The title of “Listen to Me Marlon” comes from Brando’s own words spoken to himself during a 1996 self-hypnosis which he recorded on audio. The session is a small part of a vast archive of personal audio materials which Brando accumulated over the course of his amazing lifetime.
Unlike previous documentaries which focused primarily on Brando’s acting career, Stevan Riley’s new documentary takes a non-linear approach to its subject and manages to convey the spirit of Brando in his own words — through over 200 hours of never-heard-before audio tapes.
Not only do we hear Brando tell us his story in dream-like snippets, but we glimpse him — or at least an animated 3D version of him. It turns out that in addition to being one of the finest actors of his generation and a political activist and father, Brando was also an early adopter of technology. He had his face digitized in the ’80s by veteran cinematographer and VFX expert Scott Billups using cutting edge software of the time called Cyberware. Read a fascinating interview with Billups about the technology here.
Indiewire recently spoke to Riley, who wrote, edited and directed the film, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival.
Well I saw the film at Sundance and again recently. I loved it. I thought it was such a brilliant way to show a different side of Marlon Brando and to tell the story in an innovative way. I’m interested, specifically, in why you decided to tell this sort of impressionistic vision of Brando, as opposed to the more traditional stories that we’ve seen over time?
There was no guarantee it would work, to tell the story in the tone of voice of a deceased person. In the course of doing that, I was working largely with just a black screen. I had the music in. I had been collecting my playlist on my iPhone, researching tunes online and going in different directions to find a mix of different elements of classic instrumentation and also electronica to reflect not just these in-between states of moods, but also the fact that there is the classical tradition of Brand, as well as the modern innovations he was bringing as well.
I guess the overall feel became quite haunting and ghostly. That was what really preserved the fact that this was a post-mortem of a life, of Brando’s life, being conducted by him from beyond the grave. I wanted him to try and make sense of what went right and what went wrong in the aftermath of his passing. There was always going to be a tension between those elements and a sense of confusion, a journey towards truth. Haunting, ghostly and ethereal, I guess are the words that most readily apply.
Did you realize early on just how much archival material there was?
When the opportunity to direct the film came my way and for me to develop the story, there was no creative briefing. That was my job to try and assemble that. One of the first things I asked was “what do we have access to?” Because it was an official film [with the cooperation of the Brando estate], was there anything that we were going to be privileged to? The bottom line was whatever there was, we had access to it because the estate was giving us full access. There was never any clear idea about, firstly, how many tapes there were and second, what was on them. I was very lucky I realize now looking back that in the first few tapes I was ever given that they happened to be really juicy and interesting tapes. There was some fascinating material on there in terms of Brando talking candidly about his craft, which everyone wanted to pin him down on. Did he enjoy acting or not? Did he care about acting?
I was already getting a sense that this was somebody who was very much bothered about his art. Art was a word that he would apply to it because you can hear in the film as well, when he slips into his deep cynicism, which by the way can happen in any one day. He could go from the optimist to the pessimist, depending on what he was confronted with. He said there is no art. We are businessmen. We are merchants. I know if you catch him when he was optimistic and full of enthusiasm, wellsprings of optimism, that he was very much dedicated to his craft. That was on the tapes. There was a self-hypnosis tape that I first listened to. There was a long conversation he had with Michael Jackson that included some candid descriptions of his childhood. It was those tapes that made me think and gave me the title, “Listen to Me Marlon.” “Brando on Brando.” Imagine if the whole story could be told in that way, but I was never sure that was possible. I didn’t know that I could actually deliver on that because as I said most of the stuff hadn’t been logged, digitized, or transcribed. It was just a thought; imagine if we could do it all in his own words.
As more and more tapes came out, the more I got attached to that idea. Especially because having been out to America and met his family members and read all the books I could, I was getting steady, divergent, views of Marlon. Even though I was developing a bigger picture of him from speaking to more people, I realized that no one knew him entirely. No one was there for all of his life. His life was quite fragmentary. He’d have temporary friendships. He’d have great friendships then pick people up, drop them. He would have a lot of his friendships over the phone. It was just going to be a melee of talking heads, all giving different specs on a man. It would get no further in answering the question about who the real Marlon Brando was — which was what everyone was asking and what I was hoping to resolve. I thought that plan, the early idea, telling it in Brando’s own words, was starting to make much more sense for other reasons as well. It would be nice for Brando to single-mindedly and single-handedly solve that riddle for us.
