[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't yet read or watched The Night Listener, you may not wish to read this article!] Novelist Armistead Maupin has seen his Tales of the City series adapted into three television miniseries: Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City. Now his novel The Night Listener has become a major motion picture, adapted by Maupin, along with his ex-boyfriend Terry Anderson and director Patrick Stettner. Stettner made his name with the indie drama The Business of Strangers, starring Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles, before helming The Night Listener, a story inspired by the strange story of "Anthony Godby Johnson," a boy author believed to be the invention of his "adoptive mother" Vicki Johnson (a.k.a. Vicki Fraginals). I spoke to Maupin and Stettner about the novel, film, and unusual real-life case at San Francisco's Clift Hotel.
Groucho: The ruthless honesty of self leaps off the page of the book The Night Listener, and I wonder: do you allow yourself a lot of wishful thinking in your writing, as well, in adapting things that maybe sort of happened to you?
Armistead Maupin: Well, I have total freedom to turn it into fiction, but I try to imbue it with the spark of my own emotions, if you follow me. The facts aren't true, but I try to remember how I felt in any given instance to lend a verisimilitude to the experience. Yeah, and I often—I generally tend to be pretty hard on myself in terms of the way I—. I try to pull out my worst, most neurotic moments because I think they work better in print. I had a friend of a friend who read the script—or rather, the book—before I submitted the manuscript to my publisher, and she said, "God, I hope people don't think this is you!" Which is really disconcerting. I thought he was kind of loveable!
G: I thought so too. And you have an objectivity—a total objectivity—in taking this material, I would think. What vision did you bring to it that wouldn't perhaps otherwise be there in the hands of another director?
Patrick Stettner: Well, I don't know about the hands of another director, but my job as the director is to think about—obviously to convey the important themes Armistead had so beautifully lined out, but also think about things visually. Because cinematically I'm very concerned about how to strip away language and try to do as much things visually as you can. And personally as a director I'm always interested in telling the audience three-quarters and allowing them to make that discovery. I think that's really kind of important and keeps the audience active.
AM: Constant active understatement.
PS: Yeah! It's this process of working the story themselves, you know?
PS: So that they are part of the process.
AM: Yeah, yeah.
PS: They're not just delivered everything.
AM: Yeah, yeah.
PS: So that they are kind of completing sentences, and they are completing character arcs in some kind of way.
AM: But that's what was so brilliant about—did you see The Business of Strangers, his first—?
G: Oh, yes, yes.
AM: That's what that did. You were const—your mind was working through the whole thing.
PS: So just that's always kind of where I'm kind of looking to do.
G: Well, there are great cues in the film, I think—and since it's a mystery those cues are clues, too—that, yeah, give the audience that little push. They're subtle, obviously visual cues. I wanted to ask you about those. Like, for example, when you have the camera move into Robin Williams' head as he starts to read "The Blacking Factory"—those sorts of things. Could you talk a little bit about how you designed those visual entrees to character?
PS: Yeah, you know, you try to set up a visual language. I'm a very strong believer that what you do—you can't kind of introduce a new visual element that you don't set up in the first ten minutes. So because a lot of this that we see is part of what the Gabriel character sees in his imagination, while we're seeing his imagination, I need to have that first setup of it so that to start this kind of sense that we do show his imagination. So when he reads the book, us coming around the head is also a subtle introduction to later when he is talking on the phone, and we are now seeing a character that we have never seen. (Laughs.) That might not, or might not exist. And visually what I did there was to try to put elements of his world in the Rory world, because that is his [Gabriel's] imagination. So there were all these details that you see in Rory's kind of world that you later see in Gabriel's reality, like the curtains, the mug the neighbor has, the medicine bottles, the—you know, there's binoculars. And there's all these kind of things. And even colors of wallpaper come back later. Even the imag—even the phone that Donna talks on is the same phone that he has in his kitchen. And so these are just elements that no one's going to ever see (laughs), even if they watch the film eight times.
