This story originally appeared in the “Documentary Voices” section of the Nominations/SAG/Globes issue of TheWrap’s magazine.
Stevan Riley would probably not have been the first choice if you were hiring somebody to channel Marlon Brando‘s consciousness on screen. “I followed him only insofar as I loved his films,” said the British documentary filmmaker who made “Listen to Me Marlon.”
“I heard that he was the greatest actor of all time, but I couldn’t intuit why and I didn’t try to analyze it, and I didn’t know his story beyond what I’d read in the tabloid press.”
But from those unlikely beginnings came an Oscar-shortlisted documentary that tells Brando’s story in Brando’s words, putting a restless, questioning, contradictory intelligence under a microscope of Brando’s own construction.
No friends, family, colleagues or scholars attempt to explain the titanic actor in “Listen to Me Marlon;” instead, Brando does it, talking to himself and about himself on self-hypnosis tapes, conversations with friends and interviews.
The material is sometimes revealing, sometimes confounding and often shockingly intimate. “He was in a desperate search for meaning,” said Riley of the man who revolutionized screen acting with “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront,” and went on to make landmarks like “The Godfather,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now,” along with lots of schlock.
“He was in therapy most of his life, and he was so analytical. He once said that the main hobby of his life was observing behavior — so what if he applied that to himself? That was the premise.”
When he started looking through the audiotapes provided by the Brando estate, Riley didn’t know if there would be enough material to support the Brando-by-Brando approach he’d pitched when he landed the job. As some 300 hours of those audiotapes were taken out of Hollywood storage facility and transcribed, the director started interviewing people who knew Brando — not on camera, but as an “exit strategy” in case he had to go with a more conventional talking-heads approach.
“But when I got 10 or 15 minutes into the edit, I relaxed and realized the material was there,” he said. “One of the first six or seven tapes I listened to was a self-hypnosis tape, which was very important.”
Envisioning the film as “a dialogue Marlon was having with himself and his audience,” Riley assembled a cut out of Brando’s own words; even when the tapes were of the actor in conversation with people like Michael Jackson, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, he edited out the other luminaries and stuck with Brando.”They were interesting people,” he said, “but this was about Marlon’s interior space.”
Riley assembled a first cut made up almost entirely of the audio tracks, with very little video. Showtime, which was distributing the film, didn’t balk. “They could have panicked at any stage, but they were very supportive,” said Riley. “I had ideas about the visuals, but every time I got bogged down in visuals, I’d just park it and go back to the audio. And they were very much on board.”
In the end, Riley did wonder about constructing a film out of often private tapes in which Brando openly discussed his doubts, his failings and the tragedies in his life. “I thought this might be his worst nightmare — somebody going through his personal effects,” he said. “Who would necessarily enjoy that?
“But at one point he was prepping a documentary on himself that he was going to direct and edit, and I suppose I took a degree of confidence from that.
“I thought that if I could somehow understand Marlon, my film might approximate a film he thought would represent him. I tried to answer the questions I suspect he would have tried to answer in his own film.”