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Career > > 2006 > The Night Listener

The Night Listener

August 04, 2006 | Miramax | 91 minutes
Directed by: Patrick Stettner | Written by: Patrick Stettner, Terry Anderson | Literature: Armistead Maupin | Cinematography: Lisa Rinzler | Editing: Andy Keir | Costume Design: Marina Draghici | Production Design: Michael Shaw | Music: Peter Nashel
Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a celebrated writer and popular late-night radio host. On the air waves across America, he is famous for sharing the many stories of his life, both true and embellished. When a manuscript from a troubled young listener (Rory Culkin), who has survived a horrible childhood and now lives with a caretaker (Toni Collette) finds its way onto his desk and into his psyche, he is rustled out of his New York brownstone and safe neighborhood. He embarks upon a journey that comes to test the very threshold of his own empathy.
Cast: Robin Williams (Gabriel Noone), Toni Collette (Donna D. Logand), Joe Morton (Ashe), Bobby Cannavale (Jess), Rory Culkin (Pete D. Logand), Sandra Oh (Anna), John Cullum (Pap Noone), Lisa Emery (Darlie Noone)

Production Notes

The notion that truth is stranger than fiction can sometimes sound clichéd, but when you hear the real-life tale that inspired author Armistead Maupin’s bestselling novel The Night Listener, it’s the only way to sum up how much more bizarre the actions of genuine people can be. “The Night Listener” was just something that happened to me up to a point,” says Maupin. “But the basic setup just fell into my lap 13 years ago, and I knew instantly that I would have to write about it.” As a typical result of his writing success, in 1993 Maupin “was sent the galleys of a book by a publisher in New York written by a 14-year-old boy who was dying of AIDS, who had suffered abuse at the hands of his parents who had been in sort of a pedophiliac ring, and he had been rescued by a social worker.”

That book was Rock and a Hard Place: One Boy’s Triumphant Story, the poignant, sometime horrific and supposedly true memoir of Anthony Godby Johnson. Maupin was moved by the book and contacted his adopted mother and they said, ‘Oh, he’s a fan of Tales of the City. He would love to talk to you.’ So before I knew it, this kid with this surprisingly undeveloped voice was talking to me on the phone, and I found him to be feisty and charming and bright and not at all depressing considering all of the things that he had been through. With Tony’s adoptive mother Vicki serving as the go-between, Maupin and the boy developed a deep connection through their frequent phone conversations over the ensuing months, though Tony was always too sick for a one-on-one meeting to be arranged. Maupin was blissfully ignorant that there might be something entirely more outlandish going on until one fateful telephone call. “My partner at the time, Terry Anderson, who co-wrote the screenplay listened to the mother for the first time,” he recalled. “He had heard the boy before. He talked to her for about ten minutes and hung up and turned to me and said, ‘I can’t believe you’ve never noticed it. It sounds like the same voice to me.’” It was if the tumblers from some psychological padlock had clicked into place and opened a locked wall in Maupin’s mind: Tony was, in fact, Vicki. “I could see it immediately. It was a very odd thing to live in this mystery for such a long time. I didn’t really believe it until I saw a voice analysis and I really, fully said, ‘All right, there it is. There’s the truth.’”

The publication of The Night Listener in 2000, though never touted as anything but a fictional thriller, shed even more light on the story. Talk show host Rosie O’Donnell called Maupin after reading his book to reveal she’d been a subject of a similar phony telephone relationship by alleged 13-year-old girl who’d been purportedly raped and was putting her child up for adoption at O’Donnell’s agency, and it was O’Donnell’s partner Kelli Carpenter who recognized the uncanny similarity between the girl’s voice and her mother’s. And when The Night Listener was set to become a film, another voice was heard from yet again: Vicki sent a letter to Toni Collette, according to co-star Robin Williams. “I only know that it was kind of like, ‘I hope you do this part well, because it’d be great if you did it great.'” said the comic. “It was well-written and much more articulate than that. She wasn’t on medication. But Armistead noticed where it came from – the handwriting he recognized. I mean, I think that after six years I think that he started to know the handwriting. It was disturbing, but it was also like they thought that it would happen at some point.” For her part, Toni Collette resisting attempting direct contact with the woman her character was based on. “I had Armistead and I have Terry who both had a lot of contact and their lives were completely changed dealing with this actual person,” she said. “I had the source, basically, and the information about her and the interactions with her. How they were affected by it, and I think it’s interesting to hear that because then you realize what her intentions really are. She can read people. She can figure out how to address them.”

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