Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"

Interview: Stevan Riley on Giving Brando His Most Personal Role in “Listen to Me Marlon”

After Stevan Riley put the finishing touches on “Listen to Me Marlon,” a portrait of Marlon Brando that doesn’t so much recount his life as it does summon him back to life with the help of hundreds of hours of personal audio recordings, he was understandably a little nervous upon showing it to Brando’s daughter Rebecca for the first time. That unease only grew when she walked out after an hour.

“Oh no,” I thought,” said the British-born Riley, during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I didn’t know what sort of sign that was — if she was really upset with it. But I spoke to her afterwards and she just found it a bit overwhelming. She felt her dad was a bit too present. She went back and saw it a second, and a third and a fourth time. She really has been supporting and praiseworthy of it [ever since].”

Even without being related by blood, one can understand how easily it is to be overwhelmed by “Listen to Me Marlon” after seeing it, a film that has no reason to work as well as it does, but nonetheless slips under the skin much like the magnetic actor could. Using Brando’s recordings as narration, Riley creates a free-flowing communion with the “Streetcar Named Desire” star from his boyhood in Nebraska to training with Stella Adler to ultimately becoming one of the biggest box office draws in the world. Yet while Brando was omnipresent, “Listen to Me Marlon” may be the first time audiences may really get the chance to see him, with clips from his films interspersed with home videos and other rare ephemera that puts his work into the context of a turbulent life. Difficult relationships with his father Marlon Sr. and his son Christian, whose role in a shooting at Brando’s home in the Hollywood Hills consumed the actor’s thoughts in his later days, are plumbed with unusual depth as Brando puts himself under self-hypnosis, just as the sensation of true happiness he finds a world away in Tahiti, where he filmed “Mutiny on the Bounty,” feels tangibly fulfilling in the way Riley presents it.

Shortly before “Listen to Me Marlon” brings Brando back to the big screen, Riley spoke of how he received such incredible access, what he felt his responsibility was to the very private person, and embracing the challenge of making a film sticking (almost) exclusively to Brando’s own voice.

Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"When you were contacted by John Battsek, the film’s producer, to do something on Marlon Brando, what was your first thought?

These calls come and go, but I love doing character character studies and I thought there’s no one more interesting than Brando, in terms of his known complexities and the fact that everyone had been trying to solve this puzzle about who was the real Marlon Brando. Something slightly immodest in myself thought, “I’m going to have a real crack at this and see if I can do something a bit more definitive.” I’d get myself tied in knots because I’d read all the books and I’d think, “Oh, my god. He really is conflicted” in terms of how one could interpret him.

I pursued the research and met with as many people as I could. I’d already had the idea to do it all in Brando’s own voice because there was a selection of tapes which I’d managed to get ahold of. They really impressed me enough that I thought, “My god, imagine if I could tell the entire story in his own words? Brando on Brando,” which wasn’t obvious at the time actually. I looked into it and no one had really done that before – to do a first-person narrative with someone who is deceased, especially with someone who’s as private as Brando to carry the entire story. The only documentary I could think of, which I love, was “Kurt Cobain: About A Son,” though it was more of a mood piece.

We didn’t know how much was in the archive at that point. It was just a bit of a flight of fancy in order to be brave and help us get the funding, but I got a bit nervous afterwards in thinking, actually can I pull this off? Was it a bit too ambitious to try and do a very layered narrative, with a person whom you can’t go back for real interviews? But it was satisfying – the further I got in, the more it was piecing together.

Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"Even with as many Brando films as I’ve seen, I can’t but help associate him with the heavy, eccentric public image he had in his final years, which is why I appreciated how you put that image of him after his son’s murder during the ’90s upfront. Did you feel that was something that needed to be there for audiences?

