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Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson Biopic Could Be a Hollywood Home Run

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"It's a whole different world than the first time," says Bill Pohlad.

Last September, Pohlad attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the world premiere of his second directorial effort, Love & Mercy, a biopic on Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. The stakes were high, as the festival has a reputation for being a testing ground for potential award-winners.

"Bill was really apprehensive. I don't think anybody knew how this whole thing was going to go down," says his brother Jim Pohlad of that night.

No one knew if Brian Wilson was going to show up to support the film, but he did. No one knew if the movie would stand out among hundreds of others, but it did. No one knew how the audience would respond.

The film received a standing ovation.

"You could tell he was, as they say, on cloud nine," says Jim.

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in <i>Love and Mercy</i>

Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy

In Hollywood, 58-year-old Bill Pohlad is known for producing films like 12 Years a Slave, Wild, Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild, and Food, Inc. For his work on The Tree of Life, alongside director Terrence Malick, he received an Academy Award nomination in 2012.

"It has always been my goal to get back to directing," says Bill Pohlad. "Producing is great, and I continue to do it... but [directing is] what I enjoy the most."

Bill Pohlad is the youngest of three sons of Carl Pohlad, a self-made billionaire best known for owning the Minnesota Twins from 1984 until his death in 2009. While older brothers Jim and Bob Pohlad manage the day-to-day operations of their family empire (Jim is the current CEO of the Twins), Bill stays steadfast in his Hollywood career. Nonetheless, he hasn't uprooted himself, as the majority of his production company, River Road Entertainment, operates out of downtown Minneapolis.

Love & Mercy is the 16th feature film from River Road since the company was established in 1987. It's not the first time one of their films has taken on a true story or a cultural icon. Their productions include Into the Wild (about Christopher McCandless), The Runaways (about Cherie Currie and Joan Jett), and the more recent Wild (about Cheryl Strayed).

The format for Love & Mercy diverges from the above-mentioned stories, as well as the majority of biopics. Instead of taking one actor through the span of a lifetime, or focusing on a seminal moment, Pohlad has cast Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood) and John Cusack to play Wilson during two distinct periods of his life. Dano portrays the young savant of the Beach Boys' early years, while Cusack trudges into his dark period of mental illness, as puppeteer therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti) exacerbates his condition.

"The overall movie itself — I walked away with a scared feeling," said Wilson in a video interview with the Hollywood Reporter in February. "Although I know that it had some good parts of my life that were portrayed... I was really, really, really scared to go through the process of re-remembering my life."

He doesn't go into specifics, but Giamatti's rendering of Landy, a man who saw opportunity in Wilson's drug use and auditory hallucinations, is disturbing. Landy is infamous for using his power as a medical professional to receive writing and producing credits on Wilson's solo work, including the song "Love & Mercy." Pohlad's film follows that exploitation to its tipping point. Wilson's emancipator comes in the form of car dealer Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), his second wife.

Love & Mercy will have its Minnesota debut this month. In a show of joint admiration, the Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival are each hosting a screening. Pohlad will be attending both events.

Jesse Bishop was at the Toronto premiere with a colleague scouting for MSPIFF, of which he is programming director. "We turned and looked at each other and were like, 'This should be the closing night of the festival,'" he says of his first impression of Love & Mercy. "We were sitting like 20 feet away [from Wilson]."

Those unable to attend the Minneapolis or Toronto viewings need not worry. Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate have picked up distribution rights. This June, Pohlad will face another major test: a national release.

It was this kind of test that buried his first film.

"There'd be no downplaying the amount of nervousness at all," says Jim Pohlad as he remembers the suspense in Toronto, and his brother's state of mind.

This caution still surrounds the movie today. Despite a steady stream of positive reviews, a lucrative distribution deal, and years of producing Oscar material, Bill Pohlad is not ready to call Love & Mercy a success until the box office closes on opening weekend.

This hesitation might be tied to his first film, a failure that almost sunk his directing career 25 years ago.

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Bill Pohlad's Hollywood debut, Old Explorers, was a film with a promising lineup. He cast veteran talents to play two old friends: José Ferrer, the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award (Cyrano de Bergerac), and James Whitmore, known for his Academy Award-nominated and Grammy-winning performances in the film and audio versions of Give 'Em Hell, Harry!

Bill Pohlad on the set of <i>Love & Mercy</i>

Bill Pohlad on the set of Love & Mercy

Instead of wallowing in the sedentary lifestyle of old age, the two characters use imagination to travel to mythical sites like Shangri-La and the Fountain of Youth. To capture the exotic locations, the production traveled to Arizona, Florida, and Minnesota, even using the sound stage at Prince's Paisley Park at one point.

