Note: You can watch "The Listeners" at the end of this post.
By Lars Trodson
“The Listeners” came about because of a simple image that would not let go: two cars facing each other on a lonely country road late at night, high beams on. I knew the headlights would prevent the drivers of each car from seeing who was inside the other, and that seemed unsettling. I mentioned the image to Mike Gillis -- we were working together at the time -- and said we ought to make a movie.
We will then take some credit for jump-starting a dormant independent film movement in New Hampshire. I had this idea in the fall of 2004, and if there was anything going on then no one knew about it. There had been no local premieres of independent movies in some time, and the technology had evolved to such a degree that independent movies could be made more inexpensively than ever before.
In the end, “The Listeners” cost about $3,000 -- I don’t know why this is so interesting to people, but it is -- but also this figure is misleading. We got a lot of stuff for free, and the editing, which took weeks, also didn’t cost us anything. We rented the camera and a few other things, and we had to spring for food and a few other incidentals. The entire shoot was done over two nights and then some pickup shots on another night. But to say the film cost $3,000 isn’t really enlightening, or accurate.
We fiddled with it until finally we were ready for our premiere in May, 2005, which took place at the Strand Theater in Dover, NH. For that we have to thank Mike Spinelli, who owns the theater and Tim Barnes, who helped get everything together. Defying popular wisdom, the only thing we were showing that night was a short -- “The Listeners” is just 16 minutes long -- and we figured we’d do a Q&A. The only thing Mike Spinelli asked us was that we steer people to the concession stand, which we did, and so we heard it was a pretty good night there. We charged $5, and in the end we cleared enough to cover the cost of the DVD projector.
More than 300 people showed up at The Strand, alleviating our nerves. It was a lively night, and people seemed to be moved by what they saw. And then the independent film movement in New Hampshire seemed to gain some new momentum.
The image of the two cars seemed to lend itself to a horror movie, and we joked about how many half-naked women we would have being chased by a maniac with an ax. But we were never going to make that kind of movie. At some point I thought of having a couple leave a party early, and the story then began to unfold as a domestic drama.
As far as the conclusion goes, I was stuck on it until a friend of Mike Gillis’ said, “What if nothing happens”, and I took that to mean, what if it wasn’t action that provided the film its punch, but something deeper and more personally profound? So we have a couple, Lee and Doug who are driving home from the party arguing about some mundane thing, and then they come upon a car that is stopped in the middle of the road. And then something strange happens.
People have said this is a horror movie, of sorts; it certainly has its awful moments. In that way it’s a little misleading to show it on Halloween, because this drama is quiet and not based on ghouls or demons. But there are ghosts of a sort in the movie, and they circle in and out of the silences and the secrets that all three of the people in the movie have. When you watch the film, please pay as much attention to what people say as to what they do not say. It’s just as important.
Kristan Raymond Robinson, Tim Robinson and Bernie Tato are all respected actors in the New Hampshire scene, and we were lucky to have them. Tim and Kristan had signed on first, I wrote it for them, and they brought in Bernie, who was the voice of reason during the long and cold shoot. He was 70 at the time, and in between shots he’d be calm and reasoned and joking around, and we all thought of him as our spiritual leader during the shoot. The cars, both of which belong to me, were running so long the batteries would die, and we’d have to jump them on occasion. The first night the filming went smoothly and we wrapped up early. The second night, during which we filmed the second half of the movie, went until about 2 o’clock in the morning.
On the night of the premiere, Bernie couldn’t make it -- he was in a play -- so he missed that, and later on that summer Kristan called me at home to say that Bernie had died of a heart attack. I still -- when I write this -- it’s hard. I didn’t know him well, it hurt a lot more for a lot more people -- but Kristan said she was grateful that someone had captured him on film. So we have that.
Tim and Kristan (who were also once married) are both so polished; Mike had no trouble getting them to adapt to screen acting, which was new to them, and their performances are subtle and lovely. As is Bernie’s, as he plays this broken down old man, a man weighted down by memories. They all interact quite beautifully together. And then when the film came out we were all very proud and happy, and we still are to this day.
We always thought it would end up on a DVD compilation; maybe it still will. It is nice to have it premiere on the web like this, it seems to be giving it a new life. We’d like to hear from you about how it works.
I know that people are enamored of the idea of the writer/director, but I don’t really subscribe to it. To say that movies are a collaborative process is to trot out the most obvious observation, but it is true, and I think that leads to the idea that a script can always use a fresh interpretation -- provided it’s in the hands of the right director. The film I had in my head was far different than the one Mike Gillis directed, and it was not as good. So Mike was the right guy for this project. He not only gave to the movie a true sense of how a film should feel and look -- check out that crane shot when the couple stops on the country road -- but he was deft in handling the silences and nuances that were called for in the script.
He guided the actors to performances that are in no way showy -- you can’t see the wheels turning inside the heads of any of the three principals, and he builds the tension subtly but firmly. All these details give the audience the sense that they have entered a living world with real people, despite the fact that the movie is only 16 minutes long. That’s an achievement. I know it sounds funny to say this, because I wrote it, but the movie is a powerful little thing because of the sure hand of Mike Gillis.
I still don’t know if it was a mistake or not, but we went on to make another movie right away, a musical comedy short called “A Bootful of Fish”, which was fraught with heartache and tension. The idea was to build up content and then market both films in earnest when we were done. Well, “Bootful” didn’t turn out like we hoped. I haven’t seen it in a year, mostly because I can’t get past the behind-the-scenes drama of it all. It has nothing to do with the fact that I’m wearing a dress in it. And then we were so exhausted that “The Listeners” also languished, and we didn’t do with it what we should have. That was a shame.
I have learned that making the film is one thing, but the sheer ambition of the marketing aspect is equal. We’re good at the former, not so good at the latter. By the time “Bootful” was done, we were all also out of money, and there was no cash for film festivals or traveling to them even if we had been selected. So we didn’t do much of that, either. That is why we’re fortunate to have this site, and the Internet, because it allows us to show the movie on our own terms, with little or no cost.
We’re going to do another short film, called “The Butterfly Kiss”, which is part of a trilogy, and we have a couple of radio dramas we’re planning. The thing of it is, and I can’t speak for the others, but I’m in no hurry to get them done, and if it isn’t fun then I have no desire to do it at all. As tragic as the content of “The Listeners” is, it was a fun shoot. As light-hearted as the content of “Bootful” is, it was not a fun shoot -- at least not for the four producers. I don’t want to repeat that experience.
Well, here we are. “The Listeners” will no doubt be seen tonight by more people than ever before, and even though I have confidence in the film, I’m still a little nervous. When I look at it, I think of Bernie, and the places where we made it, and the people in it -- and the frayed and disheveled friendships that came as a result -- and I think wistfully about how it all started.
H.L. Mencken once said, about newspapers (which I toiled in for 20 years), that they will break your heart. Movies do the same thing. Whether you watch them, or make them, they can sure break your heart.
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