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How Marlon Brando’s Audio Tapes Became the Narration for ‘Listen to Me Marlon’

How Marlon Brando's Audio Tapes Became the Narration for 'Listen to Me Marlon'

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.

READ MORE: How Brando Narrated Oscar-Shortlisted Biodoc ‘Listen to Me Marlon’

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 was by no means a Brando expert at the outset. I had admired his famous performances in films such as “The Godfather,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “Apocalypse Now,” but was quite clueless beyond that. What enticed me to the project early on was the apparent complexity of the man. Every book that I picked up seemed to start and finish with the same refrain: “Who was the real Marlon Brando?” On occasions he did chose to address the media, he’d often cast a smokescreen of mistruth and mystery around himself, desperate to deflect attention away from the fame that he so despised.  

I booked a trip to the States to meet privately with many people who were close to Brando, including family, friends, domestic staff and fellow actors. The notes that I collected from those conversations served me greatly in forging a deeper understanding of Brando’s personality, but I was still left unclear as to who the documentary’s key interviewees might be. Brando revealed himself as suspicious and temperamental and would ditch friendships at the merest provocation. It became clear that few people were around long enough in his life to adequately tell his story.

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. 

Part of the agreement with the Brando estate was that they’d release to us all archives in their possession. By huge fortune, at that very same time the documentary was getting off the ground, the estate had begun unboxing and cataloguing all of Marlon’s personal possessions that had been locked in storage for 10 years since his death. All sorts of fascinating materials had started emerging — scripts, personal letters, photos, home video and, more significantly, a growing number of audio reels and tapes. 
I requested a random handful of the tapes and was granted the extraordinary privilege of first listen. I was astonished by what I heard.  

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.  

With more tapes on the way, I began to imagine — what if the story could be told entirely in Brando’s own words? After all, who was more qualified to the unravel the complexities and contradictions of Brando, than Brando himself?  My next sensation was one of anxiety and guilt. Knowing how private Brando was, I imagined his consternation at me rifling through his personal possessions and memories.

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. 

The creative took fairly rapid shape in my mind. I would discard talking heads and build a visual layer to carry Brando’s words. It wouldn’t be so much a biography as a visual poem and inward odyssey into his deep psyche. Done properly, it held the promise of a something slightly new — a truly subjective documentary with unprecedented access to the inner world of its subject.  
Not content with the riches gifted to us by the estate, we also embarked upon a worldwide archive search to scavenge every scrap of Brando audio material that had otherwise been recorded. In total, over 300 hours of audio material would emerge, filling a dozen large ring binders.

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). 

The first cut that we screened internally consisted primarily of black screen. I was confident that the visuals would come together in time, so was more keen to lay down the landscape of the story as spoken word and music. Music had the added benefit of smoothing the overall sound, on account of the fact that the soundbites were pulled from different sources with wildly varying background noise.
Here you can see what that early cut looked like compared to what appeared in the final version of the film.

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.  

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