The Witness (which premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens Monday, January 23, 2017; check local listings) may be James Solomon’s first film as director, but his vast experience as a storyteller made him the perfect fit for reopening this case. The Witness, which made the Oscar shortlist, took 11 years to make, patiently following Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill’s dogged search for the truth about her harrowing murder in 1964, as it turned into a personal obsession. Solomon’s previous projects helped develop his skill at revisiting historical cases with a new eye. This includes writing the screenplay for The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, the script for which he received the Humanitas Prize; and serving as lead writer and executive producer of ESPN’s critically-acclaimed mini-series, The Bronx Is Burning, which, like The Witness, is about a seminal moment in New York City history. While the story in The Witness may be fifty years old, it very much has a resonance today, especially in light of the things discovered along the way.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker, who named it one of the best films of 2016, wrote, “This extraordinary documentary looks at one of the most infamous of all modern crime stories through the focus of another genre, the personal documentary. [It] raises questions of wider and present-day import regarding the penal system, police procedure, domestic violence, and journalistic ethics.”
Solomon took time out from his busy slate to talk to us about making this film, including about the new feature film adaptation of this story, working with great filmmakers, countering false narratives, and collaborating with Kitty Genovese’s brother for more than 10 years.
When did you first learn about the Kitty Genovese case? Growing up in New York, did your family talk about it?
Although I grew up in New York City during the 1970s, I was unaware of the case and how much the narrative – 38 neighbors watched, none helped – helped to define not only NYC but all of urban America as both dangerous and apathetic. My fascination with the story of Kitty Genovese began in the late 1990s when Andrew Blauner, a literary agent and close friend, handed me a copy of Thirty-Eight Witnesses, the seminal account of the case written by The New York Times’ legendary editor A.M. Rosenthal. (Rosenthal is credited with having first uncovered the iconic story of Kitty’s murder.) I had no way of knowing years later that I’d end up making a film which debunks Rosenthal’s book. Ironically, I wrote the foreword for the most recent edition of Thirty-Eight Witnesses.
Where do you think The Witness fits in with your previous work as a writer?
I’ve always been drawn to writing iconic stories and characters we think we know from the assassination of President Lincoln (The Conspirator) to George Steinbrenner’s New York Yankees (The Bronx is Burning). In particular, I am interested in peeling away the mythology to reveal the real people who actually lived these moments – be it as parents, siblings, lovers…
The Witness began as a screenplay but I came to realize there had been far too much fictionalizing of this story – including by the media that covered it. I determined the best way for me to tell this story would be to document those who were the most impacted by Kitty Genovese’s death and life – none more so than her younger brother Bill.
Thematically there are some parallels with The Conspirator and some of your other work; how do you think it fits in with the things you are most compelled to make films about?
I had an inspiring English teacher who taught a seminar called “Dramas of Conscience.” We read masterworks like Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons and Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, which feature individuals confronted with life-defining moral choices. These are the kinds of stories and characters that most interest me as both a viewer and storyteller. The Conspirator is a drama of conscience set within the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. A Union war hero/lawyer is tasked with defending a Southern woman charged with conspiring to murder President Lincoln, his Vice President and Secretary of State. Fact-based, the story revolves around the attorney’s conflicting allegiance to the Union, his family, career – and conscience.
In my opinion, the murder of Kitty Genovese is the ultimate drama of conscience. Dozens of her neighbors were confronted with a moral choice: do I help or not? The most reputable news organizations reported that the answer was uniformly “no.” As a result, Kitty’s death grabbed hold of our collective conscience and became a call to action. A half-century later, it still compels us to ask: What do we owe each other?
My work is also about acts of great heroism borne of devotion and love. The Witness has been likened to true crime mysteries like Making a Murderer and Serial but, at its heart, it is a sibling love story. It portrays a brother’s relentless determination to reclaim Kitty Genovese’s forgotten life from her infamous death.
You’ve worked with some great filmmakers; how did those experiences inform the way you produced The Witness?
Indeed, I’ve been beyond fortunate to work with many filmmakers I greatly admire: Robert Redford, Sidney Lumet, Barry Levinson, Arne Glimcher, Robert Benton, Joe Berlinger, and Robb Moss. Each not only informed The Witness, they inspired me to be a filmmaker. It is a fool’s errand to try and enumerate all of the myriad ways these remarkable filmmakers shaped The Witness but here are a few examples:
Robb Moss, whose riveting film Containment recently aired on Independent Lens, literally changed the course of my life. I did not fathom being a filmmaker until I had the privilege of being a student in his introductory filmmaking class at college. In telling Bill and Kitty Genovese’s story, I aspired to Moss’s example of empathy, integrity, openness and generosity.
Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart) read the first draft of my first ever script. His generous and thoughtful feedback lifted me as much as my screenplay. He asked me a simple question, which has stayed with me decades later: when does your story actually begin? To Benton, it is not the first page of a script or the initial moment when your hero appears onscreen. It is when the audience feels emotionally invested in the characters within your story. The first moment I met Bill Genovese, and through him his sister, I began to feel an emotional connection to Kitty. And so I realized, were I to tell the story of Kitty Genovese, it would be through her brother, Bill.
Sidney Lumet’s films depicting New York City during my childhood (Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City) had an enormous influence on me. So, it was thrilling when he directed my first produced script for his TV series, 100 Centre Street. In my opinion, Bill Genovese is much like a hero in the vein of Frank Serpico or Paul Newman’s character in The Verdict – a lone individual determined to find the truth and willing to confront the establishment no matter the cost.
At our first meeting on The Conspirator, Robert Redford shared a quote by [artist] Georgia O’Keefe,
“It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get to the real meaning of things.”
I kept these words in mind as we pared down the 300-plus hours that we filmed of Bill Genovese’s investigation.
I worked closely with Arne Glimcher on his wonderful debut film, The Mambo Kings, and he’s remained a mentor ever since. Among the many things Glimcher taught me is to surround oneself with the finest, most experienced collaborators. On The Witness, I’ve been blessed to work with extraordinary filmmakers: Melissa Jacobson (co-producer), Trish Govoni (cinematographer), Gabriel Rhodes and Russell Greene (editors), Nathan Halpern (composer), the Moth Collective (animators) and Maria Valva (associate producer).
Was Bill Genovese hesitant at first to make a film about this?
Yes, and no. Yes, in that Bill’s initial desire to learn more about his sister Kitty’s death and life did not include a camera crew accompanying him. So, it took many hours of discussion, and then once filming began, sorting out how to least impact Bill’s investigation – and life. Communication and continuity were critical to building trust. In addition to myself, co-producer Melissa Jacobson and cinematographer Trish Govoni were on the film from Day 1 through Year 11.
How did you collaborate with him as you both in a sense worked to solve this mystery?
The mystery you speak of is actually multiple mysteries that Bill was propelled to solve for deeply personal reasons: what actually happened inside the neighbors’ apartments, how the flawed news accounts of Kitty’s death came to be, who was his sister beyond what he knew, and what kind of person was his sister’s killer, Winston Moseley.
Across a decade, we became close collaborators but our respective roles were fairly well delineated: I was the filmmaker, Bill the investigator. My primary objective was to document Bill’s investigation wherever it led and for however long. Truth-be-told, we never imagined where it would take us or that it would last more than a decade. Naturally, in order to document Bill’s investigation, it required his accommodating the limitations of production – such as conducting his conversations (whenever possible) when cameras were rolling. But our production made every effort to infringe as little as possible on Bill’s journey so that he could go about things in the manner and pace that suited him.
What parallels do you see between this story of reporting gone wrong in the ’60s and today’s media landscape? (Especially given the just-concluded election and the way journalism covered that…)
I recently posted a piece on Medium, “The Truth Hurts,” which addresses your question through the prism of Bill Genovese’s example.
Beyond this piece, I’ll leave it to others to weigh in on parallels. This past fall, the president of Yale University, Peter Salovey, referenced The Witness as the basis for his remarks to the incoming freshman class of 2025. His speech entitled, “Countering False Narratives,” not only addresses the media landscape but also our role as consumers of the stories we’re told. At times of heightened fear and anxiety, he explains, we are most vulnerable to fabricating and/or believing false narratives.
What can you tell us about the dramatic feature version of The Witness that was recently announced?
I will be writing and directing a scripted film based on The Witness, to be produced along with David O. Russell (Joy, Silver Linings Playbook), Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler’s Killer Films (Carol, Far From Heaven) and Rachael Horovitz (Money Ball, Maggie’s Plan). The project is still in an early stage of development but will undoubtedly feature the extraordinary sibling bond between Bill and Kitty Genovese.