To say that even the thought of interviewing music legend and the Beach Boys key creative force Brian Wilson was a daunting one would be perhaps the greatest understatement I’ve ever made. It’s one of those opportunities you don’t even consider, because you can’t imagine the circumstances under which you’d get talk to the man who made the Beatles feel they needed to up their game. And yet, there I was a couple of weeks ago, sitting across from Wilson and John Cusack, one of the two men (the other being Paul Dano) who plays him in the new Wilson biography LOVE & MERCY—a work that wisely zeros in on two crucial periods (the mid- to late 1960s, and the 1980s) in the musician’s creative and personal life, rather than attempting to cover his entire life story.
LOVE & MERCY was made with the cooperation of Wilson and his wife Melinda (played in the film by Elizabeth Banks), and it’s a showcase for two distinct, sometimes disturbing, and all-inhabiting performances by Dano (as ’60s-era Wilson, recording “Pet Sounds” and attempting to work on “Smile”) and Cusack, whose ’80s Wilson is under the constant eye of psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), who controlled Wilson and his money with overprescribed drugs and mental torture. Wilson’s long history with mental illness and years of being a recluse are almost as well known as his music, and thankfully the film provides a solid balance of the two.
I knew from watching recent interviews with Wilson (some in support of the film and others concerning the recent release of his new album “No Pier Pressure”—for which he’s touring in support of this summer), I knew that he was a man of few words. But I also knew that Cusack had been paired with Wilson in many recent interviews because he was quite adept at stepping in to complete and/or complement Wilson’s throughs and answers; sometimes Cusack even drew Wilson out of his shell a bit and got him talking a bit more.
They’re quite a pair, and in the end, they work quite well together. Knowing that Cusack is such a devoted music lover, I could only image what spending this kind of time with Wilson must have meant to him, and there’s a devotion and adoration in Cusack’s eyes that is unmistakeable. I’m guessing Wilson gets that look a great deal from his admirers. With all of that in mind, please enjoy my talk with Brian Wilson and John Cusack, and check out the truly remarkable LOVD & MERCY, which opens this Friday, June 5…
Capone: I wanted to ask you first about the score of the film that Atticus Ross did, because I understand he was provided the raw Beach Boys tapes from the era—the older material, the “Pet Sounds” era—and he mixed it and layered it and created something new. What did you think of that? I understand he was trying to capture the sounds that might have been going on in your head at the time.
Brian Wilson: Yeah, right. Well, I think he painted a picture a little bit too dark. That’s my only comment.
Capone: Are you saying that for you personally, it was a little more upbeat than that at the time?
Capone: It’s really quite moving, though, what he does.
John Cusack: He’s using the stems from the actual music, but there’s just so much. And there’s always a balance between some of the movie, which shows darker periods of his life, and I think the balance between that and a love story is tough to get.
Capone: The idea of two different actors playing Brian in this is interesting because it’s a lot like two different guys doing covers of Brian Wilson. What were some of the elements that you wanted to include in your version of Brian?
JC: Just his heart, his sensitivity, this kind of antenna he has. This bullshit detector. He’s going to know if you’re going to hustle him real quick. And a survivor, a real survivor. And then playful.
Capone: The humor in that period of his life really comes through in your scenes, and I really thought that was funny that he was able to find soothing to laugh at, something to make fun of in those times. Was that something that was important for you to get across?
JC: Yeah, because Melinda would tell me stories about when they fell in love, and it was a dark period in his life, and he was trying to come out of it and he came out of it. We had to show both him in pain and being a prisoner of Dr. Landy, struggling to get out of there.
Capone: Do you remember in that period of your life the things that you found funny?
BW: One of the Dr. Landy’s employees that lived with me stole $100 out of my wallet, and I said, “What the heck happened? Someone stole a hundred bucks.” And this girl started crying and goes, “I’m the one who stole the money.”
[Everybody around starts laughing, especially Cusack, perhaps because the story isn’t even remotely funny, but it’s clear that Wilson finds it hilarious that his woman gave herself up so immediately.]
Capone: So you caught her red handed. I know you got to spend some amount of time with Brian and Melinda before shooting this in their house. Do you remember specific things…
BW: And Gloria [Wilson’s long-time housekeeper, who was instrumental in helping him escape Dr. Landy’s care].
Capone: Right, of course. She’s still with you. Do you remember specific things that you picked up during the personal time with them?
JC: Yeah, I just could relate to them, because, I’ve been making movies since I was 17, so I get a lot of attention all the time, and sometimes you don’t want the attention because you’re trying to think, and it’s coming at you all the time. I understood the idea that everybody wants something from Brian. “Hey Brian. You’re the most important thing in my life.” It’s a lot to take in. When I met him, I started to feel how he is and get a sense of him.
