June 18, 2015
Guests: Oren Moverman - Brian Wilson
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new movie "Love & Mercy" is about the life of Brian Wilson, who was the genius of The Beach Boys. We're going to hear from the film's screen writer, Oren Moverman, who also wrote and directed "Rampart" and "The Messenger." We'll also hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Brian Wilson in 1988. Wilson wrote most of The Beach Boys' songs, came up with the harmonies and orchestrations, and often sang lead. He's now acknowledged as a great songwriter and one of the most influential producers in the history of rock 'n' roll. Through most of his life, Wilson has also dealt with serious mental health issues. The movie looks at his genius and his illness by focusing on two periods of his life, with Wilson portrayed by a different actor in each period. John Cusack plays Wilson in the 1980s, when his life is under the total control of a controversial psychotherapist. Paul Dano portrays Wilson in the mid-1960s, when he's writing and producing the songs on The Beach Boys' masterwork, "Pet Sounds," which took The Beach Boys away from their songs about surfing and fun to songs about longing, sadness and the feeling of disconnection - songs like, "Caroline No," "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" and "God Only Knows." The album's hits were "Sloop John B'" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE")
THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Wouldn't it be nice if we were older? Then we wouldn't have to wait so long. And wouldn't it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong? You know it's going to make it that much better when we can say good night and stay together. Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up in the morning when the day is new? And after having spent the day together hold each other close the whole night through? Happy times together we've been spending. I wish that every kiss was never ending. Wouldn't it be nice?
GROSS: The movie "Love & Mercy" has several scenes in the recording studio where Brian Wilson is describing the sound he wants to the studio musicians. Here's Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in the recording studio, working on "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE & MERCY")
PAUL DANO: (As Brian Wilson) OK, remember it's the higher octave on the up-beats in the bridge.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Hey, Brian?
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) I love that.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Brian?
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Yeah?
ACTRESS: (As character) I think you might've screwed up here.
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Really? Let me see.
ACTRESS: (As character) Well, you've got Lyle playing in D, and the rest of us are in A major.
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Yeah, that's right.
ACTRESS: (As character) How does that work - two bass lines in two different keys?
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Well, it works in my head. It's all playing in my head, the orchestration and five vocal parts. I think it's going to work. Let's try it.
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) No, no, Hal, Hal, here's how I want you to do it. It goes...
DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Boom - two, three, four. Ba-doom. So it's the first beat on the last bar of the intro - boom, two, three, four...
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BEACH BOYS SONG, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE")
GROSS: Oren Moverman, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, the problem about writing a biopic about a musical genius is that you really - you cannot explain genius but you can demonstrate what his genius was. And there are lots of scenes in your movie in the studio where he's recording "Pet Sounds," working with the musicians. I love those scenes (laughter), 'cause...
OREN MOVERMAN: Me too.
GROSS: ...I love just hearing the tracks broken down, hearing what he's trying to tell the musicians. So why did you do so much in the studio in your screenplay?
MOVERMAN: Well, it was easier for us to make that determination because Brian Wilson spent so much time in a studio. He stopped touring very early on, had sort of a famous nervous breakdown on a plane, and just wanted to be home and really work in the studio. And when the band was away, he was working with a group of musicians that became known as The Wrecking Crew. Luckily for us, because so many of these biopics - musical biopics - are about performance, are about, you know, interactions with audiences, this one was about process because Brian was spending hundreds of hours in the studio figuring things out, being really joyous in his creativity. And it was an opportunity for us to show the process of making a song as per Brian Wilson. So you're right, you can't really explain genius, you can't really point to something and say, this is why Brian Wilson was so brilliant, even though we have some evidence to talk about in that respect. But ultimately, seeing him putting things together, being like a kid in the studio, saying, I play the studio, this is another instrument that I've discovered, is really a fascinating process to see how that comes together and what he did in those moments.
GROSS: What did you need to know? What did you need to be sure of in order to write those scenes and know that they would be well executed? What did you need to know in terms of music rights, musicianship?
MOVERMAN: Well, we were very lucky that, you know, this is the official Brian Wilson biopic, if you will, and we had the rights to the music. We had the rights to the life story. And so basically, we just had to pick and choose. And there were famous moments like the moments with, you know, the dogs in the recording studio, where he's asking for a horse to come in (laughter) and record. You know...
