When “12 Years a Slave” won the best picture Oscar, producer Bill Pohlad watched from New York, where he’s putting the finishing touches on his next project, “Love & Mercy,” a biographical feature on Beach Boys songwriter Brian Wilson. Winning the big prize was a joyous conclusion to an awards season he called “stressful.”
“It’s crazy,” he said in a phone interview. “As I learned on ‘Tree of Life,’ it’s different when you’re in the middle of it.” In addition to Terrence Malick’s spiritual family drama, Pohlad produced Ang Lee’s 2005 best picture contender, “Brokeback Mountain.”
“It’s a bit of a grind and you sometimes get sucked into the process more than you want to. On this one I definitely didn’t have any expectations,” he said. “We’ve been through it a couple times where it didn’t work out. As far as winning the big prize, you try to modulate your expectations on that.”
After its exultant debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it took top prize, Steve McQueen’s film traveled a rough road to its Academy Awards triumph. At the Golden Globes, “12 Years” was shut out in every one of its nominations before taking the prize as best drama.
“Going to the Golden Globes, you think, ‘This doesn’t matter.’ Once you get there and you’re sitting there, you get all caught up in it. You think, gee, we’re not winning anything, until it turned out in the end.”
At the BAFTAs, “12 Years” lost in eight categories before it won best film. The Producers Guild of America (PGA) did the unheard-of, splitting its best film prize between the historical drama and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” Oscar night was equally suspenseful, as the film lost six of its nine nominations, then received the top award.
‘Tree of Life’ connection
“At the risk of sounding corny, it’s really gratifying that the movie has been received so well,” Pohlad said. He celebrated the film’s win from 3,000 miles away because of PGA and Motion Picture Academy bylaws that apportion credit in inscrutable ways. Despite investing millions in “12 Years a Slave” through his Minnesota-based River Road Entertainment — the Los Angeles Times called him the movie’s chief backer — he can’t call himself an Oscar-winning producer.
“I’m actually not sure how they do it, internally,” he said of the accreditation process. “We all fill out forms in post-production before any awards are even considered. It’s a lot of forms from the PGA,” which recognizes three or fewer nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.”
“We obviously had seven. I knew there was going to be an issue.”
The project came to Pohlad while working on “Tree of Life” with Brad Pitt and his producing partner Dede Gardner, who had done the initial work on the project. She invited Pohlad to join the film’s team and he eagerly came on board. Pohlad agreed with the PGA and Oscar decision, because the originating producers had the longest history with the film.
The situation was reversed on “Tree of Life,” where Pitt didn’t receive producing credit.
“I figured, ‘Toughen up.’ I didn’t want to compete and get them bumped in any way, so I let it go.
“I was obviously not entirely satisfied with their ruling, On the other hand I didn’t want to start appealing and going through a big fuss. I find it really embarrassing when people try to do that. I felt really weird about the whole thing and didn’t want to make a big deal out of it.”
In any event, he felt a rush of “shock and excitement” when his film won. “I was sorry that I wasn’t there, but it was thrilling and exciting.”
For the ‘Love’ of Brian Wilson
Pohlad is just about to lock down the soundtrack on “Love & Mercy.” He’s been editing in New York since October after shooting on location in California. “It was a great experience, very gratifying, and it’s nice to get back to directing.”
It’s his first turn in the director’s chair since his ill-starred 1990 debut, the locally filmed “Old Explorers,” starring James Whitmore and José Ferrer.
The new film is a dramatic biography of troubled musical genius Wilson. The Beach Boy is played as a young man by Paul Dano and in later years by John Cusack, with Paul Giamatti playing his therapist, Eugene Landy, who involved himself in his patient’s life in unprofessional and exploitative ways.
The two actors sharing Wilson’s character worked in perfect harmony, Pohlad said. “I can’t say enough about them. There was great positive excitement on the set every day.” The script was written by screenwriter/director Oren Moverman, who splintered Bob Dylan’s personality into half a dozen incarnations in “I’m Not There.” Atticus Ross, composer of “The Social Network,” “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” remake and “Twilight,” is writing the musical score.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve done this, over 20 years. I wasn’t sure. If you’ve not directed for a while, you have dreams about not being prepared or getting to the set and having it all fall apart. It turned out great and felt very natural to get back into it.” As he prepares to show the film to distributors next week, “I’m excited about that but kind of keeping my head down to get the last needle dropped.”
Pohlad envisions it as a “late summer, early fall kind of movie” for next year, but he’s currently focusing on last-minute production details.
“I’ll let other people argue about” the release date, he said. “Until it’s done. Then I’ll argue about it.”