Brian Wilson is revered for “Pet Sounds,” the 1966 Beach Boys album he produced, arranged and largely composed that influenced generations of songwriters and that today remains the gold standard of pop music confectionary.
As perfect as that album is, Wilson’s life has been much less so. Following a descent into drugs and mental illness, the fracture of the Beach Boys, years of complex legal wrangling, and, later, more years under the rigid control of psychologist-caretaker Dr. Eugene Landy, Wilson has emerged over the last decade with an incredibly active recording and touring schedule. A new album, “No Pier Pressure," has him on the road this summer. He is also out promoting “Love and Mercy,” a new biopic of his life, in theaters June 5, that focuses on a formidable high — the making of “Pet Sounds” — and a defining low — his time with Landy.
Director Bill Pohlad follows the example set in “I’m Not There,” the 2007 Bob Dylan bio-drama, by casting two actors in the lead part. Paul Dano is Wilson pre- and post-“Pet Sounds” and John Cusack is Wilson during the reclusive years when he is shored up in his beachside home taking around-the-clock directions from Landy, a dual tyrant and kook portrayed by Paul Giamatti.
In conversation at Smart Bar, the Chicago club where Cusack, a Chicago-area native, spent many late nights as a younger man, Wilson, 72, and Cusack, 48, talked about their relationship before the movie and how accurate they felt the film was to the musician’s real struggles.
“He didn’t really ask any questions,” Wilson said of Cusack. “He just listened to me talk. And he got the feel to how I was. He took that and went into the movie with that attitude and nailed it.” Watching scenes where Landy berates Cusack are painful to watch. Likewise for Wilson, watching those scenes for the first time was “very rough.” “I almost got tears,” he says. “Not joy, but of pain. Tears of emotional pain.”
After 20 minutes, Wilson leaves to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. Cusack is now alone to talk more about the movie but also about another recurring passion in his life: his advocacy regarding government surveillance and revelations originating from both WikiLeaks and National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden, and the upcoming presidential election.
His advocacy for more government accountability includes his work as a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit that works to protect whistle-blowers and the rights of a free media. He is also a prolific blogger and Twitter user who writes frequently about surveillance and human rights.
What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Did playing Brian require getting him into conversations over a period of time?
It did. Melinda [Wilson's wife] invited me over and I went to Brian’s music room. I immediately saw he arrived out of the dark period that was in the script. He was in a totally different place, a very happy place. And then when we talked about his life, I did want to know about the period the movie takes place in. I asked him about some of those things. I also asked Melinda, who had been in his life the whole time. Mostly I tried to get a feel for him. At the end of the day, everything you need to know about Brian is in his music. Every bit of longing and heartache and joy and transcendence and spirituality is all in the music. And so I listened to it as much as I could.
Some of those Landy scenes were hard for me to watch, so I imagine for him they were just as difficult.
One of the first things I asked him, “Is there anything you want us to do in the movie that you would want us to change?" And he said no. It was important for him even in the darker periods to tell the truth about his life. So we did. At the end of the day, though, the great thing is he triumphed.
In the era of superhero movies dominating the multiplexes, is it tougher to get these kinds of films made?
Yes. But I think it was Brian’s life that did it. George Martin once said the greatest composer, songwriter, producer and arranger in the history of contemporary music in his lifetime is Brian Wilson. And if you think about the artists that he influenced, there is no underestimating that. The amount of people he inspired to take risks and to be creative, it’s like a pebble goes into the pond, and the ripples go out endlessly. Brian may not be aware of all the people he affected. But it’s an important movie in that sense, even though it’s an intimate movie. So who he is helped get this movie made.
Brian’s music is almost analogous to films of his era: They came from the time of the auteur. It seems that because digital technology allows creators aesthetic perfection, young auteurs with unique visions are not as highly regarded.
In this world, everything is attainable. At some point we were trying to film something that actually happened. Then the technique came through: “We can CGI this and take away this wrinkle.” It became more animated. Sonically with Brian, to have [“Pet Sounds”] in your head, you have to imagine sounds so much longer before they show up. To book symphony orchestra players who are classically trained and say to them, “take the keys out, now shake it, you gotta make it sound like jewelry.” He was 25 years old! He’s bouncing that sound off live mikes in rooms on a fucking eight-track!
They captured something that actually happened. There was a fearlessness and magic to his creative process that artists can relate to. Now it’s almost an algorithm of sorts.
The film works because the cinematography was trying to capture something that happened. You can see in most films that every time you jump angles and cut in and out, there’s a stimulation to it, but it’s an artificial stimulation because you keep having to adjust — It’s spectacle, spectacle! And when you just slow down and have to watch an actor go through something, you can experience it. When things happen in [“Love and Mercy”], you don’t cut to seven angles, you watch the characters. Of course, there are technological aspects, but there’s still room to breathe and feel.
You are very different from many film actors in that you use Twitter and social media to talk about real issues opposed to just hyping the latest movie. And it’s you writing, not a handler. Why do you think so many people in your position are more reluctant to speak their mind publicly about issues of the day?
I don’t think people should do anything they don’t want to do. But I think when something happens, people are cowed into being obedient and to stay in their boxes. It’s just another kind of form of controlling your imagination and the way you think. I’ve been around and have seen the world from so many different angles and have been very fortunate to have different access points to things. Excuse me, the “experts” who are on television? Sometimes they say scripted lines. Sometimes they say their own lines. They’re on camera. They’re wearing makeup. What’s the difference? Freedom of expression, you have to seize it. If you want to do it, do it. I don’t think everybody should always think of terrible shit and talk about politics all the time. I sometimes can’t get it out of my brain.