GROSS: And he's recording the dogs. This is at the end of "Caroline No" on the "Pet Sounds" album.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, exactly. He's recording his own dogs in the studio. And then he's sort of inquiring about bringing in other animals. I mean, it is called "Pet Sounds." And so those things were sort of famous. And we had permission from Brian and Melinda to really tell the story the way we wanted to tell it. What we needed to know was that we're accurate - the language of music is right - and we worked with musicians dressed as actors as The Wrecking Crew and recorded them live. We also had Darian Sahanaja, who's Brian's bandmate and the guy who ultimately helped finish "Smile" about a decade ago, and he was sort of supervising that. So we needed to know that we are creating an environment that is "real," quote-unquote, in a movie for musicians to work on those songs and those pieces. And then Brian dropped by, kind of said hello, and that was really a beautiful moment to see him walk into the actual studio where they recorded "Pet Sounds," where everyone's dressed up for the era and kind of being shocked by the re-creation of it.
GROSS: What do those studio scenes look like in the screenplay, where basically we're hearing instruments and we're hearing Brian say, no, play it like this? (Laughter). So how do you communicate in the screenplay what's really going on?
MOVERMAN: Well, you do your best. These scenes were all written in the script. Many of them were taken from the actual sessions, many of them from stories we've heard. But the way Bill Pohlad shot those scenes was really very free and loose. There were two 16-millimeter cameras, like a documentary. Paul Dano was free to improvise and to come up with ideas and thoughts and words in the character. We did want to see, I mean, there was certain things to hit on - the obsessive nature of how he worked with the musicians over and over again, doing something for hours, even if it's a, you know, a bicycle horn or, like, a bell or something like that. He would just work for hours and everybody would sit around and watch. That was important to convey, and that was in the script. But then many things were just in the moment, which is part of the beauty of making something come alive.
GROSS: You've narrowed the focus in "Love & Mercy" to two distinct periods of Brian Wilson's life. In each of those periods, Brian Wilson is portrayed by a different actor. And so why did you want to focus specifically on two different periods, the 1966 era when he's doing "Pet Sounds," and then the era in the '80s when he meets Melinda Ledbetter who becomes his wife?
BRIAN WILSON: Well, the first struggle in trying to figure out how to tell a story about a human being who's lived a long and complicated life is, you have to narrow it. You have to decide what goes in the movie. It's a two-hour movie. If you wanted to make the Brian Wilson story from beginning to end, you would need, you know, a mini-series or at least that. It's hours and hours of stories that we had that we were working with, and so you have to make choices. And the choice of the '60s and the '80s made real sense. But I have to be honest with you, we started with the choice of doing '60s, '70s, and '80s. So we had three Brians at first, with the '70s famously being a period where he was staying in bed, when he was really overweight, where he was basically killing himself by disengaging mostly from the music and a family - he had two daughters by then. So we worked with those three eras and that seemed like, you know, the most dense, the most interesting - that creativity of the '60s, the real, true complications - mental complications and mental health issues of the '80s, and then the '70s being the transition. Then after a while, we figured that we can pull the '70s out. The script was way too long, to be honest. But pull the '70s out and then have the '60s be the lead-up to what the '70s were. And then the '80s be sort of the move-away from what the '70s were. And then you can actually imagine the '70s through the interactions, through the stories and through the scenes that are happening in the sort of inter-cut eras.
GROSS: The Brian Wilson of the '60s is portrayed by Paul Dano. The Brian Wilson of the '80s is portrayed by John Cusack. I think the idea to have two different actors was the idea of Bill Pohlad, the director. But you had written "I'm Not There," the movie about Bob Dylan, which is - which Dylan's portrayed by a whole bunch of different actors (laughter). So what did you think of two different actors playing Brian Wilson?
MOVERMAN: I thought it was great. I mean, I co-wrote "I'm Not There" and that's very much a Todd Haynes movie, but it tells the story of Bob Dylan without having one character in the movie be Bob Dylan. They're all sort of ideas or influences or permutations of, you know, the music. This one was much more straightforward because somebody was going to portray Brian Wilson, and we were going to call him Brian Wilson and we were going to tell the story. I think it's a lot more fun to have two actors. I think it's also true that if you look at the pictures of Brian in the '60s and in the '80s, it's really not the same person. He looks so differently, he acts so differently. Also, you know, Brian was doing these experiments with his music. He was really finding chord shifts and harmonies that no one else was sort of doing. He was hearing them in his head and making them real. And so it's a slight - it's not too extreme, but a slight experiment in having these two actors not trying to mimic each other but really playing Brian of different eras, was just sort of making sense to us.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Oren Moverman, He wrote the screenplay for the new movie about Brian Wilson called "Love & Mercy." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Oren Moverman, and he wrote the screenplay for the new movie "Love & Mercy," which is about Brian Wilson. What is your understanding of Brian Wilson's mental health condition? Does he have a diagnosis?
