Letting Marlon Brando speak
Documentary filmmaker Stevan Riley on peeling the layers off the actor’s psyche, or at least attempting to
"We wanted to answer that vital question: ‘Who was Brando?’" says British documentary filmmaker Stevan Riley when we speak to him over the phone, ahead of his arrival in the city for a screening of his latest film, Listen To Me Brando.
Stevan Riley’s 95-minute documentary got its international release in July. Pic/Getty Images
"I knew Marlon Brando was a complex subject, and it was my ambition to help that come across on screen in a unique way. So, we let him give a psycho analysis of himself. In my movie, Brando does a post-mortem on his own life."
Brando — he died in 2004 of respiratory failure — had, through his life, taken audio notes of his thoughts and feelings. Recorded at home, in meetings, in therapy and even at interviews, the tapes provide a glimpse into the man regarded as controversial. "All the books I read, or people who knew him — his family, friends, agents, fellow actors… they all painted a contradictory picture of him, and regarded him as ‘unknowable’. So, we wanted to get to know him, which I did," says Riley,
adding that he got his hands on the material when Brando’s estate opened up. The tapes are accompanied by photos, film clips and a procession of objects from his life.
Director Stevan Riley says Marlon Brando was a contradictory figure
The name of the documentary, for instance, comes from Brando’s tapes with the same title. They are almost self-hypnotic in nature and Brando talks of his faults, and how he affects his family. They appear to be confessions and aimed at finding peace. The videos show him at interviews, where he blatantly flirts with female interviewers; during the shoots of movies like
On the Waterfront, The Godfather and Mutiny on the Bounty, which he shot in Tahiti, and show the actor at work. There are also bits with newspaper headlines and news reports about his troubled personal life — his "alleged" 16 children and the fact that his son Christian shot his sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend to death in 1990 and Cheyenne committed suicide five years later. The audio, where he talks to himself, reveal the guilt he felt about all this.
This is Riley’s fifth documentary, since his award-winning debut with Rave Against the Machine in 2002 (including the Special Jury Prize at Aspen Shorts Fest; National Geographic Award at Sydney Film Fest). The film explored the underground music scene in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. He followed it up with Blue Blood in 2006, which was about the boxing rivalry between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
Fire in Babylon in 2010 explored the successful West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s. His subjects are varied, he admits. "I like to do different things.
Basically, my degree in modern history from Oxford ensures that if there is a historical context with an emotional tale attached to it, I’m going to sink my teeth into it." He recalls his earliest documentary influences being filmmaker Marc Singer’s Dark Days, a portrayal of a group of homeless living under Penn Station in New York. "I watched that movie back to back twice and it told me that documentary can be as powerful as drama," says Riley. "You can participate in the lives of your subjects." Just like with Brando, who he feels he now has a strange friendship with.
"I still don’t know if I like the guy. But he was a deeply enquiring man, who wanted answers to the big, philosophical questions of life."
Before he was the Godfather
Marlon Brando appeared in a romantic Charlie Chaplin movie in 1967 called A Countess from Hong Kong. It was the last film Chaplin made