Bill Pohlad had lived through some impressive moments in his film career — rave reviews, top awards, praise for uncompromising choices. But nothing was as important to him as a screening one night last September in Toronto.
Over the past decade, the Minneapolis producer had become a respected force in Hollywood, bankrolling adventurous films from the 2005 Oscar winner “Brokeback Mountain” to last year’s best picture, “12 Years a Slave.” When the latter screened at the 2013 Toronto film festival, Pohlad joined co-producer Brad Pitt and director Steve McQueen onstage for a standing ovation.
Last fall, however, the picture he brought to the Toronto crowd was one he made himself. The reason he began financing independent movies was because he wanted to be creatively involved.
“Directing is definitely my first love,” he said. “It’s always been that.”
When the end credits rolled, he was awash in stand-up applause for “Love & Mercy,” his vivid portrait of the Beach Boys’ mentally troubled musical genius Brian Wilson. Finally he had arrived. Perhaps with an Oscar contender of his own.
A soft-spoken, self-effacing type in an industry that attracts extravagant personalities, the 59-year-old Pohlad describes the film’s coming-out party as “a magical experience” and “a dream come true,” one he had been pursuing a long time.
Reviewers hailed the movie as a must-see, its sunny “Good Vibrations” music and dark moods creating an unconventional alternative to standard musical biopics. Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto fest, called it “an intimate rendering of Wilson’s mercurial genius.”
Paul Dano represents Wilson in his 20s, reaching the pinnacle of his creative powers in 1966 through the fabled album “Pet Sounds.” John Cusack plays the older Wilson, his life painfully crumbling after years of destructive habits. Paul Giamatti plays Dr. Eugene Landy, a manipulative psychotherapist who kept Wilson mired in years of unorthodox, round-the-clock drug treatment. Elizabeth Banks plays Wilson’s supportive second wife, Melinda Ledbetter.
Wilson himself loved Pohlad’s daring approach, after several previous efforts had faded away.
“There were attempts to tell the story years ago, but this one was worth waiting for,” Wilson said. “It’s as good and honest as it could be. He made it completely factual, nothing made up or pretend about it.”
In a sense, Pohlad’s movie career began in childhood.
The youngest of three sons of Twin Cities billionaire Carl Pohlad, Bill was at the Edina Cinema every weekend, where he became a real movie lover. He was artistically inclined, but not in standard directions.
He quit his grade-school clarinet lessons after two years, remaining “a big music fan and frustrated musician. I loved, loved music and the emotion you get from it, similar in a lot of ways to the feelings I got from going to movies all the time and being really touched by it. I never had the discipline to play, though. Later on I was thinking I could play guitar like all these other guys, but I had all kinds of excuses.”
It was movies that really focused his attention. He wanted to be the director, the person critiquing the script, translating it to visuals and guiding the actors through their performances.
His access to financing allowed him to step behind the camera in 1990. He co-wrote, coproduced and directed his first feature, “Old Explorers,” casting veteran actors Jose Ferrer and James Whitmore as senior citizens imagining themselves in far-off exotic locales.
TV Guide called it “verbose and snail-paced.” The local crew described a chaotic shoot. It seemed that once again Pohlad lacked the needed discipline.
That’s not how he’s described now.
Pohlad spent a decade learning the work from the ground up, filming commercials and small corporate documentaries.
“From the time we finished that movie I wanted to make another one,” he said. “But I wasn’t getting any closer to making another feature, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
That’s why he had opened River Road Entertainment in 1987. In an era when most studios closed their “independent” arms, River Road filled the void, avoiding glib, phoned-in audience pleasers. There were misfires, such as “Fur,” with Robert Downey Jr. as a hirsute circus freak, and “The Runaways,” with Kristen Stewart playing hard rock guitarist Joan Jett, but mostly positive results. River Road became his graduate school, balancing art and commerce.
“I never liked the image of the producer who wants to be the director. So I went out there and didn’t say anything to anyone about wanting to be a director,” he said. “I didn’t want to walk away after a couple of years feeling like I had attended some great parties but lost a bunch of money. I wasn’t really interested in that. So I kept saying, ‘We’re here for the long term.’ ”
Working in partnership with acclaimed filmmakers including Terrence Malick and Ang Lee, he didn’t obsess about projected returns. He supported tasteful, socially conscious movies of the sort he liked to see, and trusted that viewers would follow. His aim wasn’t seeking personal plaudits, but supporting good work.
“The film industry needs men of vision, original voices, to keep alive, and I feel like Bill has proved himself with this film,” said Academy Award-winning composer Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”). He spent half a year working with Pohlad on the intricate sound design and soundtrack for “Love & Mercy.”
“It’s a great film, a really interesting film, an interesting idea,” Ross said. A regular collaborator with director David Fincher and few other notable filmmakers, Ross is choosy about his assignments and generally despises movies glamorizing the life stories of music stars.
He agreed to compose “Love & Mercy” for Pohlad because “I liked him from the moment of meeting him. He’s a guy with vision and that’s what, as a musician, you need from the director. His company was built on making the kind of films that I would love to be working on. I loved ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ ‘Into the Wild,’ ‘12 Years a Slave.’ He’s obviously a man of taste. I know, because I research heavily, that he’s involved with every aspect of that filmmaking. As soon as I saw the first edit, I knew I’d made the right choice.”
Los Angeles film producer Claire Rudnick Polstein brought “Love & Mercy” to Pohlad for a financing partnership almost five years ago. Pohlad declined, finding the proposed script in need of major repair. As much as he loved music and liked the idea of trying to capture the making of “Pet Sounds,” he felt the movie needed to be more.
“I wanted it to be a personal portrait of a guy,” Pohlad said. “A human being who has mental challenges and mental issues. I wanted it to be something intimate enough that we can watch it and feel something. It isn’t about Brian Wilson the celebrity, the musician. This is a human being who’s kind of in trouble.”
Polstein, who remained as the film’s co-producer, said she was impressed when Pohlad hired Oren Moverman, a respected film director, screenwriter and former journalist, to find a new dramatic focus. “Bill had incredible, thought-provoking passion for the material. He worked on the script with Oren,” Polstein said. “He knew what he wanted to do and knew how he wanted to tell the story visually. And he’s a great leader for the crew” — Hollywood pros who called the shoot the best they had ever experienced.
“I felt like every day was heaven,” Pohlad said. “It’s the movie I wanted to make. It’s a dream to be able to do it once. It would be a dream to be able to do it more than once.”
In fact, that’s the plan. While Pohlad is financing another feature with Sean Penn, who directed “Into the Wild,” helping a colleague express his vision isn’t as exciting as creating his own.
“It’s a little hard to go back to producing,” he said. “I’m producing now, and it’s going fine, but if I thought I was never going to direct again — I don’t know, that would be tough.”
So Pohlad is working with Moverman on a book adaptation very different from “Love & Mercy.”
He wouldn’t discuss details, except to say, “It’s a period piece, but similar in that it deals with a kind of serious issue. And it deals with humans, who we are as people and how after some of the traumas of life, we find our way back to who we are.
“The script is finished, more or less, and we’re about to start the casting. Best case, we can do it at the end of this year.”