One of the most fascinating documentaries to come out of this year's Sundance Film Festival seemingly brings Marlon Brando back to life.
"Listen to Me Marlon" is composed in large part of audio tapes the actor recorded-- some amounting to "self-counseling" sessions in which the elder Brando tried to exorcise the pain of his difficult childhood.
There are attempts at self-hypnosis, meditation exercises; on one of the tapes the famously rotund figure urges himself to stop eating so much junk food.
It is the film Brando no doubt would have wanted made about himself, if indeed he could have countenanced such an idea. He never liked giving interviews, but here we have Brando in his own words, in a startlingly intimate self-portrait.
British filmmaker Stevan Riley ("Fire in Babylon", "Everything or Nothing") directed the movie with the blessing of Brando's surviving children, including his daughter Rebecca.
"I remember thinking, 'God, how amazing would it be to tell the story entirely in Marlon's words?' Because he never did those interviews in his lifetime, those tell-all interviews."
Non Fiction Film editor Matthew Carey spoke with Riley at Sundance about the film, which includes a digitized head of Brando speaking, in a sense, from beyond the grave.
NFF: How did the documentary come about?
Stevan Riley: It was 10 years after Marlon's death, [family members] were just trying to see what they could do to keep his legacy alive and allow the next generation to get an idea who Brando was. So the documentary was part of that. They were unwrapping all these boxes of material that had been in storage for about 10 years, of Marlon's personal effects, all his written documents, his books with underlinings in them and scripts with script notes on the side... And then these audio tapes as well.
NFF: Why do you think he made these tapes?
Stevan: There are many categories of recordings in a sense and collectively they delivered on the complete Brando-- the actor, the private individual. The self-hypnosis, that was obviously fascinating to hear those. And Marlon was doing a degree of regressive hypnotherapy and really trying to go back to these hiding places of his youth to pull out these insecurities and address them, help him heal himself, especially in the tragedy of the last 10 years of his life. And meditation was very important for that and he was doing biofeedback as well and he was in touch with Deepak Chopra and trying to get into the deep unconsciousness and just sort out and solve what he thought were the problems that we all face-- and that is to repair the damage of the first 10 years of our life.
NFF: It seems quite telling that he did not destroy the recordings. He saved them.
Stevan: There was a definite kind of posterity and nostalgic element to the tapes. I mean whether he expected someone to come in and start working with them is a bit much to say, but there was a degree of serendipity in the fact that these tapes even existed and could allow him to tell the story because he felt very misinterpreted through the course of his life and he felt that people never really saw the person that he really was.
NFF: Interwoven throughout the film is an eerie 3D image of Marlon's head , the aging man reanimated in digital form. What is the story behind that?
Stevan: Marlon was fascinated by tech. He loved it and that's partly why the tapes exist. He had drawers of Dictaphones and tape materials and different microphones... He was a very enthusiastic user of ham radio. [This interest in tech] led him to develop a relationship with a guy named Scott Billups who was a 3D specialist in LA... They used the same scanning technology as they did with that liquid metal guy in "Terminator 2" to scan Marlon's head.
I thought, "Well, that's obviously a great resource. Can you imagine if we brought that back to life?" It wasn't an easy process to get that stuff off the drives... It was always a plan to animate it... and get him to recite Shakespeare which really frames his life-- it's a Shakespearean tale in a sense.
NFF: It must have been daunting to cover a film where your primary material is just audio recordings. The animated head gave you one visual element to work with. What else did you have?
Stevan: The exteriors [of Brando's house on Mulholland Drive in LA] were from a BBC doc. It was nice to be able to show the real house because it was leveled after [Brando's death]. Jack Nicholson bought it-- he was a neighbor. They were very good friends but he decided to actually raze the house.
The interiors of the house were all reconstructed-- we [re]built his home in a studio in West London that was pretty faithful to the interior of his house [on Mulholland Drive]. It was a device for situating the [audio] archive and allowing the 3D head to be in that space too to keep a sort of presence of Marlon live-- that he might actually be right around the corner.