"It seemed like an exciting idea to try to do a feature film and put it together," says Pohlad. The script was based on a two-person play of the same name by Minnesotans James Cada and Mark Keller. Pohlad added more characters to the screenplay, and was able to serve up cinematic excitement not typically available in stage productions, including sand dunes, live camels, mountains, and piranha-infested rivers.

But when the movie premiered in 1990, it prompted little enthusiasm.

"While Pohlad takes advantage of the film's unique resources by transporting the two dreamers to actual deserts, jungles and the like, he is over his head in in [sic] the tricky art of making a play cinematic," reads a 1991 Los Angeles Times review.

"Old Explorers is a thin, tiresome tale of two retired men (played valiantly by Ferrer and James Whitmore) who spend their last days pretending to be swashbuckling adventurers," reads a less courteous Entertainment Weekly critique.

"Obviously, when you're looking back at it from this point of view, you see how naive and inexperienced we all were," says Pohlad. Unfortunately, that naivete didn't just lead to a bad movie. The film ended up with a limited theatrical release and lost money. It also prompted Pohlad to retreat from Hollywood.

"Old Explorers wasn't a great success or anything like that, and I didn't feel like moving to Los Angeles, so I spent the time here in Minneapolis doing other things," he continues. Today, he sounds at peace with the misstep. Yet at the time it must have been frustrating. Pohlad had found his calling in life, but knew he had to put it on indefinite hold.

The cast of <i>Love & Mercy</i> with Brian Wilson

The cast of Love & Mercy with Brian Wilson

"[Directing] is exactly what he wanted to do," says Jim Pohlad. "But he probably figured, 'Hey, I've got to learn some more about the business here. The entire business, from the beginning of an idea with a script all the way up through how the movie gets made.'"

And learn he did. For the next 20 years, he refused to get back in the director's chair for a feature film. However, that didn't stop him from making movies entirely. His initial output included documentaries, from a VHS release about Kirby Puckett to a television series about the Guthrie Theater's Joe Dowling. There was also programming and commercials for companies like Northwest Airlines, Sam Goody, and Musicland.

"We talked about him directing before he directed [Love & Mercy]. I think he wanted to be better," says Craig Rice, an Emmy-nominated director and producer who first met Pohlad when he was offered the job of assistant director for Old Explorers. Although he didn't accept the position, he kept in touch with the fellow filmmaker over the years.

"We did a project, Garrison Keillor's 30th anniversary," says Rice, referring to their work producing a recording of A Prairie Home Companion's broadcast in 2004. The next year, Pohlad began producing feature films.

His first investment was Brokeback Mountain, a socially challenging film with financial uncertainties.

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"Are you crazy? A gay Western?"

Rice will never forget the day Pohlad told him about the movie he was thinking about financing. It was the first feature film Pohlad would produce through River Road Entertainment since Old Explorers, and it would be the beginning of his comeback.

"I was thinking that it was one of those cowboy movies from the 1800s. I thought, 'Shit, he's fucking around with a genre here,'" says Rice. "But it turned out not to be that. That was just a fact of the story, and it was more contemporary."

The "gay Western" turned into the Academy Award-winning Brokeback Mountain. While most of the press and Oscar buzz dealt with director Ang Lee and the film's sexually complex characters, Rice points out that the movie "set the template" for Pohlad's whole career.

"He cash-flowed the entire movie and never took a bank loan, and [the budget] went well over 10 million," Rick Hess, an agent at Creative Artists at the time, told the New York Times in 2007.

But when Rice says that Brokeback Mountain set the template for Pohlad's career, he's not talking about a monetary precedent. He's talking about his audacity and willingness to bankroll films he thinks are artistically essential to mainstream cinema, but aren't necessarily safe bets for producers. Pohlad is someone who is willing to take risks on projects he believes in.

However, coming from a wealthy family, where one can do things like spend $10 million to make a movie with little to no guarantee of return, Pohlad faced the stigma of being labeled a financier.

"Hollywood is a very mercenary place in the sense that they are just looking for money," says Rice. "I think that it was important for Bill to present himself not just as money, but really as someone with his own kind of insight."

Once considered a huge risk, Brokeback Mountain ended up winning three Academy Awards, and kicked off Pohlad's journey away from the label of financier toward the coveted role of visionary producer.

He kept up the momentum. Critically acclaimed films like Into the Wild, The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave, and Wild rolled out of River Road. While only producing one or two films a year, the company became known for its discerning taste.

"On some movies he's just been an investor. On others he's produced, he's been more of a creative consultant," says Jim Pohlad.

Of course, not all directors crave input from the people funding their projects. But Bill Pohlad formed collaborative relationships with some of the most respected artists in the field.