Capone: I heard there was a little of that last night at the Q&A—some of the questions that weren’t really questions.
JC: They were basically saying, “Brian I love your music so much. Brian you’re the most incredible ting ever.” And you’re like, “Is there a question?”
Capone: “Please ask a question that ends in a question mark.” How do you react to that? I know it’s happened to you constantly for decades of your life.
BW: I feel good. It makes me feel good.
Capone: Explain to me the thing that goes on in your head when you walk inside Brian Wilson’s music room. That had to be something a little other-worldly.
JC: Yeah, it was. It was really cool. Just a special, special moment.
Capone: There’s only one scene in the film where you’re actually playing music.
JC: At the piano.
Capone: Right, that one scene where we hear the beginnings of “Love and Mercy.” In your preparation when you’re listening to the music, how do you incorporate that into the performance even though music isn’t really part of your portion of his story?
JC: Everything, because that’s how Brian expresses himself, and so I can feel all of it. It’s not like you can’t make intellectual choices when you’re playing Brian. You have to go by intuition and feel. You have to feel the music.
Capone: Brian, when [director] Bill Pohlad came to you with the idea of doing this—and I know you probably have been asked to do it before—why was this the right time, and why was he the right guy to do this?
BW: Well, because we finally got the script written; it took us 10 years. We had to keep changing and calling new writers. We finally go the script done, and Melinda called Bill Pohlad and asked him if he’d do the movie.
Capone: Was there something in particular about Bill that you remember responding to well, ideas that he had?
BW: No, not really.
Capone: How is it sitting through it and watching the film and some of those tough moments in your life?
BW: Well, you just got to sit through a movie and take in the happy parts and the sad parts.
Capone: Do you see it as you, or do you see it as just some other completely different story?
BW: No, I see it as me.
Capone: I understand you’re coming back to Chicago in a couple of months on your tour.
JC: At Ravinia.
Capone: Right, exactly. And you have the new album. I love that the film ends with you, and that we get to see you in a more recent time and hear that song. The movie paints you as someone that didn’t like the tour at one time in your life, but have you grown to appreciate it recently?
BW: Very much so, yeah. The audience means a lot to me. They applaud real loud. They louder they applaud, the better I feel.
Capone: Are you glad that the film ends with you? That we remember who you are and what you look like?
BW: Yeah, that meant a lot.
Capone: It must have been around the time of your first autobiography, Rolling Stone did a story on you. I remember the photos in that article looking a lot like John looks in this movie. I know a lot of people are saying, “He doesn’t really look like him,” but you actually do.
JC: I don’t look like the younger Brian. But in the ’80s…Melinda showed me a picture of Brian at the time, and we look very similar. It was just a different period of his life.
Capone: Watching Paul Giamatti in this film playing Eugene Landy, I think he might end up being one of the year’s great screen villains. Is it weird to see him portrayed?
BW: He was cast so good.
Capone: Was he?
BW: I tell people that I can’t tell the difference between him and the real Dr. Landy. It was that close to him.
Capone: That must have been a little scary.
BW: Yeah, it was.
JC: It had to be.
Capone: Narrowing the focus of the film down to these two periods in your life, was that part of revising the script—taking it from being a complete life story to just these two important periods in your life?
BW: It was just an attempt to capture factuality in my life.
Capone: But not the totality.
JC: You can’t tell the whole story. It would be like a TV show.
Capone: HBO mini-series.
JC: Right, you can do a whole movie up to the time when you heard the Four Freshman record. That would be one movie. Then you could do a whole other period with just some of the Beach Boys. Then you could do a whole other period. So you have to just get this, the feeling and the spirit of it.
Capone: I love that half of this movie is a love story. Was that an important part of you signing off on this, telling that part of your life and letting people know that about this woman that saved you?
BW: Yeah, yeah. I think so.
Capone: I saw you recently in the documentary about the Wrecking Crew. And I loved that some of them are named by name in LOVE & MERCY. You actually pay tribute to them. Was that important to you as well, to have their work recognized?
BW: Oh yeah. I wanted people to know who they were. You know?
Capone: Have you seen the finished WRECKING CREW documentary?
BW: I saw THE WRECKING CREW, and it tore me up. Brought back so many good memories of making those records.
JC: We shot it in the same studios, Western Studios. The same places.
Capone: I’m going to try and come see the show in July.
JC: Oh, you’re in for a treat.
Capone: I’m dying to see it. Well thank you so much. It was a really great pleasure.