NFF: In the film you delve into Brando's childhood in Nebraska, which was not a happy one.
Stevan: The fact was it sounds like his household was a nightmare, both parents being alcoholic, his father being as abusive as he was. I mean, that was no tea party I don't imagine. And for some people who are sensitive it's doubly worse. Marlon, who was very sensitive to those things as a young boy, I think he felt the impact of that... He had this deep-seated anger that he was trying to overcome. Issues with authority, feelings of inferiority. You know these all feed back to the father figure and then there's this creative, artistic, aspirational self that his mother brought him, but then a mistrust of women both brought from his mother and his governess [with whom Brando was close, but who left the Brando household to get married].
NFF: The audio tapes reveal the kind of effort Brando put into the parts he played.
Stevan: He recorded copious notes on all of his roles-- which does [away with] the rumor, the myth, that Brando really didn't care and sort of walked through parts... He still prepared for them quite heavily. And he was a great screenwriter that no one really appreciates, in his improvisations including all the stuff on Kurtz [in "Apocalypse Now"]. And even if you look at the first line of "The Godfather", when you see the script and then how Marlon delivers it, you know, he's bending it and twisting it and writing it as he speaks.
NFF: On one of the recordings he says the original script for "Apocalypse Now" was terrible and that he rewrote it. Do you think that's true?
Stevan: I think so... When you see the original script of "Apocalypse Now" Col. Kurtz was a very different kind of guy. He sort of had concubines and was a bit of a lavish character. Whereas Brando said, "No, make him deep, intense and Heart of Darkness." He's a man who is wrestling with the dark and the light and [Brando] says , "I told Francis [Ford Coppola] how to light it..." There are all these tapes, lots of them, of him by himself rehearsing Kurtz and providing these snippets of thoughts and what have you. So he kind of scripted the third act [of "Apocalypse Now"] in a sense... He was always rewriting scripts. He obviously never messed with Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, but everywhere else...
NFF: In your film we see how wrenching it was for Brando to make "Last Tango in Paris." He felt emotionally exposed by director Bernardo Bertolucci.
Stevan: Brando didn't like for people to get close. And during the time of "Last Tango" he was having his own relationship problems in the background. He was taking one too many prescription drugs and he was in a tricky space and quite vulnerable... I think Bertolucci did pull him into places-- convinced him it was art... But when it was finally revealed in the edit I think Brando was shocked, as Bertolucci says. Brando still threw up a smokescreen and said, "That's not really me. Don't think that was ever me in there."
NFF: Brando's later years were torturous. He lost his daughter Cheyenne to suicide and his son Christian was convicted of manslaughter in the death of Cheyenne's boyfriend. He became obese. Laurence Olivier, who greatly admired Brando's talent, felt the actor had wasted his potential. Do you think Brando abandoned his craft?
Stevan: I think it got to the point where he would clock in. There were a lot of times when he would only work when he had to-- when he needed the money. And he would run out of cash. He had an archipelago [off Tahiti] to pay for. He had a growing number of kids and dependents, so it came to a point where, "Well, you've got to work, Marlon." But even at that point he would always try to choose roles that were sort of relevant to him or that he thought he could amuse himself with or get deep with... He enjoyed the playmaking. Then there was always this deep thing: "Let's get to the essence of meaning. Let's communicate something worthwhile. Let's make a difference with this film."
NFF: What are the release plans for "Listen to Me Marlon"?
Stevan: It will be on Showtime. We're trying to look for a theatrical partner. That's the hope.
NFF: Finally, what was it like to spend so much time with Brando-- with his voice on those tapes.
Stevan: It was very immersive, because you're experiencing all these emotions with him and I was very keen for that to come through in the film. It was more like a kind of empirical documentary. You feel like you're actually in there experiencing with him and it's more like a stream of consciousness and you're inside his head and you're actually participating in a life. I wanted "Listen to Me Marlon" to be an experience rather than just a delivery of information.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.