‘Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg’ Filmmakers on Working With Her Son to Capture His Complicated Mother’s Life: ‘Marlon Encouraged Us to Go Deep and to Go Dark’

A muse, a mother, a fashionista, an actor, a rock ‘n’ roll icon — it’s hard to describe exactly why Anita Pallenberg remains such a compelling figure more than a half-century after the captivating blonde sang backing vocals on the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and starred in movies like “Performance” and “Barbarella.”

The new documentary “Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg” delves into both the beautiful and tragic moments of her eventful life with the help of a treasure trove of home movies and interviews, as well as an unpublished memoir penned by Pallenberg and narrated by Scarlett Johansson. The footage is coupled with interviews of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, with whom she had a significant relationship, their children Marlon and Angela Richards, director Volker Schlondorff, who cast her in some of his films, and her former friends and associates.

“I’ve been called a witch, a slut and a murderer. I’ve been hounded by the police and slandered by the press,” wrote Pallenberg in the memoir. And indeed, the documentary is unflinching in looking at the darkest periods of her life, from Brian Jones’ drowning to the loss of her infant son, her addictions and at the end of the 1970s, the death of a 17-year old boy who was playing Russian roulette in her bedroom. Pallenberg died in 2017 at the age of 75.

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The idea for capturing Pallenberg’s life on film was sparked by her son Marlon Richards, who serves as executive producer. He enlisted veteran producer Svetlana Zill and Alexis Bloom (“Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds) to co-direct the documentary, which is in selected theaters and available for digital rental now.

Variety spoke with Marlon Richards and the directors about why Pallenberg still fascinates after more than five decades, and why they didn’t want to either glorify or condemn her complicated life.

Marlon, why did you decide to get this project going now?

Marlon Richards: I really could not waste any more time. As soon as we found the footage and all of the audio tapes and interviews, I just said, well, if I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it now, because I’m getting older, and I just really don’t want to have to do this later on in life, you know?

Anita gave these home movies to family friend Sandro Sursock in Switzerland for safekeeping. Then what happened?

Richards: It was given back to me in 2012. I’ve had it for quite a long time and I’ve been worried about it. It was a lot of Super 8 footage that was sitting at sea level, sub-sea level where I live. So I wanted to get it done as soon as possible and get it digitalized.

What other material did you draw on?

Richards: We found two sets of material — the first bit was a semi-finished manuscript, a dissertation she had made in the 1990s, I believe for college, and it was 100 pages or so. But then we found the transcripts of the interviews, which gave a great deal more detail and that was found two years later, and that’s what the basis of the documentary was. They were conducted in the late ’90s in Manhattan with two writers, Victor Bockris and Patti Smith’s guitar player, Lenny Kaye. They were done for her own benefit, basically for a future book or documentary really. Unfortunately the audio tapes are very muddy and we couldn’t clean them up.

Svetlana and Alexis, how did Marlon decide to entrust you with his family’s story?

Svetlana Zill: He wanted an honest portrait and honest telling of his mother’s story, and I think he trusted us and gave us access to this incredible material and was there for us if we needed him, but ultimately, was not really involved in the day to day or in the creative decision making of the film.

Alexis Bloom: He knew that we were kind people who admired her. After I did the film about Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, I sort of thought about it as “you’ve got to lead with love.” That doesn’t mean that you don’t say the difficult bits or don’t deal with the complexity and that there isn’t any darkness, but if you lead with love then your honesty will shine through. Anita did that very much. She was a very difficult mother — I don’t want to be a mother like that. But her children still adored her, because there was tons of love there. Marlon said “I always knew that I was loved.”

Did you consider using a narrator with a European accent that was more similar to Anita’s?

Richards: [Johansson] suits the rhythm and the pace and it’s the same sort of timbre that she had. So I thought it was quite suitable. We did try, I believe — Tilda Swinton was an option. The other choice for me could have been Sophia Loren, but obviously she’s unavailable.

And you also tried Mickey Sumner, who played Patti Smith in the CBGB movie, but ultimately it was hard to nail down Anita’s accent.

