PIctured Robin Williams on the set of The Night Listener with Armistead Maupin ( left ) and director Patrick Stettner ( right ) .
If I sound like I have a bit of a high school crush on acclaimed writer Armistead Maupin, it's because I do. What writer, gay or straight, wouldn't? Now Maupin, famed for his Tales from the City books and high-profile status within the gay community, has penned his first feature script ( along with his ex-partner, Terry Anderson ) . This script is for The Night Listener, a mystery with strong hints of Hitchcock that stars Robin Williams and Toni Collette. Williams plays writer Gabriel Noone, a character based on Maupin and the film ( based on his bestselling novel ) is, in turn, based on a fascinating and bizarre real-life incident. Highlights from our conversation:
[ NOTE: For those not familiar with the book or the movie, there are potential spoilers. ]
Windy City Times: Can you—for folks who haven't read the story—talk a little bit about the real events that inspired the book and the movie?
Armistead Maupin: Well, the short version is that I was sent the galleys to a memoir back in 1993 that detailed the abuse of a 14-year-old boy. It was remarkably well-written and quite moving and it came with the endorsement of my friend, [ writer ] Paul Monette from Los Angeles, so that was a pretty high recommendation.
AM: And I liked the book so much that I asked the editor at Crown Books if I could speak to the boy. So after he obtained permission from the boy's adoptive mother, I began a phone friendship with this child. It wasn't my intention to do that but he called me back several times and acted as if it was important to talk to me and so it kind of grew out of that. He was extremely bright and funny and not at all depressing for a 14-year-old boy dying of AIDS and I enjoyed his company very much. It wasn't until about six months into the friendship that my partner at the time, Terry Anderson, who had heard the boy at that point, heard the mother's voice. He turned to me afterwards and said exactly what Bobby Cannavale says in the film: 'I can't believe you've never noticed that it's the same voice.'
AM: Unlike Gabriel in the film and the novel, I accepted that notion fairly readily, although it was impossible for me to imagine why someone would do such a thing. So for the next six years I maintained some sort of connection with this person, not knowing whether it was a 14-year-old boy or a 40-year-old woman.
WCT: That long?
AM: Yeah, [ I did it ] far longer than Gabriel does, actually, but most of the time I was prepared to accept either eventuality. To sum up, it was easily the eeriest episode of my life and I felt as if I were living in a mystery story and I knew that I had no choice but to write about it.
WCT: What happened to the real manuscript? Was it ever published?
AM: Yes, it's published and it's still sold and it's still sold as a memoir, I might add. The publishers have yet to disavow the book.
WCT: Really? What's the name of it?
AM: [ It's called ] A Rock and a Hard Place, and it's climbing on the Amazon charts as we speak.
WCT: Now, getting into the script: Was it a tad awkward working with your ex-partner? That seems really brave—or was it therapeutic?
AM: I think it was closer to brave than therapeutic. I asked Terry to share credit with me in the writing of the screenplay because the story had happened to the two of us and I wanted to have his insights into it but it was not easy for either one of us.
WCT: And isn't he also working on a documentary about the real story?
AM: Yes he is.
WCT: How wonderful was it to have Robin Williams portray you?
AM: Pretty thrilling. I've known Robin for about 30 years and I've always had the utmost admiration for him and to know that someone with that much heart and that much intelligence was going to depict a character who somewhat resembles me was quite an honor. I was even more honored by the fact that he loved the script.
WCT: And Toni Collette—isn't she amazing as well?
AM: Well, actually, in the case of both Robin and Toni, they were at the very top of our fantasy list from the beginning. We got both of them and we got the great Sandra Oh as well, not to mention Bobby Cannavale. I mean it was a real A-list cast working for virtually nothing so we were quite blessed.
WCT: I love that you address in the film the idea of Pete being this son that Gabriel has never had and I sort of think that that is an unresolved yearning for a lot of gay men...that desire to be a parent.
AM: A number of people who had phone relationships with this child felt that way about him. I was not one of them. I simply regarded him as a remarkable 14-year-old friend. He felt very much like an intellectual equal because of his ability to talk about a whole lot of subjects with a great deal of maturity. For the purposes of the novel and the screenplay, I thought it was more interesting if that chord was struck.
WCT: Do you think that there's something to that? Does that resonate for you?
AM: I don't have any yearning for children. But the instinct to pass along what you know to someone else doesn't necessarily have to be exercised on a biological child and I think a lot of the people who struck up serious paternal relationships with this boy felt fulfilled in that way and they were the ones, by the way, who the most betrayed. [ They were ] the ones who had the hardest time accepting the ruse.
WCT: Did you feel an initial betrayal?
AM: To be honest, my storytelling instincts were far more powerful than any personal connection I might have made. The minute Terry suggested the possibility that this might be one person, I was so excited by the chance to tell the story—
WCT: —It is very tantalizing.
AM: —I was rescued from any pain that this might have been caused.
WCT: I'm going to go off the topic of The Night Listener for a moment because if I don't ask you about the status of the next Tales of the City, the entire WCT readership is going to kill me.
AM: Well I have written a script that I am rather proud of but we have yet to find a place to air it. Showtime is in a transitional state—the translation of that is that they have no money [ Laughs ] —
WCT: Oh dear, OK—
AM: —and so they're not buying a lot of properties beyond original series. So the question is: Who can we get to produce this and where can we show it and how can we do it fast enough so that our cast isn't all too old for the roles?
WCT: Well, hopefully, all those questions will be answered in the affirmative at some point.
AM: Yeah, I hope so...but to be brutally honest, I'm not extremely optimistic but I certainly would like for it to happen.
WCT: Okay, so what's on your mind these days about Our People, Armistead?
AM: What concerns me most about my brothers in particular is the large amount of self-destructive behavior I see these days in terms of barebacking and crystal abuse. [ There is ] a sense of living as if there's no tomorrow and I think it's terribly insulting to the people who died back in the '80s not knowing that death was facing them. The people who take these chances today are really saying more about their own lack of self-esteem than anything about the epidemic itself. This is a controllable situation now and people who place themselves in harm's way are saying a great deal about themselves.
WCT: We could probably talk about this for hours, but back to The Night Listener. What do you want people to take away from the movie?
AM: Those questions are always hard for me to answer. My hope is that they will be moved and stimulated and creeped out. I should add that I'm very proud of the fact that this film is probably the first mainstream film with a major movie star at the center who is gay, but his homosexuality is in no way the issue. It's a simple fact about the central character.
WCT: Which I loved, of course.
AM: There may be others but I can't think of what they are. Most of them—films like Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain—are really about the fact that they're gay. Robin is simply playing a gay man who gets involved in a compelling mystery.
WCT: Right—and we can hope that in 30 years when they remake the movie that there's an A-List actor who's out to play the role.
AM: I certainly dream of that day.