It would be easy to dismiss the dual casting of Paul Dano and John Cusack as the younger and older Brian Wilson respectively in LOVE & MERCY as a stunt. And it certainly garners attention, but it’s anything but that. It’s one of the things the film’s director, Bill Pohlad, discussed when I spoke with him on May 1, 2015. The film slips back and forth in time between the height of The Beach Boys topping the charts, and the 1980s, when Wilson was under the legal guardianship of his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. Seeing the physical change between the two actors that makes a subtle, but indelible, point about the way time ravaged Wilson, and Pohlad shared his very definite ideas of why he didn’t want an imitation of Wilson, but was aiming for something deeper.
I was also eager to hear Pohlad’s thoughts about why the koala-bear-esque Paul Giamatti, who plays Landy, is so effective as a villain, and we went on to talk about those specific casting choices, audience interpretations, avoiding egregious exposition, and the challenge of externalizing an inspiration.
NB: The Atticus mentioned by Pohlad in the interview is the brilliant Atticus Ross, who recreated the sound process Wilson went through while creating the music.
LOVE & MERCY is a story of genius, vulnerability, and the kindness of strangers. Based on the life of Brian Wilson, founding member of the Beach Boys and the creative force behind their musical innovations, it balances two time timestreams, using the same sort of virtuoso layering in a visual sense that Brian used in his musical arrangements. Part of the story unfolds in the 1960s through the early 70s, when The Beach Boys were a hit-making machine that Brian wanted to evolve into something radical and complex to the consternation of fellow band members, who were also family members, the disapproval of his emotionally and physically abusive father, and the stretching of his already tenuous grip on sanity. The second happens in the 1980s, when Brian has fallen under the sway of Dr. Eugene Landy, a therapist who has manipulated himself into legal guardianship of Brian, and is over-medicating him into near catatonia while taking advantage of his patient ethically, financially, and emotionally. By chance, or synchronicity, Brian meets Melinda, an empathetic woman who first sells him a car, and then makes it her mission to get Brian his life back. The film co-stars Elizabeth Banks as Melinda, the woman who saved Brian when everyone else had given up on him, and Paul Giamatti as Dr. Gene. Pohlad directed from a script by Oren Moverman and Michael A. Lerner.