I really tried to keep a hold on what I knew about him before I started the piece because I was just trying to think that the audience would have the knowledge that I had [in order] to give them some of those touchstones to find a way into the piece. I’d seen and loved his films. He was obviously a trailblazer in the art of acting, but [you have this contemporary notion] he was overweight, that he had addictions, that he was reclusive, potentially crazy, and this terrible thing had happened in the household. Being able to do that up front – use some of my own ignorance, to help other people navigate into the story – was nice because one of the arcs is trying to solve this problem about what tragedy happened in the household. By the end of the film, you realize who the victims were, who the perpetrator was and why it happened. You have all the answers by the end.

One of the interesting sensations I had was even though I’ve seen many of his films, the cumulative effect of seeing how you spliced them together made me feel the full power of his persona in a way I never had before. Was that something you actually could feel yourself in editing this?

I had a loose idea in my head in our early budgeting, “Okay, a third [of the film] will be [reconstruction], a third will be archive and a third will be clips from the movies.” Like you said, life was imitating art and art was imitating life so much that you could use the clips from the films to actually tell part of Brando’s [personal] story and what his favorite (mime) was because he would bring things that he was interested in into his parts. The clips could really enforce the the dialogue [on the tapes] – they feel like they’re part of a whole. They weren’t just dropped in, “Oh, here he is in a movie clip. Here’s Brando acting.” It was actually woven into his story, so they would domino a bit. There was an attempt to lock them in and make them feel part of the same narrative thread.

Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"While the film settles into something loosely chronological, you seem to follow Brando’s train of thought wherever it may lead. Was that an easy decision?

There were several things. In terms of the very first proposal, it included the fact that it was going to be a post-mortem of Brando’s life by Brando, looking back and psycho-analyzing himself, [wondering] how did his life come to that point? Somebody who’d always been a secret, the truth. How did his life involve that tragedy? How could he have let that happen?

The tapes had three story tracks – the boy, the actor and the old man – as the timelines to move between and [we could] make it a bit fragmented but hopefully make them segue [together] enough so that it functions like memory, that if I were to drift off and think about the passage of my own life, I might hop between [times] and, at the end of it, you might assemble the puzzle to have developed a picture of a complete life. There was a degree of chronology with the films. Otherwise, it was a bit anachronistic in terms of going back to the old man who was beset by his own anxieties and questions, as a recluse in the house of pain, as the media dubbed it, which was [demonstrated in] the recon of the house, then the reconstructions of Nebraska for the boy.

You actually rebuilt those places from scratch. Why was it important to have those physical places to move through?

To be inside Marlon’s thoughts, the house became a metaphor for his mind in a way because that was where so much of his later history was locked. When he couldn’t got back to Tahiti after his daughter’s suicide, those were truly reclusive years where he did lock himself away. He didn’t really see many people in the last few years. That’s where the analysis is taking place. That’s where he’s turning in circles, trying to solve these intractable problems and to have his own voice as this presence with him. The fact that a candle might still be burning or the curtains might still be blowing, it’s like he’s still in the house and [for the bookends of the film] having his digitized head on the screen would reinforce that as this ghost in the machine, a haunting presence of him analyzing his life beyond the grave.

Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"How did that digitized head become the bookends of the film?

I remember thinking it’d have been lovely to have a device to bring the voice of the film to life and I thought, “You ought to get an actor to reenact this stuff.” Then again, who the hell is going to reenact Brando? It’s the one role you can’t play. I was very lucky actually because I had constant dialogue with the people who were unpacking this [Brando] archive because more and more was coming out as the film was being made. They’d say, “We found another 10 tapes,” and it was great that the ambition was there.

[Still], I’m churning over ideas to get away from the conventional archive. I spoke to a really helpful guy at the estate [named] Austin, who remembered a rumor that Brando had had his head scanned in 3D. I go, “Oh, that’s interesting. I wonder whether we could do CGI with that. Where is it?” We figured out that Scott Billups, a friend of Marlon’s who did special effects supervision, might have it, so we tracked him down. Scott wasn’t sure he had them and it just went on and on and on, searching attics, cupboards, the lot until he found this set of drives that the scans were encoded on them. They were such big files they were set across multiple drives and the code was obsolete.