I do study it. Put it this way, the talking points do not rot my teeth on the way out. If I’m saying something it’s because I studied it or have thought about it. But Twitter’s a weird medium. It’s almost like graffiti. You can put things out there, but then if you want to back it up, you can.
We are now two years past the first Edward Snowden leaks and we aren’t seeing the outrage among the public as it might warrant. The conversation seems to be relegated to the fringe of the political debate. What will it take to get it back to the center?
The country’s moved so far to the right. You think on domestic policy, Obama is to the right of Nixon. That’s just fact. So the center keeps shifting. In a way, it’s a golden age of journalism because there are so many outlets. But what are you going to do if there has been perpetual war since 2001 and we can manufacture enemies at will? And you have all the hired bullshit of these people who are riding the party line and are all connected with the think tanks and the big corporate organizations?
What I’m saying is the biggest foundations in the world are the least transparent. So it’s transparency for citizens — the government has to know what you’re doing. But the World Bank is the most secretive institution in the world. We need free journalism and free thinking more than ever. We need more Seymour Hershes, we need thousands of Seymour Hershes out there. Their natural instinct toward power is to question it and to be adversarial toward it. It’s not to serve it; it’s not to preach the party line. It’s not the MSNBC, Fox bullshit. Fuck this red/blue paradigm.
So I think what Snowden did was as revelatory and as important as what [Pentagon Papers whistle-blower] Daniel Ellsberg did.
Immediately the mainstream press all came out calling for [Snowden’s] head. What did they do? They insulted his character. It was incredible, this instinctive genuflection to power. Now, they didn’t talk about what he did. Instead it was “How dare he! He’s a young narcissist!” He joined up to go to Iraq. He was a believer. You know what they said about Daniel Ellsberg when they released the Pentagon Papers? The exact same thing. They were all establishment press guys who served at the pleasure of the king.
So it has to do with your fundamental relationship with authority and power. Now as an artist I don’t have any problem with that. And I don’t mean I’m superior to anyone. I just mean that’s my natural instinct. I don’t want to join any club. You know, my ego does and I want all the things that I really want. But intrinsically I want to be an individual.
When people talk about the media blasting Snowden, oftentimes I think they’re talking largely about the cable networks where journalism standards are a bit shakier and more money is at stake so it pays to be divisive.
Chelsea Manning? Edward Snowden? You think they didn’t go to [former New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller? They went to the mainstream print guys and said, “I’m a patriot and I want to report a crime.” And (the mainstream press) said, “let me take this book and crush your fucking skull into the cement.” That’s what they did. Let’s not let the mainstream print guys off the hook. I’m not just talking about a pundit on TV, I’m talking a lot of mainstream writers with columns that called for this guy’s head. And that’s a fact.
A lot of people will say there’s no point in trying to upset the expected horserace between Jeb Bush and Hilary Clinton because they will get all the money, which means that the election is already being decided by a wealthy minority. I know that sounds cynical —
I don’t think that’s cynical. I think that’s living in the reality.
So what are you suggesting can be done? Are you endorsing a candidate for president?
No, I’m not doing that anymore. The only thing to do is follow the money and don’t listen to what anybody says. Watch what they do. Which means you have to investigate the issues. It’s amazing how many times I hear people talking and they say something that has been put into the echo chamber. And people repeat it! When you have a blizzard of propaganda coming at you trying to divide you into red and blue.
Of course, I feel the Democrats will have a more humane domestic policy. I’m certainly glad Obamacare covers more people. But so, because he had one good piece of policy, should he have the right to assassinate? Should he have “Terror Tuesday” when he plans drone strikes? It’s a false equation between those types of things.
It reminds me of going back to Ralph Nader who loudly called for a third party because the first two are overlapping on too many issues.
It’s the utter destruction of the left. Not because the left is always right but because it keeps the ship balanced. So if you have a real balance, somewhere in the middle you might find a policy that works for everybody. It’s not because unions and labor are always right -- but the destruction of those things have left us in the state we are in now. We don’t have any collective responsibility to each other.
We need a real left. The Democratic Party to me does not represent a real left. It’s Republican lite. When you do actually have a militant left it does keep center from veering too far to the right.
Yet I think of younger people in my family who are in college and they don’t take any of the American mythology seriously because they didn’t grow up with it so it doesn’t hold as much power over them. They’re much more radical.
What I think of Snowden – he’s of a younger generation. But one of the things he was telling me is once your mind gets stretched, one of the great things about technology is you can go think and explore anywhere you go and get all this information. Whereas when we were kids we couldn’t. So he really does see your ability to go in and find information as an encouragement of your individual ability to think. That’s new and speaks to what you’re saying. I think there are actually reasons to be hopeful.
It’s the government’s job and the fourth estate’s job to point out these conflicts of interest [of privacy]. And the corporations will respond. And there have been significant changes by Apple and Google. And amazing companies like Lavabit have said, “I’ll shut down before I’ll give away personal information.” So it’s not all bad. In some ways, they’re kicking ass. Privacy was dead in the water and all of the sudden it has a pulse and it’s getting up and getting ready to fight.
Have you found that you’re treated differently in Hollywood since you started becoming more outspoken?
I don’t know. For me, I haven’t really sensed that anyone gives a shit. I think if you stand up and feel like you’re a grandstander and maybe I have, then I think that’s a different deal. I think if you actually say what you think, I think people respect it. Even if they disagree with you, I think they will. I take money from movies and fund stuff that I do. It’s just what I’m interested in.