MOVERMAN: Yes, and it's public knowledge. It's called schizoaffective disorder, and it's really a combination of some schizophrenia symptoms, like hallucinations, and mood disorder, such as depression.
GROSS: Including audio hallucinations - right? - 'cause he hears voices.
MOVERMAN: Yes, in his case, audio hallucinations, absolutely,
GROSS: So one of the people in Brian Wilson's life that's portrayed in the movie is Eugene Landy, the psychotherapist who started working with Brian Wilson when Wilson was about 300 pounds and living mostly in bed. This was in the 1970s. And, you know, it seems that through Landy's intervention, Brian Wilson lost weight. He started to be a little more in the world again. But he also did a lot of things that were inappropriate and unethical. So what's your understanding of what Landy did to help and what Landy did to hurt?
MOVERMAN: Yeah, this is one of those characters that you can't make up, you know? If we made him up, it wouldn't be believable. But the true story is that he came into Brian's life twice. In the '70s, when things were really difficult with Brian and he wasn't functioning and he was very much overweight, his first wife, Marilyn Rovell, found this doctor who was implementing what he called the 24-hour therapy, which was a nonstop therapeutic program where you're overlooked all the time. You're watched. You have a minder. You are limited in what you're allowed to eat. He really put Brian on a program where he saved his life. And maybe that's arguable, but the story does go that he lost all those pounds. He got into much better shape. He was making music again. And Landy went away. In the '80s, you know, things started slipping again, and Landy was brought back. And at that point, he really was in charge of Brian. He was basically legally his guardian. And while he got him in shape again and got him, you know, into a productive state of mind again, by then, he was also getting involved as his manager, as his co-writer, as the ghost writer of his autobiography, as his producer. The 24-hour therapy was becoming more and more extreme. And there was one moment where Brian was allowed to go buy a car, where he met Melinda Ledbetter, a woman who was basically selling him a Cadillac, and he was quite drawn to her. He left her a note expressing his state of mind at the moment, which was only three words - lonely, frightened, scared. And the next thing she knows, she gets a call from Landy that Brian wants to go out on a date with her. So I think Landy was sort of the controller and definitely isolated Brian from his family and from his friends. But then, he would try to integrate him into some sort of social situations and make him function, more or less, normally. But, of course, he misdiagnosed him. He overmedicated him. And he maybe - and this is a maybe, I just don't have the answer for it - maybe doing many things on purpose to try to direct Brian to perform for Landy's own gain.
GROSS: Yeah because Landy basically owned a piece of him. He became his business partner, which was part of the reason why the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance, which is a state medical watchdog group, was investigating him 'cause part of the ethical accusations against him had to do with his business relationship with Brian and with prescribing drugs when he wasn't licensed to prescribe drugs.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. He was mixing everything up and was getting something out of it for sure.
GROSS: So when I spoke to Brian Wilson in 1988, right after the album with "Love And Mercy" came out, I asked him about his relationship with Gene Landy. And this was at a point where Landy was being investigated for these ethical charges, but they still were - they still were in touch. In fact, Landy's - somebody who was Landy's assistant was traveling with Brian Wilson on his promotional tour. So let's hear what he told me when I asked him about Eugene Landy.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
WILSON: He's been performing a health operation on my head. He's done something that's impossible that nobody could do.
GROSS: What do you think he's done that's really worked for you?
WILSON: Well, what he's done that worked for me was he's taken my body and transformed not only my physical shape, but he's transformed the chemistry within my blood, you know, from dirty to clean. And when you go through those transformation periods, you go through a little hell, you know what I mean? It's a little bit of hell to have to come through all that, all right? It was rough. And I do remember all of it, you know? But, no, it doesn't slow you down; it speeds you up. You look back - that's how everybody is - they look back - why, that son of a gun; I'll get him, you know? And, no, wait a minute. You want to go forward, and you want to say, hey, to heck with that guy. I'm going forward. I'm not going to spend half of my life on revenge. That would be absurd, you know what I mean?
GROSS: He's not with you today, but one of his associates, I believe, is traveling with you.
GROSS: Does he live with you now, the doctor?
WILSON: No, the doctor does not live with me, but he lives in the same city with me. And he's in touch with me every day. And Kevin Leslie and Chris Rogerson (ph), the assistants, the doctor's assist - his doctor assistants. Doctors' assistants work in a capacity of - work with me and Gene. They float kind of between me and him. And they maintain the strength and the, you know, the atmosphere. They help to keep up the atmosphere of the tour and the spirit of the tour. And for as much as I can say is I just say, woo (ph), you know, I mean...
