The 31st Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) continued its tradition of honoring the year’s standout performers by presenting two of this year’s Virtuosos awards to Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks for their remarkable work in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. The film is split between the 1960s, when Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson (Dano) struggled with emerging psychosis, and the 1980s, when Wilson (John Cusack) was a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti).
While there, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks talked about preparing for Love & Mercy, what this role gave them, the type of person Brian Wilson is, and that what really happened was much worse than what was even portrayed in the film. Dano also talked about his experience on Youth while Banks talked about directing Pitch Perfect 2 and prepping for Pitch Perfect 3, and they each shared the movies that really stood out for them in 2015. Here are the highlights of what they had to say during the Q&A.
Question: Paul, how did you convince everyone with Love & Mercy that you could sing?
PAUL DANO: To our director Bill Pohlad’s credit, he just had a lot of trust in us and trust in me, for whatever reason. I remember meeting with him and saying, “I can sing and I can play a little bit. I’d like to learn more. Do you think I could try to do that in the movie?” And he was like, “Yeah, you should.” And I said, “Okay, do you want to hear me?” And he said, “No, I believe that you can.” That was almost a red flag. But then, I started working on it for awhile, and Brian’s piano player worked with me. He asked if he could send something to Brian and Melinda, and I was like, “I didn’t know we were going to do that. I don’t know if I’m prepared.” So, he recorded it on his iPhone and sent it to Brian and Melinda, and they responded right away and were happy with it. That was like getting the keys to the car, or something. If they were happy, I could just go to work.
As you were prepping this, who did you go to, to make sure you were singing the way you needed to be?
DANO: I don’t know that I always talk about my work to friends, but I was so excited by Brian, the music and The Beach Boys that this was a rare time that I was telling everybody the cool shit I was learning. I was just so into it. I worked with a piano teacher and a voice teacher. My girlfriend, Zoe [Kazan], was there for me, as well as the director and the other actors.
Elizabeth, what did this role in Love & Mercy allow you to do that you haven’t been allowed to do before?
ELIZABETH BANKS: Well, I love falling in love. I’ve only fallen in love in a movie maybe one other time, and that was in Zack and Miri Make a Porno. I grew up on films where a woman falls in love. That’s a pretty obvious trope of films. But, that’s not something I’ve actually done very often. So, really deeply and in an adult way, falling in love with someone was really special.
You’re a big personality and a lot of the roles you’ve taken on, whether it’s 30 Rock, Pitch Perfect or The Hunger Games, have really played to that side of you, but Melinda Wilson has a much more quiet strength. Was that something that was appealing to you?
BANKS: Yeah, absolutely! When I read this script, she was clearly strong, which I love about her, and motivated. She’s just a great broad. And then, I met the actual broad and she’s as fierce as can be and a real advocate for Brian. They’re married and still in love, and they have a beautiful home, five kids and ten dogs. He tours and still does his music and sits at the piano, every day. They have a big, beautiful life. They won. And this movie is about how they found each other and won. I just love that that’s the message of the movie.
Paul, how did you decide what you wanted to talk to Brian Wilson about and what you didn’t want to talk to him about?
DANO: A lot of people said Brian is child-like, and I didn’t know what they meant by that. My first impression of him, from what I knew, was that he’s an open vessel. He never really built up the layers that we do, as adults, to defend ourselves from the world. That’s maybe what made him seem a bit child-like. So, because he seemed so open and honest to me, I actually did not want to meet him for quite a long time. I spent at least three months working on music and research, before meeting him, just because I didn’t want to be tempted to jump towards any kind of mimicry. I felt like, with him, his spirit was the most important thing. I was really well-prepared, when I did meet him, and didn’t feel like I needed to be a journalist and ask him every single thing about his life. The first thing I wanted was for him to know me, a little bit. It’s a crazy leap to hand your story over to people and to trust them to do it. And the best thing was just talking about music. He still lights up like a school boy, talking about music. That was the thing to jam out about.
The ‘60s version of Brian Wilson is played by you while the ‘80s version is played by John Cusack. Did you two talk about your characterizations, at all?
DANO: I asked our director if I should meet John and talk about it, and he said, “No, I don’t think so.” And he was right. Brian was so different in the ‘60s and the ‘80s. He went into a black hole almost, and then came out. He’s such a complicated person. To do any person in two hours is hard enough to really capture their essence. By having it be two actors and by having us not be in sync, in that way, that juxtaposition hopefully brings more parts of that person out. I think it was a really smart choice. We just thought that, if we walked towards our respective Brians, it would be okay.