G: I was looking for them the second time—
G: And I saw a few! Now, so The Night Listener is fiction, but it is also inspired by events that happened to you, so you have this new dramatic architecture and also this emotional reality. To what degree, though, was your own experience, in real life, an investigation?
AM: I didn't get active in any way, in terms of actually going to the spot. I allowed my fiction to take me there.
PS: But you had lunch with her—
AM: No, yes, I—not lunch, but I met her. And it was, for me and Terry Anderson—the other screenwriter—a sort of Hardy Boys adventure that went on for about six years!
G: I actually wanted to ask you: where did it start, and where do you think—will it ever end?
AM: Well, I don't know if you caught 20/20 the other night.
G: Oh, no.
AM: They did half an hour on the real story, and they—
PS: If you go to the website, you can see a link to it, I believe.
AM: Oh really?
PS: [The]nightlistener-movie[.com], I think they link to it now.
AM: Oh cool.
PS: Yeah, I saw all the articles—Tad Friend articles and a bunch of articles now. In the "True" section, they now have it.
AM: In Miramax, or 20/20?
PS: The Miramax website—
AM: The Night Listener website?
PS: Yeah, you go to the "True" section now; there's all these articles.
AM: Oh good!
PS: You can see the 20/20 video, and all that stuff.
G: I've read about the case.
AM: Yeah, well, 20/20 started investigating it about four years ago. And that particular show got shelved, and the story got stuck on a shelf. So they pulled out what they had, including, you know, the voice analyst's playing both voices, so people actually listened to the voice. So that was the sort of—for me, oddly enough—just the simple, hard machinery of this machine said this voice and this voice are the same person. And I knew both voices very well because I had been talking to both of them for about six years. And I must say, from one moment to the next, doubting and not doubting.
G: And I think it's really ingenious the way the film does the same thing to the audience, that we hear her voice as his, and they're blended together so seamlessly.
PS: Yeah, it was the sense of we wanted to have sort of ethics.
AM: I didn't even notice it the first time, I realized. I didn't notice what you were doing.
PS: Toni's own husband didn't notice.
AM: Didn't notice, yeah.
G: We're so trained to believe what we're being shown in the context of the story.
AM: And what was so smart about it was the way in which the phone—the sound of the voice is distorted through a phone anyway, so the fact that it didn't quite sound the same as before—you had a perfectly logical reason for it.
PS: Yeah, yeah.
G: When you look at your own works, you must see a kind of semi-secret diary of your own life. That's probably true of any artist. Do you have a fairly infallible compass for what is fair game in terms of talking about family and friends and lovers?
AM: Well, I usually talk to them first. A number of characters in this story named themselves.
AM: Including Anthony Godby Johnson—he named the character Pete. I told him I was going to write a story, and I said, "What do you want to name the character?" And Terry named himself Jess. My sister named herself Josie. But I do care. I'm not one of those writers that loves the idea of skewering anybody, even people that might have cause me pain. I don't—it's not my purpose. But at the same time, I'm aware that my best material comes from the truth of my own life, so I try to use it as much as possible. And I have confidence in those emotions. Even if they're fucked up, you know. They're real.
G: Was writing this story at all a process of forgiveness? To, say, Anthony Godby Johnson?
AM: I was forgiving a number of people, actually.
AM: The two people to whom the book was dedicated—my father and my ex—were—that was part of that process for me. And I suppose myself, not so much around the mystery of the boy on the phone, but whatever failures I might have had in our relationship.
G: I wanted to ask both of you, regarding what I see as sort of the central theme of the film: we have fiction versus reality and the idea of how we can deceive ourselves, and then also that's sort of a metaphor for faith versus cynicism as kind of a worldview.
G: So I just sort of wanted to have you guys address that: does it reflect your own ways of seeing the world?
