Editor’s Note: When writer/director/editor Stevan Riley set out to make a documentary about Marlon Brando, he didn’t know he’d have access to hundreds of hours of the Oscar winners’ personal audio tapes. The tapes would open the door to the inner world of the tortured artist, and bring with them the unique challenge of creating a poetic first person-type documentary, along with the responsibility of revealing a celebrity’s most personal feelings to the world. We asked Riley to take us inside this process and the journey of making “Listen to Me Marlon,” which is one of the 15 films the Academy has shortlisted for Best Documentary.
The opportunity to direct the film came very much out-of-the-blue. John Battsek, the documentary head of Passion Pictures in London, kindly rang me with the offer. John had been busy behind-the-scenes with fellow producer RJ Cutler to secure the participation of the Brando estate, as well as Showtime and NBC Universal. All that remained to get the green light was for me to formulate my creative approach.
I cringed that the film might become a sequence of disparate talking heads. The project appeared ever more doomed, but I remained buoyed by the creative challenge of cracking Brando and capturing something of his true soul and essence. It was not long before serendipity gifted me with a solution.
There was a private recording in which Brando recounted memories of growing up in Nebraska to a violent father and alcoholic mother. The next tape was more remarkable still; “listen to me Marlon, listen to my voice” it began, “think back to when you were a boy, remember those fears.” It was a self-hypnosis tape where Brando was journeying into his past to find the source of his adult pain and concomitant issues of rage; inferiority; authority; jealousy and distrust.
I was aware that Brando had spent much of his life visiting psychotherapists, but these tapes were the equivalent of lying on the couch next to him, providing a direct access to his mind and soul.
One tape from the 1980s helped alleviate my concerns — in it, Brando described an intention to make a documentary film of his own, one that would reveal his true identity and allow people to see behind the myth. I made it my goal to help deliver on his wish.
I set about marking the transcripts with a highlighter pen, splitting Brando’s speech into ever smaller topics and themes that would carry a label in the margin of each page. This process was made undeniably easier by the extensive conceptual and narrative preparation that had gone before, including a 60-page story treatment. There ended up being around 400 such labels that were clipped for their audio so that they could be arranged and cut into scenes in the edit. I prefer to cut my own work, which for the nine month process would have made for an intense solitary confinement, and I was grateful therefore in having the assistance throughout of co-writer Peter Ettedgui. Peter and I had grappled with the James Bond legacy on the film “Everything or Nothing,” and now poured the coffee to get to grips with Brando (getting to grips with himself).
Showtime and Universal could have rightly balked at a rough cut with very little to see, but instead were incredibly forgiving and supporting. It was an indication of what was becoming clear to us all — this crazy scheme might just work.
The estate was extremely reassured by the fact that the film was to be in Brando’s words and never once interfered in the filmmaking process. Still, it was incredibly nerve-wracking when John and I flew to Los Angeles to show the completed film to the Brando family. The experience was intense for his children, precipitating tears of grief and nostalgia. The overwhelming response however was one of gratitude.
For 97 minutes, their father had been brought back to life.