Hello, My Name is Doris may be my favorite film I’ve seen so far at SXSW, but Love & Mercy is definitely #2 on the list so far. The film is about Brian Wilson, troubled singer/songwriter for the Beach Boys, during two different periods of his life. Half the film finds Brian in the 1960s after the Beach Boys have become stars, struggling for artistic progression. The other half finds Brian in the late 1980s, debilitated by drugs and under the thumb of Dr. Eugene Landy.
Paul Dano plays the younger Brian, with John Cusack in as the older, and both are great. They’re complimented in the ’80s timeline by Paul Giamatti as Dr. Landy and Elizabeth Banks as Brian’s now-wife Melinda Ledbetter. I actually had a chance to review this one for the festival, so I’ll direct you here for a more in-depth look at the film’s quality, but the real Brian Wilson, director Bill Pohlad, and Cusack were at the fest for a press conference, and I’ve got some of the highlights from that for you here.
One of the most striking things to come from the press conference was Cusack’s preparation for the role. Cusack spoke to Brian and Melinda fairly extensively, but he said the biggest inspiration was Brian’s music, which he listened to endlessly. I have to imagine that this was building his innate understanding of the character, because he said repeatedly that the role had to be played “by instinct and feel,” and that he couldn’t “get too technical” or overthink things. Brian, he said, traded so extensively in sound and music that it was impossible to really understand him and play him, without becoming intimately familiar with his art, and during scenes he regularly would think of particular songs to help him get in the proper headspace.
With regard to the younger Brian, Pohlad immediately said Dano was the “first guy on the list for me,” and that the only worry was whether or not he could sing. (He can.) Wilson also weighed in on Dano’s performance, saying, “Paul did a great job.” “I was scared as hell to see myself [on screen],” adding that it was an accurate portrayal, and a little toned back from the true extent of his drug-induced darkness, if anything.
The other big takeaway for me was the way the two timelines came together. I asked about how that developed, particularly as Pohlad and writers Oren Moverman and Michael Lerner were sifting through a full life and deciding what parts to tell (the inability of a movie to capture the wholeness of someone’s life was absolutely a theme of the day). Starting with Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds, which was there from the beginning said Pohlad, the narrative grew very organically. Pohlad saw the early timeline as being from Brian’s point of view, with the latter timeline from Melinda’s. This is borne out in the film, and it’s easy to see how that happened – interviews with both Brian and Melinda were a key part of development.
To that end, Pohlad and Cusack also said there weren’t many conversations that included both Dano and Cusack. Rather, the idea was that they’d both offer their own takes on the man, particularly given how different he was during the time period each plays him.
And finally, a highlight from filming? “The studio sessions were just kind of magical,” said Cusack. Give them an A+ for accuracy, the production actually shot in the exact same studio space that Wilson actually recorded Pet Sounds.