Stevan Riley On ‘Listen to Me Marlon’ and the Editing of Marlon Brando’s Personal Archives

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In Listen to Me Marlon, audiences get to know a lead character in a way that’s unusual for a biographical documentary. Devoid of interviews with anyone who knew Marlon Brando, the film instead has the man himself tell the viewer about his life, work and beliefs. Director Stevan Riley headed up a massive undertaking in sorting through hundreds of hours of personal audio recordings that Brando had created over the course of decades. These recordings form the basis for the film. We sat down with Riley to talk about what goes into restructuring formless memoir into a coherent narrative.

Nonfics: How did you come aboard this film?

Stevan Riley: The Brando Library originally approached R.J. Cutler, who ended up producing the film. Then it went to an English production company, Passion Pictures, which had a producer, John Battsek, whom I’ve done a few films with. John called me up and said, “The Brando estate is interested in doing a documentary to commemorate 10 years since Marlon’s death. Would you be interested in it?” I took on the research and looked into whether I could find an angle and approach and develop the story and do the first pitch.

How did you discover Brando’s audiotapes?

One of my first questions was, “Have we got any archives? What have we got?” They said we had access to a lot. There were boxes and boxes and boxes that had all been in storage for 10 years. At the same time that they were thinking about a documentary, they were archiving these boxes. Things were coming out — reams of documents. It was almost overwhelming. I’m like, “Oh my god, there’s actually a lot of stuff here. How on earth do I ever get through it?”

I set myself a year to finish the film. My wage doesn’t double if the timespan doubles. That was the production period once we got the financing. We knew there were tapes. I said, “Well, can I listen to them?” The Library had only digitized about seven or eight hours, so I had those initially. By lovely coincidence, they happened to be really important tapes. There was a three-hour discussion that Brando had with Michael Jackson, which involved a lot of family history. There were some self-hypnosis tracks, from which the title, paraphrased from some of the stuff he’d say to himself. In most of the tapes, he was either addressing himself or an audience. I chopped out all of the other voices that he was speaking to. I used that material in my pitch for finance approval from the estate.

When did you have the idea to have Brando narrate his own life, rather than using a more traditional biographical documentary format?

That was the original plan, actually. I had three weeks to come up with an approach, and I sat down, I read all the books, listened to the tapes. My first approach was called “Listen to Me, Marlon: Brando on Brando.” It was Brando psychoanalyzing himself, telling the story of the boy and the old man. Looking back on life after the death in his household. That was always the idea, that Brando was the only person qualified to solve the riddle of his own life.

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What was the process of sorting through all those tapes like?

The transcription was a massive job. We ended up finding a company in India that did transcription at a rate we could afford. That was ongoing. More tapes were constantly coming out. There were people whose job it was, day in and day out, just to unpack all those boxes. Nice surprises were appearing all the time. At the outset, we didn’t know we had 300 hours. We had access to the archive, but no idea what was really in it. Once the transcription was all typed up, it was collected in these big folders — there were about 12 of them. Stacked together, they came up to, like, here [holds hand at around three feet off the floor].

How did you go through the tapes and transcription to find the best material? What was the process of editing all of this together?

I didn’t actually start the edit until about three months in. After that initial pitch, I developed a formal sheet script, a 50-to-60-page document. That was to arrange our own thoughts and a possible approach; figure out what the segues could be, how things might interconnect. It wasn’t meant to be rigid, it just helped inform my approach to the transcripts.

I’d go to the transcripts, all these folders, with a bunch of different highlighters. I’d put tabs with very atomic notes in the margins. I had a master sheet of these tabs, which were movable, and I could build scenes from there. It was a shortcut to assemble the material and find a way through all this stuff. Because there’s no way you could go, “Oh, didn’t he say something about this or that? Where was that again?”

Were there any texts or sources about Brando besides the tapes that were particularly useful to you?

I read everything. I really did. I read every single book. The worst thing is when you find out after the fact that there was a text that would’ve been really important, but you were too lazy to read it. I read the lot.

I found stuff from his personal assistants. Really interesting. Very revealing. These were women who spent a lot of time with him. The saw his every guise — professional, at home, as an employer, sometimes as a lover. I went to meet a lot of them and speak to them directly. That guided me, too. It’s interesting how different people have different relationships with him. It sort of proved the multiplicity of his character. He could be the boy and a lad, chatting with his guy friends, but then deeply sensitive. He had a relationship with Deepak Chopra, and that was him catering to his spiritual side. Then there were his relationships with all his women. It was quite compartmentalized.

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The story proceeds chronologically, but Brando’s narration comes from all over different points of his life. What guided you in structuring the film?

The chronology comes from his acting career; the middle track of his life. On either side of that, you’ve got the boy and the old man, and they’re the ones who sort of interfere and weave in at different times. Sometimes, it’d be on the back of an emotion. Say an insecurity, like when he gets all flustered during Guys and Dolls, and then we go back into his meditation as he tries to calm himself. That’s a purely emotional segue, like a smell taking him back in time to when he last knew it.

Brando said that he felt that we spend our entire lives trying to solve the bad habits made in the first 10 years. I wanted to keep that life in the film. He said that two things defined him: trying to solve the problems of his youth; and trying to see how he could be of better service to his fellow man. Those were themes which would reverberate throughout the film. So that was why we jumped the timeline around, structuring it like memory. Memory is not always linear. There can be discontinuity, and in the film it was interesting to do that and to break up the chronological structure where possible.

Was it difficult to edit all the elements down to a manageable runtime?

To be honest, I really try to finely cut scenes. I don’t indulge myself with repetition. I try to make those choices early on, so the scenes are quite taut. The longest cut I got was about two hours. The extra 25 minutes came out within about a week, 10 days. It was quite obvious, when we had the whole thing, where the fat was and what we needed to drop.

When did you decide to use the digital scan of Brando’s face (performed near the end of his life)?

Quite early on, and as soon as I found out about it. I was already thinking what devices we could use to keep Brando alive in the piece. One of the people working for the estate, a guy named Austin, told me about the scan. I was thinking, “Wow, we’ve actually got this, and we could do something with it. We could animate it, lip sync it to these tapes, bring them to life in a way that was appropriate to the film, and appropriate to the idea of Brando being this ghostly figure, doing this analysis of his life from the afterlife.

Listen to Me Marlon is now in theaters.

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LA-based writer about movies, TV, and other assorted culture stuff. Work collected at http://danschindel.com/