GROSS: There's currently charges pending against him that are being investigated - ethical violations. And I'm wondering if you cared to comment about them.
WILSON: See, my family called in and made a bunch of accusations about Gene Landy, which are not true. Those accusations are false, and I can prove it. I know they're false. And there's nothing they said that was even anywhere near in the ballpark. All of it was out of the ballpark.
GROSS: So you think...
WILSON: None of it was in the ballpark.
GROSS: You think your family wants to get you out of his care?
WILSON: Yeah, they want to get me away from him. They don't understand how good he is for me. What has he done, you know? What does the man do for me? What does the man make me do that's good for me? You know what I mean?
GROSS: OK, that's Brian Wilson, recorded in 1988.
WILSON: Wow (laughter).
GROSS: My guest, Oren Moverman, wrote the screenplay for the new movie about Brian Wilson's life called "Love & Mercy." Oren, what do you think about hearing that?
MOVERMAN: Well, that's the voice of a true believer. It's like listening to someone who's still in the cult. Clearly, he was carrying Landy's message, that there is truth to the fact that Landy did work with him and got him, as Landy said, out of the grave, you know, stood him up. But obviously, if Brian heard this now, he would say that he was in a whole other state of mind when he was saying these things and still feeling very dependent on Landy and needing him to kind of function because Landy proved to him that he can't function without him just by, you know, the fact that when he went away, things fell apart.
GROSS: What do you think of hearing Brian Wilson say about Landy, he transformed the chemistry within my blood from dirty to clean?
MOVERMAN: I think that's about sobriety. I think, you know, Landy and his program controlled everything that went into Brian's body. Every food group was completely sanctioned by him. There were locks on, you know, on the refrigerator. Brian was not allowed to do anything by himself. He did not make one choice for himself. And so I think there's truth to that. And medically, you know, losing all that weight and jogging and functioning was Landy's doing. But he did it in such an extreme way, and he couldn't - didn't put a stop to it. It's like a, you know, a dictator saying, I'm going to stop in four years and make this a democracy. It's not - it's not going to work.
GROSS: My guest is Oren Moverman. He wrote the screenplay for the new Brian Wilson movie, "Love & Mercy." After a break, we'll hear more from Moverman, and we'll hear more of my 1998 interview with Brian Wilson. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROLINE, NO")
BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow? Oh, Caroline, no. Who took that look away? I remember how you used to say you'd never change, but that's not true. Oh, Caroline, you break my heart. I want to go and cry. It's so sad to watch...
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In a few minutes, we'll hear more from Oren Moverman, who wrote the new film, "Love & Mercy," about two periods in the life of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. But first, we're going to hear an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Brian Wilson in 1988, after the release of his first solo album which included his great song, "Love And Mercy." On this album, he sang all the parts himself and played all the instruments himself. This was toward the end of the period that he was the patient of the controversial psychotherapist Eugene Landy, who's portrayed in the film by Paul Giamatti. At the time we recorded the interview, Landy was under investigation by the California Board of Medical Quality Assurance, accused of ethical violations including exploiting his relationship with Wilson by serving as his business manager, executive producer and co-songwriter while also serving as his therapist, and for prescribing drugs although he wasn't an MD. Our interview started with Brian Wilson's song, "Love And Mercy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE AND MERCY")
WILSON: (Singing) I was sitting in a crummy movie with my hands on my chin. Of the violence that occurs, seems like we never win. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. I was lying in my room and the news came on TV. A lot of people out there hurting and it really scares me. Love and mercy, that's what you need tonight. So love and mercy to you and your friends tonight. I was standing in a bar...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: That's "Love And Mercy," from Brian Wilson's new solo album.
Brian Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR.
WILSON: Hi, how are you, Terry?
GROSS: How did you start writing songs again? How did you get back into it?
WILSON: Well, it's not a real long story. It's just that, Gene Landy, you know, who is my executive producer and my collaborator, he told me that he thought maybe I needed to put a new album out under my name for the first time ever, like a solo. First time ever album, you know, that I've ever done that. And I told him - at first, I said, well, I don't know. I think I'm a Beach Boy for life and I'm kind of like - I'm sort of into the Beach Boys. And I said, well, I'll think about it. A couple of days later, I told him, OK, Gene, I guess you're right, I think I should do a solo album. And I said, but I'll do it at my pace, you know? So we did it at my pace. We went slow. We took weeks to get one thing, you know? But it took us a year to get the whole album.
GROSS: Was getting away from the Beach Boys and doing a solo album something that you personally wanted to do for a long time?
WILSON: Yes, yes. That's something I really wanted to do very badly.
WILSON: Getting away from the Beach Boys?
