In making their Oscar-shortlisted documentary “Listen to Me Marlon,” director-writer Stevan Riley and producer R.J. Cutler told moderator and TheWrap founder Sharon Waxman at TheWrap’s Screening Series at the Landmark Theater in L.A. on Wednesday, the filmmakers discovered what Cutler called “a treasure trove”: 300 hours of self-interview tapes done by Marlon Brando himself, revealing the tormented mind behind the immortal roles in “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather.”
“He felt that his identity, once fame hit, had been robbed from him,” said Riley. “The media was telling us who Marlon Brando was. He didn’t think people could see him. He’s this ordinary kid from Nebraska suddenly in that spotlight, struggling to rediscover his inner self.”
“Are there any other actors who’ve spent so much time recording their process, their inner thoughts?” Waxman asked.
“It’s an interesting year to be asking that, because there are a number of films comprising first-person footage, found on Amy Winehouse’s iPhone or [in] Kurt Cobain’s personal storage,” said Cutler. “What’s interesting about this is that [Brando] does it in the 1950s, 60 years, 50 years before the others. He spent his life making a documentary, and all he was waiting for was Stevan to come along and properly put it together.” Added Riley, “Rebecca, his daughter, thinks that.”
Structuring a movie from the tapes took the men two years, from 2012 to 2014. Riley started out by talking with Brando’s friends, colleagues and relatives, but he soon discerned an obstacle. “Marlon didn’t have anyone in his life for any length of time,” said Riley. “Even his best friends would be kind of off the call list if there was some small betrayal or fallout.” So nobody could tell his life story comprehensively. “It was becoming potentially a sprawling assembly of talking heads. I thought, ‘My God, imagine if we had more of these tapes, if we could tell the story in Marlon’s voice alone?'”
The tapes made this abundantly possible — Brando routinely recorded his 4 a.m. calls to friends and attempted seductions by phone, and in the ’80s he planned a documentary on himself — but the film required a fluid style that leaps back and forth in chronology to match Brando’s random mental associations. It moves from his childhood with an alcoholic, suicidal mother to overnight success to disillusionment, what he called “the F–k You years,” hack work, morbid obesity, the horror of his son killing his daughter’s lover, and her subsequent suicide.
“He was so obsessed by finding meaning in his life,” said Cutler. Riley described the tapes as “the ghost of Marlon, trying to look back and see where it went wrong.”
Perhaps the most tragic scene had to be left on the cutting-room floor because it simply couldn’t be worked smoothly into a narrative made from Brando’s musings. “I often asked people, ‘Who was Marlon’s true love?’ and a name would crop up a few times — it was an actress he met on ‘Candy’ in the ’60s,” said Riley, who did not identify the actress in question. “Candy” was a reviled 1968 film from Terry Southern’s cynical novel, and it starred Ewa Aulin and a few other beauties. “They fell in love but had a very chaotic, very volatile relationship. Marlon was very jealous. He felt women would leave him.”
“Listen to Me Marlon” details Brando’s desertion by his mother and a beloved governess, and some of his unlucky lovers. His “Candy” girl also left him. “She disappeared for five years, until he saw her at a party in L.A. and they got back together. But they were only together a couple of weeks, and she was killed in a car crash. He’d already written her a letter of apology and said he was forgiving his mum in the course of writing to her and asking her forgiveness. He was on the verge of proposing to her.”
Said Cutler, “I saw this as a tragic tale.”