Lights Camera Action: Stevan Riley
When Stevan Riley was approached by an English producer to work on a documentary on the legend that was Brando, he was both excited and sceptic. The work was going to be monumental as he was to gain access to an immense archive on the actor, but the challenge was to leave a directorial signature by creating something path-breaking. The archive collection consisted of several audio tapes and video recordings. A momentary ambitious outburst made him propose for a unique approach where every single word would be uttered by Marlon Brando himself, and he would tell his own story with slight assistance from radio recordings of certain other pieces in news from the same time. Excerpts from the chat...
FHM: Are you a Marlon Brando fan?
Stevan Riley: I loved all the great movies that he was in. I saw Apocalypse Now when I was a kid, Godfather, Last Tango in Paris and those kinds... And I understood that Marlon Brando was the real deal when it came to acting. But I wasn’t much of a fan beyond that. When the film came my way (Listen to me Marlon) from this producer in London that I’d worked with earlier, he asked me if I’d fancy doing a movie on Marlon Brando. They were close to getting participation from the estate (where Marlon Brando lived). The estate was going to hand over their archive material. I came in to develop a creative approach and script and also direct it.
So, in the process of researching on him did you change your perception towards him?
There was a big worry actually. There wasn’t a compulsion, a necessity to celebrate him and I hoped that I could. I didn’t know who the guy was. I’d read some stuff and if I believed what was written of him (that I’d read) he’d be quite a hateful character... by some accounts. But by researches, through stages of reading books and all the material from the archive, I could understand him a lot better. And I liked him, quite a lot actually, in the end. There was a friendship that I developed... He made me laugh, amused me and fascinated me.
And scare you?
Not really... He’d go to dark places but only to analyse them. He wasn’t someone who just admitted darkness. He was someone who was trying to shun in light in the dark.
But eccentric for sure...
Yeah, nicely eccentric. Quirky and spontaneous too... all these things made him a great actor. Directors loved him because he’d give something different with every take. He’d just mix it up. He was unpredictable and that was exciting.
One thing that I read about him was that he didn’t like to cram his lines up. He’d have someone hold placards in front of him and he’d just read out the lines from them in front of the camera.
That’s interesting because there were different reasons at different times. He was quite a perfectionist and he did learn his lines, and I think he liked to have that board there just so that he could relax and not worry about forgetting them. He’d developed techniques where he could look from the corner of his eyes, remember the shape of his paragraph and it could give him triggers. It also gave the impression that he was searching for words, as we do in our everyday life. I think he would never go on a set without reading his lines. Another reason could be that even though he had a good memory, I don’t think he trusted it much. But yeah, he posted stuff to people’s faces and all sorts of crazy things.
How long did it take for you to research all that?
I spent a good three-four months on pre-production... researching, meeting people and reading a lot of books, trying to establish a way to get all these tapes from the storage where Brando was staying. They privileged us with access to everything. There was also other stuff in the boxes. Brando collected all sorts of things. There were tapes in there, some of which I heard and I was the first person to listen to them and transcribe them in their entirety. The rush was on to get many other boxes opened with a lot of more tapes inside them.
At this stage did you have a plan how you’d like to direct the film, or were you just trying to get all the information that you could?
I was in an early gamble on this idea if Marlon could tell his own story entirely. We raised the finances on this idea but when the money came there was a bit of panic if that was actually possible. It was a lovely idea but we had to see if there was enough material available... the tapes.
So, how long did you take to finally wind it up?
It was a long edit and took almost nine months. But the production period wasn’t that long. There were three months in pre-production, nine months in the edit, overlapping with the shoot in the end. So, in all, it took three months and a year. But it was intense.
Did you also get some tapes from elsewhere besides the property?
Loads of them. There was a huge archive search worldwide. In fact, we got in touch with every journalist that had ever interviewed him had tapes, his friends, archive houses, any place that he travelled. We also got in touch with TV stations and local radio stations. And we got a lot of stuff and photographs. That revealed a lot of information and we gradually got more and more confident that we have enough material to realise the ambition which was Brando doing a psychoanalysis of himself; Brando figuring out his own working. But there was a long moment when we had to rely on the audio. It was tricky, but thank God it was enough to put the pieces together.