The contender, part 1

Stevan Riley on Listen To Me Marlon and uncovering the real Mr Brando.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando

What do Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango In Paris, Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and Viva Zapata!, Daniel Mann's The Teahouse Of The August Moon, Edward Dmytryk's The Young Lions, Gillo Pontecorvo's Burn!, Lewis Milestone's Mutiny On The Bounty, Guys And Dolls directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and One-Eyed Jacks have in common? Brando the movie star in Stevan Riley's documentary, Listen To Me Marlon, becomes Marlon, the man.

After a conversation with Parabellum director Lukas Valenta Rinner at New Directors/New Films, I met up with Stevan at Lincoln Center.

"Brando was himself fascinated by these same topics of truth and lies, of myth and fantasy and reality."

Hundreds of hours of Brando's audio recordings had gone unheard until Riley took his pick and put together this fascinating portrait. Brando tells us that "they digitalised my face… so maybe this is the swan song for all of us." All actors he means, but that, in his definition, includes all of us. "Lying for a living, that's all acting is."

Anne-Katrin Titze: What was the first Marlon Brando movie you saw?

Stevan Riley: That I watched? Making the film?

AKT: No, that you watched earlier, that you remember.

SR: I was watching The Godfather when I was very young when I wasn't paying attention to actors. I saw The Godfather probably first. I really paid attention with Apocalypse Now. I'd seen Last Tango [In Paris] later on. I'll be honest with you, there were lots of films I hadn't even watched when I started this film. I hadn't even seen A Streetcar Named Desire, shamefully. I didn't know much about Marlon Brando other than he was the icon. I knew about the Method and was interested in that. It was a great learning experience for me.

AKT: So you were actually the perfect audience for your own film. Most audience members probably come into this thinking they know something about Brando, the acting icon.

SR: You ask people and they say - "Oh yeah, he was in The Godfather, wasn't he?" or "Didn't something terrible happen in his household?" and "Wasn't he the crazy recluse?" I wanted to pay attention to those details but manage them in the course of re-telling the myth.

AKT: Re-telling the myth?

"He was in this ivory tower and yet had come from such lowly origins that he couldn't reconcile the two."

SR: Or rather, addressing the myth. Brando was himself fascinated by these same topics of truth and lies, of myth and fantasy and reality. It's ironic that somebody who was so obsessed by the idea of myths - and he saw mythology everywhere: he saw the myth of the mother, the myth of the father, the myth of America, and now the myth of Marlon Brando - that he became the myth himself. He was in this ivory tower and yet had come from such lowly origins that he couldn't reconcile the two. Being aware of those myths and letting Marlon dissect them in the course of the film was important.

AKT: I was surprised how differently I saw Brando after watching your movie. Over time, I think he has become more one-dimensional. You dismantle that simplified idea of the icon and show the person behind that. Starting with the family background - when he says his mother was the "town drunk" - that is strong stuff.

SR: There were terrible tales, things that weren't even in the film. He didn't profess that his childhood was the worst childhood ever, he knew people had it worse. But it's all relative. He was very sensitive and these things were multiplied.

AKT: You leave the contradictions in his relationships open in the film. Were you structuring the documentary like this?

SR: To be honest, that was the main difficulty when I was first approaching the piece, that everything was a contradiction. The guy was an enigma and I wasn't catching all sorts of different complexities, and even things which his friends couldn't unravel for me. I was going to see his friends and family and speak with them. The contradictions - it took me a long time to unravel that. Marlon was an arch manipulator and he confessed to that. Knowing what his priorities were, what he was interested in, allowed me, through reading the books, through researching everybody… I interviewed 30, 40 people before doing the tapes.

"Marlon was an arch manipulator and he confessed to that."

AKT: You interviewed 30 to 40 people, in addition to 300 hours of Brando's own audiotapes?

SR: Yeah, I was trying to finish the film in a year.

AKT: Altogether it took you only a year?

SR: Pretty much. It was two years ago that it came about. Passion Pictures and John Battsek, I've done a few films with them now. There was somebody John knew who was working for the Brando estate who said they were thinking about doing a documentary. Then John called me and said "would you be interested?" And I started researching it. I finished the rough cut last October.

AKT: How did you pick and choose with all this material? The private life and the scenes from his films. Guys and Dolls looks marvelous on the big screen.

SR: I had a meticulous method of breaking it down. Art was often paralleling his life. Guys and Dolls reflected his need for levity. He wanted to get over himself. He had done a decade of heavy roles and now he needed some break in the clouds. But even that was a bit of a poisoned chalice because of the attention he then got from women.

AKT: After Guys And Dolls?

SR: He was already big after Streetcar, but this was his first big Hollywood film in terms of massive budget. And one he never wanted to repeat.

Listen To Me Marlon - UK poster
Listen To Me Marlon - UK poster

AKT: It's a really good musical. Joseph L. Mankiewicz did a great job, it's not something to be discarded. You placed clips from The Godfather in interesting spots. It's funny, the evening before I saw Listen To Me Marlon, I was at an event where Harvey Weinstein, who was being honoured, quoted the famous line "I'll make you an offer you can't refuse."

SR: It's fascinating when you see the script, how much Marlon ad-libbed.

AKT: Was that a line he made up?

SR: It's worth checking. He fought so much at the table. The only opportunity to really address this was with Apocalypse Now. I had access to all the tapes and he was scripting this stuff himself. It was all the things which pre-occupied him, you know, the nature of good and evil and the hypocrisy of us all and our potential to be evil at any moment. His Apollonian mission to discover the big questions in life which was exemplified by the Group Theater [founded by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford and Lee Strasberg] and with Stella Adler and social realism ends up with him getting to a point of cynicism and nihilism towards the end.

AKT: The commentary from Bernardo Bertolucci exposes how much of Last Tango is taken from Brando himself.

SR: That was a very troublesome time for him. He had relationship problems behind the scenes. He started prescription drugs around that time. He was actually quite fragile around the time of Last Tango. Marlon was, I think, like any actor, afraid. It's a lot of bravado. He was brave in spite of his insecurities. He always went to push himself to the edge of the high [diving] board.

In part 2, Brando's self-hypnosis tapes, political involvement, lying for a living, his ability to be a mimic and who showed for the Sundance premiere.

Listen to Me Marlon is in UK cinemas from October 23, Digital from November 9 and on DVD & Blu-ray from November 30.

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