Stevan Riley has to be an illusionist of sorts. In his latest project, Listen to Me Marlon, he flips the documentary format on its head by having his primary subject essentially interview himself and narrate his life story. For much of the 100-minute film, which is akin to watching the late Marlon Brando talk to himself in a mirror, we get the privilege of listening to the Hollywood legend’s self-hypnosis tapes (which are deeply introspective) and interviews. It’s at once beautiful and eerie, like watching someone unpack their life—trying to figure out what went wrong, trying to find the answers—after the life has been lived. In traditional biopic fashion, we begin with the young Brando (his torturous childhood and rags-to-riches move to New York City) and end with the old Brando (his secluded life in Mulholland and brushes with broken family tragedy). Using tapes, journals, to-do lists, notes, personal interviews, and archival footage, Riley manages to create a layered narrative, all while experimenting with form. It’s a highly personalized portrait of someone who wants to be understood, yearns to understand others, and desires a purpose in life.
The film premiered at Sundance earlier this year but is getting a limited release this summer on the West Coast. Riley spoke to Los Angeles via phone from New York about the film, its evolution, and its fascinating albeit ever-mysterious subject.
I heard you had to sift through roughly 300 tapes before finishing the edit on this film. How did you obtain such limitless access?
At the same time that the film was coming about, the Brando archive was being stored away for 10 years. Initially, I only heard a few tapes—which included the self-hypnosis tape, from which I derived the film’s title. Those held the promise of something really interesting and exciting. I was the first person to listen to them. There was a lot of trust early on when I submitted my proposal; it included that I wanted to go to some of these difficult places: Marlon’s childhood, which is obviously very traumatic, his addictions, and the shooting in Mulholland.
It was through a lot of research that I developed the estate’s trust. I spent a good month preparing my approach, and I just developed as much of a sensitivity or understanding of Marlon, as a person and a character. And just made sure that people knew it wasn’t going to be a botch job.
Was the movie initially supposed to be a more traditional documentary? Why did you think it was a good idea to have Brando narrate his own story?
My very first proposal was called Listen to Me Marlon: Brando on Brando, and it was psychoanalysis of Brando on himself, trying to figure out his own character and his own life. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t really have any examples of where that had been done before. And especially someone like Brando, who was so private in his life. I went out to the estate to cover my bases in case I couldn’t cover that route—I went to do research to do as many people as who would meet me, from Marlon’s family, his close friends, fellow actors, the people on his household staff. I saw about 40 people, including his personal assistants. As much as I learned from those meetings, I was a bit discouraged from going the “talking heads” route because I realized that Marlon’s life had been kept quite compartmentalized. He had separate friendships, he wouldn’t necessarily mix friendships, and there was no one through line; it was a bit disparate. So I just got even more encouraged to go forward with the original plan.
Since none of those personal interviews made it into the finished film, will there be any way for people to view them?
Maybe down the line—who knows if they’ll do a special release. There’s certainly more material. I had quite a particular approach, but there’s all sorts of things that could be used from the tapes for different purposes. There were lots of conversations he was having with very interesting people, like Martin Scorsese, or Coppola, or Michael Jackson, or many other figures. But once I took that creative route, of Marlon addressing himself and the audience, I chopped all those voices out. But I don’t regret that decision at all.
One of the central points of the film deals with Brando’s celebrity and how he handled the public eye. From what you studied and researched, do you think, by the end of his life, he had come to peace with his influence and fame? Do you think he viewed it as a blessing or a curse?
It’s a genuine curse. I asked one of the trustees of the estate, Avra, who was one of his PAs for many years: If Marlon had the choice, would he have relinquished his fame to be ordinary? He never wanted to be that person that was stuck in the zoo, as he described it, being watched by people and feeling so alien. His nature was to be out in the world and to be an observer, and I think he only had a brief moment’s freedom, when he left his parents’ home, on his way to New York. And I think he hated it, that people couldn’t wrap their head around why someone wouldn’t want to be famous. That’s the common perception; all actors want attention and desire fame, but that’s rubbish. Avra said that despite that, he wasn’t sure, at the very last, that he would’ve given it up because of the privileges it afforded him. Marlon appreciated the fact that he could pick up the phone and speak to a U.S. senator or if he was interested in a book, he could call up an academic at a university and get them on the line.
I loved learning about his fascination with people watching. There’s that point in the film where he says he would look at a stranger’s face for three seconds and try to analyze them.
Instead of being the voyeur, he was the one being watched. I find it fascinating, as well, finding out all the things he used to do: Even being holed up in Mulholland, he’d take his car out and watch people from a distance with his binoculars. He just loved to watch the public; it was a peculiar fascination he had with human behavior. He loved to see how we cover up our insecurities or disguise what we really mean through our actions. I’m not sure there are many other actors who were so obsessive with those kinds of observations.
When I met people from his life, and particularly women, this one phrase kept repeating itself: First, they felt like he was present still. They said, He’s still here, he’s still with me. And then the remark that Marlon could see me. And what I found really curious after that was that Marlon had said that he felt that nobody could see him.
Did he teach you anything else, throughout the research process?
I’m more acutely aware of myths as I encounter them, since doing the film. It made me contemplate truth and reality and fantasy in a different way. Marlon was always fascinated by how we lose touch with reality, and how we prefer myth over the truth. His whole trajectory over the course of his career, when he started out doing method, was all about bringing truth and realism to the theater and to the screen. It was fascinating how gradually, as he got older, he developed a deeper sense of cynicism and was attracted to darkness. He’d juggle his optimism and pessimism on a daily basis, over the course of his life. He said he was lying for a living.
The finished film includes a lot of personal information as it relates to Brando’s life. This made me wonder: How much should we be allowed to learn about our heroes? At any point in the making of this film, did you think you were crossing a line or sharing anything that Brando would’ve wanted kept private, and if so, how did you justify including it in the movie?
From the very first listening of the first hypnosis tape, I was very aware that this was something deeply personal, and it was Marlon addressing himself. I felt I was somehow intruding on his most private thoughts, and that was an uncomfortable feeling, in fact. I thought, Was this appropriate at all? To even go this route? But there were a few things that reassured me: Marlon felt that he was very misrepresented during the course of his life, in terms of public knowledge and ownership—that had been wrested from him. His whole character had been taken away, and he said that there was no way to fight back against the press. As a private individual, as soon as you’re characterized, as soon as your myth is developed, it’s out of your control. I thought that if I could really get close and do my research as thoroughly as possible and stick with him and find out what he was interested in, that would actually be of some service. I can never guarantee that he would ever have approved of the film, but I hope it’s something that he would appreciate. I wanted to give him a real last word and a right of reply, a chance for him to speak up for himself.
How do you think a young Brando would have fared in today’s entertainment world?
He was a genuine survivor. He weathered a lot of storms, and to have survived until he was 80, I don’t think he was ready to go. I think he found a degree of peace, but I think he wanted to live longer. But coming from the same generation as James Dean and Marilyn—he really lasted. I think he would’ve found himself in the same fame trap, but I think he would’ve survived in any era. He was a genuine renegade.
Listen to Me Marlon currently plays at The Landmark, and will continue there indefinitely. It opens Friday, August 7 at the Pasadena Playhouse, the University Town Center in Irvine, and the Town Center in Encino.