Behind the Beach Boys: A Q&A with Oren Moverman

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in ‘Love & Mercy’/Image © Roadside Attractions

Writer-director Oren Moverman is a kind of professional shape-shifter, much like Bob Dylan, the icon he helped dramatize in Todd Haynes's unconventional 2007 biopic "I'm Not There." His resume includes everything from the police thriller "Rampart" to the junkie drama "Jesus' Son" and the home-from-war romance "The Messenger" (for which he earned an original screenplay Oscar nomination along with co-writer Alessandro Camon). Moverman's latest, "Love & Mercy," co-written with Michael A. Lerner and opening in theaters Friday, June 5, tries to make sense of another quixotic, revered musician: Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson. With adaptations of William Burroughs's Queer, Herman Koch's The Dinner, and Daniel Mendelsohn's Holocaust memoir The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million in the works, Moverman took a few moments to speak with Signature about how he found the melody in Wilson's strange -- and strangely beatific -- life.

SIGNATURE: What kinds of source material did you find most useful in piecing together Wilson's life?

OREN MOVERMAN: Oh, there was a lot. There are so many articles and books written about him, and about the Beach Boys and the California Sound. And then the music, especially the Pet Sounds sessions box set and the Smile sessions, where you can hear Brian talking with musicians and hear various incarnations of the music. That was a huge primary source. And then there was talking to people who knew him in the '60s and in the '80s, digging up all kinds of things along the way. It was an all-out concerted effort to collect and discover as much as I could. I didn't spend much time talking to Brian because he's very much a guy who doesn't sit around and reflect on the past too much. He's very much in the present and moving forward.

SIG: After that broad research, was one of the time periods of his life harder to illustrate than the other?

OM: The '80s were harder because so many elements of his life in the '80s, specifically the Dr. Landy episode, kind of are like a movie. There's a pretty clear bad guy, a pretty strange but touching meeting with a woman who becomes his wife after working with others to liberate him from the tyranny of Dr. Landy -- in a way, it was already so extreme, it felt like fiction. The part of Dr. Landy is very difficult because you meet a guy like that and it's kind of unbelievable that he's behaving and talking this way. So that seemed to me the most challenging in the writing, to make that '80s period feel authentic enough, still something that you could say really happened, as opposed to, Nah, that's just a movie.

SIG: Did you arrive at any special insights about Wilson or his music?

OM: My insight was how all of it was emotional, even the fun stuff that was supposed to be there just as pop entertainment. When you go through the fun-fun-fun period, you know those songs and you feel like, well, that was part of the image of sun and cars and girls and surf. Ultimately, when you listen to the instrumental tracks and the harmonies and the chord shifts, it's incredibly sophisticated and, to me, quite emotional. When you break down "I Get Around," and you start seeing how sophisticated it really is, and how that song gets around in a way that no one had ever really done before, it's mind-blowing. And then you see it's written by a twenty-year-old [laughs]. Hopefully what the movie does is create, through fiction, through artifice, an emotional connection between the story of the artist and the art itself.

SIG: You also tried to capture Dylan in "I'm Not There." Is there something specific to musicians that seems to ask for a less traditional approach?

OM: You can be more adventurous with film structure because musicians create structures and personas and characters, because they're performers. With Dylan it's a more extreme case of somebody who took on different personalities and different characters, so it lends itself to an idea of making a movie about one person who changes as he shifts shapes. You're not just trying to tell a story, you're also trying to create a cinematic equivalent of what the man's music was about. Same thing with Brian. You listen to the music, you realize what was adventurous and experimental about what he was doing, and then you ask yourself, How do we tell his story in that way, too? Can we create strange chord shifts in the cinematic structure of this movie? Can we move between things that are not supposed to work together and make them work in harmony somehow?

SIG: Right. That was his genius. How he could see those pieces fitting together.

OM: I've spoken to people who worked with Phil Spector and worked with Brian, and that line in the movie, "Phil Spector's got nothing on you, kid," they all said it. Because he was doing things that were just so ahead of everyone else. There's no explaining why he was able to do it. But you can show the circumstances in which he was working and see for yourself what the connections are to the actual work.