Night Listening with Patrick Stettner

indieWIRE August 14, 2006

New York-based director Patrick Stettner had quite a welcome in Manhattan for the theatrical premiere of his latest film, "The Night Listener," at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). His mystery thriller, starring an incredible cast lead by Robin Williams, Toni Collette and Rory Culkin centers on a radio show host (Williams) who begins a telephone relationship with a dying young fan (Culkin). Chaos ensues, however, when the host begins to question the identity of his caller and leads him into a head-on confrontation with his supposed guardian (Collette). This is the second directorial feature from Stettner, who won accolades for his first, "The Business of Strangers" in 2001, including a prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Stettner shared with iW his compulsion that lead him to moviemaking as well as his desire to see "foreign" films on less Ameri-centric terms. Miramax Films opened "The Night Listener" Friday, August 4 in limited release. (Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in indieWIRE on Aug. 2; "The Night Listener" is now playing in Bay Area theaters.)

indieWIRE: …and where are you from originally?

Patrick Stettner: I was born and raised on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. I now live in Brooklyn.

indieWIRE: Do you have a ‘day job?’ Any former jobs you’d like to share?

Stettner: When I’m not developing my own projects (i.e. making no money), I’m lucky enough to eke out a career writing screenplays for studios.

Former jobs? On break from college I spent a broke summer in Martha’s Vineyard where I worked at an American Indian tourist trap. Basically, the tourist would eat those ‘indigenous’ cheese-dripped nachos, look for the bathroom, huff and wheeze down a very long hill where they would find me at the bottom, behind a table blocking the way, demanding a quarter for access. I wish I could say that summer I learned something about human nature, but I don’t think I did.

indieWIRE: How did the filmmaker gig come about?

Stettner: I’ve always been a compulsive movie fan. In junior high, I used to cut class to go to the revival theaters alone, which is kind of weird. So, I guess becoming a filmmaker was not only an obvious extension but a plausible way to justify an otherwise unwholesome obsession.

indieWIRE: Did you go to film school?

Stettner: Yes, Columbia University graduate film program.

indieWIRE: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for ‘The Night Listener?’

Stettner: Development of the script was a bit of a struggle. There were issues of balancing the motor of the thriller/genre elements and the exploration of the more delicate character issues, which at times felt like they were getting overwhelmed. It’s a tricky part of this piece that we struggled with through out the making of the film.
And then of course, casting took longer than we expected, as always.

indieWIRE: How did you finance the film?

Stettner: Mainly Hart Sharp Entertainment who, during production, brought in IFC Films as a co-financier. Additionally, Fortissimo was the foreign sales agent. Then later, Miramax bought the film at Sundance for domestic distribution.

indieWIRE: What is your definition of ‘independent film’?

Stettner: It’s hard to give a concise definition, because the term ‘independent film’ really tells me nothing about a film except maybe it wasn’t made at a studio. I think it’s important that we applaud and encourage alternative voices in cinema. We certainly need more of that, however more often than not, the expression serves as this unconscious codified (almost xenophobic) desire to further marginalize foreign films – meaning the unspoken subtitle to the term is ‘American Independent Film’, the consumer friendly, gentler alternative to the scarlet letter of ‘foreign film’. I say let’s celebrate great films regardless of where they were made, and who cares how much or how little the budget was.

indieWIRE: What are some of your recent favorite films?

Stettner: My list isn’t very recent, but I really loved ‘Cache,’ ‘The New World,’ ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped,’ ‘Kings and Queens,’ ‘United 93,’ ‘Holy Girl,’ ‘Grizzly Man,’ ‘Keane,’ and most recently from Sundance Kelly Reichardt’s ‘Old Joy.’

indieWIRE: What are your interests outside of film?

Stettner: You know, the best response I’ve ever heard for this kind of question was from an English scientist who wrote: ‘I find I am a keen flautist and I like to dingy sail.’

indieWIRE: How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Stettner: Ultimately, to get to a place where you don’t have to make any compromises, even with yourself. To continue to work with interesting, talented people. To continue to learn the craft of storytelling, then in a couple of years learn how to dismantle/free-up that structure. To try to make films that you hope will stand up over time. (Reprinted with permission, copyright indieWIRE 2006.)