"I suppose Into the Wild and The Tree of Life would be two films, before Love & Mercy, that were extraordinary experiences where it all went great. It was a challenge, but also a joyous experience," says Pohlad of producing those movies by Sean Penn and Terrence Malick, respectively. "On both of those films I was very involved, and had close relationships with the directors."

That creative involvement led to his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Picture for The Tree of Life in 2012. He was nominated alongside fellow producers Dede Gardner, Sarah Green, and Grant Hill. While he says that his close relationships with fellow directors like Malick and Penn is where he finds fulfillment, he stops short of listing them, or anyone, as creative influences.

"Working with them, you're always going to learn things from different people and all, but I think you have to maintain a balance about it," he says. "Take what you learn and translate it into your own style."

The Pohlad style of filmmaking is still in the beginning stages of development.

"In the last few years I've been looking for projects to do quietly on the side as a director, and eventually the Brian Wilson thing came up. That's when I decided to take the plunge back into directing," he says.

After over 20 years away from directing, what was it about the Beach Boys that lit a fire in him?

"It's about finding material that you connect with," he says.

But it wasn't simply nostalgia for Beach Boys classics like "Surfin' Safari." Otherwise, he probably wouldn't have completely rewritten the screenplay as he first encountered it. The original script, entitled Heroes & Villains, was promising to Pohlad, but he hired screenwriter Oren Moverman to make Wilson's story worth filming. Along with Michael A. Lerner, Moverman, known for co-writing I'm Not There, a movie that featured six stars each playing versions of Bob Dylan, came up with the two-actor portrayal of Brian Wilson that is Love & Mercy.

It's that script that lit the fire. Now, after years of building himself back up, it's time to see if Pohlad can harness the flames.

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Waiting a quarter-century between directing projects is certainly beyond the norm, but it's not that Pohlad hasn't been trying to get back in the game. For the past few years he's attempted and failed to move his own directing projects to the production stage.

"The film that we had first talked about making was about Max Perkins, the editor," says Rice. "He was going to make this movie with Sean Penn, but they couldn't get that picture off the ground. So he was looking for something else, and came across [Love & Mercy]."

Love & Mercy has come a long way since that day, and it certainly has enough cinematic power in its corner to make it a hit. Academy Award-winning composer Atticus Ross (The Social Network) was enlisted to write the music that accompanies the classic Beach Boys tunes. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman joined the crew fresh off of last year's Wes Anderson smash, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Brian Wilson is a producer on the film — the ultimate stamp of approval.

So far, critics approve as well. Since its premiere in Toronto and subsequent screenings at the Berlin International Film Festival and South by Southwest, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

"Though best known for his long career as producer..., second-time-director Pohlad is quite confident behind the camera, using a number of potentially indulgent techniques to rigidly purposeful ends," writes Variety.

"Once in a while, though, you see a biopic that brings off something miraculous, that recreates a famous person's life with so much care that the immersion we seek is achieved," writes the BBC in a five-star review of the film. "When you watch Love & Mercy, a drama about Brian Wilson, the angelic yet haunted genius of the Beach Boys, you feel like you're right there in the studio with him as he creates Pet Sounds."

Unfortunately, glowing reviews don't guarantee anything, especially in the months before a national release. And even though the Beach Boys' place in the American musical pantheon will likely draw moviegoers, it also offers an easy avenue for criticism. Fans of their music will nitpick the film if a song is off or an actor is more caricature than empathetic portrayal.

The idea of innovation before financial compensation has guided Pohlad's Hollywood career. With Love & Mercy, that dynamic is harder to hold up. Pohlad has yet to prove that he can turn a profit as a director, and in the eyes of Hollywood he must do that first. While financing movies has given him an extraordinary look into the creation of feature-length films through collaborations with directors like Penn, Malick, and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), as of this moment, no matter how involved he is in the creative process, his reputation still stands as a producer.

The bar was high when he was cobbling together Old Explorers 25 years ago. Today, that bar is still high.

However, this is Hollywood, and its endless production cycle means that Love & Mercy can't be the only upcoming project from Pohlad.

"It's not just a job in the sense of, 'How about this one? Or how about that one?'" says Pohlad when asked what we will see from him next. "It's not something where you can say, 'I'm going to do three films a year,' because then you've got to find three great films a year to fulfill that, and that doesn't happen that often."

He mentions a new Sean Penn film he's producing, called The Last Face. Pohlad and River Road have been announced in connection with a couple others as well, but he doesn't offer any details on future projects.

Rice, on the other hand, lets it spill.

"He's writing a script," he says, immediately aware he probably shouldn't divulge any more. "He doesn't want to rub the magic off of it."

If Love & Mercy garners the widespread acclaim that the initial reviews suggest it will, Pohlad won't have to worry about things like magic. He'll have something even more precious: proof that the producer can become the artist.