Definitely, and then one fascinating element of the riddle was that he had his face digitized in the 1980’s. He was ahead of his time in terms of embracing technology. I wonder were you aware of that and how did you learn of the existence of those digital files?
I was quite keen in terms of developing the visual layer, in how to develop the mood and the emotion of the piece visually. I remember craving a device where I could bring the first person voice of Brando, the voice of the documentary, to life. This voice who is looking back on his life and yet it was a bit of a conundrum in terms of how do you represent that? I thought of shadows or shapes, maybe an actor within the house. You know because that house is reconstructed. I’ve never felt comfortable with anyone playing Brando. He is the one actor who is inimitable, Who could play him?
Then in one of the conversations with archivist Austin [Wilkin], fairly early on, he mentioned there might have been a scan done of Marlon’s head. I said well what sort of scan? He goes like a laser scan, to model and map his head. You know for what I had been thinking, what I’ve been searching for, I got very attached to that idea. I said to Austin, well do you know who might have done it? Then he was on the case helping me figure it out. We tracked it down to this guy called Scott Billups, who was a friend of Marlon’s. He was a special effects supervisor, who used to spend hours with Marlon talking about the technical developments in film. Marlon was very techy. He loved that. He was very excited about technical innovations, so the scanning of his head would have appealed to him on many different levels. He would have liked it just because it was cutting edge.
He also had this prophecy that you hear at the start of the film. There was a quote on one of the tapes, which reinforced the hunt that we were on to find the scan of his head because he talks about having the scan done. He said how he predicts the future and how actors will be inside a computer. It’s nice to deliver on that prophecy and give Brando his final performance as he predicted. That was a nice benefit too.
Austin and I tracked down this guy. I got in touch with Scott. Scott was unsure whether he still had the files. He managed to track down these multiple drives. There was about eight drives with images on them in his attic. Then it still took us months after that to actually assemble this material, decode it, get an actor in, I had an actor lip-sync Marlon’s lines and used the expressions and movements of his face, mouth, check-bones to map onto the scan of Marlon’s head. The animators at Passion Pictures then helped make it even more Brando-esque. Then I wanted to make his skin very digitized like this ghost in the machine and reflect again the search for meaning by showing the fragmentary, dissolving, and distorted aspect of that, that is him in search of truth.
Did you intentionally avoid pushing the image to be too realistic?
There was enough information on those files, right down to the pores on Brando’s skin with this scanning technology, which they used for “Terminator 2,” apparently. They used the same scanning machine when they were trying to construct that liquid metal character. So these were very detailed scans, but to do it with flesh tones and bring Marlon’s life in that way, it just didn’t feel right for me. I wasn’t seeking to make it look photo-real or to bring him to life in that way. Well, that might have been possible potentially on a higher budget but it suited me more to get this I say more broken, fragmented thing. He was a tortured man at the start of the film. He talks about being troubled and alone. We are setting up a Shakespearean tragedy. The torment of those lines from “Macbeth” are reflected in the shape-shifting, digitized version of Marlon, which by the end of the film I wanted to give more of a skin. It is not necessarily immediately obvious to people but he is more fully formed and the pattern of the skin is there, to reflect the fact that he collected this wisdom by the end of the film and by the end of his life.
What would you say were some of the biggest challenges you had in terms of the undertaking of the film?
It was tough in a way, wading through, because there was so much material. I didn’t want to miss anything. I wanted to make sure that everything was properly used. It was a big job, a lot of volume of material. There was a lot of creative ambition, so I think it kind of went across the board. Actually, layering- I’ll tell you what was difficult is that obviously the character is deceased. There was no going back for pick-ups.
Watch the trailer for “Listen to Me Marlon” below:
“Listen to Me Marlon” will be released at New York’s Film Forum on July 29, LA’s Landmark Theater on July 31, and rollout nationwide after that. It will also air on Showtime in the fall.