WILSON: Because I had about a 25-year standing with them, you know? And it was like a stint, a long stint, you know, of work and not getting along with the guys and then getting along with them and then not getting along with them. You know what I mean?
GROSS: Now, on the new album, you play most of the instruments, you record most of the voices yourself. When you write a song, do you hear all the harmonies in your head as you write it - all the vocal harmonies?
WILSON: Yeah, I do. I hear most of it in my head as I write them. We used to go do the whole group at once, you know, the Beach Boy group, we'd do all the voices in one thing, on one microphone, you know? But - well, sometimes we used two and three microphones, depending on how we wanted it to sound. But with my solo album, it's like, it's a venture into one-at-a-time land. You know what I mean? You go one at a time.
GROSS: You do them one at a time?
WILSON: One at a time, yeah. One voice at a time, yeah.
GROSS: How would you teach the harmonies to the Beach Boys when you were working with them?
WILSON: When I worked with the Beach Boys, I taught them one at a time also, you know, and then we all - we would rehearse as a group and then we'd put it on tape, then we'd go to the microphone and put it on tape.
GROSS: So you'd sing the part to each of them?
WILSON: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: You've said that your early sound was influenced by the Four Freshmen.
WILSON: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Now, a lot of people would've thought of the Four Freshmen as being a really square group in their harmonies. What did you really like about them?
WILSON: What'd I like? I liked the way they blended their voices, you know, the sound they made as they blended their voices. I thought they were great. I didn't see anything wrong with the Four Freshmen that all.
GROSS: How did you start singing in falsetto, and how did you figure out that you could have a falsetto voice?
WILSON: Well because I used to practice with the Freshmen, with the high voice in the Freshmen - the Four Freshmen. And his name was Bob Flanigan, and I practiced along with him. Whenever I'd hear Freshmen songs, I'd sing along with the high note, you know? And I got into a habit of singing high. And when the Beach Boys - then when the Beach Boys came along, I just took that habit of mine, that habit - bad or good - just a habit of singing high, you know? So then I started saying, hey, I sound like a girl up here. So I got into it, and I got into it, you know?
GROSS: The first songs that you wrote...
GROSS: ...And recorded were surf songs. Now, you'd never surfed yourself, right? What was the inspiration for writing surfing songs?
WILSON: My inspiration for writing surfing songs goes back to my brother, Dennis, who drowned, of course, in 1983 - in December of 1983. He asked me if I would be interested in writing a song about surfing - hold it. (Yawning).
WILSON: Excuse me, I had to yawn. And I said, sure, I'll try it. And I tried it, and about a month later, we were on the Los Angeles charts - on the LA - the Los Angeles with surfing, you know?
GROSS: I want to play one of your early surf records. This is...
WILSON: What song's that?
GROSS: This is "Catch A Wave."
WILSON: "Catch A Wave," oh yeah.
GROSS: The production on this is just terrific. There's a harp, there's an organ - great touches on it. Just say a little bit how you produced this record.
WILSON: "Catch A Wave?"
WILSON: Yeah, that was - Michael and I wanted to do something where we would display the high voice, the medium voice and the bass voice, all in one record, you know, at different intervals, you know what I mean? Not all - at once sometimes, but separate from each other, you know? And it starts out, (singing) don't be afraid, try the - that's the bass part, right? And (singing), was my voice, and (singing), he was in the middle too. So he sang bass and middle, and I sang high.
GROSS: What about the instrumentation?
WILSON: The instrumentation was just two guitars, a piano, drums, and harp and stuff like that.
GROSS: OK. Let's hear it. "Catch A Wave."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATCH A WAVE")
BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world. Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around. Catch a wave, catch a wave. Everybody tries it once. Those who don't just have to put it down. You paddle out, turn around and raise, and baby, that's all there is to the coastline craze. You got to catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world. Not just a fad 'cause it's been going on so long. Catch a wave, catch a wave. All the surfers going strong. They said it wouldn't last too long. They'll eat their words with a fork and spoon and watch them, they'll hit the road and they'll be surfing soon. And when they catch a wave, they'll be sitting on top of the world.
GROSS: Now, you also wrote a lot of really melancholy songs.
GROSS: And on "Pet Sounds," for instance, you have a wonderful song, "I Wasn't Made For These Times?"
GROSS: Was that how you were feeling?
WILSON: When I wrote that, it was like, it was like a thing - I really was feeling that way, yes, I was because I felt that I was being rejected by some of my friends, you know?
GROSS: For what?
WILSON: Who knows? You know, it's just - I just felt a rejection from the public. You know, I can't explain it, you know, any more than that. It was a very super personal thing. It was a personal thing that I cannot really go into 'cause it's too deep, you know?