It’s so shocking to learn about all the ways that Eugene Landy exerted control over Brian Wilson, in the most horrible ways. Elizabeth, when you were researching this, what shocked you the most about all of that?
BANKS: First of all, it was much worse than what we presented in the film and it lasted for nearly six years. It’s dark and sad and shocking. It’s shocking how much he got away with, and that Brian, who is mentally ill but was so badly misdiagnosed by Eugene, who was a total quack and a fraud, was a prisoner in his own life. It’s very shocking. This woman, Gloria, was his housekeeper and she helped Melinda save Brian’s life. She still is with them, to this day. They really bonded over how bad Eugene treated them all.
Eugene Landy has passed away. When you were making this movie, were you at all cognizant of the fact that his family would be hearing things and watching things, or did that not even cross your mind?
BANKS: You’re the first person to mention it, and I don’t care. He was not nice. He was a bad person. I’m sorry for his family.
Elizabeth, Paul Dano is your co-star in this film, but you’re not in any scenes with him. When you saw the movie, what was your impression of his performance?
BANKS: He’s mind-blowing. The film takes place in the ‘60s and the ‘80s, and they shot all of the ‘60s first, and then they shot the ‘80s. So, me, John Cusack and Paul Giamatti showed up five weeks into filming. The whole crew had already been there the entire time, and they’d done all of this work in pre-production. We were the last kids to the party for this movie. So, we got to set and all anyone could talk about was Paul’s performance, how amazing he was, and how he was channeling Brian Wilson. There is nothing to make you feel more insecure when you walk onto a movie set than the entire crew being like, “I don’t think you guys are gonna top that, I’ll be honest with you. I guess we can keep going, but Paul Dano just killed it. We’re good. We’re done.” And we were like, “Well, we’ve got four more weeks to do this other stuff. We’ll do our best.” I love him and I’m nothing but impressed. Everyone was impressed and amazed.
Paul, you got to shoot Youth in a beautiful resort in Europe. What was that like?
DANO: I spent two months in a spa in the Alpes with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda. I had this vision of going there and, since I wasn’t in every scene, I thought I could go get spa treatments on my days of. But it turned out that the spa was closed, which is why we were allowed to film there. So, it turned out to be more like The Shining. It was a huge place, and just me and a bunch of Italians, and then Michael, Harvey and Jane. They didn’t even have food in the hotel. They didn’t have anything. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.
Out of Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Jane Fonda, who were you most intimidated to meet?
DANO: The first time I met Jane Fonda was in the lobby of this scary hotel. I tried to go to the gym. I never go to the gym, but I was bored, so I went to the gym. It was closed and locked, so I went back to the lobby. There was Jane Fonda, who I met for the first time. I was like, “Hi Jane, I’m Paul.” She said, “Paul, great to meet you. Do you know where the gym is?” The first thing I said to Jane Fonda was not going to be, “The gym is closed.” So, I just said, “It’s that way,” and sent her to a closed gym. She is so cool, and she was so sweet to me. She is just a strong, spunky woman, still.
Elizabeth, last year, you also directed Pitch Perfect 2, which was a huge hit. What was your measure of success with that film?
BANKS: Well, it exceeded my expectations, for sure. I wanted the fans to love it. It’s a sequel. It’s really hard to make a comedy sequel that lives up to the first film. You only get to make a sequel if people loved the first movie, and people really loved Pitch Perfect. My biggest concern was giving something to the fans that wouldn’t take away from their feelings about Pitch Perfect. So, I’m mostly gratified that the fans love the movie. I also was really happy with the $69 million that it opened to.
What are you most excited about with Pitch Perfect 3?
BANKS: Well, I don’t want to tell you very much about what we’re planning. I think I’m really excited to figure out what the big cameos are going to be.
If you had to play one of your relatives in a movie, who would it be?
BANKS: There’s a lot of real great characters in my fam. Maybe my aunt Fekla, just ‘cause who’s named Fekla.
DANO: My aunt’s names are Olga, Flora and Thelma, and I’d want to play all three of them and do some kind of a farce.
Elizabeth, since Paul has done it with Brian Wilson, what music icon would you want to play in a movie?
BANKS: Dolly Parton.
If you had to act in a different language, what language would it be?
DANO: I would want to go to Japan, make a film there and speak that language.
What is one movie that came out in 2015 that you would recommend because you don’t think enough people have discovered it?
BANKS: I liked Mustang. I thought that was really cool.
DANO: Rams, which is about two brothers who live next door to each other in Iceland. They both tend sheep, but haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years. My two favorite in-theater experiences were Mad Max and Son of Saul.