After its buzzed-about premiere at Sundance, Listen to Me Marlon, Stevan Riley’s intimate portrait of legendary actor Marlon Brando, will screen as part of the 44th New Directors/New Films here in New York. FilmLinc Daily caught up with the director about the film’s journey to the screen. ND/NF closes this coming Sunday, March 29.

Listen to Me Marlon
Stevan Riley, UK, 2015, 100m
Description: With a face and name known the world over, Marlon Brando earned acclaim for his astonishing acting range, and infamy for his enigmatic personality. With unprecedented access to a trove of audio recordings made by the actor himself (including several self-hypnosis tapes), documentarian Stevan Riley explores Brando’s on- and off-screen lives, from bursting onto the cinematic scene with such films as The Men and A Streetcar Named Desire to his first Oscar-winning role in On the Waterfront. Archival news clips and interviews shed light on Brando’s support for the civil rights movement as well as on the many trials and tribulations of his children, Christian and Cheyenne. But between these many revelations and disclosures, Brando manages to tell his own story, filled with bones to pick, strong opinions, and fascinating traces of one of the most alluring figures in the history of cinema. A Showtime presentation.

On how he came to make films:

I didn't have any early ambitions to become a filmmaker. I was always interested in films, but never allowed myself the luxury of thinking of it as a proper career. At university I applied for all sorts of jobs in law, investment banking, and even accounting. Each one left me severely bored and willing the day to end. After graduating I lived with a close friend who'd just finished film school. I became more and more interested in his day-to-day stories of freelancing on film sets, which seemed full of excitement and adventure. At the same time I watched two films—Dark Days and When We Were Kings—which persuaded me that documentary could deliver just as much emotional depth and punch as scripted drama. I took the plunge to buy a camera and make my own films. I was among the first generation who could make broadcast-quality films at home with a video camera and a Mac. It was hugely empowering and allowed me to tell stories, which has remained my true passion to this day.  

On finding this project:

The access was already in place before I was asked to direct the film. Producer John Battsek at Passion Pictures got in touch saying that the Brando Estate was keen to support a documentary to mark 10 years since Marlon's death. I got into the research right away. At the same time the estate was unpacking all the warehoused boxes of Marlon's personal possessions to properly log and archive them. Out of these boxes emerged reels and reels of audio recordings that Marlon had made during his lifetime. The idea dawned on me of how amazing it would be to use these tapes to tell Brando's story entirely in his own words. 

On his motivation to tell Brando’s story:

There have been many attempts of varying success by filmmakers and biographers to capture the “real” Marlon Brando. Brando was notoriously secretive and private, declining press interviews and remaining an enigma throughout his life. I was determined to make a film that would finally shed light on his many complexities and contradictions. Who better to solve the riddle of Marlon Brando than Brando himself? Having him narrate his own life gave me the exciting opportunity to try telling the definitive Brando tale.

On the project’s biggest challenges:

There were huge challenges in putting the film together. It took months of research—reading books and manuscripts and interviewing those who were close to Marlon—to get to know him and understand all his nuances. This was merely the prelude to tackling the audio material, which was incredibly vast and disparate (around 300 hours of tape, filling stacks of folders with transcriptions). To extract a layered narrative that would interweave the three ages of Brando's life (Brando the young boy, Brando the actor, and Brando the reclusive old man) meant for a lengthy time editing. Then there was the complicated question of visuals. I wanted to create a ghostly presence of Brando, trying to make sense of his life from beyond the grave.

To this end we undertook the ambitious reconstruction of Marlon's [Los Angeles] Mulholland Drive home on a soundstage in London, within which we could move the camera and create a haunted backdrop to his spoken thoughts and recollections. Another challenge was the digitally animated head that recurs within the film, which was built using 3-D scans Marlon had taken of himself just before he died.  It took months of technical work by animation experts to crack the outdated software code, before we could even start the painstaking task of adding realistic movement and expression using motion capture filming and 3-D mapping. 

On what’s next:

I'd really like to make a fiction film at some point in the next few years and I keep scribbling notes for scripts. The boundaries between documentary and drama have become increasingly blurred, and any shift I may make into drama would be an extension and exploration of that.