Very fortunately, Passion Pictures, [our] production company in London, has two wings and one is a very developed animation wing. We handed the material to them and they decoded it. I always had an idea about this being a digital head. I’d seen Radiohead’s “House of Cards,” [which] had a fragmented head on it. I always wanted to do something similar to that — not to give him skin and flesh tone, but to make him this ghost — digitized, malformed, fragmented, searching for meaning.

Was there something you came across that really unlocked who he was for you?

I had a real massive question which was hanging over me about whether or not I actually liked him or not. I really was concerned because I’d read some books — one [“Me and Marlon”] by one of his personal assistants Alice Marchak painted him as the conventional unhinged crazy character, but I bought it because she writes very honestly. She didn’t approve of his antics with women and his angry outbursts, but I understood Marlon better and why he kept her close because she was a staunch Catholic. He loved her near him because he had big trust issues. He felt he could really trust her but she would never understand his character. It’s not answering your question, but in that [book] I felt, “Well I can see how that happened now because I can understand that dynamic — why that was written and that she might still like him.” I decided I liked him. That was a big breakthrough. Rather, I understood his contradictions.

Could you mostly rely on his personal archives for material or would you have to search for additional materials?

We had lots of audio and other materials from the estate, but there was still a massive trawl that took place to try and get every bit of obscure radio recordings and TV. We put out archive requests all around the world and found out where he’d done press tours because he rarely did those. We got in touch with those countries — France, Japan, Australia. I wanted to track down the tapes that he did with his biographer, Robert Lindsey, for his book, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” Those tapes included more of the family’s background stuff. We got in touch with Larry Grobel, who was in Tahiti for 10 days, doing the piece for Playboy, and he emptied all of his cupboards with me and we found his tapes. Even though we had this trove of materials, it didn’t stop us doing a really detailed trawl elsewhere.

There’s one moment in the film where it breaks from his voice to a young woman who reads a fan letter. Where did that come from?

That was in the estate archives. This lady did a whole hour-long tape to Marlon and she did a whole playlist for him. It was just a love letter to Brando. Just listening to that and hearing the tone, you could hear the era — it was the ‘50s. It just said so much about the obsession with him, which is creeping into the film at that point — the adoration of him for all the right reasons that people did see that he was the maverick and the renegade — that soon turned sour into something way more obsessive.

Marlon Brando in "Listen to Me Marlon"When Brando was such a private person, did you ever have concerns about going against what he might’ve wanted if he were alive?

Initially, when I first started getting the idea about doing it this way, it was on the back of listening to [one of Brando’s] self-hypnosis tapes. I’m private. I don’t really want to put my life out there at all, so I have a lot of sympathy for that. It felt a bit intrusive listening to this stuff, going, “Wow, this is really meant for him alone, really not for anybody else.” Then I thought, “Can you imagine if this was part of him telling the story himself?” This is potentially a really interesting approach, but how is that going to wash? Who’s going to actually go and get on board with that, especially the estate?

I had to put that stuff in the first proposal. The last thing I wanted to do was to deliver the film with it all in, then there’d be a big shock. I just tried to word that as carefully and sensitively as possible to get the nod. [The family] got it. They wanted to celebrate Marlon after 10 years [after his passing]. But all of a sudden, I’m thinking [about] explaining the murder and his addictions and his insecurities — all the stuff that you normally think, “No, we don’t want to go there.” And full credit to them that they did. There was complete freedom. Next time they saw it, it was pretty much a finished cut. Mike Medavoy, one of the trustees [of the Brando estate] and a producer [on the film], who I thought would have a very severe opinion of it, just said, “This is great. This is the film that Marlon would have wanted.” Which is a big thing to say because I couldn’t guarantee he’d want that film at all. I wanted to do something I hope Marlon would appreciate, that I feel like he would be getting his say for the last time.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is now open in New York at Film Forum and in Los Angeles at the Landmark.

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