Nick Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love is more than just a look at the love story between singer Leonard Cohen and Marianne Ihlen. It’s also a look at his own love affair with Ihlen when she was in her 20s.
When Ihlen was on her deathbed, Cohen sent his former love a message about the important presence she had been in his life and music. Cohen wrote many memorable songs dedicated to Ihlen or about her. In his documentary, Broomfield takes us back to their youth on the island of Hydra where the romance first began and then explores the doomed years of their relationship.
I caught up with Broomfield to talk about his story and hear how he dug into his past after Ihlen’s and Cohen’s death.
This is such a personal story. What made now the right time to want to tell and share this story, one that is so close to you?
I think their passing woke me up to the fact that a very significant part of my life had moved on. I wanted to reconnect with that part of my life and reconnect with a lot of other people who were a part of it that I had lost touch with. I think it brought back to me, the feeling that it’s very easy to get caught up in all the details and problems in your life. You lose touch with the bigger picture which is all the people who mean a lot to you, and who you don’t bother to take the time to reconnect with. I wanted very much to revisit that time because it was so formative in my own development.
I wanted to connect with other people that I had lost touch with. I went back into old address books to find people. I was looking back in a meaningful way to things that mattered rather than dealing often with not very important things but things that take up all our time.
I think when someone passes it does that. It makes you stop for a second and you take inventory. Was it therapeutic for you to do that, especially as you’re reconnecting with people who you hadn’t spoken to in a long time?
I think it really was. It actually made me look at things that had been significant in my life, and loves in my life that had been significant. It was a very personal experience making it. It gave me the confidence to do something that I had always been putting off – making a film about my own family. I made a film, subsequently about my father. The V&A is doing an exhibition of his work.
He did heavy industry with this amazing lighting. We had a typical father/son relationship. It was very close, but it was a bit cat and dog for a long time until we made peace and loved each other at the end. I think doing this film gave me the confidence to do something much more personal than I had ever done before.
One of the things I enjoyed about it was interacting with the audience on a much more intimate level than I had ever had with my previous films. It provoked something in them that was reflective and meaningful.
What you did through the footage, the editing and what you show us, gave Marianne such soul, more than we could ever imagine. The songs then took on a whole different meaning.
I’m so pleased that happened.
Talk about piecing the footage and achieving that.
When I first started the film, I remembered Marianne telling me when I was 20-years-old, that Pennebaker – someone I had never heard of at that time, had been there the year before and he’d shot a whole lot of footage with her. I think he’d gone to meet Leonard at the Venice Film Festival. Leonard wasn’t on Hydra. So Pennebaker shot this footage of her on 16mm which Marianne had never seen and I’d never heard anymore about it. I’m friends with Pennebaker now. I kept calling Penne about this footage. He was like, “I’m 90 and if you think I’m going to crawl around in my vault, looking for something I shot over 50 years ago, forget it. I don’t know where it is.”
I kept calling, and in the end, I was speaking to his son who reluctantly agreed to look in the vault. He ended up finding 80 minutes of film that had never been viewed. It was pure gold. We found the other footage of Axel on Hydra which a Norweigan artist had, and it had never been developed. It was just in storage in his attic. We developed it all and put that in the film.
A lot of it was digging up material.
Leonard was a very disciplined and quite guarded man in a lot of ways. He’d answer the same question word for word. There were few interviews with journalists that he trusted. Or when he was in Israel or places like that, that had particular significance for him that he would delve into himself and come up with quite startling ways of looking at himself.
We had to try and find all those interviews that were hidden away. They were with some remote radio station in Israel. Or, he had these collectors who would interview him and he had a relationship with them. They were in Hull or way off places, and they’re quite old now. So, we’d pore through all those tapes and do transcripts of them.
To really get the revealing material on the level which was meaningful and didn’t sound like it was un-intimate, Marianne was difficult because she didn’t talk as much as Leonard. A lot of her stuff was in Norway. Again, it was often with people or collectors who had interviewed her once or twice. So, getting it all was a labor of love.
What was it like for you to tell this story while piecing together their story?
The bit I found the hardest was putting in my own story in a way that didn’t diminish their story or distract us from their story, so it moved their story along in a knowing way without taking over valuable air space with something that way an adjacent story.
I remember re-writing that a lot. I was a little reluctant to put myself into it after a while. I thought I was going to find more letters, but we only found one or two. I think I found it hard putting that stuff in.
Structure wise, it was quite hard to keep their mutual stories going for that length of time. I wanted to keep Marianne very much as she had been. There was more footage of her later on. Pennybaker had shot such romantic footage of her, and one wanted to keep that.
You end with the poem reading, Days of Kindness. Talk about that ending. Was that easy to end it that way? It was such a perfect ending.
I just thought it was such a remarkable poem. It summarizes his regrets and their love. It’s such an admission. There’s guilt. There’s an acknowledgment of life decision. It’s so touching. We’ve all done those kinds of things and moved on from one love to another love. He reads it so beautifully.
You absolutely can hear the apology in his voice.
Did the songs take on a new meaning after?
I think the one thing I realized was how little I understood his music before.
I think age helps us. Experience does too.
I remember as a 20-year-old trying to understand his music and trying to read his books to understand them. He was being held up as this master by Marianne, and I realize I understood very little.