GROSS: OK, so from "Pet Sounds," this is Brian Wilson's, "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST WASN'T MADE FOR THESE TIMES")
BEACH BOYS: (Singing) I keep looking for a place to fit in where I can speak my mind. And I've been trying hard to find the people that I won't leave behind. They say I got brains but they ain't doing me no good. I wish they could. Each time things start to happen again, I think I got something good going for myself. But what goes wrong? Sometimes I feel very sad. Can't find nothing I can put my heart and soul into. Sometimes I feel very sad. I guess I just wasn't made for these times.
GROSS: Brian Wilson is my guest.
When you were recording the record that we just heard an excerpt of, "Pet Sounds," I think that was during a period when you were doing a lot of drugs?
WILSON: Yes, I was.
GROSS: How did the drugs affect your music, both in - the good ways and the bad ways that it affected you?
WILSON: Well, the bad ways - there's no way drugs could influence music in a bad way. That's a mis - that's a misnomer. It's not...
GROSS: No way drugs can influence music in a bad way?
WILSON: No. No, music - I don't understand it, unless you feel that somebody would make - unless you call heavy metal a very negative statement, you know? A very obtrusive - a very un-artistic, or let's say, destructive kind of a music that would provoke those kind of feelings, you know? No, actually, it's a matter of learning from these drugs. You know? You can go on drugs and make music, yes, on drugs, you know? But you're much better to make music off of drugs 'cause you can see the overall picture better. When you make music on drugs, you're too concerned with this line or that line, or that voice or this and that, you know, other than just being behind it, all the way behind it, and putting together music from a higher standpoint than drugs can take you.
GROSS: So are you saying that you'd use drugs for inspiration, but when you actually recorded, you try to not be high, is that what you're saying?
WILSON: Oh, no - no high in the studio, no.
GROSS: OK. How did the drugs have a bad effect on you?
WILSON: Well, they exposed me to my weaknesses, you know, to the things in my life that I'm weak on, you know? And it's painful to have to sit there and accept your limitations in life, you know what I mean? But it's OK, it's OK at the same time, you know? It's OK to go through those changes. Everybody goes through them. Everybody's going to always go through them, you know?
GROSS: You went through a period of time where you barely left the house and didn't do much recording or producing at all. What did you do during that time? What was life like for you?
WILSON: Well, I - I took a lot of drugs. I kept taking more and more drugs to get away from the rattly-bang, nerve-racking aspects of life, you know? I kept telling myself, turn it down, somebody, turn it down, you know? That's like, a way of saying, hey, cool it, you know? Like, turn it down, it's too loud, you know? And I got through - I went through some of that. And - you know, like everybody does. Everybody goes through that turn it down thing, you know, where they want it down lower, not quite so loud. Maybe down here, you know? A little lower.
GROSS: Besides drugs and stuff, what gave you pleasure?
WILSON: Well, what gave me pleasure? Well, when I heard a first Phil Spector record on the radio, I said, you know, Phil, that Phil knows exactly what to put out there. He knows the formula, the secret, you know, of rock 'n' roll. And I used to look up to the guy. And then I said to myself, you know, you can't, all your life, walk around idolizing somebody. You got to do your own thing, you know?
GROSS: That was Brian Wilson recorded in 1988. I spoke with him again in 1998. We have that 1998 interview for you as an extra on today's edition of our podcast, which you can find on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. After a short break, I'll talk more with Oren Moverman, who wrote the new Brian Wilson movie, "Love & Mercy." This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with Oren Moverman, who wrote the screenplay for the new film "Love & Mercy" about Brian Wilson. Michael Alan Lerner shares a screen-writing credit . "Love & Mercy" depicts two periods in the life of Brian Wilson, the mid-1960s, when he was writing and producing the songs on The Beach Boys' masterwork "Pet Sounds," and the 1980s, when his life was managed by the controversial psychotherapist Eugene Landy. Landy was credited with rescuing Wilson from being obese and bed-ridden by mental-health problems and drugs. But Landy kept Wilson under his total control and was investigated on ethical violations. It's during this period that Wilson met Melinda Ledbetter, the woman who became his wife.
As you've pointed out, like, Landy probably saved his life. But he became so controlling that it got very unethical. But, you know, in the movie - and I imagine this is true - Landy is portrayed as basically, once he becomes Brian Wilson's business partner, saying to Brian Wilson, you have to write something. And he basically, like, keeps Brian Wilson at the piano and goes there and says, have you written anything yet? You'd better write something. And that's the album that I interviewed him for in 1988; that's the album with "Love And Mercy" on it. And, like, I'm so glad that he recorded "Love And Mercy," you know? It's such a fabulous song and a fabulous recording, but I hate to think that he was, like, bullied into doing it that way. But it gets to the complication of Eugene Landy as a figure in Brian Wilson's life.
