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Celebrated writer and popular late-night radio show host Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) develops an intense phone relationship with a young listener named Pete (Rory Culkin) and his adopted mother (Toni Collette) just as his own domestic life is undergoing drastic changes. When troubling questions arise regarding the boy's identity, it causes Gabriel's ordered existence to spin wildly out of control as he sets out on a harrowing journey to find the truth. A psychological thriller based on the bestselling novel by Armistead Maupin. Directed and co-written by Patrick Stettner (The Business of Strangers).
 

 The Night Listener

Genre is a moving target. And what constitutes a specific genre changes over the years; it’s a living thing, because each of us goes into a movie theater with notions of what a thriller, or drama, or mystery film should be and usually this is based on all the other films we’ve seen. And because we have certain expectations of what we’re about to experience, the genre must change, because the real surprise can only come when we see something we didn’t anticipate.

When I was sent Armistead Maupin’s The Night Listener, I thought it had the potential to be one of those films that could surprise and yet challenge audiences’ expectations. In my first conversation with Armistead, he told me he wanted to write a thriller not built around murder, or larceny, or violence, rather the mystery of the human heart. And then when he started talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, I knew I had to make the film.

Jimmy Stewart’s character of John Ferguson in the lead role in Vertigo is similar to our protagonist in The Night Listener. Gabriel Noone, played by Robin Williams, has a similar kind of obsessive, somewhat delusional journey trying to affirm what he thinks is real, but every time he seems to get close he instead finds a different reality with a new set of questions, until the lines blur between what he perceives as fact and what is indeed fiction. Among other things, this film is about the slippery art of storytelling, with dueling storytellers, each with their own set of rules, each attempting to arrive at an understanding of who they are while at the same time tackling the ultimate subjectivity of truth.

When I was writing the script, I wanted to make sure the viewer could really empathize with Donna’s character (played by Toni Collette) but I wasn’t sure I really understood her myself. So much of her character was about her using the phone to get love and sympathy. It was the avenue for her to connect with others and I was determined to get inside her head. So alone one night, in this shack I rented in the middle of the woods, I called a suicide hotline. I then proceeded to pretend like I was going to kill myself. It was an awkward experience, yet the hotline operator couldn’t have been more professional and caring. I was immediately struck by this jolt of unconditional love I got from the operator. Here I was, this stranger (albeit a fake one at that) yet this person on the other line cared, told me I was good, and that I had true worth. It was a very intimate connection between two complete strangers. It was so personal and intense that I quickly became embarrassed, thanked her, told her I was much better and quickly hung up. It was an invaluable experience not only in regards to the character and the script, but how fundamental human connections are more mysterious and unexpected than we realize, how they come in so many different forms, and how, if we really dig deep, we will never run out of ideas for films or lose the opportunity to surprise an audience.