Developed by Showtime and produced by John Battsek’s Passion Pictures, “Listen to Me Marlon” delivers a multi-faceted portrait of Brando that is fascinating because it’s narrated by Brando himself using never-before-heard audiotapes from his vast archives. Brando talked to himself, essentially, throughout his career, often as part of his preparation for roles, from “On the Waterfront” and “The Godfather” to “Last Tango in Paris.”
And Passion Pictures and writer-director-editor Riley also animated a digital mask of Brando created for “Superman” to deliver some of Brando’s dialogue. The movie immerses us in Brando, takes us inside his head. We feel we know him in a way we never did before.
Also producing are R.J. Cutler and George Chignell, with Andrew Ruhemann serving as executive producer. I spoke to documentary veteran Battsek at Sundance, whose respected and prolific Passion Pictures has consistently delivered some 40 quality docs over the years, from “My Kid Could Paint That,” “The Imposter,” “Project Nim,” and “The Tillman Story” to Oscar-winners “One Day in September” and “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Anne Thompson: It’s rather daring, the way you did this film. You took a chance that it might not work.
John Battsek: For sure. You’re absolutely spot-on. What the hell would’ve happened if it didn’t work? We would’ve been in trouble.
Explain what the concept was. You got the rights to this extraordinary treasure trove of material.
About two years ago Austin Wilkin at the Brando Archive contacted me, with whom I worked on “We Live in Public,” to say “Look, they’re interested in making a documentary about Marlon. Would you come in and talk with us about producing it?” Instantly, “For sure.” Because just the name Brando conjures this iconic figure. So I went in to see them, and they told me there was this massive archive, which included all these audio recordings.
Which presents a challenge for a visual medium. How did you come up with the idea of the narration?
Super quickly, actually. I just immediately thought, “What if, within all their audio, there’s the ability to tell the story with his own voice?” As well as thinking to make a film where it would be fun to interview Nicholson, Penn, Depp — but, really, it’s got to be Marlon.
Tell me why you want to avoid that, instinctively.
Partly because it’s been done already. Second of all, because you know that those people, out of respect, are probably only going to tell you what they want you to know. What I want to do is get really, really deeply under the surface of Marlon Brando, in order to make a film that surprises people. Make them go, “Okay, they made that film and told that story because that’s the perspective one was unaware of.”
So someone had to plow through all that stuff.
Yeah, and it wasn’t me. [Laughs] What I knew, also, was that, to make this film would require a director with hours of application beyond and beyond…
You’re absolutely right. I knew someone who was properly obsessive. I’d made two films already with Stevan Riley. One was called “Fire in Babylon,” which had much more impact than you might imagine. It was about the heyday of Western Indian cricket, a particular ten-year dynasty where the western Indian cricket team was the greatest cricket team in the world. But it actually was about their culture, the British empire, and it really was a beautiful film. You could’ve started it knowing nothing about cricket, and, by the end, you had all there was to know.
Then we made a film for Barbara Broccoli about the entire “Bond” franchise called “Everything or Nothing.” To this day, Stevan Riley is the single biggest expert on the “Bond” franchise on the planet. There is no one else that knows more than him.
So he’s the one who plowed through?
If there’s a book with the word “Brando” published in it, he’s read it. That’s what you need.
Does he create a script that says, “Audio tape 351: [quote]”?
We get transcripts and plow through the transcripts. We have a writer, Peter Ettedgui, who co-wrote the film with Stevan and also co-wrote “Everything or Nothing” with us. They plow through it all and hand-stitch the words, the phrases, to tell his story. The first cut of this film I ever saw was an assembly at 45 minutes. It was half the film. It was basically a black screen with audio. I watched it for 45 minutes. If you can sit through that and, at the end of it, go, “Okay, that’s working,” then you know you’re in business.
You can’t tell what period of time he’s talking in. What was your sense of the audience’s ability to traverse that?
