“A Freudian Tale of the Boy, the Adult and the Old Man”: Stevan Riley on Listen to Me Marlon
Since his death, Marlon Brando has become a legend, but the actor and the man himself have gotten lost. British director Stevan Riley’s documentary Listen to Me, Marlon attempts to restore the person underneath the myth. To some extent, that’s an impossible task; even Brando himself, heard on self-recorded audio tape, talks about how movie audiences project themselves into actors. Drawing on hundreds of hours of tape recorded by Brando, as well as other audio and video sources, Riley assembles the autobiography the actor never gotten around to writing. Instead of interviewing other actors and directors about the Method, Elia Kazan’s importance to Brando’s work and career, and Brando’s political activism, he lets the man — and other participants in his life — speak in the first person and he’s often as visually creative as he is with the soundtrack. Filmmaker talked to Riley shortly before the film’s opening in New York.
Filmmaker: How long did editing the film take?
Riley: Editing was fairly lengthy. It was about nine months. I was the editor, and I spent the first few months working with an assistant editor, just getting everything in. When all the material was transcribed over the course of a year, some of it came from an archive. I wasn’t sure it would be possible to tell the story all in Brando’s own words, but it did become possible as more and more tapes came out, and then they would get transcribed. They were in folders that came off the floor and then I would go through with a highlighter. I knew I wanted it to be a psychoanalysis of Brando and an investigation of the tragedy in his household. I wanted to see how that would unfold by the end of the film. I wanted a Freudian tale of the boy, the adult and the old man. That was part of my pre-production, but the edit was comprised of going through the folders and marking particularly noteworthy phrases that I could then move around and click for the edit, so I could have sequences with different ideas on a timeline. It was quite a technical edit, because the audio quality varied from tape to tape.
Filmmaker: Did Brando record these tapes in preparation for writing an autobiography?
Riley: Not exactly, although as you hear at the start of the film, he says “This will be a highly personalized document of the life activities of myself, Marlon Brando.” He was preparing a documentary on his life at a certain point and did a lot of filming in Tahiti. The whole body of those tapes came from different formats and purposes. He wasn’t recording all of that stuff even as a journal. A lot of that material came from conversations with friends where he had a Dictaphone out. He liked to record for posterity. He recorded business meetings and to-do lists.
Filmmaker: There are a number of books based on interviews and conversations with Orson Welles, but it’s rare for someone to document his own life to the extent that Brando did. Do you have any sense of why he did it?
Riley: They came from many sources. For example, he might be in a conversation with a friend and then he would start talking about his upbringing. I would cull these sections, take out the voice of his friends in those instances. It wasn’t a project as such, it was assembled from different places. There are other occasions beyond what was supplied by the estate. I tracked down the reporter who spent two weeks with him in Tahiti for an article in Playboy magazine. I asked him if he had the tapes. He found them in his attic. Equally, his biographer Robert Lindsay had tapes. They became available. It wasn’t that he sat down to record this stuff for the purpose of this film, but all I do know is that he felt misrepresented in the course of his life. This was his right to reply. As you hear in the course of the film, he talks about that. Beyond that, everything was collected and cut from tapes that were sprawling in their purpose and function.
Filmmaker: If people remember Sacheen Littlefeather [who went onstage at the 1972 Oscar ceremony and rejected Brando’s award for The Godfather due to Hollywood’s stereotyping of Native Americans] now, it’s as a punchline. Did you want to remind people of the seriousness of Brando’s commitment to civil rights?
Riley: Everyone yawned and said “Brando’s going on about the Indians again.” I wanted to bring some emotion back to that. I wanted to tie it into problems now and the character of Kurtz. Brando had become disillusioned with American history: as noble as the American Dream and the ambition behind it is, it hasn’t always been fulfilled. It was important for Brando to reveal the hypocrisy behind it. He thought a truly developed and advanced nation would be honest with its own history. People thought it was a publicity stunt to [bring] out Sacheen there and upstage this great ceremony, but I think it was clever and important. Brando’s always been about shaking people up and getting people to see things from a different perspective. And he meant it. It wasn’t a temporary thing. He was involved with the cause of the American Indians from the ’70s right to the end of his life.
Filmmaker: Did you ever worry about conflating Brando and his characters? I’m thinking particularly about the section on Tahiti, which uses footage from Mutiny on the Bounty.
Riley: I was more impressed [by] how much these things interrelated and the number of coincidences. When Brando was at military school, he thumbed through National Geographic and daydreamed in the library about going to Tahiti. He actually turned down the opportunity to star in Lawrence of Arabia to act in Mutiny of the Bounty. He chose to do it because of those memories of a boy. There was so much serendipity in the role. He wound up buying an island, which became his refuge from fame and the torture of his own celebrity. There was a lot of overlap, but it wasn’t convenient. It was essential. You couldn’t understand Brando fully without understanding that sanctuary of Tahiti and what compelled him to go there in the first place.
Filmmaker: Do you agree with his statement about an audience completing a performance?
