Marlon Brando, until his ashes were scattered in Tahiti and Death Valley in 2004, was a private man. But the actor and the person were not so separable, as revealed in the new documentary Listen to Me Marlon, directed by Stevan Riley.
His roles, from dangerously sexy Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire and criminal paterfamilias Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather to Apocalypse Now’s rogue psychotic Colonel Kurtz, share a darkness that he could easily connect to. And it diffused to those close to him, though there weren’t many. In 1990, the one-two punch of his son Christian’s murder conviction and his daughter Cheyenne’s resulting suicide delivered a blow he never quite recovered from.
Listen to Me Marlon explores this stormy episode of his life with great interest. But it is also an affectionate portrait of the artist. Here is a documentary that defies the genre’s conventions, offering a living and breathing collage that strays from the linear path of most documentaries about famous people. There are no talking heads but, instead, a patchwork of rare archival footage (courtesy of the Brando estate), impressionistic recreations and a narration that comes straight from Brando, and as if from the grave, thanks to audio tapes that he recorded over the years, soliloquizing and ruminating on his life. Coursing through these sounds and images is Max Richter’s beautifully morose soundtrack, which is heavy and grim, and you will either love or hate it. This goes for Brando, too, whose recordings hold up an eerily introspective sort of mirror to us: Why are we here? What do need from each other? What do we desire, and why do we hurt people to get it?
Watching Listen to Me Marlon is like watching a person form, emotionally and psychologically, as Brando draws connections from his tormented, adult interior life to his childhood, which was difficult but also typical: a disengaged mother and a tough-love and at-times tyrannical father, who raised him in the country and had money problems and disappearing hopes.
Director Stevan Riley spoke to me on the phone about the making of the film, which opens in Bay Area theaters this weekend. For the record, his favorite Brando picture is Mutiny on the Bounty.
EatDrinkFilms: When we watch this film, we feel like we’re living inside Marlon Brando’s head. You must’ve had to become a Brando obsessive. Or were you already? Your producer, John Battsek, who brought you the idea, claims that after working together on the 007 documentary Everything or Nothing, you’re the biggest expert on the Bond franchise on the planet.
Stevan Riley: I got a phone call from John, who had access to the Brando estate, which wanted to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of his passing. But I didn’t know much about Brando at all. I knew he was complex. In three weeks, I read all the books I could. There were lots of tapes, 300 hours, from the Brando archives.
EDF: Which were previously unavailable and unheard of until the Brando estate released them to you.
SR: The estate was pulling all his private effects out of boxes, which had been in storage for 10 years. There were lots of creative notes, books, home videos, photographs, and tapes. There was the process of learning more about him, but ultimately it had all been in a box. I was really lucky to have those tapes. I happened upon some of the very interesting ones including personal conversations with friends and family, which included recollections of his childhood.
EDF: The film doesn’t have any talking heads, which is rare for a documentary. It’s what’s so refreshing about Listen to Me Marlon, and what makes it feel more artful than your typical celebrity postmortem biography. This is a visual essay.
SR: That was the first pitch. It was on a whim. I had no idea what was in the tapes; my next worry was to tell the estate, meticulously and quickly as possible [that] they had their work cut out.
EDF: Did you have to persuade the estate to get on board with what was, probably on paper anyway, a wildly insane idea?
SR: [Before discovering the tapes] I wrote a pitch document to try and get the estate on board. It was ambitious and bold, and I wasn’t sure I could deliver. It was “Brando on Brando,” to paraphrase the title, which got everyone got on board. But then I had a bit of a panic, thinking I bit off more than I could chew, so I was diligent to cover myself and meet potential interviewees.
EDF: So the idea, from the outset, was never to use talking heads?
SR: As far as I’m aware, apart from the documentary Kurt Cobain: About a Son, this hadn’t been done about a dead person before. To do something tightly woven seemed like too much of a challenge when I didn’t know what was in the tapes.
I went to speak with friends, family, fellow actors, visits which were informative but could be a little confusing because no one was with him for any long stretch of time and he kept his relationships fragmented and compartmentalized. There was no one person who could tell me who he was, and I wanted it to be not just original in terms of the narrative, not just “Who is the real Brando?” It was, “Who is the man behind the myth?”
More tapes kept coming out, which meant more transcribing, mostly the highlights. There were fat folders seven feet off the ground.
Five or 10 minutes into the editing, I had nothing but a black screen. I was editing the film myself and it was only with those blank scenes I thought this might be possible. That’s when I reached the point where I was happy and in good shape to complete the vision.
EDF: How did you transcribe these massive reams of monologue? Brando recalls a lot of his own life, but also delivers many intense and rich and dense exegeses of the human condition.
SR: I’ll be honest, it was transcribed by a company in India. I couldn’t afford to get it transcribed in London. I went through all the transcripts by myself and highlighted, putting my own notes in the margin.
Since I had a shooting script from which I approached the transcripts, there was a degree of structure already in place. I read all the books, met as many people as I could. I wasn’t ignorant to potential through-lines, that this could be a postmortem on a tragedy that passes through the household, and an investigation of that tragedy that explains how it came to pass.
I wanted to split the story in three parallel tracks — Brando as young boy, actor-adult, and old man. I would write notes in the margins, which were very small, one or two words. If I didn’t try and break the material down to atomic pieces that I could then parlay into scenes, I would’ve gone crazy. I spent a lot of time alone editing, but I don’t think it’s productive to work in isolation. I called on a friend called Peter, who has a voice I can trust and narrative sense, to develop balance in the edit with me.
