What does one think of when one thinks of Marlon Brando? “The Godfather”? Stanley Kowalski? An overweight recluse? Those were some of the touchstones that came to British documentarian Stevan Riley (“Blue Blood,” “Fire in Babylon”) when, a couple of years ago, producer John Battsek (“The Tillman Story”) asked if he’d like to do a film on Marlon Brando. The idea came from the Brando estate, and the film was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Brando’s death, in 2004.
Riley was interested, but had to get approval from the estate. He started by letting them know that he wasn’t going to do a regular talking-head movie; he was going to do something original.
Talking by phone from a cottage in Cornwall, England, he still sounds surprised at what he found, and how he turned it into “Listen to Me Marlon,” a film that he has no problem referring to as an autobiography, as it’s about Brando, with clips from his films, as well as bits from home movies, and it’s told in Brando’s voice, retrieved from hours of audiotapes Brando had recorded in private.
Q. At what point in your research did you find out about this treasure trove of tapes?
A. The estate was sort of getting their things together. They knew there was a massive archive of stuff in storage, boxes that were just being unpacked. And there was everything: papers, ornaments, photos, all sorts of bric-a-brac in these boxes. They knew that there were a handful of tapes, but then they found that there were quite a few other tapes, and lots of unopened boxes. They had already been archiving for a year, so the question was, can we open the other boxes and get everything out so we’ll have the full lot to work with to complete the film.
Q. Did you have any idea what was on those tapes?
A. I’d heard a couple of them, and one of them was a self-hypnosis tape. He had been talking to himself, and he was saying, “This is a voice you can trust. Listen to my voice. Trust me, Marlon.” And I was wondering, was he the only person he felt comfortable with in the end? So just trying to get attached to the film, and then to get the funding, I said [to the estate], “Let’s do it all in Marlon’s voice.” That was the origin of the idea.
Q. How many tapes are we talking about?
A. I’m not sure. I’m guessing it was about 300 hours’ worth. But it was like panning for the nice bits. Because there was so much irrelevant material. He would have lots of recordings of meetings with his lawyers. Or movie pitches. There were hours and hours that were preparations for scripts or roles or ideas he had, and there were also hours of communiqués between himself and his staff in Tahiti. But every now and then there would be a moment, even in tapes like that, where you’d go, “Wait, that says something!” And you’d grab and collect and build those up into the big picture.
Q. The most startling images and sounds in the film are of Brando’s digitized head reciting lines from “Macbeth” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29.
A. A guy at the archives mentioned this 3-D head that Marlon had scans done of toward the last 10 years of his life. I think he was excited by the potential of CGI, so I thought these scans would likely exist. We ended up tracking down the special effects supervisor who did the scans for him. Then we had to find the drives, decode them, and get some animators. I played Marlon’s voice for an actor who then lip-synched to them. Using the actor’s facial movements would help map the 3-D image on the computer and then the animator would refine it to make it a bit more Brando.
Q. Were there any rules from the estate about things you couldn’t include?
A. No. I was thinking it was going to be a self-psychoanalysis of him trying to answer questions, like who was the real Marlon Brando. But I was putting the reins on some of the heavier stuff, like his food addiction and sex addiction. I had to allude to it, but I wanted to ease us into it. So it was me just trying to be as truthful to Marlon as possible, and what’s so endearing and powerful about it is that he’s the person diagnosing himself. He’s the person highlighting his own foibles and insecurities and addressing them in an intelligent way. There’s a lot of heavy, deep stuff in there, but I think the overall piece shows a more complete picture of him. When the film was screened for the estate they were totally accepting, and didn’t ask for a frame to be changed.Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.