MOVERMAN: Yeah, but it's also about his father because Brian, in a way, was bullied into making good music by his father. And he sort of admits to that. He says at one point in the movie that his father scared him so much, maybe he scared him into writing great songs. Part of the juxtaposition of the '60s and the '80s is also the dominance of the father in the '60s and then The Beach Boys famously firing Murray from the band, and...
GROSS: Murray's the father, yeah.
MOVERMAN: Yes, Murray Wilson, who's the father of Brian, Carl and Dennis. Part of that juxtaposition is also, you know, the similarities between the control that the father was having for a long time and then being pushed away. And then the same thing with Landy, where he took it over. But he was much more on top of Brian in the sense of really getting those songs done, getting an album out. Probably in his mind, this was part of the therapy; this was how you get a great man to be productive again and make music. It was also part of probably Landy's own, you know, rock star dreams to be a part of it.
GROSS: Brian Wilson's father beat him when Brian was a child. And I think a lot of people assume - and I think Brian Wilson thinks too - that that's why he's deaf in one ear. I think his father denied that and said that Brian might've been born that way. There's a scene in the movie where Brian Wilson is playing "God Only Knows" for his father; also just, like, a beautiful song. And his father's saying, it's not a Beach Boys song; it's a suicide song. He doesn't want him to record it. He thinks Brian Wilson's heading in completely the wrong direction. And Brian Wilson can't handle it and walks out. I guess I'd like you to talk a little bit about the relationship between the father and son musically, as you've depicted it.
MOVERMAN: Well, Brian was the oldest Wilson and the one who got the brunt of the physical abuse, even though Dennis, who was the rebel, was also physically abused - Carl as well, but to a lesser extent. And it was a very, very tough relationship. And he was a very difficult man. But he is the one who brought music into the family because he was a failed musician with one song that was on the - I think "The Lawrence Welk Show," in, like, 1956, two steps, one step. And so Brian kind of picked up from that a love for music. But he was really tortured by his father, emotionally and physically. And the whole story about being 96 percent deaf in his right ear is sort of contradicted by Brian himself. I mean, there is a version when Brian talks about it as being beat up by his father so much that he lost his hearing. And then in other places Brian said that he was born that way. And I think the truth almost doesn't matter in this case. I mean, we know he is deaf in one ear. And we know he was born, and we know his father beat him. So it's some combination of all of this. In the movie, that particular scene you're talking about, I really love the scene and also in the way Bill Pohlad, the director, constructed it because you are seeing - or at first you think you're seeing - the birth of this great song. And Paul Dano at the piano is starting, sort of tentatively, working out those chords, working his voice into it. And then it becomes much more assured and much more confident. And you can feel the song taking off. And by then, you realize he's playing it for his father. I think it is true that Brian had strong feelings against his father but never stopped needing his approval. And I've read stories of Brian playing things for his father and his father rejecting them, telling him they're no good and how devastated Brian would be by that reaction. But that happened over and over again. But like most families, things are much more complicated than that. And then, you know, there are a couple of songs, for example, that Brian wrote with his father in the early '70s, when the - you know, the group was really feeling like they have to make a comeback and nobody's going to remember them. And so it's a very loaded, complicated relationship. And obviously, the thing that defined Brian Wilson more than anything - and also, don't forget there is a scene in the movie, but it's based on a true event where the father, Murray Wilson, who owns the publishing company for The Beach Boys music just sold it, you know, with his own initiative and basically got a certain amount of money for it and said, don't worry about it; no one will ever remember you guys, and so we got the most out of it. And now let's be a family again.
GROSS: Yeah, that's so devastating (laughing) in the movie when he does that. I know you didn't spend much time with Brian Wilson, but how would you describe the state of his mental and physical health now?
MOVERMAN: Well, he's older. He's I think 72. You know, Brian is damaged. There's no - and he doesn't hide it. There's a lot of damage between the mental illness, between the drugs, the self-medicating and then being over-medicated with the wrong medications. So the damage added up. But, you know, he still seems to be happiest when he's in the recording studio and when he's making the music. He seems to be in his element, seems to be, you know, coming alive. And then in his private life, I think there are struggles every day, the hallucinations, the auditory hallucinations are still there. But I think they're much more under control.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Oren Moverman. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie about Brian Wilson called "Love & Mercy." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Oren Moverman. He wrote the screenplay for the new movie "Love & Mercy." He's also a director. He wrote and directed the films "Rampart" and "The Messenger." And he co-wrote the screenplay for the movie about Bob Dylan called "I'm Not There." He also wrote and directed the new movie "Time Out Of Mind," which stars Richard Gere and will be released in September. You grew up in Israel in...