EDF: You contrast the archival footage with a beautiful, ethereal sort of recreation of Brando’s house, which you built on a soundstage in London. Had this always been in your mind?
SR: I left that largely until the end, when the story was in place. I had lots of visual references that would approximate the props. I wanted to create this living, breathing space, with sunlight shimmering through the curtain, candles and lights, a sense of malice in the light and a ghostly presence in the house that was iconic and metaphorical for Marlon in his mind.
He called this place “the house of pain” after the shooting and his daughter’s suicide, and because we associate Brando as [closed off] it was almost a confine within which this dissection and postmortem could occur. It was a nice place to situate the archive.
EDF: The first thing we see is this digitized replica of Brando’s head, and he’s speaking to us. It must have felt like striking gold when you learned that Brando, around two decades ago, had been digitally scanned. He was interested in being preserved for future movies.
SR: I wanted this ghostly machine presence of Brando that would accentuate his voice and give a tangible sense that he was still present in the first person.
We needed a device to bring Brando back to life somehow. We thought to have an actor as a shadowy presence, but that seemed corny. Then there was a conversation with one guy in the archive in Austin about the scan Brando had done, which was in the tapes at the start of the film. He spoke about the scanning being done, so the next question was how to track it down and with a lot of work, we found it with a friend of Marlon’s in special effects. He remembered doing it, where it was, was tracking it down, across eight hard drives in his storage. How it was then collated and decoded, because the software is now obsolete, was a real triumph that allowed me to complete this vision.
I didn’t want to do photo-real. I’d seen a promo for the Radiohead song “House of Cards,” with a digitized head that gave a fragmented sense of a ghostly figure that was broken and disparate, and trying to find meaning.
EDF: This idea of having your likeness preserved in a computer, to sell your body and soul as an actor, was the subject of the Ari Folman film The Congress. And oddly enough, you both used a score composed by Max Richter! And quite similar-sounding, I might add. Were you aware of this?
SR: The Congress? I totally missed that. Infra is the [Max] Richter album used for the film. I am normally, way into a movie, listening to as much as I can on Spotify. I wanted classical elements; Brando was a classical actor. [Infra] had the modern subversive, electronica at the top, and felt dystopian as well.
EDF: As you were deep-diving into the life and mind of this man, what surprised you?
SR: All my films are a complete learning experience. Even the Bond movie, or the cricket film [Fire in Babylon], I didn’t know anything about. Everything was a surprise. I was learning from scratch; I had a feeling that while there had to be some celebration of a great actor, as a character—did I like him? That was the nice revelation in figuring out his contradictory aspects, reading between the lines to figure out who he would have been, and I found that I did like him. He has humanity. His sense of inquiry and everyman quality and empathy and sympathy are not indicative of this untouchable star in an ivory tower. He was very ordinary, but fascinating.
EDF: Not everyone is going to like the Brando we get in the film. He was a womanizer. He fathered many children with different women. There’s a debate over the actual number of children he has. But he knows that he messed up his kids’ lives.
SR: Some women have a very negative reaction; they can’t see through that character, the manipulator — and he was that. It’s surprising, considering that he was still so insecure. I think he could be a gentleman and a predator. But he was abandoned. That’s not to excuse him, but I think things start making more sense when looking at his childhood. He was quite a vulnerable figure in a way.
EDF: Did that ambivalence make this journey difficult for you?
SR: Not really. You can find different layers of meaning amid a long edit of about 9 months. I got a bit of cabin fever in the edit. I sat by myself a lot, endlessly fascinated. I wanted to do it well — as good as possible and as thoroughly as I could. It was a gift, in a way.
EDF: By using his narration, you reveal that Brando was not just an actor, but also a philosopher. He’s very insightful about what it means to be a person in this world, especially about how even if we’re not actors, we’re all “acting” in some way, playing a part. This is so affecting.
SR: In terms of “method directing,” which is a thing that happened as well, you find yourself relating to your own life. I went to military school, as Brando did. My dad was in the forces. I got caught in the wrong crowd. I could relate to all that. There was a degree of dysfunction in our house, growing up. Some of that stuff was paralleling. The film is a Freudian exploration and you can’t help relating your own life to it. Brando asks these questions about how much we owe to our childhood experiences and I find that fascinating as well: how much control do we have over our upbringing to affect behaviors in our adult lives?
Philosophically, lots of questions were coming up about the parent mythology, which he was obsessed by, and by the nature of good and evil. These recur a lot in the documentary and in his choice of roles, and in how much he had to bury in his own life realizing that a good boy like [his son] Christian could enact a terrible thing.
He speaks to everyone’s insecurities, which makes him very relatable and considering he was an untouchable superstar, so remote and enigmatic at the same time. I think actually my thing was to bring him down to earth, where he was tackling the same problems we all are.
Click here to read Susan L. Mizruchi and Edward E. Crouse’s reviews of Listen to Me Marlon in EDF68 and here to read an excerpt from Susan L. Mizruchi’s book Brando’s Smile in EDF68.LISTEN TO ME MARLON
Opens on August 7, 2015, at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco, Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley, Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, and Camera 3 in San Jose.Ryan Lattanzio has written film reviews for myriad publications including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.