NEW YORK - We hear 911 calls all the time. Audio recordings pop up in movies, the news, the frantic text printed out on-screen. We eventually learn all about the crime, but hardly ever hear anything about the operator fielding the call.
Screenwriter Richard D’Ovidio aims to change that with “The Call,” his new film hitting theaters today, directed by Brad Anderson and starring Halle Berry as a dedicated 911 operator trying to locate and save a kidnapped teen (Abigail Breslin) who calls 911 from the trunk of a car.
“It’s a world we haven’t seen before,” says D’Ovidio, who spent hours observing 911 operators in Los Angeles before writing his script.
“You never knew what was coming next,” he says of the calls he overheard. “There were gang shootings, a person who was stranded and they couldn’t figure out where … My stomach was doing somersaults but the operators were like astronauts - they never crack.”
Though they do chuckle - later - about certain callers. Like the man D’Ovidio heard phone from a fast-food restaurant’s drive-thru window, complaining they hadn’t cooked his hamburger as ordered. Or a confused, drunk chap who used his one call from jail to ask a 911 operator why he’d been arrested.
Berry fields a call like that in the film, as well as another from a woman freaked out by a bat flying around her house (inspired by an incident that happened to D’Ovidio’s sister).
Emergency or not, the operators hear it all. In New York’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, emergency operators handle nearly one million calls per year. New York City - with 1,730 operators - fields some 11 million calls annually.
Most surprising, perhaps, is that the operators are “ordinary people,” says D’Ovidio. “Many are women. They’re like your next-door neighbor, yet they have so much responsibility, from delivering babies to defusing suicides. They were all pretty humble. To me … it seemed pretty heroic.”
And he knows firsthand what it’s like on the other end of the call.
“My son had whooping cough at eight months old, and stopped breathing,” he says. D’Ovidio called 911, and an operator quickly dispatched fire and ambulance to rush his boy to the hospital in time. Matthew is now 3.
“It was pretty scary,” he says, then chuckles. “It wasn’t the hamburger call.”