PS: I think so. I mean, one of the points that comes at the end, in terms of Gabriel, is that he kind of embraces what has happened to him, even though it might be a fictitious character. And in many ways this is how Armistead still kind of embraces what that relationship was and who that boy was, even though—
G: It still has meaning.
PS: Yeah! And then so this idea that, you know, everything empirical is truth (laughs), I don't necessarily agree. There are truths that aren't always tangible.
AM: The truths of the—
PS: Of the heart.
AM: The quote—
PS: Are just as valid.
AM: Yeah, what is the quote? The epigraph I use in the novel is from Keats saying, "I am certain of nothing but the truth of imagination and the holiness of the heart's affections."
AM: That always makes me almost tear up, because that is exactly the only things that I'm certain of.
AM: In fact there was a time that I was thinking of calling the book "The Truth of Imagination." But, yeah, we had to make our own peace, basically, in the end, and that's what Gabriel ends up doing, realizing that, "Well, whatever happened happened. And whatever soul I was connected with had something to say to me."
G: And that's really an enlightened response because it could very easily send one into further cynicism, or deeper cynicism, to be betrayed, possibly, by that experience.
AM: Yeah, yeah, I never felt. Some people did. I talked to a number of people who'd been through this experience, believe me, because a lot of 'em came crawling out of the woodwork after the novel came out. And said, "I was talking to him too." But my self-worth did not hinge on whether or not this person was real. I just found it extremely interesting, and I think I was rescued by my instincts as a storyteller because mostly I just couldn't wait to tell people about it.
PS: It's kind of like the James Frey and JT Leroy situation. Especially the James Frey, where people were like "Uhhh. I can't be—", like when he was on Oprah, "I can't believe you'd do that. I was so affected by the story. It really changed my life." I was like, "Wait a minute!"
AM: How much did it change?
PS: Exactly! "And now it's all for nothing." Excuse me. You know? I mean, first of all, I'm a cynical New Yorker. I always think people—there's some fucking lying going on in someone's memoir. You know, I can't tell a story the same time twice! There's always—a little embellishment. That's what good storytelling is! And this idea that, you know—I mean—
AM: Yeah, I don't—I'm not—I don't approve of him. I think he really lied in a big way. It wasn't his memoir. On the other hand, people who say that they were—
AM: Outraged, it's like—the same 20/20 thing, the people outraged because they had been helping to support this couple that is supposed to have septuplets, and they—it was all a huge fraud. What are you, outraged because someone else hasn't had multiple births?! What are you talking about?
PS: Jon Stewart saying people seem to be more outraged by this than the fact that the government lied for going into Iraq.
PS: You know? Just like—. (Laughs.) It's a sense of perspective here, people.
G: Well, in turning the subject to adaptation of the novel to a film, there's such a wealth of material in the book, and not all of it is obviously going to be as cinematic. Did you find in writing the initial screenplay with Terry that it was easy for you to kind of slash and burn and find the spare quality of the story, or did you find that you had to make some ruthless decisions?
PS: They had a made a lot of ruthless decisions themselves. I just pushed them to make more. (Laughs.)
AM: Yeah, and it became more and more pure. I looked at it as a purification process, really. And it was hard. It was hard at times, but I felt like we were getting closer to the essence of what we were trying to say. I mean there were—some of the early drafts involved a greater role for Gabriel's father. I'm trying to remember—I mean, I had a really early one that you never even saw, that—
AM: In which she kills herself—you see her hanging herself.
AM: As she's listening to the radio broadcast or something. There were a whole—it went in a whole lot of different directions, and I really feel that we arrived at the best possible version of the story.
G: What's the omission that was hardest for you, and what's the best addition, maybe, that you didn't expect the story to take on?
PS: I know what the omission is. The blowjob scene.
AM: For a straight guy, you're awfully in love with that blowjob scene!—Well, it should be a movie in itself is the problem.