Bloom: Mickey did a great job. We tried a German voice, we tried Italian. But they sounded like sort of cliché imitations. So we felt like we were safer abandoning a lookalike sound. Scarlett was kind enough to do it. We shot for the stars.

Marlon Richards, left, with his parents Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg

Were there any moments that just seemed too intimate to include?

Richards: No, in fact, the opposite. I was pushing for more. More horror, so to speak. I thought that the point of the thing is probably primarily as a cautionary tale too, and to take away from what would be a romanticized view of the situation or an overly vilified view of the situation. I didn’t want either. I just wanted a very human portrayal.

Zill: There’s a whole episode in Jamaica where Anita gets arrested. It’s another pretty dark story that has to do with drugs. Narratively, it just wasn’t fitting, and we didn’t have enough time to go into every single dark moment in her life. But Marlon encouraged us to go deep and to go dark.

Anything else you couldn’t show?

Zill: It was rather salacious (giggles).

Bloom: There were some stray testicles that we couldn’t show. Because we thought the owners of said testicles would probably not be pleased. And it would cause more ruckus than it was worth. And Keith’s todger. He was in stripe-y pants and he’s fooling around with it and unzips his trousers and he’s laughing his head off. We put a bar on it. Actually, our editor first put a little banana on it. So there was some nudity that we had to lose.

How would Anita have described herself?

Richards: She would despise the idea of being known as a Rolling Stones muse! That’s the last thing she wanted to be. She was trying to get away from all of that for such a long time. She was rediscovering herself and learning new skills. She went to college. Well, maybe at the end of the day, I’m sure she didn’t really mind it that much.

After splitting up with Keith Richards, Pallenberg got off drugs, raised Marlon on Long Island and studied fashion in London. What was she like later on in her life?

Richards: She was like night and day. She was a completely different person. She was less frustrated, less angry. I think a lot of that was brought about by the drinking and the drugs and everything else. As soon as she sort of cleaned her act up and she went back to college, she was such a happy person. She was living the life that she really wanted to live, I believe. 

Zill: I feel like it gets so dark at a certain point that it doesn’t seem imaginable that she can come back out of all of that tragedy and that kind of serious addiction. There’s so many people along the way that didn’t make it.

Bloom: She almost died multiple times. She used to overdose just to see how far she could go. It was bloody-minded force of will in the end. I think when the grandchildren came along, she wanted to be there for them. She was a better grandmother than she was a mother.

Marlon, what was your family life like when you were a child?

Richards: They were there as much as two of them could be. My father is wedded to his music. Nothing comes before that really, for him. And so he was away a lot. And I think that was frustrating for my mother and very sad, and she felt lonely. So I spent a great deal of time with her. But also we spent a great deal of time with a lot of people. I was always with my mother generally for the most part, but sometimes my father and sometimes both.

What did Keith mean when in the film when he said “She made a man out of me”?

Bloom: When you become a man, you face adversity and you learn to deal with it. They grew up together. I’m sure that she challenged him. So he wasn’t allowed to stay in his comfortable safe place with a partner like Anita. And I think he rose to the challenge. I think that’s what he means.

Zill: And she was a bit scary. The kind of intensity that she had, and the honesty that she demanded, and that kind of authenticity that she demanded. But they really did grow up together.

How did she become such a style icon?

Zill: She just had it from the beginning. Her childhood friend from Rome talks about her tapering and hemming jeans a certain way. She just had that kind of flair for style and clothing from a very young age. Anita writes about the fashion of the late ’60s and she’s like, “what I don’t get is just these kids walking around without shoes on.”

Bloom: Those hippies were on the Kings Road barefoot, but she always had the best Italian boots.

Richards: Her style was very unique. She was a compulsive shopper, usually like second-hand shops. Portobello Market in London, where they have the flea markets. She would go to charity shops. There was a charity shop near her in Chelsea, where the donations are from very wealthy women. So you have all these like you know, Manolo Blahniks and so forth. And she would devour those. Going shopping with her was like watching a insect eating a caterpillar.

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