In creating narratives you have to be honest with yourself because you are rendering…a version of the real person that will be captured in film, and you have scenes that will add up to an interpretation of who the person was. You’re not really putting the person in there.
The adage that the more you know, the less you know is particularly apt when unwrapping the new Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, written by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner. Not because the film fails to vividly render the enigmatic force behind the Beach Boys, but because Wilson himself, even by mercurial genius standards, is defined in large part by his unknowability. The quantifiable aspects of his story are captured here deftly – his Southern California roots, cold, abusive father, and the musical journey that led the Beach Boys from the vanguard of a new “California sound” with 1962’s “Surfin’ Safari,” through genre-exploding albums like Pets Sounds only four years later.
But the man between these historical facts is far more illusive. Moverman, who took over the writing project after years of development by Lerner, explains that a huge part of writing such a film is accepting the unknowability of any subject. And he has some experience, having penned ‘07’s schizophrenically acclaimed Bob Dylan biopic, I’m Not There.
Love & Mercy focuses on two main periods – the incredibly prolific ‘60s, with Paul Dano as the young Wilson, and the 1980’s, when the “grown up” Wilson (played unexpectedly by John Cusack) finally broke free from the oppressive control of his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy, (Paul Giamatti) with the help of his future wife, a Cadillac salesperson, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks).
Moverman spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about how both Brian Wilson and, particularly Ledbetter provided open access to Wilson’s story and massive archive, the immersive research that went into the script and how, even after cutting more than he wanted to, he had too much.
The subject here, Brian Wilson, is a complicated dude. What did you want to do with this piece?
To me the music was the first step. Pet Sounds and Smile are two of the greatest albums ever made. There’s not a lot of argument about that, especially not Pet Sounds, Smile had a different path. So you start with music and creation on that level, and then you kind of reverse engineer it trying to understand the man behind it. Obviously, when you get into the story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, you’re getting into a very peculiar and particular story, but ultimately one that has very universal themes of family, of mental illness, of creativity. It was really in talking with Bill [Pohlad] that we came up with the concept of three Brians – that was the original concept. We called them Brian past, Brian present, and Brian future. The big transformation of Brian’s life has been through the ‘70s, bridging the ‘60s and ‘80s. In the ‘60s, he was just a creative fountain coming up with all these amazing things [up] to the Beach Boys in the ‘80s, [where] he was a man controlled by a psychiatrist who was quite mad himself. The ‘70s were sort of the period – generally – of in and out of various situations, but most famously, staying in bed for a few years. So when the original script was about 150 pages, there was an interweaving of these three “Brian states,” as we call them.
That was your original draft?
Yes. So to me I was just trying to see how much we could strip down the story to get to its central elements and really get to know as much as you can know in a work of fiction about someone’s story, but more importantly, someone’s process – how he came to create these great masterworks. Working the script more and more I was ending up mostly with Brian in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. The ‘70s was a really interesting point because the breakdown that Brian was going through starting in the ‘60s was leaning toward the introduction of Dr. Landy into his life [in the ‘70s] as the man who saves his life, but, ironically, takes him over. Then in the ‘80s, [there’s] the famous story of Brian meeting a women who sells him a Cadillac, ends up being his girlfriend and ultimately his wife and the woman who gets him away from the control of this doctor. The movement in the ‘80s is away from Landy, towards Brian’s emancipation in a way. So the idea for the structure of the script was really to create an inner cut narrative that tells the story of the ‘60s and the ‘80s. But it’s actually pretty linear, even though it jumps between two periods. The ‘60s is moving toward Landy, and the ‘80s is moving away from Landy. By the end of the movie you actually get to the point in this wild sequence where Landy is introduced for the first time to Brian, in bed and also that’s the point when Landy is banished from the kingdom and he’s out of Brian’s life in the ‘80s. And that’s really sort of the general outline for the structure.
As complicated as his life is, what is the essential theme of this story?
At its very core, it’s about a creative person’s struggle through his own demons, but ultimately it’s about the need for love. It’s about how love can save you, and how essential it is to anyone’s mental health and survival.
And with Wilson there’s the severity and emotional deprivation of his father…
Completely. Brian’s always had people who have kind of taken over his life. He had a very, very, very complicated relationship with his father that influenced everything. You were right when you started talking about this – it’s a big story. There are so many things in the Brian Wilson story that you can develop and work on. You can make it a father/son story, that’s one version we could have done. Obviously, it’s the initial, most influential thing in Brian’s life. He is shockingly alive, and he has survived enormous, dramatic and traumatic events in his life. Ultimately, it’s about survival for love, and the mercy part of it, which Brian always talks about – which is in a way an even more complicated, deeper emotion than love sometimes – this compassion that ultimately saves him.
Brian was involved and sanctioned this film. What, if any, input or feedback did you have from him?
Well, Brian is complicated to kind of dig in with. He’s not somebody who lives in the past. And obviously for many reasons, some of which have to do with how painful it was. So with Brian himself, there wasn’t really a lot of digging one-on-one. He’s not the kind of guy who will sit around and tell you stories of the past. A lot of it had to do with researching the literature that was written about it – the various books, various articles. Then there was obviously the music. Then there were people in his life that were interviewed, that had things to contribute.
Extensive material I would imagine.
Yes. Tons and tons and tons of material to go through, which was obviously a real privilege and pleasure, and also complicated. But also talking to his wife Melinda a lot. Melinda Wilson, formerly Ledbetter, who was very open – she’s kind of like Elizabeth Banks in the movie, very no nonsense, kinda tells it like it is. She shared with me various stories and things from their relationship and her insight into Landy that we ended up putting into the movie. And obviously her insight into Brian is great having been his wife for over 20 years.