I’ve always felt that part of the gratification of the film was knowing exactly that. Suddenly, it was old, wise Brando; then it was young, naïve Brando. You’re rushing across his life.
I intuitively understood that, but you don’t completely spell-out what the sources are — only through pictures of the audio cassettes. You wanted a seamless narrative?
Yes, that’s what we wanted. I also feel, once you’re in the world of it, if you’re asking what time period something came from, somehow we’ve done something wrong. We wanted you to just be in it.
It’s like you’re in his head, and you care about him. You see this beautiful, sensitive man who’s been terribly damaged.
Maybe it says something more about me than anyone else, but I feel like it resonates with everyone, because he’s us. His struggles are maybe somewhat more extreme, but he’s tackling issues that we all tackle.
It’s relevant to some of the issues in “Birdman” and “The End of the Tour.” What is fame? What does it mean to have attained it?
I’m completely riveted by the challenges of being a parent, the relationships with your parents, feelings of insecurity, relationships with your kids. Our film is a study of life. Yes, it’s about Marlon Brando, but it’s about all of us. This summer, I lost my father. I had all sorts of difficult things in my life. Listening to Marlon agonize over it was really powerful. I thought, “I have to get out of here. There’s too much of me going on here.” If you can do that with any film, it makes it transcendent.
He talks about, at the very beginning, the creation of a computer to map his face in 3D for “Superman.” What did you do?
They just scanned his face, so we got hold of the scans of his face. Passion Pictures, which is run by me and my business partners, is predominantly an animation company. My business partner won our Academy Award a few years ago for his short film “The Lost Thing.” We built Marlon in the computers. We created him.
And you put some audio against him and animated against the audio. That was really beautiful, creative, cool, and it worked.
And bold as hell. It was Stevan’s idea. I really hope the film can be appreciated for its craft. It’s so well-woven from top to bottom. Stevan, I take my hat off to him. He’s done such a great job. The powers of concentration to take what he’s had to do — I could not do it. I really couldn’t.
Was there a question of length? Was that a problem?
I always have a question of length. I ask every director I’ve ever worked with. I drove them absolutely crazy. Every movie is a little too long to me. I’m really obsessed with it. I annoy the hell out of people. I’m good friends with many of the directors I work with, and we fight over that. But telling his story ultimately took the time it needed to take, and we got that length.
You have some news footage, the Pennebaker film, a Dick Cavett appearance.
Every frame of that film, there’s a reason for that. That intricate detail is an amazing thing to pull off.
How did Showtime support you on this? They are also giving Amy Berg’s “Prophet’s Prey” a theatrical release.
David Nevins — who’s really progressive and into the form — is aggressively pursuing making these sorts of films. “Marlon” is the first time he wants to engage with what it means to release it, what it means to qualify it, and how that can work for them — how the film can have a life in that way, but also serve their airing.
Did Sundance make that happen?
Yes. Once I agreed with the estate to make the film, there had been a moment when we were in conversation with R.J. Cutler to direct the film, and R.J. wasn’t able to. He’s a really good friend of mine. I met with Joan Boorstein of Showtime here in Sundance, two years ago. I pitched it to her, but she wasn’t sure, and I pushed. I talked to R.J., who had some sort of consultant deal for documentaries with Showtime. R.J. was very enthusiastic, and they decided they wanted to do it as a team. That was the U.S. part of the puzzle, and, for the rest of the world, I went to NBC-Universal, with whom I’d finished making a Muhammad Ali film called “I Am Ali.” It was a pretty easy pitch. You say “Marlon Brando,” and people either go yes or no. They said “yes.” And in recent years, Sundance had more and more felt like the launch pad.
There seem to be far more opportunities for documentaries to be made at a high level. Is there more available funding, or more competition for it? More release opportunities?
All of those things. The marketplace is vibrant, is bullish. There are definitely more people in the business of financing feature docs. There’s definitely more options in terms of when you release, how you release. It’s a really good time for putting docs together. It’s exciting.