GROSS: (Laughter) In a house of women - am I right about that?
MOVERMAN: Yeah. I mean, no, my father was around, but he was a very hard worker and wasn't that much around.
GROSS: OK. So then you went into the military - drafted?
MOVERMAN: Yeah, like everybody else - in Israel.
GROSS: And you said that you weren't used to the kind of macho culture of the military. How was the military a turning point for you in your life?
MOVERMAN: It's a big turning point in my life because it made me realize that I didn't want to live in Israel. I was part of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and Israeli occupation of Palestine and spent a lot of time in these territories and just felt, at the end of it, that I was really done with my life in Israel and that I wanted to move to the States to, A, pursue a dream, which has sort of become a reality, and then also to make a life for myself in a different place.
GROSS: But it sounds like you went through personal things in the military beyond, you know, political and ethical issues.
MOVERMAN: Yeah. Well, I think...
GROSS: You know, just like being a man in the culture of the military.
MOVERMAN: Yeah. I mean, the culture of the military is really the culture of Israel because it's a people's army. Everybody serves, or most everyone serves. I struggled ultimately with the fact that for me, it was an act. I mean, I didn't have a problem fitting in as a soldier and then being a good soldier. But I was ultimately looking at a population that we were occupying. I was looking at a - certain policies - this is the late '80s into the first intifada when I was in Gaza - that just didn't feel for me, selfishly, like something that I wanted to be a part of.
GROSS: So when you came to the United States, I assume you already had the goal of making movies?
MOVERMAN: I did. I came to the States saying that I was going to be a director. The only problem was I didn't know what a director did, but...
GROSS: (Laughter) Oh, well.
MOVERMAN: That was definitely - but that was definitely my goal.
GROSS: Were movies and music seen as frivolous in your family or in your neighborhood?
MOVERMAN: They were not even important enough to be frivolous. I mean, we had - at home, we had a record player that my parents won at a raffle. And we had four records that they won with the record player - two by The Platters, "Best Of Simon And Garfunkel" and the original soundtrack of "Hair."
MOVERMAN: And that's what I listened to over and over again.
MOVERMAN: And that was my early musical education. But I was the only one, you know, listening to music in my household.
GROSS: So you come to New York. You want to be a director. You've hardly seen any movies, you know, let alone...
GROSS: Had any directing experience. So how'd you get from here to there?
MOVERMAN: I started working on sets. I was very lucky to have met a guy when I was in the occupied territories as a soldier, a wonderful man by the name of Ron Ishida (ph), who was a sound man in New York. And when I met him, it was under a difficult circumstance. And I was telling him to stop shooting video in Hebron, and he got very upset. And we got into a conversation, and I told him that politically, I don't agree with what I'm doing. So he calmed down, and we had a nice chat. He gave me his business card, and I held onto it for four years until I was done with my service. And then I decided to come to New York, go to school. I wrote to him, and I said, I'm coming. I don't know if you remember me, but I'd love to meet. And so we did, and he helped me out. He got me some jobs as a production assistant, first for Albert Maysles' company and then on a couple of features where I met other people. And from there on, it's all, you know, the kindness of strangers.
GROSS: What kind of film - what kind of video was he shooting that you wanted him to stop?
MOVERMAN: He was shooting just the place, sort of documentary footage that he was just shooting for himself. And we were on patrol in Hebron. And my sergeant told me, you know, you speak English. Go over there, tell that guy to stop. So I went over, and I said, you have to stop shooting. And he got very upset and said, I don't understand. I was shooting everywhere else. And I started laughing and I said, I totally agree with you, but that idiot sergeant of mine told me to tell you to stop. But I would gladly help you shoot this stuff. It's just that I can't. And so he, you know, relaxed, and we had a really interesting conversation about the Middle East. But he was really sent to me (laughter) you know, as my - the only person I knew in New York and the only person I knew connected to the film business.
GROSS: That was nice of him to help you out.
MOVERMAN: He's an amazing guy.
GROSS: Oren Moverman, thank you so much for talking with us.
MOVERMAN: Thank you.
GROSS: Oren Moverman wrote the new film "Love & Mercy." He wrote and directed "Rampart" and "The Messenger," as well as the new film "Time Out Of Mind" starring Richard Gere, which will be released in September.
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