Kitty Genovese Killing Is Retold in the Film ‘37’
By JOHN ANDERSONJULY 26, 2015
The site of Kitty Genovese’s attack, in Kew Gardens, Queens. Credit Edward Hausner/The New York Times
Walking her dog through a sun-roasted film set in Queens last Monday, Lois Gillman said she couldn’t believe it at first when she heard about the movie being made, just around the corner from her house.
“This story had the greatest impact on me as child,” she whispered during a break in filming, adding, “The whole thing was so horrifying.”
The movie being shot — “37” — won’t be a horror film. But its story has been haunting New Yorkers for more than 50 years: In the early hours of March 13, 1964, the 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was stabbed and sexually assaulted while her neighbors allegedly listened. And watched from their windows. Or closed their drapes. Or turned up the radio to drown out the screams.
What followed was a public outcry and a communal soul searching. It was the kind of thing about which people once said, “It can’t happen here.” But it did — although not exactly, and not exactly where the film is being shot.
“Out of respect for the family and residents who may still live in the area, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment does not permit productions to recreate crime scenes in the actual locations where the crimes were committed,” said Commissioner Cynthia López, noting that her office does try to respect the integrity of a script. While Ms. Genovese’s murder has been a powerful influence on literature, television and movies since 1964, there doesn’t ever seem to have been a feature film based directly on the case.
Prompted by the city, the film’s first-time writer-director, Puk Grasten, and its producers, Yaron Schwartzman and Asger Hussain of Game 7 Films, moved a little north: Genovese was killed on Austin Street in Kew Gardens; the exteriors of “37” were being shot on Austin Street in Forest Hills. The Tudor architecture there is close enough to pass (some abandoned South Bronx apartment units were used for interiors), and filming on location was the frugal strategy for an 18-day indie shoot. But it’s a testament to Ms. Genovese’s unfortunate legacy that the producers got a bad vibe in Kew Gardens right from the start. A location scout, Mr. Schwartzman said, had even been approached by an angry shop owner, insisting the area has long been maligned.
He may be right: Whether the classic account of the murder is factually true has been disputed for years. The disturbing article in The New York Times at the time (“37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police”) got the probable number of witnesses wrong, among other facts. Some people did call the police; at least one neighbor comforted the victim as she died. But over the years, Kitty Genovese has become more than a true-crime statistic. She’s attained the status of a myth aswirl in urban dread.
In addition to that baggage, the film was facing problems typical of any independent production. The schedules of some very busy actors, including Michael Potts (“True Detective”) and Samira Wiley (“Orange Is the New Black”), had to be accommodated. On the hottest day of summer so far, two older actresses, Virginia Robinson and Nancy Ozelli, were filmed in fur coats, and a parked car of unknown origin had to be jerked out of the frame, crew members moving it down the street using tire jacks and wooden dollies.
Virginia Robinson, left, and Nancy Ozelli have roles in “37.” Credit Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Some of the neighbors complained about the nighttime shooting. “They made a lot of noise,” said Stanley Finkelstein, who was watching the shoot with his wife, Beverly. The couple lived on Austin Street at the time of the murder. The evening that the killing was re-enacted, “one of our neighbors was up all night,” he said.
The actress Christina Brucato, who plays Kitty Genovese, confirmed that filming did become loud. “I felt bad,” she said. “They said I couldn’t go all out, but really, it was terrifying. I couldn’t help but let out some screams.”
The movie, which will probably be submitted to film festivals in 2016, has been partly financed by the New Danish Screen fund. Ms. Grasten is Danish, a six-year resident of New York City and, like Ms. Genovese at the time of her death, 28 years old. Ms. Grasten is also part of a tradition in American cinema that runs from Fritz Lang to Ang Lee, of foreign-born film artists tackling very American stories and issues.
“I’m an outsider in America,” Ms. Grasten said. “And in a way, it’s nice to be from the outside: I can look at something and say, ‘This is not supposed to be normal.’ ”
She added: “I like the idea of examining the individual in a community, how we want to stay inside our groups to feel safe. How, when we get scared, we pull the blinds and shut the windows.”
Some of the film’s characters were suggested by real people, others were invented. (A German immigrant doorman has become Mexican; an African-American couple pick the week of the murder to integrate the neighborhood.) Everyone has problems; some of those problems get in the way of doing the right thing.
The socio-psychological phenomena that were studied after the killing — notably the “bystander effect,” by which individuals pass the buck to other witnesses when present at an act of violence — are universal and ongoing, Ms. Grasten said. “But it’s easier for an audience to look back at something that happened 50 years ago and reflect on what it says about today.”
One problem the film will not have is name recognition. Ms. Brucato studied the Genovese case in college. Mr. Potts, who grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, also learned the story in school. “It was pretty infamous,” he said.
Ms. Wiley, a 28-year-old transplant to New York from Washington, said she didn’t really know the case, but when she explained the film to friends — “about a woman being murdered in Kew Gardens” — the reaction was, “Kitty Genovese?”
“What I’m looking forward to is hearing the conversations that happen after people have seen the film; I wasn’t around for the original conversation,” Ms. Wiley said. “And it’s all still happening.”