I walked into the Green Room and Melinda said, “Oren is almost done with the script.” And Brian looked at me and said, “Is it factual?” And I said, “Well, within the confines of a two-hour movie, it’s as factual as we can get!” And he said, “Good, good, just remember that!”


I was amazed at how well it works to have Paul Dano and John Cusack playing Brian at different points in his life.

You know, when you look at the photos from the 1960s and the 1980s, it’s almost like looking at two different people.

It looks like you made poor skinny Paul Dano gain a lot of weight for his later scenes.

Hey, I have no sympathy for him, he dropped that weight instantly! I hate people who can lose that much weight so fast. Paul and I were friends from New York and we’d meet up and he’d complain about having to eat so much. He’d never done it before and I said, “Hey, you’ve come to the right place for research about overeating!” It was funny because he didn’t really understand his body with that extra weight.

This is such an interesting approach to a biopic. Were you ever gripped by fear that it might not work?

Yes, I was, but to be honest, I think that is the most essential ingredient to creating anything. Fear is really the driving force behind this kind of work.

Unless you get to the point of being debilitated by it.

Well, if you get there, you’ve probably gone too far, but I do think it’s that fear of being “found out,” that fear of not being good enough or of not doing something the “right” way — that’s what drives a lot of people in our business. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing, either, especially when you’re making something like this that is trying to be original and adventurous.


Do you just accept the fact that not everyone is going to get it because it doesn’t following the traditional pattern of most biopics? Are you immune to that kind of criticism at this point? 

I don’t think you’re ever immune to it, but I think it’s all worth it — and so much more satisfying.

Did you find you were using the same part of your brain here as when you wrote the Bob Dylan film, I’m Not There?

It’s an incredible privilege to be able to work with great music. Music and movies kind of saved my life. When there’s a project that has music, or even when I’m writing films that have nothing to do with that world, I always have music in mind. I think music really shapes the mood of a film.

To the point where you’re often listening to music as you’re writing?

Oh, definitely. It really informs the texture that I put into every scene. And certainly in this case, music is part and parcel of the movie.

Since you’ve worked as a director also, is it ever hard to see someone else at the helm of one of your scripts?

No, not at all. I’ve been very lucky — most of the movies I’ve been involved with as a writer, I was still able to be involved throughout the process and in close contact with the director.  What a privilege it is to be allowed to get into someone else’s head, like Todd Haynes during I’m Not There.

And scary sometimes?

Yes, but we’ve already established that being scared in this process is good! I love being able to get into other people’s heads. I love working in service of a vision, and it can sometimes be even more enriching and special if it’s somebody else’s vision.


Do you anticipate that the folks who were around Brian Wilson back then will be happy with the film?

My experience with biopics is that it’s all about memory and that everyone has their own take on what happened. Everyone has a different relationship with their experiences, no one can really say, “This is exactly how it happened.” The people who’ve seen it so far have loved it but with this type of film there are always going to be some people who show up and are unhappy. I look forward to hearing what other musicians think. Brian Wilson is so revered by musicians, from Paul McCartney to David Crosby, they’re all in love with what he did. A few musicians have already seen the movie, like a certain member of U2 who really loved it!

Because of Brian Wilson’s issues with mental illness, do you worry that anyone might think he’s being exploited by this film?

The film is called Love & Mercy. It was made with an incredible amount of love by a very loving man named Bill Pohlad. If anyone wants to be cynical about it, I can’t stop them, but it was made with the purest of intentions. I’m just so happy about the movie and about what Bill did with it.