I’m curious, because of Brian Wilson’s complexity, how did you handle not making a saint out of him, and at the same time, with Eugene, not just vilifying him? How did you handle those character’s complexities?
That’s the major challenge in something like this. Landy is so clearly a villain. To the point where you almost feel like we kind of make this up. The real story, in a way, that Landy got to basically own Brian, it’s so extreme that you almost feel like, “Wasn’t anybody watching? Wasn’t anybody paying attention? It can’t be that obvious!” And then you realize that you start factoring the complexity of the family relationship, the particular problems each one was dealing with. Even Landy, you start seeing a more complex human being. Everyone’s fighting some great battle and everyone is dealing with demons and everyone’s got their own psychological makeup. So you start working with that, and you try to have enough of a balance where behavior ultimately defines what the character does, but you leave room from some internal life.
With Brian, obviously, as with many biopics, the risk is that you bring too much reverence to it, you’re too in awe of the subject matter. But it doesn’t take very long to say, “These are human beings and these are situations and most of them happened in the past.” You just try to understand the circumstances knowing that everyone has their reasons for behaving a certain way. And you just try to unlock a little bit of your insight into those reasons so you can make them function more or less in a believable way, without really tipping your hand and trying to put commentary on it.
The basic facts of his life do protect against this, you have that scene when the daughter’s smiling for the first time, and he doesn’t have enough interest to come in and see, he’s too lost. Or his indulgences and so forth. So you kind of let those speak for themselves?
We’ve kind of touched on it, but what was the most challenging part of writing this script?
The most challenging – it’s not a very great answer – but it often happens with people who’ve been around for a while and have such an enormous story, is that you have too much. Trying to shape a two-hour movie out of a man’s life, when the man’s life is so extreme and so rich and so full of complexities and themes and scenes. It’s overwhelming, and it’s also discouraging, because everything you cut out you feel like is a disservice to the story. I’ve worked on a few bio flicks. The thing you realize at some point is that you just have to let go of that notion that you can capture a whole life. As much as it hurts me to take out a scene that you think is really important to the script, you have to come to terms with the fact that no man’s life can be on film in an absolute way. You have to gun for certain things that have to do with the essence of a man’s life, or maybe a particular moment, and that’s going to suffice. Because the truth of the matter is, that in this particular case, it’s the music that’s going to outlive all of us, and the movie and the story. You just have to start letting go of things.
As far as the actual writing of this, how long did it take you?
About a year.
Did you approach this by just immersing yourself – reading to all this material, listening to Beach Boys rarities? Or did you try to balance it so you didn’t get too lost in it?
I pretty much dove into it, I dove into the stories. I started doing the research. Obviously, the music took control for a while. The company was very good about sending me a lot of material, and buying books. And then the interview process. So it was really immersive for a while. As I said, I’ve worked on things like this – not exactly like this, but this realm of a man’s life, a true story and interpreting that into a screenplay. So while I was doing the research, I was isolating things I thought would go into the movie, and kind of marking them. By the time I sat down to actually write it, I was basically pulling out of the research all these scenes that I thought should be there, just try to see if they fit into the overall scheme of it.
Had you done a majority of the brutal excising you’re talking about, or did you write a really long draft and then have to cut a ton out of it?
Yeah, it started with a long draft. And even the long draft at that point felt to me like it was already too short. I remember when Bill read the first draft, he said, “Ok, you did 150 percent of what we needed to do.” You know how it is, you’re caught up in it and you think you’re inside the character’s head. You have all these great scenes and these things people have been talking about, because people have been talking about Brian for a long time. It’s just really exciting to get into it. And then you realize, you’ve gone too far.
There’s something that comes through in the film, something that has always been the case for me with Brian Wilson, but as you got more immersed and you got more information on him, did he ever seem further anyway? There’s something deeply unknowable about him the more you get to know him. Was that paradox something you experienced?
No, actually, what happens as a writer is, you read about his childhood, you read about his relationships with his brothers, with his mother, with his father, with his neighbors, with his friends, with the band. You have all that information and you read accounts – people talking about him as a young man who was a really gifted athlete but really, really insecure. All these things start filtering into your way of looking at him. So after a while, you write a scene that takes place in the ‘80s, and he’s behaving in a way that you’ve read about, and you’re writing dialogue, but all of a sudden you have this baggage that you’re carrying with you for him, and you start to understand it. Obviously, it’s not a true understanding, it’s a rationale that comes from doing the work, that you are actually filling in for him. So that’s the process that allows for a film like that to be made. Because ultimately I don’t think anyone is truly noble. I’ve looked at enough of these biopics, and I’ve done enough of these interviews to know that people have different ideas of how a person is, and they don’t add up to one person. They really are people’s perspectives.
Is it fair to say that it’s crucial when writing something like this, particularly a biopic, to have a fundamental acceptance that you’re just going to do a rendering? A narrative fictional rendering?
Absolutely. You really have to fundamentally love the character you’re writing about. Once you do, you can’t help but carry a certain kind of psychology for him that might not be accurate. Because it’s not just about making a movie about someone – even in life, we don’t really fully understand ourselves or fully understand other people. So, that’s part of the mystery of relationships, but it’s also part of the very fundamental nature all of us have, that drives us to create narratives. So, in creating narratives you have to be honest with yourself because you are rendering, as you say, a version of the real person that will be captured in film, and you have scenes that will add up to an interpretation of who the person was. You’re not really putting the person in there. It’s an impossibility – even for a documentary, It’s a tough job. So yeah, it is a rendering, it is an interpretation, and ultimately, it’s an idea.