PS: Do you know what we're talking about? What he does is he goes, gets a burger at a rest stop. And then he goes to take a piss, and then he's taking a piss and the trucker looks at him and goes "Mmm-mm."
AM: Oh, don't make him act it out!
AM: It's embarrassing enough
PS: The trucker looks at him, and then he follows the trucker, and they go in and have sex. He gives him a blowjob, and then he looks up at his family photos, and do they know? And then the trucker says, "I'm not gay!" and kicks him out. And it's such a beautiful statement of this kind of—I don't know—it's a beautiful—it really—once you put that in, it just kind of like weighed everything—(dissolves into laughter).
AM: Blowjobs tend to stop action short—
AM: From my personal experience.
G: In more ways than one.
PS: Yeah. (Laughs.)
G: I get the drift.
AM: Let's see.
PS: I didn't mean to interrupt you, but you were—
AM: No, no. I was actually the first to say that that had to go. But what was it? Oh yeah. I think we still fight a little bit over the death scene. We filmed the scene with Rory under the gas mask with Robin talking to him, as he's about to die, and Patrick decided—I think probably rightfully—that it was —the melodrama was too high. Is that a fair interpretation of what you felt about it?
PS: Yes, yes, yeah, yeah, yeah.
AM: And we didn't need it. That it was just really pushing it too far. For me it was—to me, it was the height of her accomplishment, when it was actually happening to me, because I did spend two hours with this kid on the phone that I thought was going to be dead by morning, talking to him about life and what he'd done and how important he was, you know. And I realized it was how she seals the deal, the marriage contract, you know. That's really the only one that I can think of. And as far—and certainly is outweighed by the additions that Patrick brought to it in terms of making active some of the neurosis in Wisconsin. The actual—the scene in the basement I love. I think it's my favorite scene in the movie now. And when Patrick first sent it to me, I thought—well, it was very eerie, because I thought, first of all, what the fuck is he going down in the basement for, and why is he going there, and "Stop! Don't go in the basement!" because I was identifying with it. But it's such a —it turns that convention on its ear. Because it's not Mrs. Bates.
PS: Yeah, yeah.
AM: It's some sad woman who wants to put on a sweater and show him how pretty she looks in it.
PS: Yeah. You know, thinking about that scene—of course, here I am regretting it—I think the way I shot it was just so sentimental, and we shouldn't have had—I'm going back to the scene, y'know. We should've cut the sentimentality and not had him in the hospital. Y'know? It should've been just his home, kind of you get the sense that he's deeply bedridden maybe, but not like needing a gas tank and that whole—
AM: Well, it approached the Oprah documentary—
PS: Yeah! It became—
AM: They had this bed draped in—
PS: And it also felt that once Robin had to go to that place it became very heavy, you know—
PS: Where he became—
AM: Patch Adams.
PS: Yeah, a little bit. It did have that Patch Adams texture, and it just became—and I should've—because I didn't shoot that with both of them in the same room. I think I would've shot that differently if I would've seen the scene as one.
AM: Yeah, yeah.
G: This is probably a very stupid question, but how did you feel about Robin Williams playing your fictional self?
AM: Well, I asked him to, for start—I sent him the script. Obviously I knew that he could really play the role. Well, yeah, I could've gotten Harrison Ford. I would've been—.
PS: "You go—"
AM: No, I let go any vanity around "Is this a representation of me?" or anything else, or "Is he playing me?" It was our understanding from the beginning that he was simply playing the character, so he was bringing who Robin would be in that circumstance to it. But Patrick made the remark one time that Robin was a great choice because he looks like a guy who might love a little bit too much, and that's a description of Gabriel. And in a way, it is kind of turning all his—some of his more feel-good films on their ear.
AM: It is the sort of dark side of Patch Adams.
AM: Forget that—that might end up in print. We don't want—
PS: But it's like—. Wait a minute! I gotta call Miramax! Don't put "the best reviewed thriller of the summer"! Put "the dark side of Patch Adams"!
