This week sees the nationwide release of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As part of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, Seattle Screen Scene was lucky enough to sit down with the soundtrack’s composer, Atticus Ross, to talk about the Beach Boys and his own meticulousness in the studio.
Below is an edited version of the twenty minute interview. To hear the complete segment, tune your dial over to Episode 61 of The George Sanders Show podcast.
Seattle Screen Scene: The soundtrack work that you do is a little unconventional. You don’t have a huge orchestra. You’re not Danny Elfman conducting. But this project in particular is even more unique because you’re working with pre-existing tracks. Did you have access to the vault? Is there a vault?
Atticus Ross: The guy I work with has a very small roster of people who I like very much. The reason I’m with him is because I trust him and I trust his taste. He said, “There’s this film about Brian Wilson and you’ve got to read the script, it’s going to be great.” And I’m just thinking, one, music bios have almost become a genre and a fucking shitty genre.
SSS: They’re terrible.
AR: So that doesn’t sound like a good idea. Two, it’s Brian Wilson, who every hipster in the world has as the untouchable. What’s it going to be, some score and then some incredible song? I’m a Beach Boys fan, of course I am. You can’t like music and not be a fan. But I’m also not an obsessive around them.
Anyway, eventually I did get around to reading the script and I did think it was really amazing. And then I thought, how would I be able to fit into a film like this? I knew enough about them to know the mythology that there was supposedly all of these recordings that were unreleased.
So when I met Bill [Pohlad], the director, he didn’t know what the music was going to be. He didn’t have an idea for the music, specifically. What I thought would be cool would be if Brian were to give us all of the multitracks for all of this supposed music and he let me fuck around with it, and sample it and see what I could come up with in terms of storytelling. It felt like when I read the script, Brian should be ever-present, considering his musical stature. And also to hear some of his stuff broken down or put in a different context.
My very original concept was it would be more like The Grey Album. It would be indistinguishable what the actual source was. I did a couple like that, it was cool, but you had no idea the Beach Boys were involved, that Brian was involved, and that kind of undermined the point of it.
So going back a couple of paces, I say this idea to Bill and he responds to it, and then we ask Brian. Literally a month later, these hard drives arrive at my house which is all of those records and way, way more. And then hundreds of outtakes where he would have them play. Even on the recorded versions, the technology at the time, we’re still talking about a four-track recording. But there would be hundreds of say, “Good Vibrations”. He kept 98 versions of him working on whatever it might be, where they just got a stereo mic in the room and he’s working with the players. What was interesting about those were the ideas of him as a spaced-out — I’m not saying he’s not spaced-out today — but in those early sixties you can hear him on the talkback mic, super focused. He’s incredibly in command. He knows exactly what he wants, he’s not scared. He’s very empowered. Not at all what’s become the popular version of him.
So then it ended up being a reality. I was hired to do it and I had all of fucking Brian Wilson’s multitracks.
SSS: How long did it take you to cull through that stuff?
AR: We never really finished, to be honest. There was so much material. I was working with my brother and I’ve got an assistant. We honed it down to within a certain area and started work on different tangents. There are a number of tracks which aren’t in the film where we were just creating using pieces that we had sampled, trying to play a different sequence against it. But in this case the film dictated very much what each piece was going to be and where it would land. And Bill, as a director, I loved working with him. He’s really a nice guy and is someone that does have a vision. And he’s uncompromising.
SSS: It’s interesting because he hasn’t directed a movie in twenty years.
AR: It’s basically his first one. But he’s proved himself as a man of taste.
SSS: Absolutely. You look at that track record of production credits.
AR: And he’s not the kind of producer who’s sticking his name on as producer. He’s heavily involved in his films and I think that served him well in coming to this. It did not feel like working with someone who was a first time director. Partly it was how tied to the story everything had to be. There wasn’t much point in just going off on a tangent and writing pieces and sending them to him. Everything we sent was to picture. So he was always looking at it against the picture. But even in the script, like the black hole that starts the film…
SSS: My favorite part.
AR: That’s in the script. But then there’s a huge difference between having that as a theoretical idea and actually executing it. It kind of fell into these different areas. You’ve got those collage ones which are basically built from Beach Boys snippets, maybe with a progression behind. Then there was more which are our tracks, score tracks. Basically we’d find bits of Brian’s voice and sample it, maybe put it in a granular synthesizer that you can make it be an endless thing. So if you’ve sampled just a small note, when you play it it will be as long as you want it to be. We could make melodies using his voice. Then there was the sort of sound design like the knives and forks coming to life.
SSS: That thing was just fantastic. It kind of reminds me of Dancer in the Dark where there’s that machinery song. It starts out totally natural and organic and all of a sudden it’s a cacophony.
AR: There were a couple of moments of those which are very much sound design based. Even if they’re short, they took a fucking long time to do all of those. And there were things like the car bonnet where they’re trying to infer that he’s imagining the melody to “God Only Knows”. That was the thing of having the tapes and processing the tapes. I couldn’t believe it when we were going through them, there’s this incredible backing vocal that isn’t in the final version of the song. Because they were all grouped together, we couldn’t get at it, so that was the one bit that we did re-sing. But it’s in there for that moment when he’s lying on the bonnet.
And then there’s the bits where it’s an obvious Beach Boys song but processed, like the bed montage in the end, where his dad’s voice starts and we go to “In My Room” but it’s been so fucked up and made weird. It felt right with the picture but I’m not really adding anything to that. It’s mostly just processing his tracks. Then we cut to something which does have a lot of music in it. You know when he gets hit and we go into the more psychedelic thing, then we come out to “‘Til I Die”, which again is just processed.
Looking back on it, it fell into these different categories with the odd exception. You know when his dad arrives with that shitty new band, the kind of Beach Boys copy band…
SSS: “Sun, Sun, Sun”.
AR: Yes! “Sun, Sun, Sun”! I was trying to remember the name of it this morning. I’m glad you can remember. Basically what we did with that, we knew it was going to be one of his darkest moments but what was that going to sound like? So then I just looped the bassline of “Sun, Sun, Sun” and filtered it down and then it’s actually my wife, who brings the most sun into my life, formed the darkest moment in Brian’s. That’s her singing. There’s a scream, then it turns into this keeling, wailing and then there’s some other Beach Boys stuff that’s looped underneath it with “Sun, Sun, Sun”. Not all of it you can hear but the idea I was trying to get at was that you’ve got the voices in his head, plus the torment of that fucking awful “Sun, Sun, Sun” song.
(Love & Mercy opens wide this Friday.)