The Austin Chronicle

Other Worlds Austin Is Listening

By Richard Whittaker, August 27, 2015, 3:30pm, Picture in Picture

Social media is supposed to be the great connector. But Khalil Sullins, director of sci-fi thriller Listening, isn't convinced that people are quite ready for such constant access. The technology may be there, he warns, "But it's not in and of itself making us great communicators."

Sullins' debut feature, which receives its Texas premiere tonight as part of Other Worlds Austin's year-round programming, focuses on three university students (Artie Ahr, Amber Marie Bollinger, and Thomas Stroppel) trying to unlock the secret of telepathy. Not in an X-Files, guess-what-card-I'm-holding way, but a technological equivalent, something that goes beyond brain mapping and right into mind reading. They quickly discover that knowing exactly what someone else is thinking, as they are thinking it, is not as much of a boon as they may think. Sullins said, "Everything we do and say does affect the world around us, and beyond that, everything we think. … I wanted to get into the social and moral implications of that, on a personal level, family level, societal, governmental, and global level."

That escalation is revealed as outside forces catch up with the trio's research: After all, the ability to read, and maybe change, minds is something governments and corporations would love to possess. Sullins said, "It starts so small, with a guy and his best friend in a garage, and by the end, the fate of the world hangs in the balance. For me, that's a gentle suggestion to the audience that what you're doing at home, what you're thinking about with your wife, your best friend, whatever, that maybe does have global implications."

For his debut feature, Sullins was inspired by other first-time directors and their projects: "Nolan and Scorsese, Following and Mean Streets," and, of course, Primer, the definitive sealed room scientific conspiracy drama. However, the telepathy angle took its inspiration from comics, and characters like the X-Men's Professor Xavier. He said, "I wanted to take this super power of telepathy as real and believable as possible and based on real science."

There's another little nod to Marvel's most famous mindreader: all the cast end up shaving their heads. First, it's a little patch, to attach the connection equipment: then it's a full-on shave to the skin. However, Sullins found it was easier to convince the cast than might be first expected. He said, "It's kind of cool to have half your head shaved and have your friends ask, 'what's up with that?' Oh, well, I'm in this movie." He admits it was a little tougher on Stroppel than anyone else. "He had to do it all twice, because he had to shave the head patch, then shave his head completely, then four of five months later, we shot the stuff in Cambodia, so he had to go through the shaved-head debacle twice."

As for the technology, it may seem like near-fantastical science fiction, but as is the nature of the genre, it's an extrapolation from existing electronic reality. Sullins called his machines "a metaphor for our relationship with communication technology in general. With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, every day we're given new ways to put our thoughts and feelings out there faster than ever before. … People just go with the first comment in their head, but don't think they may be contributing to this collective, toxic environment."

In Listening, telepathy takes that type-before-you-think mentality to its ultimate conclusion, as the characters become privy to thoughts their friends and colleagues may not even have known they were having. "Go to any YouTube stream and look at the comments section, and you'll get a lot of unfiltered thoughts and a lot of negativity."

The world Sullins' film posits is, he argues, the polar opposite of what it's supposed to be. "There is a filter in our brain for a reason. We don't say or do everything that just pops in there. But I don't think that everyone is conscious of that process, or where we do have some level of control."

Listening receives its Texas premiere tonight, Aug. 27, as part of Other World Austin's year-round programming. Screening starts at 9pm at Flix Brewhouse, 2200 I-35 S., Round Rock. Tickets and info at

Listening will also be available on VOD from Sept. 11.

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