G: That's a whole other audience you've tapped into there.
AM: If we only had that damn rubber nose!
PS: I knew I should've—but you didn't get me the costume!
AM: But you know what I'm saying. He's the healer. He's the kind, the gentle one. So naturally he's the one who's pulled into this thing.
G: He brings a wonderful, subtle comic edge to the movie, too, that maybe another actor might not. A dark comic edge.
PS: A comic understanding. Because he plays the straight man in a lot of these scenes. He's just setting up jokes for Sandra Oh, or the woman on the plane, or the guy in the Wisconsin store, and it's like—or the security guards. He does that a lot!
PS: And he does it perfectly. Just like—.
G: Oh, and the role of the patsy, though it's very serious ultimately in the film, it can be comic. In the investigation, he's no Harrison Ford.
AM: His life is getting worse and worse.
G: Was there ever any consideration to shooting the film here?
PS: Yes! Yeah, we only did it in New York because of financial reasons. San Francisco's expensive to shoot in, and we were taking advantage—we were the first film to take advantage of tax credit that New York state started to give. Yeah.
AM: I wasn't bothered by that. San Francisco's a character in my other novels, but I didn't really see it as a character in this one. It's a guy on the phone at home, and that can happen anywhere.
G: Sure, sure. I wanted to ask you about: since through your fiction, to some degree, your life has become an open book—you've written about your family and whatnot—gay domesticity has a certain mainstream quality about it now, but the gay marriage issue is still such a sticking point. And I wonder if you feel, on a practical level or a personal level, that's an important issue for you, or just as a political one. What's your take on that?
AM: On gay marriage? I'd like to be able to marry my partner. I'd like to have the economic benefits that come with that. I'd like to have the official government recognition of our love, especially in these times. So yeah, I think it's extremely important. At the same time, I don't feel less married. I don't feel unmarried, if you follow me. It wouldn't make us any closer than we already are, but it would bring us legal benefits that would be important. I'm very proud that this film—I don't think there's many other films in which a mainstream actor in a mainstream film has played a central character who's gay, and gay is not the issue.
PS: (Laughs.) I was doing an interview, and the paper said, "But, you know, he's done gay characters before, Robin." I was like, "What?" "You know, Birdcage."
AM: We had a whole lot of jokes about "Just don't do the 'Fosse, Fosse, Fosse' thing."
PS: "Martha Stewart, Martha Stewart."
AM: I never had a single moment's worry about that.
AM: You know, that he would do that. And most actors now just don't do—they know, have the sense to know that you don't go play gay.
PS: And it's also on the script, so he didn't approach it in that way at all.
G: Has any more info about this real-life case come to light since the production, or as a result of the production?
PS: Well, during production, and we don't know if this is a fact or not, both Robin and Toni received postcards from somebody who had similar handwriting, which Terry and you identified as similar to Vicki. They were given different—the person who signed the cards were different—they said they were different names. I can't remember the names.
AM: Quite clearly in the same handwriting.
PS: Clearly the same handwriting. Kind of wishing us the best of luck.
AM: "Can't wait to see—."
PS: "Can't wait to see what you do with this character."
AM: And there have been—well, 20/20 released its voice-analysis findings the other night. And a lot of people—I mean people just keep surfacing all the time on my website, for instance, telling me about their experience with it. People just now who are figuring it out, what had happened to them.
G: I smell a special bonus audio commentary here.
PS: "Hi. This is—Toni." (Laughs.) "This is really my story." That would be great. Take it to Vicki. She does her commentary.
PS: "Hi. This is Pete." Nice.
G: Well, it's great to talk to you guys. Best of luck with the film.
PS: Thank you very much!
AM: Thank you for your interesting questions.
PS: Thank you. We really appreciate it. It was great. That was really great.
[For Groucho's review of The Night Listener, click here.]