How Did the “Love & Mercy” Filmmakers Create Such Real-Looking Faux Documentary Footage?


The Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy (2015) does a great job of making you work to figure out what is real archive footage and what is re-created to look real. The film’s opening montage is a collection of perfectly crafted scenes of music group The Beach Boys hanging out, doing interviews, recording famous music video moments and performing live. It’s got every ounce of the grainy aesthetic you’d expect from decades-old footage and appears to be completely valid archival material. But it’s not.

All of this material, along with the scenes of Wilson and his band in the recording studios creating “Pet Sounds” were shot present day on Super 16. The film stock is cheap and has been around since the 1920s; it’s generally not used for theatrical purposes aside from low-budget productions. For years, it was a popular type of film for recording home videos and for the experimentation of amateur filmmakers. This is precisely why it was chosen for filming scenes in Love & Mercy in order to capture the aesthetic of the time, as well as to provide a warm and tonally romantic look. The result: a nostalgic “look” that serves the film well.

Cinematographer Robert Yeoman, widely recognized for his work on many Wes Anderson films, was behind the camera. “The story takes place in an analog time, so I felt we needed the grain and texture of film to give [the settings] a realistic feel,” he told American Cinematographer Magazine.

The majority of the footage was shot with handheld cameras, and the direction allowed Paul Dano to interact naturally with his surroundings. The material was captured documentary-style, which often gave the film the feeling that it was compiling documentary footage recorded decades ago. Pohlad kept Yeoman out of rehearsals so he wouldn’t know what was coming, allowing him to capture the footage in an organic documentary-filming way.

The filmmakers also sought authenticity with their locales to provide an added level of realism to the material. They achieved that by shooting in Los Angeles, the original stomping ground of the band, and utilized the very studios where “Pet Sounds” and “Smile” were recorded.

In contrast to the look used for the 1960s material, John Cusack’s scenes, which take place in the 1980s, used cold white and blue tones to reflect the brittle emotional state Wilson experienced during that time - a veritable Van Gogh approach to conveying the protagonist’s mood and emotion during the different decades. To accomplish the colder, blue and white tones, the scenes were shot with 35mm and 75mm film, alternating between handheld and dolly work.

Together, choices made by the director and cinematographer crafted some extraordinarily old-fashioned footage for a modern-day film.

The video below finds director Bill Pohlad giving his take on the look and feel of the picture: