‘The Listener’ Director Steve Buscemi on How Calling a Helpline to Talk About His Late Wife Inspired His New Drama

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In a world where politicians use mental health as mere talking points when discussing gun violence and suicide rates, Steve Buscemi’s “The Listener” addresses the crisis head-on. Written by Alessandro Camon, the Oscar-nominated scribe of “The Messenger” (2009), the film follows a helpline volunteer named Beth, played by Tessa Thompson, who is an integral part of the small army of counselors who field calls from all kinds of people who feel lonely and broken. The film unspools at the Venice Festival’s Giornate degli Autori and is the closing film of Venice Days on Sept. 9.

Buscemi can sympathize with anyone who feels lost and broken, especially as he is still reeling from losing his wife Jo Andres in January 2019; they had been married for over 30 years. While in pre-production, the director and producer called a helpline number. “At first, it was in the name of research,” Buscemi told Variety. “I had these dreams in the night involving my late wife, and it was reason enough for me to call. I had an amazing 15-minute talk with this person. I’ll never know who she was, and I never told her who I was. I just talked about Jo, and it was important.”

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Marking his fifth feature as a director, and his first in 15 years after “Interview” (2007), “The Listener” is still seeking U.S. distribution and hopes to find a home after its debut at the Venice Film Festival.

Buscemi has been chiefly known for his accomplished work as an actor in iconic films like “Fargo” (1996) and “Ghost World” (2001), in addition to television series such as “Boardwalk Empire” from HBO. However, his work as a director hasn’t been as prominent. That needs to change.

Tessa Thompson in Steve Buscemi's "The Listener" - premiering at Venice
Tessa Thompson in Steve Buscemi's "The Listener" - premiering at Venice

Being the focus of a movie where you’re the only person on screen, Thompson continues to show the depth of her range coming after an acclaimed turn in “Passing” last year.

“The Listener” was shot during Thompson’s one-week hiatus during the shooting of the fourth season of HBO’s “Westworld.” In a mere six-day shoot, she delivered a stunning performance, an assessment that the director underlines: “I’m just amazed that she was able to give up her little vacation to do this very intense project with us and then went right back.”

The Brooklyn-born filmmaker is the visionary most Hollywood executives and studio head honchos should emulate. The diversity of not only his leading lady but of the artisans that bring the story to life, such as Japanese composer ASKA providing the haunting score, the steady framework by cinematographer Anka Malatynska and the thoughtful editing by Kate Williams, are prime examples.

The drama doesn’t shy away from the pandemic, incorporating COVID into the discussions from the faceless callers, which would happen in real life. “It’s not the reason people are calling, but it’s there,” Buscemi said. “It’s like 9/11 or Katrina … you feel these aftereffects for years, and we’re still in it.”

The movie sends the message that “help is out there, and we can help each other,” Buscemi said. “The grieving process is not linear. It’s a different journey for everyone.”

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