Marlon Brando may be the most famous and iconic movie actor that ever lived, but he may also be the most misunderstood. In his younger years, he was handsome and brilliant and celebrated. He bulldozed his way through each flicker and celluloid frame with supernova luminance. The ladies loved him, and men wanted to be him. Brando also changed the way people act in movies, which was deeply instilled in him by the teachings of Stella Adler and her foundations for method acting. Before him, movies were like filmed plays and the lines were delivered with overly dramatic cadence. After Brando, realism seeped into performances, men could be vulnerable and tortured and show sides of themselves no one had ever seen on screen before. He made way for the rebel, the bruised outsider, and the tortured soul replicated by James Dean and every prototype since.
In his later years, Brando was considered persona non grata in a lot of social and professional circles – he refused to deliver lines and he was impossible to work with. Sometimes lines would be fed to him through a microphone in his ear. In Apocalypse Now, for which Brando was paid a million dollars for three weeks of work, he showed up to the set bloated and overweight. The part for Colonel Kurtz called for someone much frailer as it was written in Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Francis Ford Coppola was forced to re-envision a lot of the movie around the actor and his demands. However, there is a side to Brando that many people have never seen before. A side that they will soon get to see in a rare, intimate documentary that culls together over 200 hours of his personal voice memos that the actor kept throughout his life.
In the recounting of his life, you will learn that Brando is a hopeless romantic, a poet with a flowing, beautiful language and a deep, almost mystical understanding about the human condition. It is a side that is incongruous to his reputation. The touching documentary, entitled Listen to Me Marlon, was put in the hands of director Stevan Riley, who did a miraculous job at culling the countless hours of audio and film footage that the actor’s estate made available for the production. Not only does the film answer unanswered questions about the actor’s mysterious persona – it is also a parable of fame and disillusionment, love and heartbreak (Brando himself goes into detail about the deaths of his children), and it will no doubt be the last laugh from a man ridiculed into isolation and detachment from society. Recently, Autre got a chance to speak with Stevan Riley, as well as Brando’s own daughter, Rebecca Brando, about her collaboration on the documentary and how she would like her father to be remembered.
Autre: How did you two meet? How did this documentary come to be?
Stevan Riley: Rebecca and I met very early on when we had the idea for the film, when access was just becoming available. That was around the very end of 2012. I received a call from Passion Pictures—a production company in London who I’ve directed a few films with. They said, “Would you like to direct a film on Marlon Brando?” I didn’t know anything about Marlon at all, but knew—especially in my early reading—that he was going to be a fascinating character.
Autre: Did you expect a challenge?
Steven Riley: It would be a great challenge to capture the real man, which people have been trying to do for decades. He remained quite elusive to biographers and other filmmakers. It would be a creative challenge. The estate—they were the ones who approached Passion Pictures. They were just, at the very same time, unpacking the archive, which had been in storage for ten years since Marlon’s death. I was very interested to see what was in there, what could we possibly use. There were loads of documentation. There were all sorts of objects and paraphernalia. And tapes as well. At the same time, I had to write an early proposal. Coincidentally, the ambition at the point was what the film ended up being. It had the same title—Listen To Me Marlon. It had this idea to use the tapes (and hope that there’s more to come), so we can tell the story in his own words.
Autre: You had a lot of material to work with—I think it was 200 hours of footage. What were some of your emotions as you were collecting material and going through the editing process?
Stevan Riley: It was fascinating. Marlon was definitely a very complex character. Breaking that material down and forming as strong of a narrative as possible was definitely a creative challenge. I was also very keen to tell the emotional narrative. Certainly, when you’re editing that you experience a lot of it with the subject. You want to communicate as well as possible the emotions of the story. And Marlon’s emotions regarding things which were important to him, thing that concerned him. Whether it was his acting, his life, his love—all those things. But it was really fascinating. It was a real education. Marlon was such a thought-out and considerate man.
"...It’s always hard to see the tragedy. That was really hard to watch...There were so many obstacles in his life and so many situations that he had to overcome. He did, in the end. He prevailed. All the tragedies—he didn’t wallow in sorrows."
Autre: He seems like a poet or a scholar. Rebecca, did you learn anything new, or discover any revelations about your father through the making of this film?
Rebecca Brando: Did I learn anything new? I always come up with the same answer, which is that I really didn’t learn anything new. But it was just pieced together so well. It makes me very happy that Stevan was able to piece it all together, showing the human side of my father. Showing that he basically has the same struggles as anyone has—feeling very vulnerable at times, fearful even on the set. You see him talking to himself and saying, “Forget everybody else. You have a right to be where you are and do what you need to do.” He was always psychoanalyzing people when we would go to restaurants, or anywhere in public. He would psychoanalyze me if I were lying on the bed with him, reading poetry together. He would ask me, “What are you thinking right now?” It’s interesting, you have these thoughts…But back to your question. No, I didn’t learn anything new, but I’m just so happy that it talks about my dad’s background, the actor.
Autre: Did you learn anything new about him as an actor?
Rebecca Brando: I thought it was super insightful. Maybe that part is what I learned a lot. He rarely talked to us about his work. Or rather, I should say me. He didn’t talk to me about his acting and what would happen on the sets. It was interesting to see that side of him, how he was a professional. He did all of his research before he did the film. He would read about the culture and the current events if it took place in a particular country. He’d read up about everything. Then, he would totally immerse himself with all of this research. He would come to the set and improvise with the lines, make it customized. That’s the only part that I learned something new about him.
Autre: He wanted to release this footage. He was private in his life, but he wanted to release this footage later, right?
Rebecca Brando: My father was so intuitive and so forward-thinking. I’ll say it again—he was always thinking in the future. As much as he wanted to be private, I think because there were so many tapes, he had to have known that someone was going to find these one day and do something great with it. I’m sure that came to his mind many times. I think he did make the tapes for his own self-analysis, for his own healing.
Autre: Was there anything that was specifically omitted? Is there anything that you think he might object to?
Rebecca Brando: Well, it’s always hard to see the tragedy. That was really hard to watch. But I didn’t object. I can’t object, because I see Stevan’s goal in putting that in the film, to show that there were so many obstacles in his life and so many situations that he had to overcome. He did, in the end. He prevailed. All the tragedies—he didn’t wallow in sorrows. He persevered and kept on protecting all of us kids. He was still very present in our lives.
Autre: What do you hope people will learn about Marlon Brando from watching this documentary?
Rebecca Brando: My hope is that this film will clear his name. The person who was difficult on set, the person who refused the Oscar—there was a reason for him doing all these things. I hope they will understand him more as the human. The human, not the actor.
Listen to me Marlon will open in New York and Los Angeles at the end of July, 2015 and in the Bay Area on August 7th. See an exclusive clip from the documentary below. text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper