The year of late-celebrity documentaries continues, with Marlon Brando joining the ranks of Kurt Cobain, Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse and Chris Farley. "Listen to Me Marlon" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it opens in limited release on Wednesday. Told exclusively through Brando's own words via home recordings, interviews, acting studies, film clips and self-hypnosis tapes, the doc contains no talking heads or narration. As a result, rather than use secondary sources to define the myth of why America's most celebrated actor became a recluse and rejected Hollywood, "Listen to Me Marlon" channels Brando's psyche by way of his most intimate reflections. The Huffington Post sat down with the film's director, Stevan Riley ("Fire in Babylon"), for a wide-ranging discussion about Brando's archives and to what degree fame destroyed the actor's resolve.
Clearly the movie hinges on the access to these recordings, but would you have considered making the movie had the estate not backed it? Many documentaries don't have that luxury.
This was a bit different, in a sense. Had it not come my way, I’m not sure Brando would have even been on my radar. The access was in place. The estate was keen to do a piece to commemorate the 10 years since his passing. They were pulling all these boxes out of storage in Hollywood vaults. I’ve done character pieces, and I knew he was a complex character, so that was interesting. I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to figure this guy out." Every book that I picked up -- and I read all of them -- just opened with a question: Who is the real Marlon Brando? Everyone was trying to figure this out, and it was a challenge to try to have a go at that. When Marlon Brando was the only voice and he was psychoanalyzing himself, I thought that had a good chance at actually answering that question once and for all. But what was terrifying was that even a lot of moments in these first-person documentaries, there are still a lot of interviews that are taking place, and I was doing no interviews.
You didn't do any at all?
None. I mean, I went to go meet people to speak and get notes. I met about 40 of his family and friends and other colleagues.
Including Hollywood acquaintances?
Yeah, I met with Harry Belafonte, who was around during the early years. I spent an afternoon with Harry Dean Stanton, and Marlon was friends with Ed Begley Jr. David Lynch I had a brief chat with. I bumped into him at a restaurant, actually. There was his first agent, Jay Kantor, and there was Stella Adler’s daughter, Ellen. It was interesting, actually -- I spoke with a lot of PAs and the women who worked with him in home health, his nurse. They probably knew him better than anyone. His kids, too.
I was really getting confused because it was all so contradictory. I’d read different books that would make sense in their own way, but they would conflict with each other. Really, who is this guy? I was hitting the same blocks that everyone was hitting about the differences in his public and private personas. It was just by stages. It was books, interviews, tapes -- with that combo, I felt like I was getting better and better at just being able to read between the lines, that he could hold opposing views and be contradictory but still be coherent.
Brando has a great quote in the film, "No matter what I say or do, people mythologize me." Did you come to the project with your own mythology about him?
Oh yeah, and I really tried to hold on to that, what little I knew. Because that’s what the audience is coming with, too, so I wanted [that as] the lowest common denominator for how I introduced the audience to the piece as well. I was obviously a big fan and loved his iconic roles. I’ve seen all of his films. But beyond that, I knew he was potentially crazy and that he lost control of his weight and was a recluse, all of which had some truth behind it. But I had no idea about how ordinary and approachable the guy was behind that, and how much I had in common with him and how much I really liked him and understood him by the end of it. He made me laugh and he fascinated me, but it took me a while to get into that friendship. I call it friendship because that’s what it’s like when you spend that amount of time in someone’s head and get to know them.
How did your mythology about him change?
What was fascinating about Brando was that he introduced me, in a big way, to the idea of myth. I didn’t analyze myth nearly so closely as when he was giving a tutorial and saying this is an amazing thing, that myth is all-pervasive. He said myth dominates our lives in a way that we lose control of, and we very quickly lose sight of the truth. Truth was always what he was interested in -- truth meaning social realism and the Method and Greek theater. That was all his idealism right there. And then the rest of his life was a deteoriated life worth living. It was about his loss of faith in mankind and his inability to actually grasp and hold on to the truth, and myth -- the myth of everything: the myth of one’s partner, one’s parents, one’s self, even, and the myth of bigger things, whether it’s the myth of goodness and justice and America.
A fair assumption at play, and one that's been made in the Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone documentaries that came out this year, is that fame did Brando in. Did you reach that conclusion in making the film?
I think it really, genuinely crippled him. It was not his nature. He loved to observe and he loved to be out in the world and to see people, and he was a voyeur. He said, "That was my thing, that’s what made me tick, was observing people." He was morbidly fascinated. It was great equipment as an actor. I’m not sure anyone would have shared his obsession with everyone’s tics. He used to find people’s perimeter, their silhouette, and prod and nudge until he found what made them break or what made them react. Even as an old man, he would go and watch people with binoculars from his car at a distance with a hat on while they were at the bus stop. He was trapped by fame when he couldn’t leave his walls.
When he got on the train to come to New York -- when he got here from home, from that oppressive household, that violent household -- that brief moment was when he said, “When I was standing on the train, I was free.” Between then and when “A Streetcar Named Desire” hit, I’m not sure he was ever so free again. I think fame really was torture for him, in many respects, and it did conjure up a cynicism about his craft.
It’s interesting. I asked one of his PAs, who is actually one of the trustees of his estate, because she spent many years with him: “If he’d had the chance to give it all up and be an ordinary citizen and do away with all that, do you think he would have done it?” And she said, "That’s really tricky." She goes, "I’m not sure that he would give it up, because it did give him access to things. He wanted to educate himself, and he could pick up the phone to any university professor or he could pick up the phone to any senator." He could get access to people to learn from. I don’t know whether she’s right, but I do think about how much fame affected him and how much he wanted to get away from it.
Yet, unlike so many others, he never took his own life or did anything other than back away from the limelight.
There’s a lot to suggest that there was a lot of life left to him at the end. He actually found a degree of peace in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. I think he did that through meditation. It’s amazing, his capacity to survive.
That has to come from whatever resolve he'd accrued before becoming famous.
Yeah, I think he was quite self-reliant. He was a latchkey kid, his parents weren’t around. He’d often be wandering by himself. I think he was used to his own space and his own world. He hadn’t fully discovered himself yet. I wonder whether Brando did fully know himself at the time fame hit. He said he was in therapy for the rest of his life. I just don’t think he wanted to be gazed upon like an animal in a zoo. He was the prized scout of the paparazzi. I watched a film about these three guys who were the top paparazzi and they were asked, "Who’s your main target?", and all of them said Brando. They’re all pretty ruthless guys, and poor Brando is being hunted. I just think it’s an interesting treatise on fame.
Especially when you consider that celebrities now, unfortunately, have to expect attention from paparazzi. It almost comes with the territory. But there wasn't much of a precedent back then.
Well, you can see around “Guys and Dolls” how ruffled he is, and you can tell that he wasn’t prepared for that. That’s pre-Beatles. It’s pre-Elvis. He was the forerunner for that whole hysteria.
The movie's title comes from a self-hypnosis tape Brando made. It must have been incredibly intimate to hear those types of recordings.
The estate didn’t know about the hypnosis tapes. I’m probably the first person to ever hear that. It was a strange moment because it felt like I was really treading on something terribly private, and I didn’t feel appropriate or right, in a way. And that remained the case. Even after I’d developed the approach for the movie and once they’d approved the approach, I wanted to make sure the film still had a purpose. I wanted to represent Marlon in a way that he hadn’t really been fully represented in his life, so if I could understand him and what made him tick and what he was interested in, then it would somehow justify playing those very private tapes, because they were ones where he was addressing himself, and it doesn’t get much more private than that. It’s complicated.
"Listen to Me Marlon" is now in limited release, with a nationwide rollout planned in the weeks to come. It will also air on Showtime later this year. This interview has been condensed.
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