Riley: He really introduced me to the idea of myth. That was the myth of cinema. There’s also the myth of America, and he had the myth of Marlon Brando to contend with. There’s mythology in everything us humans do. He never felt that scene in On the Waterfront was a tour de force. That “I could’ve been a contender” scene was shot in a studio. They didn’t even have the money to do rear projection, so it’s the back seat of a taxi and a curtain. They improvised the scene, and he’s responsible for the improvisation and the direction it took, but he’s puzzled by the acclaim. I think we do project ourselves into cinema. Brando said his main job was not to get in the way of the audience and story. Don’t do anything more than the story requires. I do think we like to project all of our hopes and fears on the outside world, including cinema.
Filmmaker: Did he ever talk about the politics of On the Waterfront, how it’s Elia Kazan’s excuse for testifying for HUAC?
Riley: I knew all about that. But it’s not in the documentary, as you probably noticed. An interviewer says to Brando “You chose all these roles with a message.” He always wanted to do something which would be to the betterment of the audience and our understanding. When it came to On the Waterfront, I don’t even mention Kazan because the Method has already been discussed by Stella Adler. When you see A Streetcar Named Desire, Kazan’s not mentioned. Are you asking if Brando had an opinion on that?
Filmmaker: On the Waterfront is not so progressive.
Riley: I guess so, although it’s still kind of anti-authority in a sense. The authority is the Mob. It’s progressive in a certain regard. But I didn’t see that stuff with Kazan as being particularly relevant to the documentary.
Filmmaker: If you had made a film with Brando, do you think you would’ve gotten along with him?
Riley: I hope so. I think I would’ve understood him. Having done this, I’d have a better idea how to approach him. There were several directors he was really inspired by. Kazan, for one. Gillo Pontecorvo, even though they had a very abrasive relationship on set. I think he had a lot of respect for Bertolucci, even though he felt that Bertolucci might have misled him in taking him down a path he didn’t want to go down in revealing the contents of his soul. And probably Coppola. Those four directors were the most important to him. What he liked about them was their ambition and the fact that they would understand his predicament, the risks and insecurities of the actor. That’s the kind of stuff I’d employ working with him professionally. He had a great sense of humor. It was very ironic, playful and silly. He knew when to have fun and share a joke. That shows you’ve got some perspective on life.
Filmmaker: Do you believe his story about rewriting the script of Apocalypse Now?
Riley: Totally! I know because I’ve listened to those tapes. I love Coppola and I love Apocalypse Now and The Godfather, but Brando’s got every right to say that and be angry. From my research, when you watch Hearts of Darkness, there’s a slight anomaly where Coppola says “We didn’t have a script, we had nothing.” What do you do when you have a whole production crew? Do you do rewrites for several months or improvisations with Marlon Brando? He says this in Hearts of Darkness. Suddenly, the production overran by two weeks. I would hazard that Brando was the only sober person on the set at that point. He had his addictions, but he arrived fully prepped.
I’ve talked to one of his personal assistants. She saw Heart of Darkness on his bed before he left. It was Brando’s decision to shave his head. He wasn’t overweight when he turned up. He was chunky but it wasn’t worth too much discussion. All the stuff that Kurtz says is Brando riffing on the nature of good and evil. I’ve got hours of him just talking in the voice of Kurtz, over and over, and trying to make him logical in his evil. If you see the original script for Apocalypse Now, Brando’s character is more a reprobate, as he called him. He’s surrounded by concubines and he was living a more lavish lifestyle Brando said he’s the heart of darkness, pure evil. I can see why Brando was upset at Coppola, because he wrote act three. He was a very good writer, ad-libber. He was very spontaneous. I saw the correspondence between and Coppola and Brando, apologizing for that Life article [in which Coppola blamed Brando for the film’s production problems] and saying that Coppola was taken out of context. Brando could be difficult to directors, but he gave a lot of himself to that character. I think he deserved to respond to it.
Filmmaker: Did working with Showtime make it easier to clear footage?
Riley: Yes. A lot of those conversations were had by Passion Pictures, my producers in London, especially about trying to clear film footage. You can imagine having to pay umpteen thousand dollars per minute. I don’t know the exact ins and outs. In some respects, if you’re supposed by big studios like Showtime and Universal, people think you’ve got tons of money, so it can work against you. The producer got on the phone to a lot of the studios and talked about the merit of the piece, and the price came down to something we can afford. There was a lot of discussion and negotiation.
Filmmaker: I got the feeling that Brando tended to alternate between cycles of excitement and cynicism about acting. Is that your sense too?
Riley: Very much so. Even in the same day, not just over the course of his career. As a young man, he was very idealistic and it was all about the light and truth. That social realism was pushed on him by Stella and was pushed away for many reasons. He got involved with films with a message, and that message got diluted. Holllywood’s agenda was really about money. He thought he was vilified and blamed by Hollywood. He found acting difficult at times. He felt that humans were essentially violent creatures struggling to overcome our natures. There were many reasons why he’d slip towards the abyss and move towards the dark. Kurtz’s character shows the breadth of Brando’s experience. I think he always wanted to be hopeful, but he would often despair.